Soul Sister has parlayed years spinning funk and R&B records on WWOZ into a way to meet her heroes. When The Roots’ Questlove was scheduled to play a gig in New Orleans, he called her to check it out. When anybody from the Parliament-Funkadelic mob plays New Orleans, she is the opening act of choice.
For her eighth annual Soul Sister’s Birthday Jam Friday night at Tipitina’s, she selected DJ Maseo, one third of the hip-hop legends De La Soul, whose classic “3 Feet High and Rising” and single “Me Myself and I” broadened hip-hop’s audience with samples from across the musical spectrum and lyrics that reached beyond the party.
“When that De La Soul debut came out in ’89, I was in eighth grade, and I listened to it non-stop,” said the DJ, whose given name is Melissa Weber. “When what they call the ‘golden era’ of hip-hop was happening, I was buying all of the records. De La Soul was a big part of that because I loved their creative use of samples. I’d research the samples and look for the originals.”
Weber met Maseo in February at a party where they both performed.
“Maseo’s set knocked me out,” she said. “It was a really creative and soulful, spanning all genres and years. I couldn’t stop dancing.”
Maseo — Vincent Mason — remembers the early days fondly.
“We were kids playing in the house with records making pause tapes,” he said, referring to the practice of recording the same section of a song over and over with a conventional tape recorder, hitting pause after each section to create a loop. “That was the first sampler, in my opinion.”
In 1985, he, Posdnuos, and Trugoy the Dove started working together while they were all in high school. It was a time when hip-hop was growing beyond it Bronx roots, when rappers and DJs were starting to realize the possibilities the music offered.
Unfortunately, “3 Feet High and Rising” is currently unavailable digitally and not easy to find on CD, along with four other albums controlled by Warner Brothers Records. According to Maseo, many but not all of the samples on the album were cleared, and ‘60s pop group The Turtles sued De La Soul in 1991 for one of those unauthorized samples.
Disputes between the band, Tommy Boy Records, and Warner Brothers over those uncleared samples have mired the albums in legal limbo.
Maseo tries to sound optimistic when talking about a resolution, but he’s not convincing.
“My lawyer’s diligently on it,” he said. “As a group, we try to keep planning for the next step. It needs to happen and has to happen.”
He fears that it might cost a few million dollars today to get the necessary clearances, since clearing samples has become a business since the album was recorded. “I’m praying that they think it’s not valuable enough and just give it to us.”
As discouraging as the situation is, De La Soul has refused to lay down.
2014 is the 25th anniversary of “3 Feet High and Rising,” and the group honored the moment by putting the disputed albums up on their website for 25 hours for free download on Valentine’s Day.
“Giving it on a loving day such as Valentine’s Day was a cool idea,” Maseo said.
It was a defiant and generous gesture, but it also helped put De La Soul’s music in the hands of younger listeners who discovered it through an appearance on one of Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz albums or at England’s massive Glastonbury festival.
Currently, the De La Soul website offers a free download of “Smell the DAISY,” a mixtape that features new takes on lyrics from from their earlier albums matched with new beats from legendary hip-hop producer J. Dilla, who died in 2006.
According to Maseo, a new album is also in the works.
“I’m loving the direction we’re going in musically,” he said. “When everybody’s on the same page, the magic is happening.”
As the band’s galaxy of samples suggests, Maseo has broad tastes that show when he DJs. Because he grew up in New York in the ‘70s, classic funk and R&B is his sweet spot, but he works to stay current as well.
“I’m trained to play a certain way that allows me to break music, and to play nostalgic music and also play new music,” he said. “But the most important thing is playing what I like as a DJ and what I think the audience should know about.”
Soul Sister’s excited about his set. “Whichever artist I feature has to be something that I really love and think others will love it as much,” she said. “I want to have the best time of all, along with the crowd.”
Alex Rawls writes about music in New Orleans. He can be reached at MySpiltMilk.com.