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

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.

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.

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.

"The older the kids get, the more subdued it is in here," says Bernson. "They're just listening -- checking out each other's records. To me, I kind of like the chill zone. For the most part they're DJs because they're kind of quiet in everyday life. DJing gives them a way to communicate indirectly -- or directly, depending on how you look at it -- with the people around them."

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