After School Special

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

Maraya Holland -- whose 15-year-old son Gus is one of the program "mentors" and is featured in Scratch-- has only positive comments about the DJ Club. Gus is shy, she says, but, when he gets behind the turntables or works with other kids, his timidity disappears. "If Gus doesn't have a positive outlet for his creativity, he's gonna find some way to do it," she says, explaining that Gus had been previously banned from Pier 39 for tagging.

"Jon is a really great guy and he's been a really great mentor for Gus. He's been through some stuff with Gus -- some challenges -- and he's always proved to be on Gus' side."

Bernson has had a huge effect on many of the kids -- you can see it in how they look at him with warmth and deference. But often his most important move is to step aside and let them be the teachers.

Akim Aginsky

Steve Hoefchen, 16, is one of the DJ Club's most accomplished participants, spinning at adult parties around the Bay Area and abroad in the U.K. "After going through a difficult time with his biological father, Steve was pretty much lost," Steve's mother, Angelika Hoefchen, explains. "I was fighting to help give him back his self-esteem. I credit the DJ Club as an adjunct to school -- and to home life being more stabilized -- with being a huge piece of helping him turn things around."

"There have been a couple of times where I'll want him to stay home to do chores, but he'll come back with, "There's some kid who's going to be [at the Club], and I've gotta show him how to work with his new records,'" Angelika continues. "When I hear that the kids look up to him, and he's helping them out, as a mom I've gotta say, "Yay, Steve, that's really cool.' It makes me proud."

"A couple of students have said before, "You know, this is the only place I can relax,'" Bernson offers. "Some of them just like to come sit here and listen. Some watch for the first month, then try it out. Some might wait three months until they're ready. However they want to spend their time here is fine."

The fourth rule of DJ Club: A skilled DJ can spin anything.

Pat Largent's three sons -- Casey, Corey, and Riley -- are all DJ Club acolytes. Pat loves watching his kids' musical tastes expand. "All three of them are into alternative rock and metal and punk, but they seem to be branching out a bit more, listening to a lot of things," he says. "Casey is known for sampling songs from Sesame Street and Mister Rogers -- that is his specialty. Or throwing in an old Randy Newman record.

"When I went to pick Corey and Riley up from an event they had gone to, a couple of the older kids were right behind, and they came up to the car and said, "Do you know that your kids are really musically talented?' It meant a lot to them and to me."

Back in the classroom, Corey Largent, 15, is throwing down his signature move, the Rumpelstiltskin. He creates staccato scratches by tapping a beat onto the vinyl with his fingers, while another DJ loops beats in the background.

Although most of the DJ Club devotees are fans of scratching breakbeats -- manually moving a drum rhythm in short bursts -- Bernson encourages diversity in musical taste, whether it be rock, house, trance, hip hop, or even jazz. Occasionally, the kids get a real lesson in diversity from a guest like former Invisibl Skratch Pikl and world-renowned turntablist Q-Bert.

"I tried to teach them the poetic side of scratching, the fluidity of it," Q-Bert says about his visit last year. "A lot of them are young and just going crazy up there, and I was trying to show them how a sense of control can create beautiful things."

The kids were awe-struck by their hero, says Bernson, but that didn't keep them from calling Q-Bert on the carpet when he showed them a variation on the Rumpelstiltskin. "Q-Bert came in [and did the move], and Corey was like, "I've been doing that for two months, man!'" laughs Steve Hoefchen.

Q-Bert is not the only special guest the Club has hosted. Local club veterans Shortkut, DJ Flare, DJ Design, and Forest Green have all spent time with the students. "I wasn't really sure what to expect," says Green. "I haven't seen a whole lot of classes teaching kids about DJing. I brought a number of different kinds of music. My main intent was to show the kids a bit more about mixing."

An important element of Green's visit was interacting with the two girls who were at the DJ Club that day. "The good part about it was [they could say], "OK, here's a girl, and she does this professionally. This is her life.'"

One of the most telling signs of success for Bernson and the DJ Club is the way the students react to the music. Few ever dance outright, but when they get behind the turntables and pull on the headphones, they close their eyes and let the beats wash over them, enraptured.

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