Melissa Weber is in her element — headphones hugging her ears, an old record spinning under her hands — but she isn't smiling. She isn't exactly frowning, either. The scrunched face she's making right now, sitting in the corner of the Domino Sound Record Shack, is somewhere in between, like she just caught a whiff of someone nearby breaking wind. Given the wedgelike confines of the 7th Ward vinyl repository, she very well could have. But no, Weber assures me: It's the LP.
"I'm very quick; I know instantly," the woman better known as DJ Soul Sister had bragged as she walked into Domino for her weekly survey of new (old) releases. And the preceding samples had proved her right: yay on Parliament's 1975 Nagin-favorite Chocolate City ("This one I have, but my copy is wretched"); nay on Chubby Checker's 1971 psychedelic detour Chequered! ("He's just, like, forcing it"). Weber's final find, however, has left her befuddled.
"This is sort of ... odd," she says, handing over the cans. "And it's got a big camel on it." She holds up the album. Sure enough, the cover art for Abu Haf'la Orchestra's Wanna Buy a Camel?, a 1978 approximation of an Israeli Soul Train, is a close-up of a stylized Joe Camel in desert headgear and aviator shades. He is smiling.
"The last record I bought with a camel on it was the bomb, so I'm not sleeping on the camel," she adds, repossessing the headphones. "This is straight-up Middle Eastern disco! I don't know how I feel about that. I have to keep listening."
The scrunched face returns, followed by a series of tiny gasps and sighs. "Oh, this is weeeird. Oh my God, OK. Now listen to this. I like it, but it's making me a little uncomfortable. Any record that wants to make its way in, it has to be easy. Right now, for me, is one song good enough to warrant a space in my house and $18? It's zany. I like it and I can't stand it, all at the same time."
After one more song, a verdict: Weber wants to buy the camel. "I can't leave this here," she tells the clerk. "It's too ridiculous for me to not have."
Record hunting with DJ Soul Sister is akin to making groceries with Alton Brown. It's part anthropology lesson, part archaeological excavation. There is no shopping list, only a breathless thumbing through dozens of dusty crates and a primer on funk/soul brothers Chicago Gangsters and T.U.M.E. On this day, we'll visit Domino and the Louisiana Music Factory, and the radio DJ, dance party-starter and world-renowned Queen of Rare Grooves will add six new (old) records to her collection.
"I never have a list," Weber explains early on at Domino. "I just look at everything. For instance, this ..." She holds up the Gangsters' Gangster Love (1976), whose cover is a red-hued image of a pity-no-fools nude woman covering her breasts with a .45 pistol. "Nine times out of 10 it's a better possibility for success. You don't know what you're going to get. But if it's cheap enough, I'll take a chance. I'll probably buy this." (She did.)
For more than five years, Weber, 34, has turned weekend nights in New Orleans into a three-pronged showcase for her prodigious archive of rare and out-of-print records. Every Saturday starts a music marathon: At 8 p.m., she settles into the WWOZ booth for "Soul Power," her deep funk and rare groove radio program, among the first and now longest-running such shows in the country. Afterward, at 10 p.m., she lugs four crates up the stairs at Mimi's in the Marigny, sets up her turntables, and from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. spins the most incendiary album cuts she can unearth. Later on Sunday, she returns at 10 p.m. for a relaxed comedown that bleeds into Monday at 1 a.m.
While all three gigs focus on the unfamiliar, each has its own direction. "On 'OZ, because it's rare groove, I'll play Brazilian stuff, I'll play some jazz," Weber says. "[Saturday at Mimi's] is straight-up for the dance floor, and as wild as I can get it. It's the power of the music and the vibe of the space. ... Sunday is the opposite of Saturday. Sunday is really mellow and laidback, and Saturday, people are dancing on the tables."
Her first gig, "Soul Power" started in 1994 as a continuation of Nita Ketner's "Soul Show." Weber joined the station as a Loyola freshman intern. "I just wanted to help out and lick envelopes," she says. "I never had any want to be on the air. Back then, you couldn't even talk about wanting to be on the air unless you knew some stuff about music. Here I am, 18 years old. It's like, who is this child? I knew I had to step it up and do everything bigger and better, just to show that I was deep into the music and not just there for fun and games."
The original midnight time slot was ideal for indulging her love of subsurface soul and funk. In the beginning, Weber says, it felt like she was shouting into the void. "I didn't know if anyone was listening at all. I just wanted to do a good job filling in, taking over Nita's show."
"Soul Power" picked up where the rarer end of "The Soul Show" left off. Weber, a regular listener of the latter, remembers calling in to Ketner during a spin of a James Brown production, "Super Good" by Myra Barnes. "We all know James Brown. Then, here's a woman singing in the James Brown style. Nita would play 'Bold Soul Sister' by Ike and Tina Turner, which I made my theme song."
