DJ Soul Sister Talks Art Neville, James Brown, Vinyl DJs, More [B.Getz on L4LM]
DJ Soul Sister is already a prominent figure within the New Orleans music scene, and the “Queen of Rare Groove” is still climbing. She’s been on the air at the venerable radio station WWOZ for 25 years with her wildly popular show, “Soul Power,” and has earned a reputation for getting the party movin’ proper, sometimes throwin’ it down for as long as four hours!
DJ Soul Sister is prone to setting the table for a who’s who of NOLA funk music and beyond. This all-vinyl funk DJ extraordinaire is always in demand in her home city, and she’s making her Colorado debut at Denver Comes Alive at Denver’s Mission Ballroom on January 31st [Get tickets here].
Live For Live Music‘s B.Getz had a chance to catch up with DJ Soul Sister as she prepares for the big gig at Denver Comes Alive at the end of the month. Throughout the conversation, they spoke about her favorite memories of the late Art “Poppa Funk” Neville, how she got her start at WWOZ, her favorite James Brown album, and more. You can read their conversation below.
Live For Live Music: People are very excited about the Denver Comes Alive event on January 31st, at which you are playing. Also on that fantastic bill, George Porter Jr. is leading a tribute to Art Neville and Dr. John with an all-star collective of musicians. As a native New Orleanian, could you please share or reflect on a special memory or moment about “Poppa Funk” Art Neville?
DJ Soul Sister: I absolutely revere Art Neville, probably the same reasons that most everyone loves him. Because he is a pioneer of not only New Orleans music but funk in general, and what we know today as rock n’ roll, essentially. I have personal reasons why I love him as well. When I was little, my dad had a copy of the Fire on the Bayou LP by The Meters. That album came out in 1975. He bought it when it came out, and I remember I would listen to that record. That was one of my favorite records to listen to.
Another memory… I’ve been at WWOZ for a good 25 years, but my show [Soul Power] originally was a late-night show. It was a midnight to 2:00 a.m. time slot that I did for many years. The station staff decided that they were going to move it earlier, to the slot that I have now, which is 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. I’ve been at 8:00 to 10:00 for a long, long, long, long time. I didn’t like the decision at first, but…
I will always remember: Art Neville called in once to ask me what I was playing! It was a song by the funk group Slave, called “Just Freak”, which was released in 1978. He called and I knew it was him, because we have caller ID at the station [laughs]. So I saw it, and I can’t pick up all the calls, but I picked that one up [laughs]! It said A. Neville. And then that voice came on. It was not a prank call. He wanted to know what song it was. So I told him, and he was like, “right on. Thanks.” I’m like, “oh my God, Art Neville is listening to my show!”
Live For Live Music: That’s amazing. Thank you for sharing that memory. 25 years at WWOZ! That’s pretty incredible too. I’ve tuned into your show through the internet, and a time or two (dozen) when I’ve been in town. I read that you were initially volunteering at the station before you had a show. That’s how it began for you there at WWOZ?
DJ Soul Sister: I started with OZ in ’94, because I graduated from high school in ’93. I started volunteering at OZ just administratively, just to get involved, right? When I walked into OZ, the thought of being on [air] there was… It was never a thought. I never went to OZ wanting to have a show, never in a million years. I was a freshman in college when I started. That was ’94. I started volunteering, answering phones and things like that, helping during the fund drive. I would go once a week on Thursdays to help out.
Live For Live Music: You mentioned graduating from high school. Is it true that back then, you dressed up as George Clinton for Halloween? If it is, please tell me that story. Why him? What were your classmates’ reactions like?
DJ Soul Sister: I did, my senior year. Yes, I did. I have honestly no other recollection [about that] than I dressed up like him. During that time, that was when George Clinton had his long, colorful hair extensions. I was inspired because I’d just seen him for the first time live (in concert). My first George Clinton and P-Funk All Stars show was October 17, 1992. I’m a senior in high school. That show… It just turned me out! I already loved P-Funk, but to see them live at the Saenger Theater changed my life.
Everyone could dress up for Halloween at my school and I chose George Clinton. I wish I had a picture because it was a really good costume. No one in my class knew who I was because again, I’m Class of ’93. This is ’92. Most of my classmates, they’re not listening to P-Funk. They’re listening to what’s current at the time. I always would talk about the funk, so much so that they all thought I was completely nuts [laughs]! That’s what I loved. My classmates, they found it humorous, let’s say that. I had to teach people about the funk. That was what I was there to do.
Live For Live Music: And you are still doin’ it to this day. Clearly, it’s your calling. It’s what you do on every level, whether it’s through Soul Power or the DJ sets, or a number of other things. Speaking of Soul Power, let’s talk about the Godfather of Soul, the late James Brown. I read an interview where you stated The Payback is your favorite?
DJ Soul Sister: The Payback LP is my favorite James Brown album.
Live For Live Music: That’s saying something, because he has such a huge collection. What about The Payback, as an album, speaks to you?
DJ Soul Sister: Any James Brown scholar will tell you that he was more of a singles artist. His strong point was singles or individual songs, not so much full-length albums. The Payback as an album from start to end is unparalleled. It’s perfect. The whole album is absolutely perfect. There’s not one song on the album that I don’t love. It works as a cohesive unit. It’s all sorts of things. There are beautiful ballads. There are hard funk numbers. Interesting in all sorts of ways. I just like to always mention it because people don’t think of James Brown as an album artist. That album is the one that if anyone was like, “okay what’s the James Brown album?” The Payback, that’s the one studio album. Because his live albums? All of his live albums are amazing, too.
