Dollar Van Demos is the brainchild of husband and wife Joe and Iara Revitte, who seek out aspiring hip-hop and reggae artists, throw them in dollar vans, and film them performing while rolling through Brooklyn, all the while picking up and dropping off commuters who rely on the inexpensive mode of transportation to get them around the city.
As part of the recent Social Media Week, Dollar Van Demos invited conference participants to ride along as they shot several demos of various artists. The last ride of the day featured Kid Lucky, who beatboxes and raps simultaneously – or beat rhyming - beatboxer Grey Matter, and Zuzuka Poderosa, who performs baile funk, a form of music popular in the favelas, or slums, of her native Brazil.
Grey Matter, whose real name is Andrew Gutterson, was performing for the first time on Dollar Van Demos. “I think it's awesome,” he said before leaving from Downtown Brooklyn for Kings Plaza. “I'm actually not going to work today. I'm taking a personal day just to do this because I think it is such a cool idea.”
For Kid Lucky, performing on mass transit isn't a new experience. He is instrumental in organizing the Hip-Hop Subway Series, which brings together musicians and other artists to perform on trains. Despite those experiences, he was still dubious when Revitte kept emailing him about showcasing his talents on a dollar van driving through Brooklyn.
“I never opened the emails, and then I was doing a show at a friend's open mic and Joe approached me and was like 'yo, I'm with Dollar Van Demos,'” recalled Kid Lucky, a.k.a. Terry Lewis. “I said, 'I delete you all the time!'”
This was Kid Lucky's second time performing on Dollar Van Demos. “It's cool,” he said. “Some people will get in the van and like it, and others will be like 'I don't care, I've got to get to work.'”
Indeed, rider reactions are mixed, with some obviously enjoying the show and others feigning a cool indifference. Then there are the people who truly are just interested in reaching their destination, ignoring the performance while they send text messages from their phone or bury their head in a newspaper.
On this particular day, Dollar Van Demos had a repeat customer. Jonathan, a local high school student, was instantly recognized by Revitte when he climbed into the van.
“It was a long time ago, sometime last year,” said Jonathan of his first experience with Dollar Van Demos. Asked if he was surprised to find himself a passenger in another shoot, he said, “no, I just thought, 'here we go again.'”
The idea for Dollar Van Demos came about while Joe Revitte, a University of Colorado film school graduate and veteran of the Los Angeles film industry, said he was wallowing in “developmental hell.”
“I was sick of telling people that I was a film producer, and having no film production credits to my name,” he said.
So he and his wife rode the Brooklyn dollar vans for a couple of Saturdays working out their idea, and then approached BCAT about borrowing some cameras and using their editing equipment.
They found a sympathetic soul in Winston Williams, who owns and operates Black Street Van Line. Williams said he was happy to have Revitte film in his vehicle, and said the dollar vans are an important form of transportation, especially among New York City's Caribbean population.
"In their county, whether it be Trinidad or Jamica, they have this type of service," he said, adding that it was often faster and more econimical than taking a bus in New York City. "It'll get to you to from Point A to Point B faster because you are making less stops.”
Revitte said Dollar Van Demos has been steadily growing over the past year, even if the first few videos - posted to YouTube in February of 2009 - didn't exactly burn up the internet.
“You figure it would be easier considering a cat playing the piano on YouTube will get 10,000 views,” he joked.
But things are definitely starting to look up for Dollar Van Demos now that two of their featured artists – Joya Bravo and Wordspit - landed spots in nationwide McDonald's commercials thanks to an ad executive in Chicago coming across their videos on the internet.
"We didn't reach out to him, he approached us," said Revitte. "That would have never been possible in the days before YouTube and other social networking sites."
Revitte said Dollar Van Demos initially approached reggae and hip-hop artists because those types of acts would naturally appeal to the riding public along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, but he said there are already plans to branch out with comedy and gospel acts.
"That type of music was kind of the sweet spot for the large Caribbean population in that part of Brooklyn," he said. "When we were first starting out, we didn't really want to throw a country-and-western act in a dollar van."
He is also planning on branching out from Brooklyn, too, and said that people have already requested that Dollar Van Demos shoot some demos in Queens, but Revitte is thinking even bigger than that. “I would eventually like to take it to other cities, and eventually other parts of the world,” he said.
Revitte noted that there are productions similar to Dollar Van Demos in other countries, such as Taxi Jam in South Africa and Black Cab Sessions in London, but says what makes Dollar Van Demos different is the fact that the van keeps picking up commuters.
“I think what makes us unique is that we have real passengers,” said Revitte. “They can connect and interact with the music immediately, and I think that's what draws people to Dollar Van Demos.”