Dancing, and singing, the night away

Karaoke master DJ Purple helps people discover the rock star within

The large main room of The Patio bar in Palo Alto is flooded with a deep blue light -- frequently punctuated by bursts of bright white, yellow, orange and red, pulsating from a rotating disco light, which sends colorful beams every which way and seems to respond to the thumping of the hip-hop beat blaring over the PA system. A smoke machine periodically shoots a puff of fog up into the air by the DJ booth.

The room is abuzz with anticipation as a man wearing a tucked-in work shirt and jeans grabs hold of the microphone. He appears old enough to be the grandfather of most everyone in the crowd, which is composed of mostly young professional types. Those who come regularly to the weekly event know the man as Rapper John and are excited because they know what is about to happen.

The DJ, who has been looping the same few bars of the song over and over in order to give the man a chance to get set, lets the track fly, and Rapper John breaks into his own, unquestionably unique, version of "Wobble" -- a bawdy and energetic tune about dirty dancing by Atlanta-based rapper V.I.C.

The crowd goes wild. They whoop, holler, and those who know it, perform the line dance associated with the song while the man of the moment delivers lines like "Hey, big girl! Make 'em back it up." This is not your typical karaoke show. And it was never supposed to be.

"I'm trying to basically blaze a new trail here," says Steve Hays, a Redwood City resident better known as DJ Purple, who has been working for the better part of 14 years honing his "dance karaoke" show. "My goal is to have people dancing and singing -- ideally, the whole time."

Judging from a visit to his regular Wednesday night show at The Patio, he is well on his way toward that goal. Over the course of the night, more patrons trickle into the bar, many of them coming specifically for DJ Purple. According to the bouncer on duty that night, Hays' show pulls in more patrons than any other karaoke DJ the bar books "by a long shot."

Daniel Rozeboom and his friends comprise a group that has come specifically for Hays. A Palo Alto resident, Rozeboom says he first happened upon a DJ Purple show a few years ago, when Hays was regularly performing at the recently shuttered Rudy's.

Though he'd sung karaoke a few times before, Rozeboom says he wasn't really into the activity -- in part because it made him nervous to get up in front of a crowd and perform. These days, he still gets nervous but not like he used to in the beginning.

"It's actually been a great confidence builder," Rozeboom says of performing with DJ Purple.

That Rozeboom now considers singing karaoke a hobby has a lot to do with the level of energy Hays puts into his work. Rozeboom notes that while other DJs are content to sit back and hit play on the next song, Hays is "extremely involved in every song."

Hays came to the Peninsula from New Jersey in the '80s to pursue an undergraduate degree at Stanford University. Although he was a capable student -- he says he earned high marks in high school and that he turned down an acceptance letter from Harvard University -- ultimately Hays gave up on his studies so he could pursue a career in music.

At the time, Hays played in a number of dance-music cover bands -- some of which were well-known in certain circles of Stanford students, he says. Back when he dropped out of Stanford, Hays says he was thinking he'd continue playing live music in bands. His instruments include saxophone, keyboard and guitar among others. However, as time passed, he started playing solo shows, using samplers and laptops as his backing band, and before long, he had mostly abandoned live instrumentation in favor of mixing dance music at parties, bars and clubs.

Though it's been more than a decade since Hays played regularly with a band, the lessons he learned while performing with other musicians on stage have greatly informed the work he does as DJ Purple. Hays frequently plays saxophone or harmonica during songs to spice up a musical interlude or give a certain passage more punch. He will sometimes sing backup harmonies. And he has even been known to reach out to regulars via Facebook to suggest a song he thinks they'd be good at or to give pointers on microphone and singing technique.

Understanding this, it starts to make sense that Rozeboom has found greater confidence through his performances at DJ Purple shows.

Hays knows firsthand how hard it is to manage a band, book shows, rehearse and then tear down all the heavy equipment after playing a high-energy set. He is also familiar with how amazing it feels to rock a crowd. The way he sees it, DJ Purple provides a service to people -- allowing them to feel like rock stars for a night, without all the work it takes to actually become a rock star.

"The idea with karaoke is you can have this small taste of being a star," Hays says. "I'm trying to set it up so people can just walk down on a Wednesday night and get to be the lead singer in a band, and keep their day jobs. That's what motivates me to make my show as much like a great rock or pop concert would be."

In addition to providing backup singing and instrumentation, Hays keeps the party alive by carefully curating his song book. A few years ago, Hays went through all 3,000 plus songs in his catalog and performed a thought experiment with each one.

"I envisioned playing that song at each of my venues and visualized how people would respond to it based on my memory and experience and intuition. In my mind, do I see people leaving the floor?"

It took him more than a year to complete, but, he says, the proof is in the pudding.

"The song book is really the No. 1 thing," Hays says.

DJ Purple now has two regular San Francisco shows on Thursday and Friday nights in addition to his regular Wednesday gig at The Patio.

His following -- and the length his following is willing to go to see his shows -- is also a testament to what Hays has created. Rapper John -- or John Dunne, as he is known to his friends -- regularly comes to Palo Alto from his home in San Lorenzo just to perform classic hip-hop party songs, like "Rappers Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang or "Baby Got Back" by Sir Mix A Lot.

"I've never seen anybody run karaoke like that," Dunne says of DJ Purple. "To me, he's the best around."

It would seem that others share Dunne's assessment of Hays' show. As midnight draws near, two young women who had come inside to get a load of the action begin considering the DJ Purple songbook. When asked whether they plan to sing a song, they smile broadly. They're thinking about it, they say.

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