DJ Soul Sister Interview

DJ Soul Sister is a New Orleans-based rare groove funk DJ. She is known for her weekly Hustle party at MiMi’s in the Marigny. For more info on DJ Soul Sister, check out http://djsoulsister.com/

How did you get the DJ name DJ Soul Sister?
“Bold Soul Sister” is my theme song on my WWOZ FM show for 16 years,  I thought that the vibe of the song fit me perfectly, and I never get tired of listening to it every week when it kicks of my radio show.  It’s by Ike & Tina Turner from 1970.  So I decided to use “Soul Sister” from that song as my show host name, because I didn’t want to use my real name on the air – Me-li-ssa.  3 syllables – too long.  LOL.  The live DJing thing happened a couple of years after I started on WWOZ and I just put “DJ” behind it to distinguish between the live set and radio set.

Where are you from in New Orleans?
I’m an uptown girl from the 17th Ward.  Born and raised in New Orleans.

Were your parents musical?
My mom not so much.  My dad was always into different types of records.  When I was growing up, he’d listen to anything from lots of jazz, Stanley Turrentine, Miles Davis, to The Meters and Santana and Earth Wind & Fire.  He didn’t have favorite groups, per se, he’d just listen to anything – buy records at the store because the cover looked interesting and take it home and that’d be the jam for the next month or week until he bought a new record.  It’s also worth noting that he has *attempted* to try and play so many instruments over the entire course of my life – organ, harmonica, you name it.  Right now, he’s trying guitar.  He can’t actually play any of ’em, but he gets an A+ for effort.  LOL.  As a result, he signed me up for lots of classes and bought me all kinds of instruments, so at one time or another I was playing piano, bass, violin, keyboards and drums.  And my family, on my dad’s side, has lots of musical energy.  Drummer Raymond Weber is my cousin.  I have a cousin who played (or maybe still plays) trumpet for Irma Thomas.  There’s another cousin I heard about who is the drummer for Maze and Frankie Beverly.  Eddie Bo is apparently part of the bloodline.  My half-sister Valerie is a singer and had a contract and single on Motown in the 1990s.  I recently learned so much of the musical history of my family just recently through my cousin Dawn Silva, who is an accomplished vocalist and well-known for her work with Parliament-Funkadelic and The Gap Band.  I never knew I had all this music in my family until about a year ago.  It explains a lot, especially to my mom who thought my early obsession with music was a bit weird.  LOL.

What were some of your favorite musical memories from your childhood?
I loved when my dad would take me to the record store.  There’s a classic story that I heard once of my dad bringing me around his friends when I was about 5.  We were on our way to the record store and they asked me what I wanted.  And I said, “Oops Upside Your Head!”  (That’s a 1979 cut by The Gap Band.)  And this is going to sound funny, but I had a Barbie Dream House that I converted into a discotheque and I had great fun spinning records on my Fisher Price turntable and making my Barbies dance and party to “Open Sesame” by Kool & the Gang and tunes like that.  LOL.

Who are some of your favorite NOLA DJs?
I love any DJ who approaches their craft as an artist and loves music first.  Because I never had anyone to “teach” me how to DJ, and because I grew up admiring musicians, I never learned the whole “play for the crowd” or “play what others want to hear” thing that DJs get stuck with.  I’ve always played what I felt and what I want to convey to an audience musically and spiritually.  A DJ artist is not a human jukebox.  One of my favorites of New Orleans to ever do that is the Dynamite DJ Dave Soul, but he moved to Atlanta after Katrina.  There are so many awesome DJ artists in New Orleans – when they get to stretch out and do what they love.

Do you remember the first album you bought?
The first album I bought was “Music is the Message” by Kool & the Gang.  The record is from either 1971 or ’72, and I bought it in 1980 when I was about 6 – well, rather, I asked my dad to buy it for me because it looked cool.  It had this big block of blue ice, and it was summertime hot, and it just looked like what I needed at that time.  LOL.  It’s still my favorite album to this day cause it’s so funky.

What was the first concert you went to?
Don’t laugh.  It was a concert reunion of The Monkees when I was in 5th or 6th grade.  MTV had been showing these Monkees marathons and I thought the show was hilarious, and I loved the music.  But the concert that I most often claim as being my first was in 8th grade – Run DMC, Public Enemy & I think Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince at UNO Lakefront Arena.  That show was the bomb.  I already was a huge Run DMC fan, but the next day I went to buy Public Enemy’s first record, which had just been released, from Odyssey Records.  Public Enemy tore that joint out.

