The year is 1980. Terrorists hold 52 Americans hostage at the Embassy in Iran. The U.S. hockey team scores the biggest upset in the history of sport at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. John Lennon fires his bodyguards, figuring that anyone who wanted to shoot him would just shoot his security people first, anyway. And at a Sound Warehouse cutout bin in New Orleans, a six-year-old girl named Melissa purchases the 1972 Kool And The Gang album Music Is The Message, inspired to do so by the recent Kool megahit “Celebration.”
That’s right. Six-years-old.
Now known to WWOZ listeners as DJ Soul Sister, goddess of rare funk and old-school hip-hop, Melissa remembers how her life was changed when she got home with that record. “It’s a popular breakbeat record; it gets sampled a lot,” she says now. “There was a track on it called ‘Funky Granny,’ though, and my mother hated that song, for some reason. And I’m so in love with my mother. So I took a red pen and scratched out the title. I wouldn’t listen to the song,” she laughs now. “I eventually had to replace my copy.”
That slab of vinyl led the future disc jockey to seek out more hard-to-find funk over the next two decades, including what her official radio show description calls “Deep Funk, Rare Groove, D.C. Go-Go, Boogaloo, Super Soul Breaks, Trash Disco, Old School, Hip-Hop.” So deep was her love for those kinds of grooves that when this native began listening to ’OZ, she became offended by one DJ’s instruction, upon playing some James Brown: “All you
young people leave the room. This is grown folks’ music.” The 16-year-old Melissa became determined at that moment to be a part of the legendary roots-music station, somehow, just for the sake of proving them wrong. “I wrote a letter to them that day,” she recalls. “But I never sent it.”
Once she met Nita Ketner, a soul DJ at the studio, she knew she’d found an in, and Melissa worked her way into her life. So well, in fact, that she took over Nita’s show back in 1994 when Ketner left town. Back then, it was known simply as “The Soul Show,” but the new host renamed it “Soul Power,” dedicated herself to playing only the rarest funk and R&B, and transformed herself into DJ Soul Sister (the name taken from Ike and Tina Turner’s “Bold Soul Sister,” recorded during their brief Blue Thumb stint and used as the show’s theme to this day). “I chose it because I’m a painfully shy person,” she says now, although her demeanor suggests anything but over the phone. “I wanted to hide behind something.”
With her sultry, wise, yet bubbly voice, she soon became a star anyway, at least by local standards; but in the funk capital of the world, that’s saying something. The show started as a midnight venture, but the sheer popularity of it during Sister’s reign—she’s gotten fan mail from all over the world—bumped it back hours to its current time slot (Saturdays, 8-10 p.m. CST, WWOZ, 90.7 FM; you can also hear it over the Internet at wwoz.org). She began DJing at clubs around town, too, where her knowledge of breakbeat and hip-hop made her a quick favorite at places like the Shiloh. A true vinyl junkie, she says that most of her fellow station DJs don’t rely on their personal collections the way she does. “[Blues show host] Gentilly Jr. and I are pretty much the only ones that stick to vinyl,” she laughs. “There are three turntables up there, and when we come in, other people have used them for coasters.” She figures the rarest items in her collection to be Mad Dog Fire Dept.’s “Cosmic Funk” (Shield, 1979) and most especially Royalty’s go-go classic “Jelly Roll Beat” (The Sound Of Virginia, 1982).
So what does this have to do directly with hip-hop, aside from the fact that many of the cuts she features have been extensively sampled for use as rap music tracks? Well, in the Melissa days, she was quite the hip-hop fan, listening to WAIL 105 FM in the early ’80s, and, like most of us, moving over to WYLD AM in the late ’80s. But the fact that most of her favorite deep-funk artists never got credited, coupled with the genre’s budding misogyny, left her feeling out of place, and she hasn’t kept up. None of this has affected her original love for the old-school stuff, however, and starting Friday nights this month, she’ll be instituting “Throwback: An Old School Hip-Hop Jam” at Shiloh, 4529 Tchoupitoulas Street, 11 p.m.-4 a.m., featuring her own selections on the first Friday of every month and handpicked hip-hop DJs the rest of the time. (What’s her definition of old school? “Late ’70s through Early ’90s,” she clarifies.) More in keeping with her show’s usual theme are “Hustle!” at Handsome Willy’s, 218 S. Robertson Street, 11 p.m.-4 a.m. Saturdays starting July 9, and “B-Side,” a chill version of her usual fare, at King Bolden’s, 820 N. Rampart, Wednesdays 11 p.m.-2 a.m. And considering the lily-whiteness of most ’80s Nights, Soul Sister promises to work something out, funk style, along those lines as well. Not bad for a painfully shy girl.
If you yourself feel inclined to mix and mingle at a hip-hop show this month, there is of course one obvious choice: The Eleventh Annual Essence Festival, which, as you no doubt know by now, features hip-hop acts like Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick, and the Roots (Friday), Floetry and Kanye West (Saturday), and Talib Kweli (Sunday, and yes, Maze will be there, as always). But you might also want to check out related shows like ReBirth Brass Band on the 2nd at Tip’s Uptown and Ballzack’s July 15 gig at TwiRoPa. If all else fails, DJ Soul Sister herself plans to hold a party called “JAM!” at King Bolden’s, on “Essence Sunday” (July 3, that is, 11 p.m. to “past 2 a.m.”). Old-school funk it may be, but as Melissa’s own story proves, we all have to start somewhere. (You can also keep tabs on her doings at djsoulsister.com.)