How to Curate the Perfect Dinner Party Playlist, According to Questlove
In this excerpt from his new book, Mixtape Potluck, the DJ, musician, and friend of Martha explains how to make the music as good as the menu.
When The Roots co-founder and musical wunderkind Questlove has a food question, Martha is one of his go-to sources. He and Martha have sparred over Cuban sandwiches, and they even once did a Snapchat cooking show together. They both love food. Questlove wouldn't consider himself a chef, but he is known for his next-level hosting skills. Among other things, he's organized a series of high-profile "food salons," each with food made by a leading chef, for a carefully curated mix of people from the worlds of music, design, comedy, and technology. He knows how to bring people together and make a party with a really delicious menu.
That's just what he's done with Mixtape Potluck, the book is a party with quite the guest list. Questlove invited 50 friends, including Dominique Ansel, Jessica Biel, and his old pal Jimmy Fallon, to share a favorite recipe. Martha is in the mix, too—in fact, she's right there up front actually. Our founder wrote the introduction to the book and shared her Grape Foccacia recipe.
In return, Questlove is sharing his expertise with us. In this excerpt from Mixtape Potluck, he offers his best tips for crafting a dinner party playlist.
Constructing playlists is something that I encounter on a daily basis. Partly that's because I work as a DJ, a job that I interpret not simply as an opportunity to move the crowd (though that's part of it) but as a chance to create a collage of the world's nest organized noise, a musical history lesson. Songs come together for maximum power, whether it's in a dance club or in an arena before a concert.
So how do playlists work at a dinner party? They can work very well, but not very simply. Making a playlist, in fact, is both like and unlike hosting a potluck dinner. On the one hand, it involves bringing together other people's creations and arranging them for the enjoyment of a group. On the other hand, potlucks can feel like excruciating exercises in loss of control, at least from the food side: if you're the host, you can hint at what people should bring, but you can never fully orchestrate the meal. Playlists allow full control, in a sense—though you aren't making the songs so much as collecting them, you don't have to worry about surprising ingredients, or instructions for preparation, or even an unexpected taste. That song by The Time—or A Tribe Called Quest, or Missy Elliott, or Curtis Mayfield, or Teena Marie—sounds the same every time. The job is one of curation. What should come first? What should follow it? How are you setting the mood, managing it, driving the dinner party from its inception to its conclusion? What emotions and ideas are you releasing into the room?
Here are some tips for creating the best dinner party playlist.
Whatever time you think your party is starting, that's not exactly when it's starting. Make sure you program some arrival music that doesn't demand an excessive amount of attention. Jazz works well, or instrumental hip-hop. Everyone will be making introductions. Don't confuse this time of casual small talk by adding lyrics to the mix.
Balance Self-Portraiture with the Instinct to Entertain
When I try to reach an audience, whether in a club or a dining room, I want them to have a good time, but I want them to have a good time on my terms. I don't mean that arrogantly. It's not all about me. But if I'm throwing a dinner party, if I'm calling it for a certain time, if I'm making the guest list and picking the decor, I'm also damn sure going to control the music. Don't be ashamed to think of the party as a canvas, and the playlist as both brush and paints.
Pick Music That Reinforces the Narrative of the Evening
This is a variation of the earlier tip, but it's an important tip, so nice I'm saying it twice. A dinner party, like everything else that people do, is a psychological experience. In a potluck, you will not be controlling the food, but you can control other things. You can work the room's lighting to the advantage of the evening—the same goes for temperature and the organization of the furniture. And, of course, the music. You can bring people from an early state of excited anticipation through a state of satisfaction to a state of pleased departure if you pick your music correctly. I can't be too specific here—not just because they're trade secrets, but because every party is slightly different—but there are some general guidelines. Vary tempos. Alternate between new music and nostalgic favorites. Music is not only entertainment, but a way of keeping time and regulating biorhythms. For example, think of a party that leans into sixties soul: that kind of music feels communal, and even when you turn it down, you can hear the pulse, whether it's James Jamerson with the Funk Brothers or someone else. It keeps time and keeps people present in time. You don't need synesthesia to see that different music gives off different-colored glows.
Throw Some Curveballs as the Night Progresses
In my DJ sets, I have moments that I use as Rorschach tests—I like to throw out unexpected songs and see how they land. It might be the Golden Girls theme, or an edit of Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight" that cuts off right before the drum solo. In those moments, you can see the crowd redivide itself into those who get the joke and those who do not, those who feel spoken to and those who feel excluded from the moment. Midway through your dinner party, do something like that. Maybe follow Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do for Love" with Prince's "Had U," or an easy-to-digest Pointer Sisters ballad with a song from Eugene McDaniels's Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. Just like you want some food to stand out, even if it's not for everyone, you want some songs to pop.
Figure Out Multiple Speakers
I don't know your audio setup. I'm not going to meddle. Maybe you have a sophisticated Sonos network that extends throughout your house. But maybe you're just streaming music from your phone to a Bluetooth speaker. In that event, I am going to recommend that you do a little research to find a way to stream to multiple speakers simultaneously. You don't want all your guests clustered in the same corner where they can hear the music. But you also don't want too much different music playing in different parts of the party. People should be hearing the same thing. It helps with a sense of oneness. (Exceptions include the bathroom, where you can always have softer jazz or R&B.) Bluetooth speakers are pretty cheap these days, and there are apps that let you play the same song simultaneously on multiple devices.
Discourage Too Much Technology on the Part of Your Guests
This is a good general rule. Try to put your phone away, and ask your guests to do the same. But there's a specific dimension when it comes to music. You don't want your guests to hear a song that inspires them and immediately Shazam it, or to ask you who's singing and go on Spotify to save songs for later. Those are for later. A party is for communal experience. Questions and conversations about music can be encouraged, but they should happen between humans.
Don't Come Up Short
You don't know how long your dinner party will last. You might think two hours and it goes until 4 a.m. Just as this book includes late-night snacks for when things get going again, make sure you have an extra hour of music for the late night stragglers. If you start with noise, don't let things fall into silence. It will feel jarring.
Excerpt from the new book Mixtape Potluck by Questlove published by Abrams Image © Ahmir Khalib Thompson, available on Amazon now.