Alumni Spotlights

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PrivateerPillarsSoulSisterMelissa Weber, aka DJ Soul Sister

New Orleans is the kind of city where Melissa Weber (BA, COLA '00) and her alter-ego, DJ Soul Sister, can exist in harmony. Even before graduating from UNO with a degree in drama and communications (and a minor in English), Weber was on her way to establishing herself as both a communications professional and a renowned DJ-Artist.  

“Soul Sister life began for me at WWOZ,” she explains. “I’ve done my Soul Power radio show for close to 20 years.” Weber had intentions of helping out at a college radio station, willing to “lick envelopes and stuff” just to be near the music, and ended up with her own show. “When people at [WWOZ] got hip to the fact that I collected records and was into all this music, they were like, ‘Why don’t you get on the air?’”

That small suggestion has sprawled into Weber’s decades-long reign as the Queen of Rare Groove. Her bread and butter is, “Music of any genre: funk, soul, disco, rock, Brazilian, Latin, reggae, but always soulful, and from the late ‘60s through the 1980s.” She won’t play contemporary artists and she’ll only spin vinyl. That, however, doesn’t mean that things get stale on her show or at her weekly residency at Mimi’s in the Marigny. Weber’s rare groove mantra is “new to me and you,” and she’s constantly seeking undiscovered artists and tracks.

“This is not the stuff that was popular on the charts. It’s what you unearth going and crate digging and finding records that you’ve never seen before, and there are millions of them. No one has all the records and no one knows all the music. It’s always discovering something new.”  At a recent music conference in New York, a panelist played a clip off the Carpenter’s seminal Close to You album on which Karen Carpenter plays drums. “Now I can tell you that I don’t own that album,” says Weber, unsurprisingly. “But he played this song and I’m like, ‘Man, that’s a funky rare groove; I have to have it.’ Who knew? I’m about to own a Carpenters record.”

Weber may have been surprised that she was about to own what may be the most conventional album of all time, but this hardly compares to what some of her professional colleagues have experienced when they realize where they’ve heard that voice. “I really don’t discuss it at Tulane,” she says, where she is the manager of co-curricular programs for Newcomb Tulane College. “My department is hip to it and they love it, but I don’t really include that in my introduction.” Still, “Every now and then on campus someone will look back and I’ll hear, ‘That’s…’ Or they’ll say it out, ‘Hey, Soul Sister!’ and I have to remember that they mean me.”

Her favorite moment of discovery involves a strait-laced development director who had been doing some light reading on a flight to Washington, DC. “She came up to me and said, ‘I saw a picture of you in the Delta magazine. Can you explain what’s going on?’ And it was this wild picture of me. There was graffiti behind me and she’s like, ‘I almost spit my drink out when I saw you in this magazine.’ She had no idea.”  The community seems to have taken the shock in stride. “She told the dean and so now everybody knows.”

Years earlier, after parlaying her UNO degree into a position as special projects assistant with French Quarter Festivals, Inc., Weber moved on to serve for six years as marketing director at the Contemporary Arts Center. At the CAC, she was responsible for pitching work-related stories to her media contacts as Weber while simultaneously promoting through the same people her own carefully curated shows and events as DJ Soul Sister. A true professional, she tried to keep the two personas separate, “but everybody found out. I’d be on the phone with David Lee Simmons, who was the Arts and Entertainment editor of Gambit, and he’d say, ‘Melissa, your voice sounds really familiar to me,’ and all I could say was, ‘Oh, yeah, by the way…’”

The promotional skills Weber first honed at UNO have been instrumental not only in her own success as an artist but in transforming the landscape of DJ culture throughout New Orleans. She is the first DJ to have won a Big Easy Entertainment Award and an Offbeat Award. She helped add DJ categories to entertainment polls and in the event sections of newspapers and magazines, “Just because I would ask editors, ‘Well, why not?’” She’s the first DJ in the city to open for live acts at venerated haunts like Tipitina’s or House of Blues, and 2012 marks her fourth Jazz Fest performance, this time opening for Cee-Lo Green on the Congo Square stage. As in years past, Weber will be hunkered down behind a Plexiglass shield to prevent the wind from “whipping the needle across my record.”

Looking beyond the festival season, Weber hopes to begin pursuing research and scholarship on her beloved grooves. “When I start publishing and presenting papers,” she says, “I have UNO to thank for the academics. Sometimes people are actually shocked. They don’t know that I am a communications professional and I have my degree and I’m planning to pursue an advanced degree.”  Some think she’s “just” a DJ, but that simply isn’t true. “What I do is more than spinning records. I promote all of my gigs and I mentor people and all of that comes from higher education. I’d love to be a part of it so people can be like, ‘Oh, she’s cool, and it’s okay.’ You can be a cool person and have an education too.”

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