Wordspit is not sure what to expect on this cloudy day as he sits in the third row of a late model navy blue commuter van, idling, and double parked on Schemerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn. The BK-reared rapper is here to perform two of his singles, “Hello, Good Morning” & “Poet’s Haiku,” inside this very van, complete with cameras rolling and microphones recording; all for the latest edition of Dollar Van Demos.
It is pretty much like how it sounds. Dollar Van Demos is a Brooklyn-based video production company that films music videos inside of a fully functioning licensed dollar van.
While it’s driving around.
While it’s picking up actual passengers.
It took reaching out to Dollar Van Demos creator Joe Revitte several times in the past year for Wordspit to be able to squeeze into the show’s tight schedule. Revitte films these rap music videos for aspiring artists at no charge, roughly twice a month. Today, after outfitting the van with microphones and testing the equipment, Revitte and host Ronald Thompson go through a few dry runs with the cameras rolling, to gauge how everything looks. Wordspit drops a brief freestyle about random events going on outside the van to warm up while waiting to film.
Rhyming like a happy camper on his first trip away from his nagging parents, Wordspit is energized by the concept of performing in a different venue. The DVD exercise works well for adventurous emcees, and rapping in unknown situations is what Wordspit says he excels in. He reasons, “If you can emcee to people that don’t know you and they like it, then you’re good.” He has shot his own professional videos before, so his venture into Dollar Van Demos is strictly to try a different medium.
You don’t get much more “different” than this, and today, it’s presenting a small challenge, as Thompson struggles to determine the reason for the lack of sound in his headphones. It’s a minor issue, but he looks over to Revitte to help troubleshoot. Staring intently at the settings on Thompson’s camera, Revitte looks over every button and switch. Less than a minute later, a simple switch, not engaged, is found to be the culprit. Dollar Van Demos is now ready to roll.
The side door to the late model blue commuter van soon slides opens and its first passenger hops in. The instrumental for Wordspit’s “Hello Good Morning” pumps through the vehicle’s speaker system. Wordspit welcomes the unsuspecting passenger by giving him a pound and welcoming him to this most unusual of music video shoots.
“We about to rock ‘Hello Good Morning.’” he explains to the slightly confused passenger, a young man in his late teens. “How you feel brother? You had a good morning?” The commuter replies with a sheepish grin, a half nod, and takes his seat, becoming the next participant in the mobile production.
The scene repeats throughout the day. As other commuters wait in the frigid, fall air waiting patiently to flag down the next available dollar van to arrive, little do they know that they may be making an appearance in the next installment of Dollar Van Demos.
“Dollar Vans” are a Brooklyn institution and Revitte says “the idea of shooting in a van is actually perfect. It’s almost like a recording studio. It’s insulated, it’s got space, enough room for a small audience. We are holding cameras and we tell them that we are making a music video,” Revitte says as he watches the camera monitor. “We keep the cameras rolling the whole time. Obviously we don’t put all those moments in, but we tell them we are shooting a video. They can get in and ‘if you don’t want to be on camera don’t get in.’ There are other dollar vans right behind this most of the time.”
The van’s warm, gray cloth interior provides the backdrop and the passengers- ranging from teenagers, to mother and child, to middle aged men and women traveling to and from- are the supporting cast. The artists provide the instrumental tracks, which are played in the van’s CD player and controlled by today’s driver, Rohan, as he maneuvers through midmorning Flatbush Avenue traffic, scouring the sidewalk for any passengers, a.k.a. audience members.
Revitte’s background in feature film making and development led him to create Dollar Van Demos about a year ago. Tiring of working on projects that never came to fruition, Revitte desired to do something that was more immediate and definitely more gratifying, an active production that he could be involved in that actually produced something and could be shown on his own terms, free of constraints. Likening it to making a video on your back porch, Revitte recalled a show back in London called Black Cab Sessions that shoots videos in the back of a taxi cab. If you watch today’s videos, Revitte explains, there is a trend to go away from the flashy, expensive, and lavish productions to go into “making music videos that are very economical and very intimate.”
