It’s 6:30 PM on a Thursday night. The DMNDR office is still alive, but the week’s work has dented our staff. We love what we do, but some of us are already 80 hours into the work week, which won’t end on Friday. Momentarily a trio of street buskers called Audible Chocolate we discovered on the subway are going to play for us right in our office. We’ll be filming them, which many people don’t realize is physically demanding work, and there’s a tinge of hesitation in the air, that sort of morose that washes over you when you have a scheduled gym session but can’t even imagine getting your sneakers on. We can’t tell if we need coffee or beer to get through the night, so we break out both.
A moment later three woman slide through the door. They’re wayward, we recognize immediately, with their bags and backpacks and the particular way they walk, which somehow looks more practiced than most. They don’t linger. As a door opens, they move through it with no hesitation. They seem to have no misgivings about kissing strangers on the cheek, plopping down on the couch, cracking a beer, talking about their day. They’re here. That’s what’s up. Now what?
The most vocal of the three is Cheeki, who dishes up lead vocals, comic relief and all manner of opinions for Audible Chocolate. She wants to talk, and we can tell it’s not because she’s nervous. She’s had a long day, busking on the the shuttle, or the S train, which connects the far west and east sides of 42nd street. After working a full shift performing all day, she and the girls hit the studio for a few hours to work on some original material before walking over to our office around 7 PM. Now they’re chopping it up with strangers they’re about to perform for. Again. She needs a bathroom and a beer, she admits. A slice of Pizza too. Also the window needs to be closed- she can’t afford to get sick with her performance schedule. Cheeki indeed. DMNDR abides.
This might be what it’s like to busk. An endless river of faces and experiences that revolve around your music and become familiar instantly. Strangers and their individual variables are constants. We’re just the last strangers of the day. Maybe. For all we know they’ll perform all the way home on their respective trains.
Cheeki’s two partners offer another set of somewhat different data. Lo, who sings and plays guitar, carries a bit more reservation than the others. She’s taking things in, finding the fire exits, letting Cheeki entertain while she swigs her beer. She seems quiet, but we don’t buy it. If you’ve ever seen NYC street performers, you know that they rope off territories every day, competing for the most high trafficked spots on a first-come-first served basis so they can maximize the amount of tips they receive. It’s a real estate game in the morning, but once the properties are snapped up, the strategy becomes about carnival barking with beats- getting noticed and delivering a performance that will make it rain. Lo and company have been in the game for 2 years now, which wouldn’t even be possible if any of them was shy. Performance favors the bold.
A tiny little voice pops out of a tiny little body. Iymaani also needs a bathroom. She’s 5’4″ or so. When I offer to grab her bag for her, she clutches it tighter. I momentarily wonder if she distrusts me, then remember that she plays the viola. In fact she well trained, having paid $72k to NYU for each year of her Masters in music. Violas are expensive, even if not NYU expensive, and musicians have strange relationships with them. Iymaani is not as obsessed with her instrument as some we’ve met, but she has a lot to say about her viola, which she calls “Carmen”. Like a young mother she recalls the time Carmen’s bowl broke, which remains unfixed because the $600 repair isn’t a smart spend right now. Then there’s the time when 2 of her strings popped the same day- that was a tough day for Carmen. When Carmen finally comes out of her case Iymaani notices how pretty and new she looks in the warm light. When Carmen is put away she’s tucked in with maternal tenderness. Carmen is a happy, well loved viola.
All three ladies live in the Bronx, up near Parkchester. Parkchester is a middle class neighborhood by Bronx standards, situated at the Northern edge of the borough. The commute from Parkchester to work every day at Grand Central is about an hour. This is their office- the S train. A short stack of subway cars that travels a short distance between two large transportation hubs. On the East side, Grand Central serves as the nexus of the 4,5,6,N, and R subway lines. It also serves Metro North, which rides along the bucolic Hudson River, carrying a few hundred thousand well scrubbed suburbanites into Manhattan every day. The building is pristine, offering a glimpse into pre-war architecture that seems to connect NYC to our European roots. On the opposite end of the S line is Times Square, which connects through soul crushing catacombs to Port Authority, an ill conceived eyesore of a building playing host to hustlers, addicts, and an unusually high concentration of homeless. Port Authority is also a bustling bus terminal, with hundreds of buses rumbling in and out of the multi tiered structure every minute. It’s the kind of place you move through as fast as you can. Throughout the day Audible Chocolate will move between these two worlds, playing for thousands of people a day before heading back to the Bronx, stopping only to sleep. Back and forth, constantly, like a pendulum. Every week, Monday through Friday, Audible Chocolate is out there, moving underground, clawing up from beneath the music industry offices well above them for a chance to emerge.
Strictly speaking, street performance is illegal in NYC. A $45 permit is required to use a microphone, loudspeaker, stereo or other sound device in any public performance whatsoever. Otherwise it’s fine. Unless you’re performing inside of or next to a park. Or at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Or in the actual subway car. All no-no’s, it turns out. So when the ladies perform, they’re breaking the law, which became very clear when Cheeki was arrested on 23rd and 6th following her F train performance last year. She describes her night in jail as “just like ‘Orange is the New Black’, but dirtier because it’s NY, I mean cmon”. Now Audible Chocolate works a little harder to avoid Police. Lessons learned. But then there’s still the creepers. Endless innuendo, regular sexual advances, cat calls, and the odd exuberant citizen anxious to rid the world of lawless buskers like Audible Chocolate. One dude chases them car to car screaming and taking pictures of them, threatening to report them to the authorities for illegally performing. As a character type, this guy is sort of the old lady in the haunted house meets the angry next door neighbor-type of 80’s films narrated by children. Goofy. Nonsensical. Threatening. Needlessly aggressive. Cheeki says he’s like the dude from “Home Alone”. Lo says she doesn’t give a shit because he’s that guy, and she’s her, and she “stays doing this thing”. Iymaani agrees with an “mhmm” and offers “that guy is crazy”.
In between running from the police, running from the Home Alone guy, getting harassed constantly, staking out the best subway car to busk, and playing beautifully, these woman count money. Not quite the type of money our least favorite rappers talk about making, but they do well. After performing at DMNDR the day’s work is divided up, and it takes some time to sort through all the singles, fives, twenties, fifties, wait “is that a hundred dollar bill I ask? “. “Yeah, people give us 100’s…the people who give us 100’s are always so humble about it, they always like, crumple it up and run away”, Cheeki says. And this is where things get confusing over at DMNDR. It seems like everyday we hear about another artist attacking Spotify for not paying them fairly, or we read about piracy and rights management infringement cases, or how most artists are destitute. And not only is Audible Chocolate making money, people are paying them $100 for an impromptu performance that lasts one minute and forty seconds. Spotify costs $9.99 a month to hear 20 million plus songs as much as you like. Some consumers can’t or won’t pay that price. Others offer Audible Chocolate $100 for one song…or a half a song really…that they don’t own and can’t hear twice. A subtle reminder that the world is beautifully complicated and impossible to understand. This dichotomy stays with me as I watch Audible Chocolate go through their bill sorting exercise, then divide up the loot.
“Anybody want 3 twenties, particularly, or is six- 10’s ok?”,Cheeky inquires.
“I don’t mind either way, do you want it Lo?”.
” Yeah, I don’t want that many bills, I got all these 5’s”.
Tomorrow, they’re back on the S train for the morning commute.