Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sister of Soul: DJ and Alumna Melissa Weber, New Orleans’ Rarest Queen of Groove, Brings the Funk for More than Two Decades

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By REBECCA CATALANELLO

The coolest woman in New Orleans doesn’t shout. When you hear her on the radio, her voice is low, steady and unassuming.

WWOZ-FM New Orleans,” she says quietly as the clock turns 8 p.m. on Saturday night. “It’s time for Soul Power with the Soul Sister. Look out.”

Then she turns the mic over to a woman better known for her exclamation points.

“Hey! Ugh!” screams Tina Turner over a rolling bass and scratchy guitar. “Things and stuff and stuff and things and, and stuff. Grease me!”

DJ Soul Sister borrowed her on-air name from this wailing, hip-tossing, funkified 1969 release by Ike and Tina Turner. Yet, each week for the last 20 years, Soul Sister—aka Melissa Weber—has spent her Saturday nights in a solitary radio studio, saying little as she sends the rarest of 1970s and 1980s vinyl funk, rare groove, disco and R&B spinning across the airwaves to listeners from New Orleans to Europe to Asia.

In a city crowded with musicians and music aficionados, Weber, a 2000 University of New Orleans alumna, has become perhaps the most celebrated DJ in New Orleans thanks largely to her reverent devotion to a genre of music that she believes has gotten short shrift in a landscape that otherwise thrives on live music.

What started as a childhood fascination with her father’s records quickly developed into a teenage obsession that had her combing garage sales every Saturday in search of for vinyl castoffs, soliciting her friends’ parents for their forgotten old record collections and, at 18 or 19, dashing off into flooded streets one rainy New Orleans afternoon to buy a starter DJ mixer kit from Odyssey Records.

Weber has been seeking and buying rare records since childhood and estimates her collection easily numbers in the thousands today. She sometimes travels to other cities hoping to discover new vinyl grooves and artists. The record she says started it all was Kool and the Gang’s 1972 “Music is the Message,” which her father bought her when she was in grade school.Weber has been seeking and buying rare records since childhood and estimates her collection easily numbers in the thousands today. She sometimes travels to other cities hoping to discover new vinyl grooves and artists. The record she says started it all was Kool and the Gang’s 1972 “Music is the Message,” which her father bought her when she was in grade school.

Now at age 40, she’s become a local one-woman dance party icon, once nicknamed by a listener as the “Queen of Rare Groove,” a sobriquet that stuck. For three years straight, Weber’s popularity made her a draw at Essence Fest’s main stage before 20,000 people at the Superdome, raising her profile as an underground artist, but, more importantly in her book: raising appreciation for the lesser-known tunes and artists of soul, funk and R&B.

“As long as the sound is right, nothing else matters,” she says, describing what it was like to play on such a large stage after years of more intimate settings. “When I get in the zone, I’m literally in my head with the records, so what happens outside of me, I have no control of that. It’s none of my business. All I can control is the energy that I’m putting out through the music and hoping people dig it – and I’m kind of inspiring people to dig it as well.”

Each Saturday, Weber stuffs roughly 400 records into canvas, leather and metal cases, trucks them to WWOZ for her two-hour show, then darts to the nearby Hi Ho Lounge on St. Claude Ave. for her popular Hustle Party, a late-night dance party she’s been hosting since it started at the now-defunct Leo’s in the Bywater in the early 2000s. In 2004, Hustle became a weekly tradition that lasted a decade at Mimi’s in the Marigny until moving to Hi Ho.

Her work has won her honors like seven “Best DJ” awards from OffBeat Magazine’s Best of the Beat awards, the most recent this January. In 2009, she became the first person to win the Big Easy Award for the "Best DJ/Electronica.” And though DJ Soul sister is a name—a brand—that that clubs promote and people flock to, there is little about Melissa Weber’s public personality that isn’t directly tied to the music she plays.

“She’s not necessarily about self-promotion,” says Keith Spera, longtime New Orleans music critic who now writes for The New Orleans Advocate. “She’s about promoting the music that other people make. But the way that she presents it is what her art is.”

It’s true: For Weber, it is undeniably an art form.

When she walks into the Hi Ho each weekend, she doesn’t just get on the stage and start spinning records. Weber has a recipe—one that she hopes will help people relax into the groove and appreciate the sounds of the artists she’s dug up from forgotten record crates.