What Revitte looks for when deciding who gets in the van to make the videos depends a lot on the artists and their social contacts on the web. “We look for real bonafide talent. We look for robust social networks. If you have thousands of MySpace friends and Facebook and Twitter followers, that gives us an idea that you have some kind of reach out there.” Dollar Van Demos films mostly rap videos, but Revitte says he gets many reggae and dancehall artists, mostly through referrals, because a lot of them aren’t on MySpace. Eventually, Dollar Van Demos will look to get into other genres including gospel, comedy, beat boxing and indie rock.
The process of making the best possible video all comes down to the editing room. “The artists generally do two songs and do three or four takes per song, so it gives us enough coverage to come up with the stuff when they are editing. What we like to tell people is that we throw continuity out the window. We’re not just trying to make that perfect video. We are trying to take out the funniest things that happen during those four takes and put them in one take- that’s how we put it together.”
The route downtown and back takes 30-45 minutes. Usually, Revitte can get three or four takes for two songs done in that time. “That’s why we put two artists per round trip. We try to get to everyone to stay interested and charismatic because they’re part of the show too. Most of the artists have been receptive to do that. Some of the very early ones we did like 8 or nine takes and it was just so much. And basically after three or four takes, you lose a lot of the spontaneity. We like to keep it fresh. We don’t like to put people’s mistakes in there, but when there are people getting in and out, it’s always exciting because there’s singing and you just have to look at their eyes to see what’s going on. It’s really funny.”
Thompson, who doubles as host and 2nd cameraman, has nothing but appreciation for the whole concept. He joined in June and has since brought the conversation to others by spreading the word about this unique way of shooting music videos. Thompson said that Revitte’s editing skills are what give the videos their flair. “Joe is a master editor. It looks good in the final print. People really love the concept of the show and it’s been gaining popularity over the past several months.”
Holding down the fort back at the makeshift green room at the local café, Revitte’s wife and co-producer, Iara, makes sure the rest of the artists on the schedule have what they need to be comfortable. With her laptop open and her cell phone ringing constantly, Iara is a symbol of calm, always smiling and pleasant, greeting arriving artists and wishing farewell to those who have already shot their videos. She Twitters all of the day’s happenings and posts newly taken photos of the artists on the web as fast as she takes them.
Leeia Music sits at the café waiting for her friend to shoot a video today, but she is no stranger to Dollar Van Demos. Earlier this year, Leeia did two songs “Satisfaction” & “Strong Black Woman.” Buoyed by the experience and positive feedback, Leeia is looking forward to getting back in the van. “It’s a lot of fun. The feedback was great. People were definitely interested in the concept. If you think about it,” she relates, “the whole concept of a dollar van is funny, so when u put music in it…” She trails off, smiling.
Revitte brims with enthusiasm when he discusses the future of Dollar Van Demos. “We have about 50,000 views. There are roughly 26 videos we have out there and each week, we get a few thousand views per video, growing about 15% per week. Even though we are kind of limited in terms of our resources and our reach, we’re still… A lot of people are finding us.”
Revitte wants to take Dollar Van Demos to other boroughs, but his dream is to see Dollar Van Demos go global. He envisions getting into areas where dollar vans already exist, such as the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. “We’d love to really try to sort of take our idea of making these sorts of videos and have people really be able to experiment and really test their music in front of people and see what happen. I don’t see why anything would stop us.” Sponsorship is also on the horizon as Dollar Van Demos is looking to partner up with Hybrid Outdoor Advertising, an agency specializing in the placement of ads in dollar vans and complete van wraps.
For record producer JJ Brown, who’s also jumping in the van to do two songs, Dollar Van Demos provides another opportunity to promote his new album. A friend of Brown, Poison Pen, was on the show and Brown enjoyed what he saw. “I’m a big fan of the cash cab show. This reminds me of a hip hop version of that. I like how it toys with everyday people. I thought it was hilarious when he sent me the link to this.”
After completing his shoot for the day, Wordspit is satisfied that he came and conquered. Rhyming comes as second nature to this wordsmith, who really seems to thrive off positive energy, enjoying that Dollar Van Demos entertains its passengers and artists alike. “It was definitely cool, I really had fun. That’s how you do it. You throw that good energy to the universe and you see what comes back.There aren’t many rappers that can say they’ve done this,” he explains. “It’s a dope idea.”