First Flex

by by Alex Spoto

In somewhat of a head on collision, New York City hip-hop car culture met local Rhode Island flavor with a bump and a grind. This past Sunday, the Funkmaster Flex Custom Car and Bike Show, one of the most highly esteemed tours for custom vehicles on the East Coast, rolled through modest Providence for the first time.
The Funk Flex Customs Show is one of the few places to catch a ruddy, mustachioed Rhode Islander camped out in a lawn chair next to a dude with teardrop tattoos down his face. One such Rhode Islander, George Arakelian, Jr., entered Funk Flex to represent his recently founded magazine, Motor Head. He presided over a pristine, vintage mid-’60s Camaro. The car next to Arakelian’s display had butterfly doors à la Michel J. Fox’s ride in Back to the Future. Such contrast quickly became a theme of Funk Flex—the show attracted all kinds.
Funkmaster Flex is a big deal. If you’ve ever turned on a radio in New York City, you have probably caught some airwaves carrying his voice—he has a prime chunk of nighttime programming on NYC’s Hot 97 radio station six nights a week. He has made a name for himself as a DJ on the club circuit, dropped two handfuls of mixtapes, and bumped shoulders with just about everyone in the game: Jay-Z, Snoop, Dr. Dre, and Nas.
Musical fame aside, Flex has become an institution through his love of cars. He has hooked up customizations for T-Pain and 50 Cent, and his automotive exploits are chronicled on the new MTV2 Show, Funk Flex Full Throttle. Flex’s high-profile show didn’t arrive without healthy doses of glitz—lavish displays by Car Clubs on tour with Flex and gaggles of gussied up models—and fanfare—appearances by a host of hip-hop elite: G-Unit’s Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo, recently reunited Dipset mainstays Jim Jones, Cam’ron, and Julez Santana, budding Jay-Z protégée J. Cole, and the entire D-Block crew.
But this isn’t just about the Funkmaster putting on a show; the event serves primarily as a forum for custom car clubs and shops. It works like this: when people get serious about suping up their cars, they usually pay a monthly fee. The club then hooks them up with deals on custom parts, and it usually has a private shop and mechanic who works on the vehicles so that they look good for shows. The best cars and bikes can win titles, trophies, and sometimes cash prizes in a myriad of categories—best luxury, best muscle car, best Chevy, best paint job, best stereo.
Clubs from all over New England and beyond flocked to the first Funk Flex. The Gran Turismo Car Club from Queens brought the most cars, represented by twelve vehicles with (by my count) a combined 5000 horsepower, 3000 watts of stereo power, and some 55 TVs. The show also featured local vendors and auto shops, as well as booths by fashion lines, tire companies, record labels, and tattoo parlors.
Most attendees, however, were merely spectators, slinging back baskets of chicken fingers and taking pictures of bike-straddling, bikini-clad women. This kind of gathering attracts a lot of “Affliction” t-shirts, tattoos, leather, rhinestones, and cleavage. I spotted a twelve year-old who had just changed the background on his Blackberry to a fresh snapshot of a Flex model’s bosom. Despite the high ceilings and adequate ventilation, the whole affair smelled of turtle wax and my high school prom.
Upon entering, hordes of pushers descended upon me with handbills for after parties, machine shops, fight nights, and flyers with glamour shots of a prize whip. A large stage was set up at one side of the showroom for the performers. A DJ held court for the duration of the show, pounding out jams for attendees and beats for the rappers. The sound system’s subwoofers strained to fill the cavernous hall and compete with the dozens of blaring, high-powered car stereos. Any one place sounded like a black hole of muffled low-end.

