Make your groove thing

The Baltimore Sun

Picking the perfect house-party playlist can be a tricky task.

Maybe you'll start with a little Bob Marley, ease into some vintage James Brown and then go full throttle with Justin Timberlake's new single.

Or you could spice it up with an '80s monster ballad or two somewhere in the middle.

Playlists - which can be burned onto a CD or uploaded into an iPod - are this generation's mixtapes. They set the tone for home parties and the pace in the gym. Music downloading Web sites such as iTunes have made millions of songs available, allowing average house-party hosts to easily play DJ for their friends.

"That's basically what we're doing when we're DJing - we're putting playlists together on the fly," said Baltimore-based DJ Feelgood, aka Charles Fields. "It's actually a lot easier to sit in front of your computer and figure out what you want to put on your playlist."

But even with so many songs at your fingertips, selecting the best soundtrack for a house party can be tough. Your guests' music tastes, the party's theme and the time of night are all considerations when compiling a party playlist.

When it comes to social events, both home and club DJs generally use the same formula: Start out slowly and build from there. Playlists should have peaks and valleys that play out over the course of the night.

Alex Ashkenes, music buyer for the Fells Point record store Sound Garden, recommends beginning with bossa nova or reggae songs to warm people up.

"When you first get to a place, you're not ready to dance right away," Ashkenes said. "You want to hang out, get a drink. The more you hang out there, you become more ready to dance."

From there, you can get into something a little faster, with a little more emotion. Feel free to switch genres.

Ashkenes jumps from reggae to soul to rock and then peaks with hip-hop.

Karem Ulken, a local DJ who spins at Red Maple's weekly Middle Eastern-themed Shanta dance party, said he raises the pace consistently for almost an hour at a time when he plays out around town.

"Build it up," Ulken said. "Make sure that by 11:30, there's good energy in the room, and after 12, it's just hands in the air."

After people have danced for a while, Ulken will ease into a slower, more laid-back groove.

"I know when those people have been dancing for 45 minutes, they need to get a drink," Ulken said. "Sometimes I will bring it down a little bit and say, 'All right, everybody can breathe a little bit and cool

off,' with the idea of building up for the grand finale."

One of the most important things to keep in mind when choosing music is the female factor, Ashkenes said. Get the girls moving and you'll get the party moving.

"Any good DJ will put together songs that girls like," Ashkenes said. "If you get girls dancing on the dance floor, then you get the guys to follow the girls to the dance floor."

Sometimes, it's good to go with a theme. If it's raining outside, Ashkenes might pick songs about the weather, such as Milli Vanilli's "Blame It on the Rain."

When you're looking for inspiration, keep in mind that Web sites such as iTunes have themed radio stations and lists of new releases and top downloaded singles and albums.

"There's just so many genres on iTunes radio," Fields said. "If you were having an '80s party, you could base your whole party on one of the [iTunes] radio stations, easily."

For the most part, you'll want to stick with widely popular tunes. Don't just choose songs that you love - keep your guests in mind when you're making your playlist.

"If you just play things that you like that no one's heard, most people aren't really open to that," Ashkenes said. "They want to hear songs that they know all the words to."

Still, slipping in the occasional obscure track for conversation's sake is OK, - especially if some of your friends are music buffs, Ashkenes said. And if a few songs are big hits with your guests, it's not taboo to recycle them on the next party playlist.

"When you listen to the radio, you hear the same things a couple times a day," he said. "If it's a good song, and people like it, you can play it as many times as you want, play it every week if you want."

Taking requests from the crowd is a slippery slope. Once you start, it's hard to stop, Ulken said.

"Let's say that one person is satisfied," Ulken said. "But that gives the idea to five or 10 other people who are going to come up to you and ask, 'Oh, do you have this?' "

One of the best ways to keep that from happening is to ask your guests what they'd like to hear in advance. Chances are, a handful of them will ask for the same songs the rest want to hear.

Just don't let your guests take complete control of your playlist. As the host, it's your duty to keep their hands off your stereo.

"The rule is no," Ashkenes said. "They can do it at their house."

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