Kids Stuff



DJ Johnny Johnson knows that
working a teen club floor is anything but

By Elisabeth Gibbons

DJ Johnny Johnson had to be a DJ with a name like that. Hailing from Point Loma, the downtown area of San Diego, Johnny Johnson has been DJing since 1986, and spent a good chunk of that time spinning for an audience that can’t get into almost any of the clubs we feature in this magazine. For years, Johnson has played San Diego’s teen club circuit, one of the only teen club DJs in the area. He’s played places like Stratus, Distillery East, After Dark, and Club Tronics, bringing the younger masses his mix of new wave, British electronica, house, trance, R&B, and hip-hop.
Tutored in the art of spinning by another San Diego favorite, DJ Kool T, Johnson has been described by friends and colleagues as “a great guy” and “a phenomenal DJ.” He currently plays regularly at East Street Alley and On Broadway, or as Johnson describes them, two of “the biggest and nicest dance clubs in San Diego.” His musical stylings run the gamut from ’70s and ’80s classics to today’s house. And though you won’t find any teeny-boppers at the bars in these establishments, Johnson attributes his DJ skills and reputation to his beginnings and experiences working for teen clubs.
Johnny Johnson took some time out to speak with us about what teens expect from their clubs and their DJs. As one of the few jocks bold enough to declare “the teen style” his specialty, his opinions might surprise you.

How did you get started working in teen clubs?
The funny thing was that it fell in my lap. I wasn’t even planning on being a DJ. When I was about 17, a senior in high school, I was going to a teen club called Stratus. The DJs at Stratus were playing good music, but there were a lot of good songs that they weren’t playing. I talked to Sam Baris, the owner, and I told him what I thought. He then made me an offer: If I would make him a list of good songs that weren’t being played about every two weeks, that he’d let me in for free whenever I went to the club.
Within about four months of that the DJ quit to go to school or something, and they brought in another DJ who needed a little guidance on what music to play for that night of the party. I was made an offer to be taught how to DJ, by DJ Kool T [Terry Spiers], and in turn I would council their new DJ on the music. I could get my friends in for free and get paid $20 to spin the first hour of the night.

What does a teen club crowd consist of? How does it fluctuate, if at all?
There’s always a core crowd that really want to dress up and look cool, really into the fashion. I think with the influence of MTV, everybody is trying to look like a rock star, especially in the younger market.
I always see a change [in the crowd] when school starts back into session. You see a lot of new faces in September. The only other time I see a big change is right after Spring Break, around March. You can actually see new people coming in. You have to figure that there are people that are becoming legal age, and I think it’s when people are turning legal age you see a lot of new faces. It keeps the party fresh, but it has its hits and misses. You also have a lot of inexperienced kids coming in for the first time. The size of the club, the crowd, the sound and lighting systems – it’s quite a few steps up from going to a high school dance! Sometimes I think people are a little bit overwhelmed at first, but after a while everyone is comfortable.

How is a teen audience different from an older crowd?
I think the teen market is more vocal and responsive to what you play. If you pull your mix really clean and hit the post, they’ll scream. They’re much more interactive, especially if you’re talented, clean, and effective on the mic. They can be very vocal and receptive. Interacting with the audience is important, but it’s something you don’t want to do too much of. I’ve heard way too many DJs and MCs that are on the mic way too much. I think you need to be very selective as to when, and how many times, you’re going to be on the mic. If you overdo it, they’ll get annoyed.
In terms of music, they definitely want to hear what’s “hot.” It’s always good to throw in a couple of short sets of recurrent music from in the realm of five to eight years prior – a hot song from ’97 or ’98 is a good recurrent song to throw in for 2002.

What kind of music do teens want to hear?
It’s very important to be up on new music when you’re playing for the teen market, and also to play the club anthems that people expect a DJ to play. The last teen club I worked at was more [musically focused on] R&B and hip-hop, but house and trance was very important too. The ideal situation for a teen club is to have two rooms, so that you’re able to have two different areas with those two different styles of music. Both styles are very necessary in a teen club.

Can a DJ afford to be experimental with what he plays to a teen audience?
The DJ has to have taste. You have to have a good idea of what people like, and feed them new music, different styles of music, in bits and pieces. Do not try to force feed something that might not work. If you don’t think something is going to work, it’s probably not. I think it was around 1998 or 1999 that people were asking me for jungle. I experimented with a style of jungle called jump-up jungle, which had elements of hip hop and R&B in the music, and it didn’t work as well as I thought, but I still gave them stuff that was recognizable. They have to be able to relate to it.

How important is lighting in a teen club setting?
Lighting and visuals are very important, absolutely. Young adults are influenced by what they see on MTV, and they want the best. They want intelligent lighting and lasers. Whether it be the lighting, the sound, the music – it does have to be top-notch, or they’ll go somewhere else.


What types of events at the club work well for a teen audience?
A couple of times we hosted dance contests in conjunction with MTV. The prize was a chance to be on MTV’s “The Grind,” so we would get incredible talent, and the turnout would be just really over the top. We would get so many people that we couldn’t let everybody in. The one thing to remember is that you have to regulate them so they don’t get out of hand – no showing off the goods! And keep the dance contests under 30 minutes, the longer it goes it drags and becomes a big headache for everybody. When you have a track act in town, do what you can with the radio stations to get these guys into the clubs too, and keep those concerts under 45 minutes. Do giveaways, but remember that you really only rely on your cover charge in teen clubs.

What advice would you give to club owners who want to open a teen club or host a teen night?
It’s important to have good working relationships with the local high schools. Do little shows, lunchtime parties, here and there at the high schools in your area. It’s an excellent means of promotion. And do those shows for free. Schools will then usually let you pass out our flyers. All the teen clubs I work at that are successful also did radio promotion. The radio
promotion is definitely critical, during after-school hours on the radio.

Do you see the teen club market on the rise?
Yes. I do see it on the rise, but I don’t see nearly enough clubs for the amount of teens that are in the major cities. Every city should have at least three or four. It’s going to keep the kids from going to the house parties where there’s no security and not much supervision. When you’re in a teen club, you have to have security, authority, and it’s a safe environment.

So is the teen market a viable one for DJs?
I think it is. The DJ, however, has to put forth a lot more work on staying up on the music, and it’s very challenging. Young people are more critical of DJs and music than an older crowd. If you’re not on the cutting edge musically, the clientele is going to let you know and go somewhere else.
You really have to be a skilled DJ, as far as the technical aspect is concerned. When you’re working in the adult clubs, you
can tone it down a bit. And even when you tone it down, as far as mixing or mic skills, you’ll be working very well. When you’re working in the teen clubs you have to really be on it, especially when it comes to your mixing or the groups of songs you play. Regular nightclubs are more relaxed in that respect because of alcohol and people tend to socialize more. There’s less of a focus on what the DJ is really doing. With a teen audience, all eyes are on you.
It’s not a good market for new DJs. If you don’t have experience or a good teacher, it can be very frustrating, because the audience is so demanding. DJ at house parties or small school dances: After you’ve got experience doing those take a stab at a teen club.


Copyright 2002 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2002 TESTA Communications