How To Make A Playlist That Really Shines : Life Kit So you're planning the perfect candlelit evening — or the perfect road trip, or the perfect afternoon at home. Where do you start? A playlist, of course. NPR Music's Bobby Carter showed us how he crafts them.
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How To Make A Good Playlist: Tips From A Tiny Desk Producer

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How To Make A Good Playlist: Tips From A Tiny Desk Producer

How To Make A Good Playlist: Tips From A Tiny Desk Producer

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ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Hey there, LIFE KIT listener. I know we don't have to tell you 2020 has been chaotic. The coronavirus pandemic has turned all our lives upside down. Suddenly, the straightfoward parts of life, like going to the grocery store, felt scary and uncertain. Plans for school and work dramatically changed, not to mention the unbelievable amount of loss. And we know it's not over yet.

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So if LIFE KIT has helped keep you grounded this year, we have a favor to ask. We want to continue to be your support system in the new year. So please, if you have the means, one way to do that is to donate to your local public radio station. Just go to donate.npr.org/lifekit. Again, that's donate.npr.org/lifekit. And thanks.

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Andrew Limbong, reporter at NPR's arts desk. Remember that movie "High Fidelity" from 2000, the one with John Cusack that recently got remade into a TV show on Hulu? Cusack's supposed to be this snobby record store owner named Rob, and there's this scene where he's talking about the rules to making a great mixtape.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH FIDELITY")

JOHN CUSACK: (As Rob) Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art - many do's and don'ts. First of all, you're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.

LIMBONG: I've loved this movie since before I realized Rob is supposed to be kind of a jerk. And, as such, I've long been obsessed with making the right mix CDs and playlists. But in our algorithm-run world of today, it's worth asking, why even bother making playlists anymore? I mean, the robots always seem to know the exact right emo songs to get me ready for fall. So why fight them?

BOBBY CARTER, BYLINE: Don't get me wrong. The algorithm is great at the educated guesses. But no one knows exactly what you like like you do, right? There's no DJ better than yourself to kind of hit those marks.

LIMBONG: That's NPR's own Bobby Carter, a guy who lives and breathes music. On top of producing the Tiny Desk Concerts for NPR Music, Bobby has performed as DJ Cuzzin B for over two decades. And he knows just about everything there is to know about curating music. And he says Spotify is great and all, but the act of putting together your own playlist speaks its own language.

CARTER: I mean, a lot of us aren't great with words. So why not let the song tell it, you know?

LIMBONG: As "High Fidelity's" Rob says, using someone else's poetry is a very delicate thing. So in this episode of LIFE KIT, some tips on how to make the perfect playlist for any occasion, for yourself or for someone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIMBONG: So to start this conversation, I asked Bobby, big picture, why are playlists important? What do they do for you?

CARTER: In this time we're living in now, I mean, I know for sure that we listen to music differently. So you want - we're going through so much and so many different moods. Obviously, for me personally, I'm listening to stuff that just kind of keep me calm and keep me level. So you want to try to - music - you lean on music. So you want to make these playlists to kind of ensure that you're not alone. There's always a song to kind of carry you through things.

You know, back in June, when everything started to go crazy and, you know, when you started - when people started to really, really get out in the streets and protest all of this ridiculousness that's going on - there's so many different songs that that that speak to protest, that speak to social injustice. So the music can kind of carry you there. You know, these playlists just simply help you get through. You know what I mean? And you need that.

LIMBONG: Yeah. Do you have different playlists for, like, (laughter) doing dishes, or, like, when you're, like, at the gym? Like (laughter), how do you structure, like, those playlists out?

CARTER: For my favorite - I want to say my favorite playlist that's never-ending, that I constantly add to is my weekend housecleaning playlist.

LIMBONG: (Laughter).

CARTER: You can go so many places. But music to clean a house is just so essential.

LIMBONG: What's on it?

CARTER: Personally - oh, my God. What's not on it, man? I like to go high-energy - Sly and the Family Stone and bunch of New Edition and even Alanis Morissette and Jamiroquai, and, you know, you name it. Fat Joe, DJ - you name it. It just - all...

LIMBONG: The problem with that is the house isn't getting clean if you're busy, like, karaoke-ing (ph) by yourself, you know (laughter)?

CARTER: Oh, but that's the thing. I'm not. I'm getting it done while these songs are playing. You know what I mean? I'm just - I'm sweeping and dusting in a frenzy over here, you know what I mean?

LIMBONG: (Laughter).

CARTER: So the music kind of keeps my energy up. And then you have your cool down. Sometimes people ask me for breakup playlists, you know, if they've broken up with somebody, or family reunions - of course, weddings. So you name it, man. There's so many different playlists, dude. And I like to make them all.

