Philly students explore the art of DJing through school district program

The DJ program provides students from the School District of Philadelphia with professional-grade equipment and the opportunity to learn and enhance their skills.

Christian Harrison talks to DJ Matthew Law

Hill-Freedman World Academy graduate Christian Harrison (right) talks to his mentor through the JG SkyHigh Program Philadelphia DJ Matthew Law. (School District of Philadelphia)

This story originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune.

When Christian Harrison first found out that Hill-Freedman World Academy would be one of the pilot schools for the School District of Philadelphia’s DJ program several years ago, he didn’t hesitate to sign up for it.

“I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of it,” Harrison said. “I thought a program like this would help enhance my own music skills.

“Since being in the program, I learned how to break down songs, how to gauge the audience for what songs to play and how to transition seamlessly from song to song,” he added. “I also learned how to make the experience enjoyable for anybody that was listening to the music.”

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Harrison, 18, started DJing at 12-years-old. Known as DJ Blacx Rose, he is a 2021 graduate of Hill-Freedman.

“My mom would travel for work a lot, so I spent a lot of time at my uncle’s house,” Harrison said. “He had turntables in his basement, so I started getting interested in DJing and it became something I really enjoyed.

“I’m naturally a musician, I’ve been playing instruments since three years old,” he added. “I play the drums, bass and the keys. Music is my thing; it’s always been my passion.”

Launched in 2019, as a pilot program at Hill-Freedman and Strawberry Mansion High School, the DJ program provides students from the School District of Philadelphia with professional grade DJ equipment and the opportunity to learn and enhance their skills from the city’s community of professional DJs.

The district launched the initiative in an effort to deepen the connection between music education and the city’s robust community of musical artists.

Some of the musical artists that have been involved with the program include DJ Active, DJ Matthew Law, DJ Cool Out and DJ Top Choice.

“In the schools, where the program is more structured, we’re looking at weekly instruction that includes introduction and the development of skills,” said School District of Philadelphia director of music education Frank Machos.

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“We’re teaching students how to use the DJ controller, what does the software entail and how to load tracks and set up cue points,” he said. “The students will probably spend a semester learning about all aspects of DJing.

“We’re also creating opportunities for mentors to connect with them and then create platforms to showcase what they’ve done in a real world setting,” he added,

This school year, the program will be brought to the Philadelphia High School for Girls, Academy at Palumbo, Joseph W. Catharine Elementary School and Bache Martin Elementary School.

Bartram High School will be expanding the program to a full class set this school year and Frankford High School will be adding additional stations of the program to their school.

In addition to Hill-Freedman and Strawberry Mansion, other district schools that have been a part of the DJ program include Edison High School, C.W. Henry Elementary School, South Philadelphia High School and Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School.

“One of our priorities right now is to align our alumni with professional working DJs from their alma maters,” Machos said.

“We’re looking at the professional DJ scene and where we could pull some of those folks and then reach out to their school, just like we did with George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science and the Carver records piece,” he said.

“We just really want our students to be incredibly well connected with the Philadelphia music landscape,” he added. “Philly is such a rich music city. We want to continue to honor the city’s legacy and history through this program.”

Despite the success of the DJ program, Machos said the district is still finding ways to make the program better.

“We’re working with our partners to develop the curriculum and infrastructure so that it will be easier for teachers to bring the program into the classroom,” Machos said.

“That way, if teachers have students who want to DJ we’ll already have a set curriculum, equipment list and all of those materials and resources available,” he said.

“We also want to connect the network of professional DJ teaching artists that are available to come in and work with them for their own professional development that will lead to the teachers working directly with their students,” he added.

Since graduating from Hill-Freedman, Harrison has continued to strengthen his skills as a local producer, drummer, and performance DJ. He has also been in a couple of bands.

He is currently a freshman at Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a performance major in drums and bass with a minor in music technology.

Harrison said he has learned a lot since being in the school district’s DJ program.

“The program has given me an outlet to meet other people, specifically people who are in this field,” Harrison said. “I was able to network, sharpen my skills and gain more experience and exposure.

“It’s an overall great program,” he added. “I would encourage students who have the program at their school to take full advantage of this opportunity.”

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