“I want Jupiterians to like it too,” said singer/rapper Jahdan Blakkamoore of his music. With a big grin interrupted only by spoonfuls of mushroom soup at the Renaissance Java Café, on Schermerhorn Street between Hoyt and Bond Streets, he said, “I want to reach them all, I transcend barriers.”
On this Wednesday morning Mr. Blakkamoore, a professional musician in his 30s, was preparing to perform for the cameras, not for a traditional music video, but for Dollar Van Demos, a musical transportation experiment spearheaded by Brooklynite Joe Revitte.
Since he began using dollar vans as the backdrop for Brooklyn’s unknown musical talent back in February, Mr. Revitte, 38, has posted 16 videos on YouTube, earning more than 20,000 views. “It’s really difficult for artists to get airplay or get on MTV or BET – YouTube is very democratic,” he said. “Anyone can get on there and it’s a good way for undiscovered talent to make it on the radar.”
Last fall, Mr. Revitte got the idea to use dollar vans as background and began riding around town, meeting passengers and drivers and discussing its potential. Using his experience working with Banyan Tree Films, Hypnotic Distribution, and Fine Line Cinemas, he directs and edits the music videos and the result is not unlike American Idol meets Flatbush Avenue. “We have featured mainly hip hop, rap and reggae,” he said. “But we’re actively looking to include gospel, comedy, beatboxing and other entertainment soon. If it’s authentic and unique, we’ll put it in the van.”
By joining forces with Winston Williams, CEO of Black Street Van Lines, who provide the dollar vans, Mr. Revitte has been able to formulate a new blueprint for promoting local talent. “We hope Dollar Van Demos grows as a internet series and becomes known as the Brooklyn venue where notable entertainers get their big break,” said Mr. Revitte.
Dollar vans just might be Brooklyn’s best-kept secret as far as transportation goes. The Ford Econoline 15-passenger vans can be spotted zooming up and down Flatbush Avenue, costing passengers around $1.50-$2.00. They’re typically illuminated with advertisements and driven by Caribbean drivers. As for the Dollar Van Demos vans, the ride is free and so is the entertainment.
“I used MySpace and Facebook to find them,” said Mr. Revitte, referring to the performers, “But since we’ve been doing it for a few months they’re starting to contact me.”
Partnered with Highbrid Outdoor Advertising, a Bushwick-based company headed by CEO Juan Perez and Vice President Daniel Gutzmore, the company is in the process of securing sponsorships and product placement for Dollar Van Demos, Mr. Revitte said. Their business is chiefly limited to the exterior of the vans and they see Dollar Van Demos as a dynamic opportunity to give their advertisers a presence inside the vans, and will eventually install monitors inside them.
“It’s free because we’re trying to give back to the community,” said Mr. Williams. “We’re just trying to do something nice for people, you know?”
It was a hot July morning when Mr. Blakkamoore smoothly performed Cash Flow, a melodious song about the want of freedom. “That was good, really good. I’m impressed,” said one passenger as she left the van.
Mr. Blakkamoore, a native of Georgetown, Guyana, was ecstatic as he tended to his 10 year old son Shakur. “I think this is a great idea, it’s definitely good for up and coming artists. I think it’s great.”
In his songs, Mr. Blakkamoore speaks often of the evils of humanity, but compliments it with a message of hope, keeping an impressive and complicated balance. In Songs of Love, the singer paces himself with a harmonious reggae tune that quickly speeds up to compliment his rhymes. “Keep your head to the skies and always remember to keep your eyes on the prize,” he raps from the center of the crowded van as it pulled away from a Popeye’s. At the end of the song a passenger proclaims, “I ain’t gonna lie, that was hot.”
“I want to inspire and motivate through music,” Mr. Blakkamoore had said earlier at the café as the van was being prepped. “I don’t want to go the route of major record labels, I want to keep it independent. The majors dictate and I don’t want to be made – I know what I’m doing, I just need help marketing.”
The near-collapse of the mainstream music industry and ubiquity of easy and cheap technology has made it possible for entrepreneurial types like Mr. Revitte to embark on professional music video production with a low overhead.
“I was on Facebook and a friend of mine posted [Dollar Van Demos] as a link, and as an up and coming artist I thought it was pretty cool,” said singer Strype, 20, a mother and part-time student, as she sat down in the café.
Better known as Krystal Fraser, Strype is a Jamaican-born and Bronx-raised rapper/singer with an energetic and confident swagger. Sitting in the middle row of the grey van in a bright purple dress, she remarked, “I dropped my manager and I’ve done a lot of live performances – I am my own movement. This is just the first resounding step.”
After Strype performed ‘Never Give Up’, a song about her struggles in the music business and in life, a schoolteacher on her way downtown was very impressed and touched by the uplifting song. “Wow. You have to come and talk to my students, that song is so beautiful,” she said. “I think God placed me in this van this morning, that was amazing.”
“Sure,” Strype responded with a smile as they exchanged information, “I’d more than love to visit your school.” Its good timing too, as the singer’s mixtape ‘Back to Basic School’ is scheduled for a September release.
After every performance, Mr. Revitte edits the videos and posts them on the Dollar Van Demos YouTube page as well as their official website. Mr. Revitte films with the help of another cameraman, Ron Thompson, 25, while Vlad Versailles, 23, acts as the host for Dollar Van Demos, constantly interacting with passengers and performers. Mr. Versailles has a supporting role in an upcoming episode of the NBC show The Philanthropist.
“And here’s Strype performing, Warning,” he said as he introduced Strype to the camera and the passengers, who sign release forms when they enter the van, but haven’t yet grabbed the mic. “We’ve had some people who’ve wanted to hang out with us but no one randomly performed,” Mr. Revitte added.
Beyond the Brooklyn characters that have hopped into the van over the last six months, one particular incident sticks out in Mr. Revitte’s mind.
“I’d have to say the oddest thing that’s ever happened is Stacey Delikat from [Cablevision’s] News12 Brooklyn came along for a ride,” he said, “And she had a beta cam that was the size of an igloo cooler.”
Additional reporting and photo by Marlhon Jean-Michel