Live For Live Music: The fact that you are steadfast a vinyl DJ in this era—when the majority of DJs are employing laptops, CDJs, Ableton and Serato and the like—is admirable and impressive. It’s always drawn me toward you, made me more inclined to hear you play than a DJ with a memory card. I’m curious if being so loyal to vinyl—what with all the records and crates, equipment, and other prohibitive considerations—ever gets in the way of you being able to do what you do. The sheer volume of gear, so cumbersome… makes travel a different issue, among others.
DJ Soul Sister: That’s interesting. Well, I can answer that in a few different ways. As far as the cumbersome aspect… Let’s say I’m DJing… Let’s say I am doing a show locally that is four hours. I generally will bring four crates of records. Each one holds about 60 to 70 LPs. You can do the math. I don’t mind bringing them because that’s what I’ve signed up to do. When you commit to vinyl life, that is what happens. I keep in shape so that I can do it. But yes, it gets harder for flying.
That’s why I’m excited to play the Denver Comes Alive show, and they’re really committed to me being there. Because I can’t be there unless they make it happen for me to be there—tech-wise, logistically, there’s all sorts of things. Transporting vinyl can be hard, but I would have it no other way. I just love vinyl, but I’m not a vinyl snob.
Live For Live Music: Unlike computer DJs, you cannot bring thousands of songs. You gotta be very selective in curating in advance, but I feel like the payoff is huge. Doesn’t matter if it’s you or Jamie XX or whoever. A vinyl DJ set, I can feel it, and it feels more authentic, To go into the club and hear a DJ play vinyl, there’s a warmth. There’s just a certain oomph to it that you can’t get, you can’t create digitally. It’s a physical analog thing.
DJ Soul Sister: Now as far as digital DJs… The technology is great for people that use it, as long as you use the technology and you don’t let the technology use you, meaning… if you are mixing, you have to know the music. I heard someone recently DJing with a computer. I guess the computer programs sync up the songs so that they match beats, so you don’t have to do it manually, which is… With vinyl, you’re doing it by ear.
Live For Live Music: With the software stuff, oftentimes I hear some songs get all messy with pitch correction, they speed it up, all that. There’s got to be an art to it.
DJ Soul Sister: Yeah. The song [the DJ was playing on a computer] was sped up so much, it didn’t even sound natural anymore. You have to remember that songs that I’m dealing with, they’re not created on computer programs or anything. I consider them works of art. You don’t want to alter them too much so that they become de-humanized. But that’s the only thing that I notice, sometimes. But if people use digital, as long as they’re in it for the music, and not just being a “DJ,” then right on.
Live For Live Music: I’ve loved plenty of DJs that use software, but there’s something that comes with vinyl, and there are few DJs out there that still do it properly, like yourself. I’m really grateful that you care so much, whether it’s lugging the records around or having that ear for it, because it really makes the experience with you that much more… It’s feels more real, more authentic. Now, it’s just not people in New Orleans who get to hear it, but people in Denver and hopefully beyond.
DJ Soul Sister: Thanks. They might not even notice that I’m playing vinyl. They might not even see me. I just want them to hear good mixing. Then hear the music. I don’t even know what I’m going to play. I never really know until I show up. You always bring more than you need. I might bring 200 records and only play 50, but at least in my arsenal, I know I have… If I hear something in my head then I know to have… at least that I have it at my disposal.
Live For Live Music: When you are playing a set, you react to the audience, right? Like, you may not have thought you’d play something. Then you look onto the dancefloor and feel a vibe, and think “I’ve got something for that.”
DJ Soul Sister: That speaks to something, an unpopular opinion that I talk about. Unpopular when I say it. That is, this notion of reading a room. When people say, “oh, you read the room. You read the crowd.” I don’t read any… I don’t read anybody. When George Porter is up there… Ivan Neville up there or Oteil Burbridge is up there, they’re not looking into the audience for guidance, or like they need help. They are artists. They’re going to give you their art and play how they’re feeling. That music is going to translate through them, move through their instrument. For me, my turntables and the songs that I bring are my instruments. That’s why I call myself a “DJ artist,” because I only play as I feel. I don’t have mental telepathy. I don’t know what anyone wants to hear anyway. I’m not there to read people’s minds.
L4LM: I love that. I love that you just gave it to me straight like that. You make a lot of sense there, that perspective.
DJ Soul Sister: I’m there as an artist to share my experience through what I bring, and play how I play it.
L4LM: Word. I appreciate that. And I sure as hell respect it too. One more thing before we go, please. Most DJs that I know have their thumb on the pulse of what’s hot on the local scene. Having been born and raised in New Orleans, and since you are a preeminent DJ in that iconic musical city, who are some up and coming NOLA-based artists we should look out & listen for?
DJ Soul Sister: The GRID. Neospectric. And Cole Williams, she’s known as the “Punk Empress of African Rock”.
Live For Live Music: Yes! Thanks so much for taking a few minutes to chat with me. See you on January 31st at Denver Comes Alive!
DJ Soul Sister: I can’t wait to jam with all of you for my first time in Denver!