She instructs the staff to dim the house lights and raise the red lights. She provides the bartender with a DVD of old 1970s “Electric Company” PBS footage for the bar TVs. Because, really, who can be transported by the sounds of The Dynamic Soul Superiors or Trouble Funk when the overhead visuals are of a sports show and a cheesy, triple layer hamburger close-up?

She takes to the darkened stage with a flashlight and two turntables, each cushioned to prevent skipping. She places her traveling album cases on metal chairs and runs her hands over the records, familiarizing herself with what is where.

What started as a childhood fascination with her father’s records quickly developed into a teenage obsession that had Weber combing garage sales every Saturday in search of for vinyl castoffs, soliciting her friends’ parents for their forgotten old record collections and, at 18 or 19, dashing off into flooded streets one rainy New Orleans afternoon to buy a starter DJ mixer kit from Odyssey Records. Now at age 40, she’s become a local one-woman dance party icon.What started as a childhood fascination with her father’s records quickly developed into a teenage obsession that had Weber combing garage sales every Saturday in search of for vinyl castoffs, soliciting her friends’ parents for their forgotten old record collections and, at 18 or 19, dashing off into flooded streets one rainy New Orleans afternoon to buy a starter DJ mixer kit from Odyssey Records. Now at age 40, she’s become a local one-woman dance party icon.

Just before 11 p.m., she sits back down at the bar, bows her head over a Ketel Citron and soda water, prays the Lord’s Prayer and asks for a safe space and for happy, positive energy to flow from her body to her ears and translate out through the music she selects. She doesn’t want anyone leaving her party (and she does call it “my party”) feeling harassed, heckled or hated.

As she takes the stage and drops her first record, heads start to bob.

Incense crowds out the odors of butter beans and tortillas served off the bar’s appetizer menu.

Patrons—who  on this night in December happen to quietly include Beyoncé, Jay Z and Beyoncé’s sister, Solange Knowles, a New Orleans resident, and husband Alan Ferguson—amble through the door. By midnight, a trickle has swelled to a crowd of moving bodies. All ages, all skin colors. Heels and flip-flops. Hairdos and hair-don’ts.

None are watching her. They are listening and grooving. And Weber is too. They can barely see her. She almost never sees them.

How Weber found herself on this stage and in the WWOZ studio sharing her always expanding collection of vinyl is one of the truest stories of a person following their passion.

As a six- or seven-year-old she started taking possession of her father’s and cousins’ records, unhappy to see them left out of their protective sleeves or, on occasion, used as coasters. So, in her room, she’d adopt James Brown, George Benson, Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass, fixating over the album covers and liner notes, carefully placing the needle of her childhood record player on the albums.

Her father, Benton Weber, a Sears service technician, wasn’t exactly an aficionado of music. But he enjoyed a spectrum of R&B. After the popularity of the song “Celebration” in 1980, he ended up buying his daughter the 1972 album that she says marked the official start of her personal collection: Kool and the Gang’s “Music is the Message.” It’s an album that to this day is in regular Soul Sister rotation on stage and radio, so beloved that its ice cube blue album cover graced the top of her cake at her 40th birthday, which she celebrated by hosting a dance party at Tipitina’s in September.

Rose Weber, Melissa’s school teacher mother, never liked the word “funk.” Still, Weber was undeterred in her quest to collect the funkiest music in existence. As a student at Cabrini High School, she would often steal away to the library to thumb through the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Her senior year, she scribbled out a flyer with hand-written dollar signs across the top.

“$$$ For your Parents’/Brothers’/Sisters’ Old 70s Albums!”

She laughs now, unclear exactly where she would have gotten the money to buy all those records she envisioned getting her hands on. “Some parents took pity on me and gave me records,” she says. “I still have some of them.”

Weber, far left, was a senior in high school in 1992, the first time she met George Clinton, center, outside of the Saenger Theater after seeing him perform with his band Parliament Funkadelic. She says she dragged her friend and classmate Juana Davis, right, to the concert with her. Today, Weber is Clinton’s go-to opener any time he performs in New Orleans.Weber, far left, was a senior in high school in 1992, the first time she met George Clinton, center, outside of the Saenger Theater after seeing him perform with his band Parliament Funkadelic. She says she dragged her friend and classmate Juana Davis, right, to the concert with her. Today, Weber is Clinton’s go-to opener any time he performs in New Orleans.