How Many TVs?
The cars and bikes on display weren’t necessarily high-end wheels, but rather scraper, jalopy types with a flat screen and PS3 in the trunk. The turnout was predominately domestic hi-risers (homeley sedans jacked up several feet), muscle cars, and customized bikes.
Most of the vehicles approached Pimp My Ride absurdity: oversized sound systems, hydraulics, stacked engine blocks protruding out of the hood, and a variety of blinking, blinding novelty lights. Motorcycles had been refitted to look like the bat mobile—their street legality questionable.
Every vehicle was polished down to the rim. Paint jobs vary between a fine gleam, demure matte, or custom designs that included Scarface-era Pacino, Iron Man, Whoppers candy, and Dragon Ball Z themes. A well-tended Impala rested its reflective chrome rims on a frothy foam material as if it were driving on the clouds. One bike was trimmed in gold and painted a glossy, heavenly cream color, the backdrop for an RIP memorial portrait. The end result with most of these custom jobs is simultaneously grand, artistic, ornate, and tacky.
The ringleader of the Gran Turismo Car Club from Queens told me he had over 30 TVs in his whip.
“You can put TVs anywhere. You could put them on the ceiling if you want,” he said.
But can you really make use of three TVs wedged under your rear window?
“I put tons of stuff on my car that I never use—I got a 6 disc DVD changer but I never use it. It’s all for show.”
While it might be “all for show,” the show goes everywhere he goes. He says he drives his custom (and its 30 odd TVs) to work every day.
My personal favorite was an early ‘90s Chevy Caprice Wagon that from the outside recalled my third grade carpool’s wheels. This one was covered in sparkly, fluorescent blue paint and the Chevrolet logo on the back was replaced with the words “Lost Soulz.” The owner capitalized on the wagon’s spacious rear, installing CCE hydraulics powered by four car batteries and surrounded by four 15” subwoofers. Most impressive, every interior surface was upholstered in spotless blue and gray cloth—the dashboard, the floor… everything—and there was not a trace of dirt, gummed up spare change, or half-eaten French fries.
Bobby Bellerman, 53, runs his own shop in New Britain, CT, and is the mechanic for the well-represented Game Over Car Club from Hartford. The ’73 Chevrolet Capri sedan he had customized with his son had just won 1st place for “Best Donk,” a car with 24 or 26 inch wheels (factory wheels on most sedans are around 15”). Like the cars in Gran Turismo, Bellerman’s isn’t just for show.
“I race it on Friday, show it on Sunday.”
The car makes regular appearances for races on the Berlin Turnpike just South of Hartford. Bellerman claimed the Funk Flex show to be the biggest show so far—the last one that came close in scale was the “So Fresh and So Clean Celebrity Custom Car, Bike & Concert Super Show” back in August.

Where Do the Girls Come From?
No car show can be complete without models. Funk Flex attendees were predominately male with iron feet and hungry looks in their eyes, while packs of young women navigated the aisles of custom cars, shimmering with glitter makeup to match their dresses. Many showed generous amounts of thigh, wearing skintight hot pants and cut up “Funkmaster Flex” t-shirts. Throughout expo, girls posed with, on, or in the custom bikes and cars to a barrage of camera flashes.
Some are professional models for fashion companies, some are reps for the automotive companies, some are promoters for the various after parties, and some are there just there for the fun.
The woman manning the Ford booth distributing Funk Flex t-shirts donned one of the more conspicuous getups: her hot pants veered up in a thin trail of black material that covered her belly button and met her top. I asked her how one gets into this kind of thing.
“I don’t know. A lot of these guys if they have a car and know a hot girl will call them up—or if they’ve got a friend who’s got a friend will give them a call. You know, ‘cars and bitches,’ it’s all just show.”
For all the excessive display, the whole event maybe felt out of place, or at least a little sanitized. The RI Convention Center was almost too well lit, and D-Block closed out the festivities at the sober hour of 6PM. Trying to get into Jim Jones doing anything (much less rapping) in the early afternoon and under such illumination proved a challenge, and even the most skull-studded bike didn’t seem that intimidating on the Convention Center’s smooth, clean concrete floors.

ALEX SPOTO B’11 shows generous amounts of thigh.