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How To Make The “Perfect” Road Trip Playlist

By: Casey Harlow


“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t want to blow your wad, so then you gotta cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” –Rob Gordon, High Fidelity

Making the “perfect” road trip playlist. There’s a part of me that says you can’t make a perfect playlist, because every time you listen to it, something changes. What changes? It all comes down to your mood. You can make a playlist that is great for pumping you up one day, and the next it won’t. There’s a difference between LMFAO’s “I’m in Miami B****” one day and the same song the next.

Whenever I make a playlist, I craft it knowing that it’s not going to be perfect, but it’s going to be good. Song choices are just as critical as the route you’re taking. And the quote above basically sums up the process of making that compilation. For some of you, this may be simple, 101 stuff. But the basics and fundamentals go a long way. And the longer you do it, the better you’ll be as a general DJ. Yup, you’re a DJ…at the very basic form.

Know Your Audience

First, let’s start off with one of the most important and basic questions: who is your audience? Your audience speaks volumes of what your playlist will look like. Do they like country? Do they like rock? Do they like oldies? Do they like Hip Hop? You have to ask yourself what they like because they’ll be the people listening to it. The last thing you want is to have a bored audience and lose control to someone who plays a bunch of random stuff off their Spotify.

Granted, not everyone is going to like what you put together. But if you have a majority of the people in the car on your side, that will trump that one person. It’s the simple road trip hierarchy. So, playing what your audience likes is very important.

Where Is Your Road Trip Taking You?

The next question is: where are you going? Your arrival destination is just as important because you’re trying to keep people excited for the end destination. If you’re heading to the beach, why not throw a little reggae into the playlist. If you’re taking a trip through the south, add stuff like: country, Southern rock, Southern rap, and maybe consider a little folk or Americana.

These are just some suggestions of choosing a general theme of the trip you’re taking. Taking a summer weekend adventure to a lake with a bunch of your best buds, girls, and houseboats? Past experience tells me that Top 40, EDM, and party Hip Hop usually does the trick.

Individual Track Selection

Now, the next aspect of making a good playlist is crucial, and that is track selection. Like the lead quote, you have to grab the person’s attention. Then, take it up a notch to tease the listener. But you don’t want to blow your wad because then you’ll only be six songs in and everybody is over it. Generally, I like to have the fourth song to be a slower-paced song. Not too slow, but still slows the energy down.

Like sound waves (and waves in general), you’re flow has to have peaks and valleys to it. So pace yourself; don’t stack the great stuff back to back to back. Spread it out. And fill the rest with stuff that everyone can follow along with.

Professional DJs do this all the time during their sets and shows. They do this by reading the audience’s body language. The audience will tell them everything they need to know about what is working and what isn’t.

DJs will often spin songs that aren’t too well-known, either to challenge their listeners, or to keep them engaged.  So it’s okay to spin something that may be a little obscure. And by that I don’t mean some Polish deep house music that was used once in that one movie’s club scene for 20 seconds. Chances are, not a lot of people will be appreciate it, unless your friends are those kind of people.

Do You Have What “It” Takes?

Another factor is something that can’t be taught or practiced. This is where we get into the philosophical part of things. But it’s a DJ’s mojo, the “it” factor. I can’t tell you how to find this or how you can tell if you have it. Professional DJs can spot it, and in laymen’s terms it’s when the audience loses themselves in the music. This is something that comes to a DJ after years of listening to music and putting playlists together.

It’s like a fingerprint. Every DJ puts their signature on their mixes. You can copy the exact same set from a pro, but it will never be the same because you don’t have the same mojo other DJs have.

I have been to many events with DJs who don’t have “it.” Everything can be going technically perfect, and the song selection may be okay, but something will seem off. To be honest, this “it” factor is what separates posers from the real deal. The only way you can possibly develop “it” is by spending lots of time listening to music and creating playlists.

You may be asking, how does this pertain to creating a perfect road trip playlist? Trust me, if you want “perfect”, it has everything to do with it. But if you’re looking for a basic how-to article, this should get you started on the right path.

I hope this was helpful. Good luck and happy listening!

For an example of a "perfect" road trip playlist, check out my Dorm Room Jams list on Spotify. Tom Malone and I used to bump these jams in our freshman year dorm room at University of Oregon, and this would be the "perfect" road trip playlist for us on many of our college adventures.

Casey Harlow is a DJ/Producer for Hawaii Public Radio and KTUH in Honolulu. Due to his expertise in composing perfect playlists, he's always The Adventure Tribune's resident road trip DJ.

*Photo By: Tom Malone
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