Malcolm Jackson remembers the first time he saw one. Actually, he heard it first.
“We could hear it from blocks away,” Jackson recalls. He was playing football in the street in front of his childhood home. “The rocks on the street were shaking like a dinosaur was stomping through.”
As the mid-’70s Chevy Impala passed, it became clear that the 345 horsepower engine was just one aspect contributing to the ruckus. For Jackson, it was actually the car’s colors—an electric, cherry-red body sitting atop gargantuan, gilded rims—which rang the loudest.
“My eyes just got wide. I was like, ‘Man, I want one of those when I grow up.’”
The encounter laid the groundwork for Jackson’s lifelong infatuation with the uniquely urban, Florida-born car culture surrounding donks—full-sized Chevrolets built between 1971 and 1976, customized with flashy rims, extravagant concert-hall quality sound systems, and often painted wild, candy colors.
With roots in South Florida’s distinctive hip hop culture, urban youths first took to donks out of convenience in the early to mid-1980s, as parents and grandparents would bequeath the decades-old rides to their children and grandchildren. The car’s noted, enormous trunk space earned them the nickname donk, which was also used to reference a human’s large posterior. Customizing one’s donk—already some of the biggest cars on the road—with madcap paint jobs, extravagant rims, engine modifications and sound systems became an expression of one’s personality and ingenuity. And with Miami rap icons from Uncle Luke to Rick Ross riding donks through the last three decades, the uniquely Floridian car culture has spread to other parts of the country.
Now a freelance street photographer, Jackson aka Malc Jax, has been chronicling donk culture around Northeast Florida and Miami for almost a decade. Together with photographers Andre Burgess, Aaron J. Jackson and Esdras “Phototea” Thelusuma, Jackson presents ‘Candy’: The Land of Donks, a photography exhibition at Space 42 in Riverside.
Folio Weekly caught up with Jackson to talk about the show and learn more about the history of donks.
For our readers who may be unfamiliar, can you define a donk and talk a little bit about how and where the culture surrounding donks emerged?
Donks, traditionally, are 1971-1976 customized Chevy Impalas or Caprices. The term ‘donks’ referred to the giant trunk space of those cars—so, like a butt, or big backside. [Laughs.] A lot of African Americans who grew up in Miami had grandparents who drove those cars and so they ended up being hand-me-downs in the early-to-mid-’80s. Those cars were really the biggest sedans that Chevy made. They just took those cars because they were the big bosses of the road and started customizing them. So we’re looking at 30 to 45 years of this culture building and building.
Now, donks are distinctive and not to be confused with lowriders, which are traditionally ’60s Chevrolets and are customized to ride low to the ground and often have hydraulics—as opposed to donks, which are customized to ride higher. As the rim technology got better and better, the donks have gotten taller.
And there’s a DIY spirit inherent in the culture, right? What else do you think makes those with enthusiasm for donks different from typical gear heads?
Donk culture is a mixture of features from different communities of car lovers. People who love donks love horsepower. But also people who are into donks like interesting paint jobs and detail, upholstery and that kind of stuff. It’s a little bit like taking the best of both worlds. You’re taking a space ship of a car, putting the biggest engine you possibly could put into it, adding abnormal-sized rims, and painting the whole thing a color that none of the big three car manufacturers would ever think to use.
Also, music is a distinctive part of donk culture. While lowrider culture is also interested in sound, because of the hydraulic packages, the lowriders don’t have the kind of trunk space for a big sound system. Donks, meanwhile, have ample trunk space for amps and speakers. Ultimately, a donk is like giant jukebox hot-rod, painted like a pack of Skittles.
It seems like donks really infiltrated popular culture in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Was there a peak for donks?
There was a huge peak in the mid-to-late-’90s for donks and South Florida car culture in general. It lasted up until the early 2000s. At that time, there were already plenty of people riding donks. But hip hop culture helped spread that to the rest of the world. At that time in hip hop, it was all about rapping about big money and being flashy. These cars are the epitome of being flashy—in some aspects, it was a statement of royalty. Now with social media, we are seeing a resurgence of donk culture. The cars are so big and shiny with the wild colors, they’re kind of meant to be shared on social media.
There are stereotypes about donks, lowriders and other car cultures. With the photography show, are you hoping to upend some of those?
I’ve always had a great deal of respect and admiration for the culture surrounding donks. I want to make sure to preserve the culture in the right light. With donks, there is a certain stereotype about who might be driving these types of cars—gangbangers or drug dealers. And that stereotype carries through to today, even though there are people into driving and building these cars that are doctors, lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs and people from Fortune 500 companies.
Lowriders and donks have traditionally had a bad rap because of the way they were represented in hip hop videos starting in the ’80s. Some folks didn’t understand that people were driving these cars, at least at first, because they were hand-me-downs from parents and grandparents. It’s a tradition and a true heritage.
Nowadays, we’re starting to realize the artistic value of these cars—especially lowriders. They’re showing up in contemporary art museums all across the world. Donks haven’t yet been given that same level of admiration. But they truly are a product of African-American ingenuity.
I’m trying to bridge those gaps and open that conversation. For people who have seen the cars and might have a certain perspective of what they are all about, hopefully this show provides a new understanding.