Urbano Street Is Documenting NYC’s Underground

Photo courtesy of Urbano Street

There’s garbage inching into the frame of this sidewalk music video, powered by an extra-long extension cord dropped from the second floor of an apartment. The J/M train is lurching past, making an unmistakable high pitched scream as it grinds to a halt on elevated tracks. Kids run around, dancing in between the musicians set up in front of Warude Café in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Diana Hernandez and Lucho Parra want to capture all of it, and have made it their mission to document underground musicians at street level (and sometimes on roofs) in their natural habitat—a gritty, warm and super evocative city.

While they film all over New York, this music lives on Urbano Street—a project named not for the exclusionary term “urban music,” but for the setting integral to all of the artists they shoot. The project of two Colombian immigrants and music obsessives involved with various subcultures, Urbano Street has been filming independent and alternative musicians live since 2016 in a series they call U Capture. They then offer that high quality, documentary style footage to bands for free, and promote it across social media channels.

“Music is a very big, important thing to me. What I’ve always thought is that there is so much music in the whole world, and I can’t understand why sometimes people just listen to the same commercial artists,” says Parra, Urbano’s director, editor and general aesthetic lead. “In New York, you have the whole world in one city. You have all backgrounds, all this fusion of music. The city is like a stage, so let’s discover music and document it.” Like many big cities, New York offers many performance opportunities at a variety of levels, but suffers from scene segmentation. “There’s not a single platform that has that space for all the alternative and underground music scenes. It just happens that, because New York is so diverse, we can bring those people together,” Hernandez, Urbano’s producer and communications lead, says.

The Urbano heads came up in punk, ska and reggae scenes—genres not given much appreciation in mainstream circles, and often largely supported in New York by Latinx immigrant communities—but have grounded their project in a larger multiculturalism. Urbano Street has documented Afrocentric world roots groups, Balkan gypsy punk and tropical futurist group Combo Chimbita. Although these artists exist across genres and, possibly, fanbase, they typically share a common problem: a lack of time and financial resources. Urbano’s captures are meant to supplement a band’s press kit and social media presence, with the ultimate goal of getting noticed by the right people and increasing diversity on global stages.

“Many artists don’t even know that they need to show a high quality performance; they usually have a video from a concert that someone takes on their phone. That’s not enough to apply to a large festival, or to go on tour. A booking agent is not gonna take you seriously if you don’t have a nice video,” Hernandez laments, adding that independent artists rarely have the same budget for content creation as a signed band or one with more mainstream appeal. According to Midia Research, independent artists are the fastest growing segment of recorded music but the majority earn less than $10,000 a year from their art. “This is especially true when working with artists [in alternative music] that are mostly immigrants, who don’t have the same resources. Many of them have multiple jobs and many of them are undocumented. And many of them don’t have that support system—family or economic.”

Urbano Street employs a collaborative and volunteer model for recording captures—trading the use of a drone, for example, for video editing work. They’ve recorded eight bands so far, using a team of like-minded sound engineers, videographers and photographers, as well as rented equipment. While Urbano doesn’t shy away from visual imperfection, Hernandez and Parra are serious about sound and proper miking—each piece of the band should have its own recording channel, making equipment even more costly for a large group like gypsy punks Bad Buka. To help offset the cost of future U Captures—which can run between $1,500 and $2,500—Urbano Street launched a Patreon page and is in the process of becoming a nonprofit. They hope to record one U Capture a month to start.

Photo courtesy of Urbano Street
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Their model has been successful for some bands. Early in its run, Urbano recorded a Colombian ska group called The Impostors Band which didn’t have money to film their own video. Parra and a small crew filmed the band atop the building housing community organization Casitas Biblicas in southern Bogota, “…they were so happy. That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” Parra said. “Because of that video, they were able to audition for Rock Al Parque and some other festivals in Bogota.” Latin ska group Esamble Calavera’s “Leekel” U Capture is one of Urbano’s most popular and netted the group a slot on a Mexican ska compilation—“it’s actually pretty funny because they named the song ‘Urbano Street’ by mistake,” Hernandez chuckles. “Bad Buka recorded their next album with the sound engineer that worked on the capture with us. People have met through Urbano Street and that’s what we want to create: opportunity to exchange, to collaborate.”

Parra and Hernandez originally planned to kick off their Patreon fundraising campaign with a benefit show at an independent venue in Brooklyn featuring some of the bands from the U Capture series before COVID hit. The show and much of their future production was put on hold, but Urbano adapted. They traveled around town, filming a handful of socially distant “COVID visits” and interviews on stoops and from windows, providing a much needed connection for artists and fans. “These artists are the most affected people in the pandemic because their day and night jobs were in the hospitality and service industry. Everyone worked as bartenders and they also have their gigs trying to perform their art,” Hernandez says. “We asked what they were doing, how were they affected, what have they learned? Many of them told us that they were really stressed out and a lot of them started like meditating. We thought it was important to document their stories and share them with the world.”

Urbano has recorded six quarentine visits and released three, but put publishing on temporary hold following the murder of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests. “We didn’t want to come out with those interviews because the focus right now is on the movement,” Parra says. Hernandez adds, “Most of our artists are immigrants; we share the struggle. The video that we shared from (A)Truth was [originally] called ‘Fuck the Police,’ which was inspired by the killing of Eric Garner. We’ve shared some resources, like music related stuff, on our [Instagram] stories, but we decided to pause it. I’ve been in the streets myself and all of us contribute in our own ways. But it’s something you can’t ignore.”

Live music will be one of the last aspects of “normal” life to reopen post-COVID and 90% of independent venues may shutter as a result. Parra and Hernandez expect that there will be a resurgence in underground shows and parties, and hope to document that scene should time, money and safety allow. With funding from Patreon, one-time donations and future grants, Urbano Street aims to produce more content for a variety of artists. “That’s really what it is: growing that ecosystem, that community and creating more opportunities for the artists and for the creatives that are part of our team,” Hernandez says. “There’s so much talent, so I think we’ll never finish.”