LIMBONG: Well, yeah. I kind of want to get into a little bit more because, like, I think before you start making a playlist, like, do you have to ask yourself questions? - 'cause, like, I mean, I sort of understand you when you say that you know yourself better than anyone. But I'm, like, (sighs) I never know what I want.

CARTER: Right.

LIMBONG: Like, you know (laughter)?

CARTER: Yeah.

LIMBONG: (Laughter) I need to have my wife, like, order my takeout for...

CARTER: Yeah.

LIMBONG: ...Me, you know? So, like, what sort of questions do you need to ask before you start embarking on this journey?

CARTER: You know, playlists, they do a really good job at accentuating a mood and a feeling. So, you know, I ask myself, well, how do I feel right now? What am I going through? Am I looking to come down from a mood that I'm in? Am I looking to sort of highlight that and really pull it out, you know what I mean? It really sort of depends. But at the end of the day, you're really trying to set a mood or accentuate a mood.

LIMBONG: All right. So now that - if you have, like, the mood figured out and, like, the sort of emotional feel you're going for...

CARTER: Yeah.

LIMBONG: ...I guess the first step is, like, picking songs - right? - which is, like, a big step. So how do you start there?

CARTER: Yeah. So I kind of think about this as - you know, I think about the structure almost like an airline flight - how you have, like - you have your ascent, you have your peak, where you'll stay there and cruise for a while and then you'll have your landing. And that arc is kind of like the way you want to build your playlist.

So you just sort of think and play connect the dots. You know, when you really have your musical brain on - and I know I've - you know, I always have mine on. I'm always connecting the dots when it comes to songs. So that song's great. Oh, well, that reminds me of that. Or sometimes you'll say, OK, well, that song's great. I love this artist. Let's pick another song from this artist. There's so many different angles you can come from or go through. Yeah.

LIMBONG: OK. So it's like a flight. All right. I like that. Let's belabor this metaphor a bit and take us on a quick trip from takeoff to landing.

CARTER: Let's see. That's a good question. To take off, I like - I'll play something like - I'll start with, like, some chill R&B, like, a song like "Whoa" from Snoh Aalegra or...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHOA")

SNOH AALEGRA: (Singing) Like, whoa, like...

CARTER: ...Something really smooth to kind of build up. You know what I mean? And then as you kind of go through, you'll play, like - you'll ramp it up a little bit more. You'll play something from Snoop...

(SOUNDBITE OF SNOOP DOGG SONG, "GIN AND JUICE")

CARTER: ...Something like that or - so then as you slowly start to build up, depending on where you are, you'll play, like - you'll really kind of set it off with Beyonce, "Before I Let Go" into, like, some "Candy" by Cameo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDY")

CAMEO: (Singing) Candy.

CARTER: And then turn it up some more with some "Suavemente."

LIMBONG: (Laughter).

CARTER: Really, really turn it up and go in. You know what I mean?

LIMBONG: Yeah.

CARTER: And you stay there for a little while.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIS CRESPO SONG, "SUAVEMENTE")

CARTER: Well, as you come down, some, you know, some Marvin Gaye to bring it down, some Bruno Mars, some - you know, Outkast, something like that. Of course, we got to throw in some Drake. And then you come down with, like, some Daniel Caesar or "Redbone" from Childish Gambino to kind of break it down, get them close together. You know what I mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDISH GAMBINO SONG, "REDBONE")

CARTER: And then you send them on their way, man.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDISH GAMBINO SONG, "REDBONE")

LIMBONG: Nice. Can't stay here, but you got to leave (laughter).

CARTER: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDISH GAMBINO SONG, "REDBONE")

LIMBONG: How do you balance, like, the surefire - if you're making a playlist for somebody else - right...

CARTER: Yeah.

LIMBONG: ...Or a group of people, how do you balance the surefire hits - you know, people are going to rock out to this - versus trying to introduce them to something new - right? - because I think some of the mistakes I've made in making playlists for other people is, like, I try to feed them too many vegetables. You know what I mean?

CARTER: Yeah.

LIMBONG: As opposed to feeding them, like, some candy in between. So how do you balance...

CARTER: Yeah.

LIMBONG: ...The two?

CARTER: Well, I mean, you said it. I mean, I think the big song, the big hit is the hook. The big song and the big hit is the candy. So once you hit them with a couple of hits, that kind of gives you more leeway to kind of then go in with something new. Or, you know, that's when you start with your music discovery, I think because you have them. They're more open now. They're more receptive to other things. So that's where you sort of hook them in. It doesn't even have to be a hit song but something that they're super-familiar with. Once you hit them with a couple of those, that's when you go in with the music discovery. That's when you go in and try things. Now they're liking what you're playing, let me put them on to something new.

LIMBONG: I'm curious. Like, in your head, if you listen to new songs, are you constantly putting them in your brain file folder under different playlists? You know what I mean?

CARTER: For sure.