One day in high school while listening to WWOZ, she heard a DJ preface a James Brown tune by telling all the young people to go ahead and leave the room. Weber was so indignant by the assumption that only older people would enjoy James Brown that she wrote the DJ a letter letting him know that the King of Soul’s reach is not limited, nor should it be assumed that it is.

“I want to hear James Brown, too,” she said.

Within a few years, Weber offered to stuff envelopes as a volunteer at the community-based radio station. Station leaders soon took note of her calm, clear voice and asked her to do voice overs. When a staff member suggested Weber fill in as a new jazz show host, Weber declined. “I like funk, though. That’s what I like,” she remembers saying. “I was more interested in the music—not just to be a voice.”

That changed when Weber’s favorite DJ, Nita Ketner of the “Soul Show,” told Weber in the 1990s that she would be moving away. Ketner wanted to train Weber to take over her volunteer midnight to 2 a.m. spot. Soul Sister packed up her records and took to the studio.

Today, Weber’s reach isn’t limited to her show and her Saturday night dance party. She hosts parties at clubs across town and spins records annually at a “crate dig” at her favorite local record shop, Domino Sound Record Shack. She’s an organizer of the Krewe of King James, which celebrates James Brown as it rolls in Krewe Delusion following Krewe Du Vieux during Carnival. Whenever George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic comes to town, Soul Sister is his go-to opener, as she was at Tipitina’s in December.

She is her own publicist, having discovered that when she hands the keys over to others they have the tendency to characterize her music as “oldies” or “hip-hop,” neither of which get to the heart of what Soul Sister is all about.

“She’s not a flake—and it’s a business in which people oftentimes are,” Spera says. “She’s very much a professional and takes her craft seriously and truly, truly loves the music she plays and loves what she does …That always comes across.”

But Weber isn’t done. She wants to do more.

Last fall, she began graduate school at Tulane University. She’d been working there for about five years as manager of the Newcomb-Tulane College Office of Co-curricular programs, organizing educational events outside of the classroom, some of which may or may not include music.

Now, she’s working toward a master’s degree in musicology. It’s hard, she says. But she ended her first year with a 4.0 GPA. Her existing credentials—being Soul Sister and all—enabled her to co-teach one of her classes. But she hopes her studies will ultimately empower her to promote her favorite music from the perspective of a scholar as well as a fan, to help de-stigmatize disco and provide more meaningful context to the history of the music and artists she loves and wants others to love.

Early PosterWeber graduated from New Orleans’ Cabrini High School in 1993. But before she did, she created this flyer and passed it out to classmates in hopes of increasing her collection of disco, funk and R&B vinyl.

She’s already written a few articles and album liner notes. She has been asked to present papers at the Experience Music Project (EMP) Pop Music Conference in Seattle, which she researched and wrote in between her regular music gigs, grad school and a full-time job.

“I wanted to be able to do the real work of a scholar so that I could really represent the music in a big way,” she says.

Her experience at UNO, she says, set the stage for such academic rigor. Though Weber tended to live the life of a commuter student at the time, she says working for a university now leaves her wishing she’d done more at the time to be involved in the Lakefront campus. But she said she’s grateful for the opportunities she found within UNO’s classrooms.

“I worked hard at UNO, man,” she says. “My professors were all hard-core and they were great … It was a challenging degree.”

Weber has threatened to cut back on her schedule, maybe stop with her Saturday night dance party now that she’s reached 40. But months after that birthday has come and gone, she gives a sheepish smile when asked if that’s going to happen.

A health scare a couple of years ago prompted Weber to substantially improve her diet and integrate exercise into her daily routine in a meaningful way. She’s dropped roughly 100 pounds over the year and, she says, she has more energy than ever before.

So, you ask again, will she cut back the pace of the parties while she’s pursuing another degree?

“I’m just not ready quite yet,” she says with a laugh. “I’m having too much fun, too much fun. There’s still tons more records.”

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the University of New Orleans Magazine, Spring 2016 edition.

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Soul Sister on WWOZ
University of New Orleans Magazine, Spring 2016
University of New Orleans Magazine
University of New Orleans International Alumni Association