DJ Purple is the best thing to happen to karaoke since amplified sound. Using a couple of simple tactics, he makes karaoke an inclusive high-energy dance party rather than an exclusive low-energy singing competition. He packs bar rooms full of people ready to sing and dance, he plays nothing but upbeat songs, he flies from one song right into the next — no waiting — and he shreds on the occasional sax solo. Not surprisingly, he was recently named Best DJ in San Francisco in SF Weekly’s Best of San Francisco Readers’ Poll.
DJ Purple appears every Thursday evening at Jack’s on 24th Street, but tonight (and every fourth Monday) he brings his very unique show to the big stage at the Make-Out Room (beware those $3 Bacardi specials and
$7 PBR pitchers.) This month’s theme? Hot summer songs! Prepare to get nasty, everybody. (RSVP and invite your friends here.)
Mission Mission: What was your first ever experience with karaoke?
There was this karaoke show in Menlo Park at the British Banker’s Club around 2002 that had a bunch of key factors that definitely inspired me. The guy that ran it would play dance music in between the karaoke singers. That was a key aspect of his success. He was working for a karaoke organization but he took their songbook and went through it and threw out like most of the slow songs. He still had some, but his solution to that was, somebody would turn in a song and he’d look at it and as soon as the person would walk away he would just throw it on the ground, like “Not gonna happen.” He would do whatever it took to make sure people were dancing and it was fun and high energy. And it worked. People were lining up around the block.
But you don’t play dance music between singers. You just play upbeat songs nonstop, so the dancing never stops and the singing never stops either. How’d you come up with that?
Most people that bill themselves as a “karaoke dance party” will play dance music in between the singers, and it has a really alienating effect on the singers because you have to wait twice as long — at least. The karaoke singers are complaining about the dance music, and the people who wanna dance are complaining about the karaoke, so the karaoke singers start going to places where they can sing more. So then you only have bad singers and they play more dance music and even less karaoke. Eventually it becomes a DJ night. That’s one of the things that inspired me to create a songbook that only has the higher energy songs in it. You solve that issue of people seeing a song like “My Way” and being like, “Oh, I wanna sing ‘My Way’.” Unless they’re actual DJs, most people don’t think about how this is going to effect the place and the crowd. If it’s not there in the songbook, that’s the solution.
Well, actually I did find a kind of slow song in your songbook. “Breakdown” by Tom Petty. What’s that doing in there?
I actually do have even slower than that. I have a few songs in my book that actually are slow songs, and those few have been trial and error — tested. For some reason, people stay engaged and pay attention. “No slow songs” is sort of a short hand. What it really means is, whatever keeps people in the room, whatever keeps the business going.
And there are always people in the room at Jack’s. How do you feel about that place?
There’s a lot of magic about Jack’s. Number one is the neighborhood. The scene at Jack’s on average is way better than any of my other shows. Except the Make-Out Room. The Make-Out Room is probably the ultimate right now. But there’s something about the intimacy at Jack’s. The Make-Out Room is this big show, it’s incredible, and I’m excited about it, but in some ways it’s nicer to relax and be down there on the floor with everybody at Jack’s.
It’s true, the Make-Out Room is big. It’s kind of intimidating. I haven’t been able to muster the courage to get up on that big stage.
Picking the right song is the key thing there… My sense is that you like to sort to experiment?
Yeah, I guess.
I’m that way too. I like to stretch my range so to speak, which leads to me doing songs that pretty often end up sounding terrible.
My problem with your parties are that it’s so fun, I end up screaming along to everybody else’s songs for hours, at which point my vocal cords are shredded and I can’t hit the notes I might ordinarily be able to.
It’s like drinking. Just gotta monitor yourself.
Easier said than done. How has the scene at Jack’s changed in the five or so years since you started there?
Well, it’s gotten better, but in some ways it’s just the same. It’s always been pretty good. Kinda goes through some ups and downs. Phases where for a while you’ll get a really tight knit social group, and then people move on. Sometimes we’ll have a lot of new people and strangers — not as cohesive. But yeah, the creativity of the people in this area is really fun.
So here’s the big question… How do you feel about being named “Best DJ in San Francisco”?
I’m really excited about that. Previously, Jack’s was named “Best Karaoke in San Francisco,” and after that happened I thought, “Wow, where do I go from here?” This whole “Best DJ” thing kind of feels like, first like an acknowledgement that I’m doing something different than what people’s normal idea of karaoke is. And also a recognition that what’s different about it has a lot in common with DJing. One of the metaphors I’ve been thinking about is the difference between a jukebox and a DJ. Witha jukebox, people go and randomly sign up for songs, and they get played in the order they were signed up for. That’s like normal karaoke. Whereas with a DJ, there’s this whole artistry to it — how the songs are related to each other and woven together and presented. And that’s what I’m doing. I think that’s one of the main reasons why my show is so different than regular karaoke. A lot of people say, “Oh it’s really cool, he has a saxophone.” I often think the saxophone is kind of a novelty. It’s very obvious, and something to latch onto, but to me in terms of what really makes the experience that I’m creating so much more valuable, the saxophone is kind of a bonus, but it’s not integral.
But back to the award. Winning “Best Karaoke” when there’s maybe 15 karaoke places in the area versus winning “Best DJ” when there’s I would guess hundreds of DJs — I thought that was pretty cool.
Okay, but we still have to talk about the sax. What’s up with the sax?
That goes back to my roots. I played in bands my whole life pretty much, and right around the end of the ‘90s, I started a one-man band, where I was recording and programming drums and bass and extra parts, and I was occasionally playing sax, mostly playing guitar and singing, and a little bit of keyboards. I was doing this at house parties, trying to figure out how to market it, do it in clubs, get paid for it. I would play music while I was taking a break, so I started collecting good music, and I did a party where I was one of the bands, and the guy at the party asked me to play the music that I had in between the other bands as well , and when I was doing that, somebody heard what I was doing, and hired me as a DJ for their “website launch party” back when websites were launching. That was my first gig as a DJ. I brought my one-man band along, and they hired me to do a regular weekly show there after that on Saturday nights. Every week, I would bring the whole one-man band, but the audience wasn’t really responding to that. It was so much easier to just sit there as a DJ and play other people’s music. Occasionally though I would play the saxophone along with the stuff I was DJing, and through that whole process came the idea that I always have the saxophone with me.
Speaking of the internet, I heard a song on the internet recently called “Be My Concubine” by DJ Purple.
How’d you find that!?
It’s on your MySpace page.
Oh! I forgot about that!
Yeah, I think most people have forgotten about MySpace by now. Are you doing anything with original material these days?
I have about three or four songs that I’ve written in my life that I really feel pretty good about. It would be nice to brush them up. The song I’m most proud of was recorded with a group I was in around high school. It was called “Rollin’ Nowhere.” We recorded a full rock-band version of it. We called ourselves the Italian Suggestions, based on a menu section. It came out sounding pretty good. I sang one of my own songs at one of my shows very early on. It was a little bit of a novelty — and a little bit of an ego trip.
[Photos by Mike Chino, Jess Kelso and Vic Wong.]