LIMBONG: Like, do you already have them, like, ready to go? It's like, oh, this would be good for cleaning the house. It's like, oh, this...

CARTER: That's...

LIMBONG: ...Would be good for the gym.

CARTER: For sure. I think that for me, the music discovery is the most important aspect to any playlist, any set you're spinning. I'm always looking to sort of put somebody on to a new artist or a brand-new song. Nothing's more satisfying than someone coming to you and saying, hey; I never heard that before. What is that? That's great. How can I get it? You know, who's the artist? So I - that's probably highest on my list other than keeping people dancing and smiling - is music discovery and really kind of opening people up to new sounds and new artists.

LIMBONG: Do you write this stuff down or, like, have a - like, a formal system of logging? I only ask 'cause there's been couple of times where I've been trying to make a list, a playlist, and then I've...

CARTER: Yeah.

LIMBONG: ...Been into a section - it's like, oh, I heard that one song, like, a few weeks ago.

CARTER: Yeah. Yeah

LIMBONG: It was by - and then I, like - you know? And then it's, like, gone.

CARTER: Yeah.

LIMBONG: I'm like, ugh (ph). And I had to, like...

CARTER: Yeah.

LIMBONG: I'd, like, try to go into my browser history and be like, I think it was a Thursday I think I heard it, or whatever. You know what I mean?

CARTER: Yeah.

LIMBONG: So do you have any sort of, like, formal organizational system? I said that as a joke at the beginning, but now I'm curious if you actually do.

CARTER: Well, Shazam is your friend. First and foremost is Shazam, right? And if Shazam can't pick it up, I just - I try to listen a little closer. And I'll type - I'll just type in a lyric. And from there, I'll go to Google and type in that lyric and do a search, a lyric search. I go crazy with this type of stuff. You know, back when I was DJing in clubs, I would always catch people in the corner Shazaming (ph) stuff while I'm playing. It's the greatest thing.

LIMBONG: Oh, nice.

CARTER: (Laughter).

LIMBONG: Oh, that must feel so good. It's like, yeah, you liked it, you know (laughter)?

CARTER: It's the best. It's the best.

LIMBONG: Are there any cliches to avoid, just songs that have played out that, you know, you as a DJ can't, like (laughter) - just, like, oh, I can never, like, play that; it's so, like, passe?

CARTER: Well, I always say that it's subjective, right? But I, you know - depending on who I'm spinning for, they'll say, hey; absolutely no line dances, right?

LIMBONG: (Laughter).

CARTER: For the love of God, please do not play the "Cupid Shuffle." Or some people may say, hey; play some line dances. You know, some people love them. Some people don't. Some people will say, hey; whatever you do, don't play the "Macarena," right? So there's some songs like that where, you know, they'll get it played out. Or "YMCA" - don't play "YMCA." I want it to feel fresh. I want it to feel, you know, all-ages. But, you know, surprise us. So there are a few cliches out there. Line dances come to mind - anything where it's kind of like a - like, well, you have to sort of gather a group or try to get a whole group together to do the same thing. Some people just don't like that.

LIMBONG: Yeah. So when it comes to going from one song to the next and, like, getting that flow right and not breaking the rhythm, do you have any, like, tips or tricks that you use that you think you can impart to some people who may be not as, like, musically nerdy?

CARTER: Yeah. I do these things where - when you think of classic drum patterns, I think of stuff like...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "CLYDE STUBBLEFIELD: COLD SWEAT - FUNKY DRUMMER (JAMES BROWN)")

CLYDE STUBBLEFIELD: Got to put it all together.

CARTER: "Funky Drummer" by James Brown, which is one of the most sampled drum patterns in music, period. It's been sampled by hundreds of songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "CLYDE STUBBLEFIELD: COLD SWEAT - FUNKY DRUMMER (JAMES BROWN)")

STUBBLEFIELD: (Vocalizing). Tighten up.

CARTER: You can literally make an entire playlist that samples that same drum pattern. So imagine 50 songs with the same drum foundation. You could do that. Or when you think of a song like "Dancing In The Dark" by Bruce Springsteen and you put it together with Pharrell's "Happy"...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHARRELL SONG, "HAPPY")

CARTER: ...And Bruno Mars' "Locked Out Of Heaven"...

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUNO MARS SONG, "LOCKED OUT OF HEAVEN")

CARTER: ...Or "Take On Me" by a-ha, that's the same exact drum signature or time signature, so it's all going to flow perfectly.

(SOUNDBITE OF A-HA SONG, "TAKE ON ME")

CARTER: Same goes with OutKast's "Hey Ya!"

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTKAST SONG, "HEY YA!")

CARTER: Those few songs right there - those all sit in the same time signature. So when you make those transitions, it sounds so smooth because before you know it, you realize you're dancing or you're moving, you know, in the same rhythmic pattern. And it can flow. I mean, you can go forever with something like that.

