There are few singers less funky than Suzanne Vega, the genteel folkie whose only pop success before now was ''Luka,'' her 1987 song about child abuse. But two remixers from Britain, Neal Slateford and Nick Bett, working under the name D.N.A., did the impossible. By adding a hip dance beat to ''Tom's Diner,'' an otherwise subdued a cappella song from Vega's 1987 album, Solitude Standing, they gave her music more rhythm than it ever had on its own and, when ''Tom's Diner'' became a top-five hit at the end of last year, brought her name back to the top of the charts.
The task wasn't easy. D.N.A. first tried to license their remix through Vega's label, A&M Records. When their phone calls went unanswered, they did what other British remixers have done: They released the record illegally, packaged in blank sleeves to disguise their identity.
When BBC Radio aired the song in June, A&M rose up with a vengeance, and, to avoid a lawsuit, D.N.A. was forced to sign away all rights to their creation for less than $8,000. ''D.N.A. got a terrible deal,'' says entertainment lawyer Ken Anderson. ''But they're not in the best position to complain.'' Vega's manager, Ron Fierstein, comments: ''Yes, we made a good deal. But these guys were guilty of criminal copyright infringement.''
Slateford's view is a little more pungent. ''Suzanne Vega should buy us a drink,'' he says. ''Tom's Diner'' may have earned her several hundred thousand dollars in royalties at a time when her career was sagging: Her 1990 album Days of Open Hand peaked at only No. 50, producing no hit singles.
D.N.A.'s luck got even worse in December, when Slateford and Bett were booked for what was supposed to be a short but triumphant tour of American clubs. Frankie Crocker, an influential New York deejay, canceled a radio interview with them because Vega wasn't scheduled to appear; producers at a major TV show turned them away after learning there were no plans for Vega to perform. Then D.N.A.'s own singer, Jay Mondi, recruited just to sing ''Tom's Diner'' in the U.S., suffered neck pains after the group's limo got in an accident. She quickly flew home and D.N.A. had to cancel its tour.