Now a popularized tag used by collectors to describe all stripes of vintage funk and soul records, "rare groove" was foreign to Weber the first time she heard it. She says an early caller — from Europe, no less — introduced her to the term, and awarded her a royal handle that took. "[He] said, 'You're the queen of rare groove!' I said, 'What is that?' He said, 'The stuff that you play!' This guy says I'm one of the only women he's heard playing it. And definitely one of the only radio shows playing it regularly.
"That's where I got that name from," she beams. "The Queen of Rare Groove."
Londoner Norman Jay is credited with coining "rare grooves" — his "Original Rare Groove Show" dates back to 1986 — but there's only ever been one Queen. Her take on the DJ-appropriated genre over which she reigns:
"Rare groove is sort of this subcategory, this catch-all term for funky music. It doesn't even have to be funky: soulful music, stuff that was not a hit. I grew up listening to funk music on local radio stations, WYLD-FM, WAIL-FM. All the jams that everybody was partying to. I just loved it so much and wanted to hear more. I don't think I heard of rare groove and decided to be into it; I think I was always into album cuts."
Weber's first LP was by Kool & the Gang, but appropriately enough, it wasn't a disco-era hit factory like Ladies' Night (1979) or Celebrate! (1980); rather, it was 1972's relatively unheralded Music Is the Message. Weber was 6 years old.
"From when I was little, it was always about the funk for me, all the time," she says. "My dad liked a lot of music, but he was not into the funk per se; he just liked records. He would listen to all sorts of things, but he wouldn't take care of his records. I'd walk through the house and see a drink on top of a record, as a coaster. It made me crazy! Maybe that's why I got into collecting. When he wasn't looking, I'd take his records, I'd clean them off and I'd put them in my room."
Asked about the size of that collection today, she simply replies, "Thousands." Where some keep their alphabetized horde on lockdown, Weber's is a working library: "Someone once said, 'The collection is for archival purposes.' I'm always using records, listening to them at home."
Mid-hunt at the Louisiana Music Factory, stuck at the listening station behind a guy with a foot-high stack of jazz platters ("Looks like an experienced digger over here"), DJ Soul Sister reflects on some highlights of her crate-digging obsession. She sheepishly admits to having paid $300 for a single 45: "Ain't No Need," a slinky soul obscurity by the crooner Skye, the result of a "Buy It Now" impulse purchase on eBay. "Which is dangerous," she adds, "because I can be up in the middle of the night, like, 'Let's see what's going on.'"
The one that got away: 1976's Introducing Roger by Roger & the Human Body. "I was at a UNO record fair — the Lakefront Arena was just full of books and records. When you go digging, you look through every [box]. I literally went through a box full of Carpenters and Neil Diamond records. And smack in the middle of this box was [Introducing Roger]. The significance of this record is that it's an early record by Roger Troutman, who was the leader of Zapp. It was on his own label, Troutman Brothers Records, and I bought it for a buck. It was clean mint, so incredibly rare. I wound up selling it a couple years later in Germany for $200. Now you get it on eBay for at least $1,000. I wish I had it, because Roger Troutman was shot to death a few years later. And I like the record."
After 15 years on the air, Weber's musical education is ongoing. Currently, she says, she's researching New Orleans disco culture. "There's this thing about the word 'disco.' No one really understands what that is, but it's fun to say that you hate it. All the word 'discotheque' meant was, a place that people went to dance to people playing records. The earliest discos were in the early '70s, and the disco classics were not the oversaturated stuff you see with John Travolta and all of that — it was soul music, hardcore soul and funk music like "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango. Then you have the technology of the disco. Without disco, you would not have a 12-inch single. The mixer with the crossfader — you wouldn't have hip-hop without either of those.
"There's this thing in the rare groove community," she continues, "this saying that nothing good was recorded after 1975. Which to me is the most stupid thing I've ever heard in my life. And also a little bigoted, in a sort of odd way."
While she's talking, records interrupt her periodically from the bins. A mint Music Is the Message: "Oh, what? This is an original for $12? This is my favorite album of all time! I already have it, but it's kind of very sentimental to me. To find a clean original like this, I just have to have another copy." Brides of Funkenstein's Funk or Walk (1978): "I found out my cousin (Dawn Silva) was in this band! I already have it, but I want it for the legs." (The cover, a rendering of two space-age babes in provocative lockstep, is typically obscured by a sticker.)
"Besides," the Queen of Rare Groove reasons, heading to the checkout counter with her booty, "you can never have too many copies of Funk or Walk."