LIMBONG: I'm trying to play these songs in my head and be like, (imitating drum pattern).

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: Yeah, take some of those songs. I'll send you some of those songs. But you'll realize, like - of course, you know Carlton from "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air."

LIMBONG: Yes, of course.

CARTER: The quintessential Carlton song was "It's Not Unusual," right? And his famous dance - they call it The Carlton. A friend of mine did a mix called The Carlton where he played a bunch of songs in 2/4. And basically, you can do The Carlton for an hour straight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S NOT UNUSUAL")

TOM JONES: (Singing) It's not unusual to be loved by anyone.

CARTER: You can go for days with a mix like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S NOT UNUSUAL")

JONES: (Singing) It's not unusual to have fun with anyone. But when I see...

LIMBONG: How do you know when you're done?

CARTER: That's a good question, man. I think of it sort of two-tiered. Again, when it comes to playing for a live crowd, I know I'm done when you have the last call and the lights come on and people are hunched over, sweating, gasping for air. That's when you know your job is done if you're playing in front of a crowd. For playlists, I don't think your job's ever completely done. You know what I mean? I think you sort of - if you're putting together a playlist for an event, you sort of find out from the host, you know, what the event is and what they're looking for, how long the event is. You do the math determined - to determine how many songs you need to play. And just hope for the best, man. You always want to - you want to add a little bit, but you just hope for the best. And like I said, lean on your experience as a true music lover - and, for myself, as a DJ - and just sort of hope and have the confidence that you're doing your job.

LIMBONG: It does - it's almost when you're - and maybe my heart is on my sleeve a little bit too much here. It's like - I find it's a very - sometimes it's an intimate thing when you're making a specifically for somebody else. I mean, that's, like, my own maybe personal biases.

CARTER: Well, I know what you mean, man. A playlist or a mixtape - it's a love language. You know, when I courted the woman who eventually became my wife, I want to say almost weekly, she got a playlist from me or just a set of songs. I was, you know, make - you know, back - this was 18 years ago now, so it would always be mix CDs. And I made them weekly. And I would like to think that helped.

LIMBONG: (Laughter) Yeah, that's sweet. Yeah. I proposed to my wife through a mix tape - or through a mix CD, rather.

CARTER: See? Yeah, exactly, man.

LIMBONG: It was, like - I, like - in the liner notes, I wrote, like, a - I made - it was, like, a collection of songs from our, like, relationship and stuff like that and, like, bands we'd listen to in college. And then I did, like, a - in the liner notes, like, a question mark, like a check yes if you want or check no if you don't want. Let me know. Bye (laughter).

CARTER: Who knew Andrew was a player? I didn't. I know now. That's...

LIMBONG: That's, like, the lamest thing possible, dude.

CARTER: But it works, man.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

CARTER: These are the little things that just work, man. I can relate. I mean, nothing speaks that language like music, dude. You know, when we got married, I created a whole mix that just sort of told the entire story of our 10 years at the time. You know, we were 10 years - we were together for 10 years before we got married. And I just sort of, through each song, sort of told a story about something that we went through in our relationship. And you can do that through music. There's a story for any relationship through a song, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIMBONG: OK, let's recap. Here are Bobby's steps for creating your perfect playlist.

CARTER: First and foremost, you want to figure out what type of mood you're trying to set. What are you looking to accomplish with this playlist, right?

Second, you immediately start to think about songs that come to mind. So if - when the, you know - when they say, hey; I want a cocktail hour playlist, you start jotting down the first few songs that come to mind. And then from there, you sit down and you do your research.

And listen; you could cheat a little bit. There's no set rules to this. So if you need to go to another playlist and pick a few things, there's nothing wrong with that.

Know your crowd. You have to know your crowd. If you don't know your crowd, then you're lost.

And finally, surprise people. Squeeze in something that they've never heard of that you know is great. The element of surprise is always welcome in a playlist. It's almost essential.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIMBONG: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got an episode on how to appreciate poetry and another on how to up your coffee game and lots more. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And as always, here is a completely random tip, this time from listener Alex (ph) from Brooklyn.

ALEX: Hi, LIFE KIT. My tip is for the last couple of years, I've been doing something called No Debt November. That means that for the entire month of November, I cannot use a single subscription service. I don't use a single Uber or Lyft. And I block Seamless and GrubHub from my phone and computer so that I am only using the money that is in my bank account. And all the money that I save that month from not using any subscription services - I save that money, and I tend to make a nice big deposit to my student loans on January 1 as, like, a New Year gift to myself. But I have friends who use that money for other things. That's my tip. Bye.

LIMBONG: Do you have a random tip? Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us a voice memo at lifekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our digital editor is Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. I'm Andrew Limbong. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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