On a scorching June afternoon, passengers in Winston “Youngblood” Williams’s fifteen-seat commuter van—one of a fleet of share taxis that ferry riders up and down Flatbush Avenue for $2 a head—got an unexpected earful, not to mention a Flip camera in the face. The online music-video series Dollar Van Demos was shooting its third season as an extremely claustrophobic answer to Showtime at the Apollo. Joe Revitte started the series in 2009, inviting artists he discovered through Facebook, Twitter, ReverbNation, and Bandcamp to climb into a poorly ventilated stop-and-go backseat stage. The show’s YouTube channel has logged almost 250,000 viewers. The talent boards at the first stop, near Hoyt Street, and performs to taped music or an accompanying band as Williams picks up unsuspecting street hails on the way to the end of the run at Kings Plaza Shopping Center. Many of the musicians show real skills—some have even been signed by record companies. But much of the charm of the videos comes from watching fellow riders’ facial expressions, which range from oblivious to bewildered to sometimes indignant. There are always passengers like the one in Gucci shades and a Yankees cap who tried to punch the camera away. “People in the hood don’t like to be videotaped,” explained performer Tony Emcee. But since all Dollar Van Demos passengers–audience members ride free, the man in Gucci shades stuck it out and changed his tune by the end. “I enjoyed that,” he said, exiting at the corner of Church and Flatbush Avenues.
“I’m as old as my music is: timeless,” Hartford, Connecticut (originally from Jamaica, Queens)
Sound: “Reggae mixed with a little of everything else that I love to listen to, like hip-hop, R&B, rock, and pop. In one word, I’d say refreshing.”
Career status: Currently working on an EP.
How’d it go? “When we made a stop in the middle of the taping, a lady was entering but looked confused and didn’t want to get in. It was a little awkward ’cause she seemed kinda scared of me.”
Sound: “I call it electric jazz or ‘broadwave.’ It’s what Frank Sinatra would do if he was still around.”
Sample lyrics: “I’m lyrically lit on the time, shine, mine is like the sun better / When ya’ll make it rain, I flip the umbrella.”
Career status: Just graduated from Brownsville Academy High School.
How’d it go? “I freestyle in cars, buses, trains, so I don’t mind rapping anywhere. The van acoustics were just as fine as my tour van.”
“Ageless,” Hempstead, New York
Sound: Roots reggae. “Reality at its highest peak.”
Career status: Teacher by day, but also a musician working on an LP entitled Zion’s Lullaby. Just completed a hip-hop single with Jadakiss, Speedchild, and D12’s Bizarre.
How’d it go? “Passengers looked, smiled, observed, and went about their life. In New York City, it takes a lot to shock someone.”
24, Upper East Side
Sound: “East Coast lyrical-type stuff. That real hip-hop that hits you right in the face and makes you say, ‘Wow, this kid can spit.’ ”
Sample lyrics: “Flows exceptional, abilities professional / I’m killin’ beats, leaving all they facilities correctional.”
Career status: The Dalton and Stanford alum runs GiftRapped.com, offering customized rap songs.
How’d it go? “Most of the people were just looking down into their phones, pretending not to hear me—although one dude did say that he dug my style.”
25, Williamsburg (originally from Salt Lake City)
Sound: “I call my music digital rock and soul.”
Career status: Recently embarked on a three-month West Coast tour to promote her second LP, Illusions.
How’d it go? “One dude rolled in and tried to push the camera away ’cause he didn’t want to be on film. I can see how it kind of looked as if we were ambushing people like it was Cheaters or Cash Cab.”
Sound: “Early Kanye subject matter with aspiring Notorious B.I.G.–Jay-Z lyricism underlined with the passion of a young Makaveli.”
Sample lyrics: “She’s up before the sun’s up / She’s out the door before the garbagemen come around with they dump truck.”
Career status: Movie-theater employee with a Twitter following of 9,500.
How’d it go? “For the most part, all the comments, looks, stares were positive in nature, and even if they were not, I’m an artist and I have to do my thing regardless.”
Photographs by Mark Peterson/Redux