DJ Soul Sister and the Art of the Spontaneous
I would think it would get lonely up there. But it doesn’t look lonely. If you’ve ever see Melissa Weber — known to everyone who’s heard her or heard of her as DJ Soul Sister — behind the turntables, you’ve seeing something rare. It’s an act of effortless magic, and the result is so hypnotic, so easy to get absorbed in, that it’s easy to lose sight of the work. She’s up there spinning plates and creating not just a sound, but a whole world that you get lost in. And the fact that it appears effortless is part of what makes her so extraordinary.
But it’s also what makes people look past her, and far too many DJ’s, as artists.
“When people take pictures of me, they tend to take pictures of my face,” she says. “But they don’t even include my hands doing the work. That’s the interesting part. Not me smiling.”
And it is work. Hard work. Week after week for two decades, Weber has schlepped massive crates full of records and her turntables (which no one else is allowed to touch) to venues around New Orleans and, as her reputation has grown, around the world. She exercises regularly to be able to do this, and to keep her strength and focus up for her three to four hour sets.
And it’s also art. Fine art. The kind that slips into the cracks and fills your body with light. I saw DJ Soul Sister many a night at the Hi Ho Lounge, One Eyed Jacks, and the long-since defunct upstairs parties at Mimi’s, where she’d have to fend off oblivious dancers from careening into her gear. Night after night, week after week, she would spin out a musical voyage and invite you to come along. Full room. Empty room. Locked in party crowd or disengaged mesh of bodies. Didn’t matter. From the first song to the last, the whole night was a ribbon of music so seamless you could (and I’m guilty of this) forget about the work that was going into it.
“I guess if you make it look easy then that’s good,” she says of the crowds. “They’re not thinking about the technical part they’re just thinking how they feel.”
And how does it feel to be up there?
“It’s like an exorcism — I wish I had a less evil word.” She laughs. “When I play I really am in my own world, my own space. I consider that more of a channelling. I don’t pre-plan that. On the radio I’ll think ahead two or three songs down. When I’m on the stage, I’m on the seat of my pants. It’s to the second. Whatever happens, it happens very quickly. When something gets played live, sometimes I don’t even know why.”
And that’s another part of the DJ’ing that gets lost — the speed. This isn’t just pushing a button on an iPad and letting the set go (“These days, people just push a button — ‘I’ma DJ!’” she says). This is physical, exacting, and fast. She’s not just reaching back and grabbing a record at random. Everything has to fit. The extended jigsaw has to make sense. It’s deeply ingrained muscle memory and sense memory to, in the middle of all that sound and energy, to look at a record and think, Yes. That’s next. That’ll work.
“I’m listening to make sure that I can blend it properly so it is a seamless transition,” she says. “If I can’t get that, then I switch to another record quick. But it has to be something that both meets that requirement of me being able to mix it seamlessly, but a song that feels good to me.”
Stretch that out, song after song after song, for hours. A decade or so ago, she could keep that going for seven or eight hours, a spell of concentration that would seem impossible to most musicians, who at least get a break between songs.
But it’s about that world building. Creating a sonic house for people to stay in for a while.
And she’s always done this. Right down to, as a little girl, setting up imaginary turntables and turning her Barbie doll complex into a party zone.
“I had the whole Barbie world,” she says. “I used to make dresses out of Kleenex. You know, disco dresses. The townhouse was the hotel where you could go sleep. There was the pool so that was the VIP pool area. The McDonalds was the snack bar. There’s Barbie. There was Christie. There was Skipper, who was too young to get in so she was manning the snack bar. There was only one man, Ken. Lonely Ken. So he was the security guard.”
And that’s how it started. Spinning the world out on her bedroom floor with Kool and the Gang, MFSB, The Commodores and the Gap Band as the soundtrack. The sounds she loved then are the sounds she loved still.
“My mind was a little out there form other girls my age,” she says. “Most little girls are listening to...not funk records. My earliest childhood crush — no judgment — was Rick James. My older cousin bought me Gap Band Three as a present, and there’s a ballad on it. Well guess what? Little Melissa wanted no part of the ballad. Little Melissa turned the album over to listen to a song called ‘Gash Gash Gash.’ So that shows you where my mind already was.”
Tuned into the radio shows at the left hand side of the dial (particularly Tulane’s radio station, WTUL), Weber began volunteering at the legendary New Orleans radio station WWOZ, eventually getting her own show which has been running for 25 years. Meanwhile, she had her ears on New Orleans’ small but fertile DJ scene, particularly figures like DJ Slick Leo, Manny Fresh, and DJ Captain Charles.
But one of the key things that separates the DJ from most other musicians is that you must constantly expand the size of your instrument. Week after week after week, Weber has added to her record collection, which she now estimates totals over 10,000 records.
“I’m a crate digger first,” she says. “I’m a collector first. Even if I retired as a DJ, I’d still collect records.”
It’s so strange to hear her use that word. Retirement. Through all my years in the city, DJ Soul Sister was one of the constants of the music scene. The first strains of Ike and Tina Turner’s “Bold Soul Sister” opening her radio show, and then shortly after she signed off, the sounds pouring out of the buildings she spun in.
“Right before the pandemic I announced retiring. I was going to go through the fall and New Year’s Eve would be my final show. Then the pandemic happened and I realized I’m not ready to retire. I wanted to retire on my own terms, and the pandemic put me into where I wasn’t ready.”
For some musicians in the city, the answer to the pandemic was to play outdoor gigs, the audience standing a good distance away — a strange scene in a town that gets used to strange scenes. But for Weber, that simply wasn’t an option.
“A good gust of wind will knock a tone arm across a record,” she tells me. “A hot hit of sun will warp a record in less than 60 seconds.”
With no live venues available to her, Weber did something remarkable — she learned her craft all over again. Forced to improvise, she learned a technological side of her art that had never come into play. Little by little, she began converting her music to MP3’s (which she had to learn to do from zero), and started mixing using a digital turntable she picked up on a whim at a black Friday sale a decade earlier. She downloaded Audacity and began mixing playlists to go up on the Internet — playlists with names like “Masked Mardi Gras,” “I Wish I Was Roller Skating,” and “We’ve Had Enough: Dancefloor Anger for Covid Times.”
“It was me getting to express what I was feeling and needing to share that with people … To let people know I was still around, and to give people something exciting to enjoy.”
Now, all these months, lockdowns, openings and re-lockdowns later, the parties are slowly starting to happen again. And because of the pandemic, Weber is still at the turntables, still making the live show happen.
“In ten years or twenty years I will not be DJ’ing. It’s too physically taxing. I could do the radio show til I’m eighty or ninety. There will have to be a stop point for the live show.”
She adds: “If it had gone through without the pandemic I’d be on my retirement tour now. But being forced to not be able to play, I realized I wasn’t ready to end. I still got a couple more years in me.”
A couple more years. After these past couple years, that seems like time enough. It seems like a gift. Time enough to see her perform again, to once again get swept up on that spontaneous world building that’s kept her swaying buildings in the city for so long.
“I always say, ‘I’m not that kind of DJ.’ I don’t take requests. I don’t play your favorite top ten hits … I feel the feeling and I want you to come along. I’m doing It my way, I’m doing it differently. And I want to inspire other people to do it their way too. To explore and to share and to experiment. And have fun.”
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