After School Special

Jon Bernson's DJ Club gets kids off the streets -- and onto the turntables

The first rule of DJ Club: School can be cool.

Even though it's summertime, the doors of A.P. Giannini Middle School are unlocked. The school, located at 38th Avenue and Ortega in the Sunset District, hosts several summer and after-school programs, one of which is now in session. A lone piece of paper taped to the front door reveals the class' name and whereabouts: DJ Club, Room 221.

A walk down the empty halls leads to the indicated room, where the distinct thumping of a hip hop rhythm beats out the door. A DJ stands behind a pair of turntables, flipping his cross-fader from one record to the other, scratching fuzzy samples over the beat.

Akim Aginsky


Premieres on Saturday, Sept. 8, at 9 p.m.

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RESFEST, Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon (at Bay), S.F.

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The DJ, Michael Mapp, is 18. The seven other kids in the classroom range in age from 11 to 16. The only adult in the room is Jon Bernson. "Anthony, you're up on the headphones next," Bernson calls. "Corey, you and your brothers need to sign in if you want to play."

The lithe, goateed Bernson is the singer/ songwriter behind the San Francisco folk rock band Ray's Vast Basement. He's also an employee of the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center and the founder of the DJ Club for Kids program.

"I just knew I wouldn't be able to teach guitar to a group of kids," Bernson says of his 4-year-old program's beginnings. "You could teach one student guitar, but these are free programs -- with a more urban sensibility."

"Our goal is for kids and families to have a safe place to go emotionally and physically," SNBC Executive Director Michael Funk explains. "What we have to work at is getting the at-risk kids into the programs. The DJ Club is one of the more proactive ways to do so."

The kids who attend the DJ Club often suffer from diminished self-confidence and increased unease around adults. Bernson's egalitarian approach and hands-on workshop offer a way to combat these problems -- and for some a ticket to cinematic fame.

The second rule of DJ Club: Everyone gets to play.

Bernson holds the DJ Club four days a week, with students attending from all over the city. Tuesdays are "Music of the Future" days, when the emphasis is on electronic dance music. Wednesdays are dedicated to high-schoolers only, and Thursdays are for middle-school students. The kids generally play whatever music they choose, but many lean toward hip hop and breakbeats. No genre is considered bad, and everyone learns from everyone else. Fridays are free-form -- fewer students attend, so Bernson takes the kids out of the classroom for volunteer work and field trips to school dances and record stores.

During the lessons, the kids use two pairs of turntables and mixers: One deck connects to a small amplifier where they can demonstrate their live skills, and the other deck attaches to headphones so neophytes can play without the anxiety of an audience.

"When someone's brand-new, I show them the basic things," says Bernson. "Usually we teach them how to fade -- basic ways to switch songs -- and then we teach them how to mix the same beat together, how to mix different beats together, and then scratch. And then they learn from each other. I learn more from the kids than I teach."

Twelve-year-old Anthony Pico, a sweet, eager, talkative boy, explains his entry into the DJ Club with the fervor of an evangelist. "I was here for a few months before I started playing. And then I bought two trance records and I worked and worked for two months just getting one mix down really well." One day it happened for him. "Then I started getting more records, and would listen to a few of them every night before I went to sleep so I could really get the beats down. And then one day I came to DJ Club and I mixed all of them, and Jon was jumping up and down and clapping and cheering!"

Although many of the kids have their own vinyl, Bernson gets plenty of donated discs from Aquarius Records and Amoeba Music. The Amoeba connection also led to some of the students' most exciting memories (as well as their big-screen debut). Twice a year, Amoeba talent booker Kara Lane brings the kids into the store to DJ for shoppers.

"The customers are taken off-guard," says Lane. "We get a mix of the people who are watching and those not realizing there are kids up onstage making great music."

One of these sessions was captured by filmmaker Doug Pray for Scratch, a documentary on hip hop turntablists. The film -- featuring a five-minute segment with the DJ Club kids -- debuts in the Bay Area this weekend at the RESFEST. The director says the youngsters are an important component of his film.

"What better way to prove that the younger generation is heavily into DJing than showing them studying beats and scratching?" Pray asks. "[It's] kind of like those Hollywood heavy metal guitar classes in the '80s where you'd see 25 headbangers all in a line, learning Slash riffs."

The third rule of DJ Club: You learn, you teach.

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