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DJ Purple, Emperor of Karaoke 

Wednesday, Apr 29 2015
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"DJ is not available to answer questions. Please refer to the instructions posted."

That's the sign that barricades DJ Purple from the crowd on Thursday nights at Slate, and while it seems like a pre-emptive brush-off from a self-important nightlife impresario, it's actually in the service of fun.

"I try to be, but I'm not really very friendly in the DJ booth," DJ Purple told me at 7:30 the following morning. "I'm not very flexible."

Typically when people are done singing karaoke, they fumble with the microphone during the outro, hesitating about when to get off the stage. When the music finally stops, the host barks out the next name, and a minute of dead air elapses before another jam starts up. Not so at DJ Purple's Dance Karaoke, where the flow is never interrupted. It's about optimization (at four minutes per song, you might wait two hours if there are 30 people signed up), but it's also about the energy.

"The difference between a jukebox and a DJ is the transitions, the reason why people aren't dancing like mad to a jukebox is the whole energy drop," DJ Purple said.

That's not to say people won't cheer for a flawless Billy Corgan impression on "1979," mumbled motionlessness and all. They do. But the first few notes of Prince's "I Would Die 4 U" positively ignite the room. Best of all are songs that give DJ Purple — born Steve Hays, nicknamed Purple Hays in high school — the opportunity to wail on his sax during the middle eight. Think Hall and Oates, or Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters" (possibly DJ Purple's finest hour). He also plays the harmonica, the kazoo, and the cowbell, holdovers from his days as a one-man '80s cover band.

I ask about what he calls the "hipster-pop convergence," where people who would never listen to a song like "Semi-Charmed Life" go bananas when someone sings it onstage. He has a ratings system for how a given night crescendos, starting with people talking over the music and proceeding up to a dancefloor full of bodies.

"There's actually a level beyond that, a Spinal Tap level 11," he said. "That's when everyone's jumping up and down. I found that as a DJ and I've definitely seen that at karaoke. It's something you can do to express your enthusiasm."

The best thing about DJ Purple's shows is that hands-in-pockets renditions of "My Way" are scarce and the song from Frozen is unheard of. People perform because they can genuinely sing, not because they got drunk enough to overcome their fears. There is no membrane between performer and audience, because everyone performs. No other night in San Francisco is quite like this.

After 13 years, he admits he's a little bored with "Livin' on a Prayer," but tries not to get hung up on it. Does anything still blow his mind?

"That happens pretty often," he said. And good thing, too: "We're offering this amazing free entertainment and trying to make money off the booze."

Karaoke City

Mel-o-dee Karaoke: 'Gem of the East Bay'

Come Sing for Mama

The Mint: All Karaoke, All the Time

Monday Night Karaoke in Japantown's Hostess Bars

Ballads Are a No-No

Karaoke Kounterpoint: You are hereby found guilty of crimes against humility.


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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