DJ Johnny Johnson knows
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.