How did you first become interested in rare groove funk?
Well, I was always into funky music growing up, listening to my dad’s records, listening to WAIL FM, watching Soul Train every Saturday morning.  I just had to have more as I got older.  And I was big into hip hop in the mid-late 1980s, and I loved hearing the samples.  You start wanting to learn where the samples come from and you learn that there are thousands and thousands of other funk and funky records that were not chart-topping hits on the radio – so you seek them out because you love that sound and you love learning new music.  Rare groove is all about going outside of genres and hits to find that groove sound that you want – whether it comes from jazz, disco, funk, punk, African, Brazilian, whatever.  It’s got to be soulful no matter what it is.

What do you look for in quality tunes?
I have this thing that I can’t get enough of songs in what I call happy or sexy keys.  A friend of mine recently told me that it’s actually specific chords that I’m in to – they’re called sus chords or suspended chords, but I’ll have to get him to give me a demonstration before I start going around saying that. LOL.

Where did you DJ your first gig in NOLA?
A place called The Caddyshack back in 1997.  It’s now Horinoya Sushi Restaurant on Poydras St.  My great friend Sarah Fritz encouraged me to do it and I give her all the credit for making it happen, because I’m a pretty shy girl.  She practically forced me to do it, cursed me out if I wouldn’t do it.  LOL.  That’s how much she believed in seeing me do what I do live in a club setting.  We called those parties “On the One Wednesdays” and they were sooooo much fun.  That’s where it started.

Do you plan your sets in advance or do you like to keep things more freeform?
I never plan sets in advance, unless I’m doing Essence Fest or Jazz Fest, where I’m really supporting the energy of the artist and I want to get it right.  Besides, on big shows like those, you only have 15-20 minutes, if that, to do your thing, so I like to go in with a framework so I’m not spending all of my time fumbling through records on stage.  However, I always stray from whatever I have prepared and go with the flow.  That always happens.  But any other gig I do or party I throw, I never plan the set, it’s all improvisational – like jazz.

What do you enjoy most about DJing with vinyl?
I’m a digger first – a crate digger.  I love vinyl.  I’m not a vinyl snob.  I don’t laugh at DJs who use Serato or CDs.  I just happen to love vinyl and prefer it.  And I have tons of the stuff, because I go on digging trips just to look for it.  And there’s so much stuff on vinyl that will never, ever see the light of day on a CD in my lifetime, and that’s the kind of stuff I want people to hear.  Also, when I was coming up, all of the great DJs in hip hop culture used vinyl, and I admired that and wanted to carry their energy – keep it alive.

What has been your longest set?
Wow, I don’t know.  Probably one of my Mimi’s parties.  There was one of my New Year’s Eve jams there that started at 10 and I kept it going till 6, and the sun was coming up and it was just that time.  LOL.  But it felt so good, I couldn’t stop until my body just shut down.  8 full hours, non-stop.

You spin a weekly gig at MiMi’s (Hustle). How did Hustle first get started?
The HUSTLE party grew out of a need that I had to create a positive space where people could get on down.  A great artist named Erica, who professionally goes by the name of Loretta Honeywolf, suggested I take a look at Mimi’s in the Marigny, whose upstairs tapas lounge hadn’t opened yet.  Erica had come to my old parties at Leo’s Bar & Grill in the Bywater and, like me, was sorry to see the place close down because those parties were legendary.  Mimi’s had just the right vibe – upstairs feels almost like someone’s living room, not a club.  It was warm and just felt like a place that we could continue those parties the way we had at Leo’s, where everyone felt welcome and could enjoy dancing, hanging out, whatever.  I’ll celebrate my 7th Anniversary with Mimi’s in the spring of 2011.

What do you love most about spinning at MiMi’s?
I love that *all* kinds of people come, and that was the original intent.  I want people to come as they are, but when they’re there, be ready to enjoy and have a positive experience.  People come specifically to dance, but many people come just to chill out and watch the wildness.  That’s great too, there’s plenty of space off the dancefloor to just vibe out.  But when people come to the Hustle party, they come to do just that – jam.  Hence the name “Hustle.”  It has nothing to do with the name of the dance “The Hustle” and everything to do about the state of mind of “a hustle” – getting into it, on the good foot, as James Brown would say.  Hustle Saturday are still going strong, but I recently ended my “Free Spirit Soul Sundays” due to time constraints.  I loved Sundays as much as Saturdays and Sundays was the mellow night, the complete opposite of wild Saturdays where I’d vibe out and play lots of mellow rare groove, soul & jazz.  It was beautiful.  It unofficially became known as “date night” because of all the couples that would come up and smile and enjoy while they sipped cocktails and ate tapas.  I’m currently looking for a different venue to do a few one-off versions of my Free Spirit Soul Sunday nights.  While I can’t commit to doing that event every week anymore, I don’t want the concept to die completely.

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