Professional Learning

Beats the Heck Out of School: Producing Music — and Entrepreneurs

After hours, these inner city kids find their rhythm at San Francisco’s DJ Project.

July 18, 2007

Tony, an eighteen-year-old with ponytails sticking out of his San Francisco Giants cap, listens to one of the songs he's produced for his first mix tape. Actually, listening is too sedate a word to describe him. Wearing headphones as he faces his iMac, Tony can barely stay seated; he’s doing a full-body-bouncing, hand-waving dance from his chair, punctuated by the lyrics he’s singing along with from his tattered, spiral-bound notebook.

"Tony, could you please keep it down?" begs Korise Jubert for the third time in fifteen minutes. Tony complies, smiling good-naturedly, and Jubert turns back to his computer. Jubert, the DJ Project’s lanky, dreadlocked audio-production instructor, wants to play his students' latest work: a public-service announcement written and performed by students from the project’s introductory audio-production class and expertly layered over a Marvin Gaye sample. The PSA, an entreaty against police brutality, features each student rapping for a minute or two before passing the mike.

"Excuse me, officer, no need for violence / Can I have a moment of silence? / For my brothers who have died in violence?" raps seventeen-year-old Sierra. As the tracks scroll across the screen, Jubert nods admiringly to the rhythm of his students' work.

A former industrial building in San Francisco’s Mission District is headquarters for the DJ Project, an after-school and summer program for teenagers and young adults sponsored by the San Francisco youth-development organization Horizons Unlimited. Every year since 2000, about one hundred students have passed through these halls to their classes in audio production, DJ-ing, and break dancing. The program, funded primarily through the San Francisco Department of Public Health's Inhalant Prevention Program, uses hip-hop as a means to teach students critical-thinking, technology, and business skills; nurture their passion for music; and, most importantly, help them steer clear of drugs and other pitfalls of an inner city childhood.

The passion for music is hard to miss. Open a classroom door and you find students so absorbed in the sounds coming through their headphones that they barely notice the intrusion. This afternoon, with the end of class drawing near, Sierra and Nicole -- a community-college-bound eighteen-year-old with a confident soprano -- want to know if they can, please, stay just an extra half hour, long enough to figure out how to squeeze a few more words into a couple beats to get the perfect take.

In Jubert's classes, attendance is more or less voluntary. He asks students to let him know if they can't make a class, but says he knows these kids "have jobs, they have lives." Still, according to the DJ Project, 85 percent of students who enroll in the program stay with it through the entire three-month cycle. Many of these students have been coming back for years. One of them, says Jubert, works during the day as a security guard, attends City College of San Francisco, and lives in Potrero Hill -- not, Jubert adds, "the best environment for a young black male" -- but even so has been a mainstay at the DJ Project for three years.

Jubert's classroom has the cheerful hothouse feel of a garage studio. Its windowless walls are painted dark red, and an old leather couch, which the students deemed irretrievably overgraffitied, has been draped in purple cotton. In the corner, there's a small, foam-studded voice booth. Neatly coiled headphones hang above professional-looking eight-by-ten glossies of the student artists, taken by one of the instructors.

Lining the walls are five iMacs loaded with state-of-the-art digital-editing software such as Pro Tools, Reason, and Peak. Over the course of the intermediate and advanced audio-production session, students collaborate to produce CDs, which are printed in-house and sold by the students. The DJ Project even acts as a talent agency of sorts, lining up performances and DJ gigs for students at high schools across the city, as well as at private parties and other events.

But administrators at the DJ Project aim to do more than simply teach music skills. It is, in effect, a vocational program -- an artistic one, but a vocational program nonetheless. Administrators and instructors believe students should graduate thinking of themselves not just as artists but as entrepreneurs as well. Students "are trained in marketing, promotions, advertising, event production, and business and nonprofit management," says Program Director Celina Lucero.

Lucero adds that commercial-radio personalities, entertainment lawyers, and music producers visit the classes to talk about the music business. Students learn how to make press kits, stage a photo shoot, design and print CD art, and press and sell CDs. They also learn, according to one teacher, that the ability to "hustle like anything" is a crucial step in achieving their dreams.

"I try to make it clear that if this is something they want to do, they have to check other facts about their lives," says DJ Quest, who presides over four turntable sets in the program's DJ-ing class. "Students have to really be looking into the future, as opposed to just coming into class and playing around for a while. It just comes down to what they want to get out of it."

Of course, wanting and hustling can only get you so far. The road to fame and fortune as a rap musician or a DJ can be as pitted with disappointment as that of a prospective NBA star or a would-be astronaut. But according to its funders, the DJ Project succeeds. It gives students a safe, supervised, and productive place to spend their afternoons. And, according to Lucero, those factors alone help prevent drug use. But by nurturing such tough dreams, does the program set its students up for failure?

No, says Quest. A native of San Francisco's Mission district -- "the hairy part of the Mission," he adds -- he grew up in a neighborhood notorious for gang violence, and he credits music with keeping him safe and out of trouble. "It was always the thing I wanted to do -- ever since I was five or six years old,” Quest says. “It was always all about music."

He knows not all of his students will have the passion he did, or the attention span to stick with it. But he does believe his students can transfer to other aspects of their lives the dedication and focus they learn through the program. In other words, concentration is a talent, whether you learn it in English class or while scratching records on a turntable.

Quest and others at the DJ Project are also quick to correct the perception that a career in the hip-hop industry is nothing but a pipe dream. "It's a much larger industry than what they see out there," he says. Embedded in the DJ Project is the belief that the music industry is wide and varied enough to absorb much of the talent coming out of places like this.

All kinds of events need DJs, says Quest, and the industry itself needs not only performers but also graphic designers, marketing specialists, producers, event planners, and technicians. Students shouldn't expect to get rich doing this, but it is possible to get by doing something you love, just as Quest has.

And, every once in a while, he says, one special kid comes along who both loves what he or she is doing and has the talent to learn "in two weeks what it takes other kids to learn in a year."

As Quest puts it, "If you have that, and you have the heart for it, there are no boundaries."

Amy Standen is a former contributing editor to She reports on science and the environment for KQED-FM, in San Francisco.

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