Positive Spin

In the four years he worked for marketing powerhouse KBA, Jon Hardman got to spend a lot of time in dance clubs, setting up gigs and tours that doubled as promotional opportunities for Camel cigarettes. But Hardman–who’d previously worked as a publicist at Metro–was tired of using music to promote other products and longed to get back to promoting music itself. So in 2001, when he was offered a job working for the Red Bull Music Academy, he leaped at the chance. Since 1998 the program, sponsored by the energy drink, has brought together aspiring dance-music DJs and producers for an annual two-week workshop led by their idols. That year the event–and the planning–took place in New York, but when it was over, Hardman returned to Chicago with a decision to make. “I had to choose between returning to the corporate world or finding a job where I could be involved with music in a purer sense,” he says.

In New York the academy’s five-person staff had shared office space with War Child USA, the American branch of a British organization started to provide relief and opportunities for kids in war-torn countries. They’d been doing some work with local kids in youth detention centers, and one of their volunteers suggested to Hardman that Red Bull bring in DJs to instruct these troubled youngsters. “At the time our plates were full handling all of the details of the Red Bull Music Academy,” he says. “But I thought it was a great idea and I kept it at the back of my mind, and when I was in between jobs it seemed like something that Chicago could definitely support.”

By this past April he’d put together a plan, assembled a nine-member board of directors–including Metro owner Joe Shanahan, Aphex Twin booking agent Tom Windish, DJ and Gramaphone Records buyer Josh Werner, and banker Nick Ventresca–and launched Hit the Decks, a nonprofit intended to teach underprivileged teens the art of the DJ.

The organization plans to start locally, setting up permanent installations at the Night Ministry’s Open Door Youth homeless shelter and three locations of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago. Each place will be outfitted with a DJ booth, two turntables, a mixer, and an assortment of hip-hop, house, and techno records. Some of the city’s busiest DJs, including Mark Grant and Jesse de la Pena, will lead six-week classes for two to four students each; Hit the Decks is hoping to line up as many as 40 teachers. At the completion of each course the students will have the option of extending their training in weekly mentoring sessions with other DJs. They’ll also be allowed to practice on the equipment when it’s not being used for classes.

“We immediately thought it was a great partnership,” says Andrea Hynes, marketing director for the Boys & Girls Clubs. “It allows our teens the opportunity to express themselves creatively and gives them an opportunity to learn a new skill and cultivate a sense of confidence, to do something well.” Staffers from her organization will prep the DJs before classes begin. “A lot of the volunteers don’t have much experience working with kids, so we try to set some realistic expectations and give them tools to relate to kids, to help them figure out what they can do to cultivate relationships and help the kids get over the initial fear that comes from meeting someone new.”

Hardman, who doesn’t yet draw a salary as executive director of Hit the Decks, hopes to expand the program to a dozen cities by 2005, including New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Atlanta. The projected budget for the first year is $30,000–the bulk of which is earmarked for equipment and administrative expenses–and $4,000 of that amount has already been donated by Rock for Kids, a local nonprofit whose programs include music education for homeless children. Once the program is under way, Hardman says they’ll make a promotional video to try to attract corporate sponsorship. In the meantime they’ve organized an October 3 benefit at Metro and Smart Bar, where DJs from four local dance-music presenters–Pure, Spundae, Smart Bar, and Music 101–will spin. Tickets are $20; Hardman hopes proceeds will cover 60 percent of this year’s budget.

“After-school programs like this are important because more kids become victims of violent crimes or get involved in substance abuse during the after-school hours than at any other time,” says Hynes. And for Hardman, DJing’s a good choice because it’s so accessible. “I know what music has done for me emotionally,” he says. “It doesn’t take much to learn the basics of being a DJ. There’s an instant gratification that one can’t get if you’re trying to learn how to play the trumpet.”

For more information visit www.hitthedecks.org.


Eternals front man and sometime Reader illustrator Damon Locks has a joint art exhibition with painter Derrick Buisch at Red Rocket Gallery, 1858 W. Cullerton, second floor. Locks, who specializes in linoleum printmaking, has done cover art for albums by the Dismemberment Plan, At the Drive In, Abilene, A Grape Dope, and the Dishes as well as his own group; the show includes more than a dozen prints and pen-and-ink drawings that were used as elements in various album covers, as well as some gig posters and finished album art. It opens September 26 and runs for a month; there’s a reception at 8 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.