Melissa “DJ Soul Sister” Weber vividly recalls the first time she experienced the late Chuck Brown, the godfather of Washington, D.C.’s go-go music scene, in person. It was during the 2003 Essence Festival, when Brown and his band uncorked a typically funky, typically energetic celebration at one of the Superdome’s “superlounge” stages.
“It was like someone from out-of-town seeing a second-line for the first time,” Weber said. “All you can do is stand and watch. There’s so much energy around you, but you don’t know how to participate.”
That show, and pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., to hear Rare Essence and other go-go bands in their natural setting, only deepened Weber’s love and appreciation for the music. She’s made go-go the subject of her master’s thesis in musicology at Tulane University.
And go-go music — and its relationship to New Orleans funk, bounce and brass — is the theme for her 10th Annual Birthday Jam at Tipitina’s on Friday.
The New Breed Brass Band will open the show. Weber will then spin vintage vinyl for an hour, followed by a full set from the Chuck Brown Band.
“Even if you don’t know anything about Chuck Brown, people know when they come to my show that I’ll present music that will make them move and feel good,” she said. “It’s about sharing music.”
As DJ Soul Sister, Weber has done just that almost every Saturday night since 1994 via her “Soul Power” showcase of "rare groove" funk and R&B on community radio station WWOZ 90.7 FM.
After the broadcast, which airs from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., she heads to the Hi-Ho Lounge on St. Claude Avenue for her weekly Saturday night Hustle Party. The popular, free dance party, powered by her old-school vinyl collection, is now in its 12th year.
Growing up in New Orleans, Weber first heard go-go band Trouble Funk on local urban station WAIL 105 FM. Not many commercial stations play go-go — locally, Old School 106.7 FM still does — because recordings are often live and much longer than typical radio fare.
“There’s not a 3-minute go-go song,” Weber said. “There are 15-minute go-go songs, the whole side of a record.”
Parallels with New Orleans bounce and/or brass band music are obvious. Go-go contains call and response, shout-outs to specific neighborhoods and an abundance of horns and percussion. “It’s one of the last types of music left where you’ll find a 10-piece band full of funk — sort of like our brass bands,” Weber said.
In the early 2000s, she met an unlikely fellow go-go fan following an interview session with local bounce pioneer DJ Jubilee and producer/songwriter Harold Battiste at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival: Ian McKaye, the much-respected veteran of hardcore punk bands Minor Threat and Fugazi.
McKaye, a D.C. native, and Weber bonded over go-go and the fact they had both worked at Haagen-Dazs. McKaye started mailing her go-go tapes and DVDs; she sent him New Orleans bounce and brass band music in return.
In July 2003, she DJ'd at Tipitina’s for the first time as part of a go-go music tribute organized by keyboardist Davis Rogan. “The problem was, there were no congas in the band,” Weber said. “That’s like a New Orleans brass band without a sousaphone — it’s not possible.”
When Brown died in 2012, his D.C. send-off was like a state funeral, with live broadcasts of the service and a long line of fans queuing up to pay their respects. Weber hosted a tribute at Tipitina’s.
“Chuck is like the mayor of D.C. still,” she said. “There’s a memorial park, and Chuck Brown lottery tickets. He is revered in a major way.”
She made multiple trips to D.C. this summer to check out go-go bands. During breaks at the shows, DJs would spin tracks by Mystikal, Choppa and other New Orleans rappers. “There’s a cross-energy going on,” she said of the New Orleans-D.C. connection. “I hope my work at Tulane will highlight that.”
Her Friday show at Tipitina’s certainly will. Her hour-long set will include some classic go-go on vinyl — her deejaying is always sourced exclusively from vinyl. But, she says, "it will also be inspired by listening to WAIL-FM as a kid, and also by that conversation when I met Ian and we talked about New Orleans rap. There will be a lot of fun surprises thrown in.”
Friday's roster "is my dream party. It will remember Chuck Brown as the godfather. We couldn’t do it without him. It’s a celebration of all the sounds he created that have inspired me so much as a New Orleanian.”