“Subways are played out. We’re doing dollar vans now,” said Cocoa Sarai from the second row of a Black Street Van Lines dollar van.
Sarai, a diminutive woman looking forward to her 21st birthday, was not along for the ride, but was in the middle of a music video shoot. While she sang into a microphone, Joe Revitte leaned over the front seat and focused his camera on the soul singer.
Revitte previously had experience using cars as make-shift audio booths for low-budget film projects. For this latest venture, he dreamed a bit bigger. Last year, he created Dollar Van Demos, a music video show that records Brooklyn musicians performing their music inside dollar vans that race up and down Flatbush Avenue while passengers hop on and off.
“Everyone said it was a crazy idea, but no one said it was a bad idea,” said Revitte, who partnered with Juan Perez, executive director of Highbrid Outdoors, an advertising agency that works with dollar van companies, for the concept.
Revitte primarily records hip-hop, dancehall, reggae and R&B artists from the surrounding Flatbush community, finding them through Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, as well as receiving requests from musicians themselves. He then uploads the videos on YouTube or broadcasts them through Brooklyn Cable Access Television,
BCAT executive producer Greg Sutton described Revitte as a great example of a community producer who uses the resources available to him to promote local artists, but believes other show makers are capable of his success.
“He’s one of many, but he’s the flavor of the month,” said Sutton.
Dollar Van Demos received national attention when Revitte licensed their concept to McDonald’s for a series of commercials advertising their breakfast campaign.
McDonald’s advertising representative Rob Jackson said the commercials were part of a marketing strategy to draw the black community towards McDonald’s’ cheap breakfast menu.
Featured in the McDonald’s spot were Dollar Van Demos alumni Joya Bravo and WordSpit singing and rapping in a moving dollar van.
Compared to the DIY aesthetic of the dollar van, the McDonald’s set, which had a full light set and supplied extras, as opposed to the unassuming Flatbush commuters captured during Revitte’s shoots, was a vast difference for the artists. Bravo said that the commercial shoot was much more extensive and lacked the spontaneity of the dollar van videos. “Whenever you go into a situation like reality TV, you never know what to expect out of the people,” she said, especially when the passengers don’t know someone is singing in the car.
WordSpit prefers less intimate settings for his live performance. He said the lack of space made flowing difficult during both shoots, but that the extras and cab riders energized him.
Although he uploaded his first video last February, Revitte said the McDonald’s commercials, for their new breakfast campaign, have brought more attention to his work. “We were nobodies in November,” he said. “We had 7,000 views on YouTube.” (Recent numbers totalled more than 23,600.)
During the recent Dollar Van Demo shoot with Sarai, Tah Phrum Duh Bush!, a Flatbush hip-hop artist, sat in the backseat of the dollar van nodding his head to the rhythm of Sarai’s song. Bush wore a black hoodie and baseball cap while he grinned through his glasses. He contacted Joe almost a year ago to record a video in the vans because of his love of the Flatbush community, he said. That day he recorded a song, “Flatbush,” which praised his neighborhood’s ethnic and cultural diversity.
After she was out of the spotlight, Sarai said she enjoyed recording with Dollar Van Demos because of the opportunity to interact and sing to strangers. “They can’t be mean on camera because it would make them look bad,” she chuckled.
Once they all piled out of the van, Bush and Sarai huddled together and started rapping alongside a beat boxer, who produced a capella drums, bass and scratching sounds. Revitte circled the group with a small camera, catching it all on film.
For more on Dollar Van Demos, including to watch Cocoa Sarai and Tah Phrum Duh Bush!, go to www.dollarvandemos.com.