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How to: Curate the Perfect Playlist

Every event needs the perfect music. Learn how to select the best beats with Badger grad Armando Saafir ’16.

Photo by Basi Akpan

It’s difficult to say what about Armando “Mando” Saafir ’16 is more impressive: his towering height, his A-list roster of collaborations, or his set of diamond earrings. The studs refract the sunbeams peeking in through the windows into millions of beautiful rainbows, which vastly improves the vibe of the otherwise average room (and nearly blinds anyone in proximity). It’s a marvelous metaphor for his career. DJay Mando, as he’s known to the world, has taken what it means to be a DJ (noun: a person who plays recorded dance music at a club or party) and turned it into something much more comprehensive, immersive, and meaningful.

Mando grew up in a family of music: his mother is a dancer, and his father is a percussionist. “My parents made it a point to always be playing music,” he says with a surprising softness for someone who can easily command a packed club. The Saafir household was alive with the sounds of Latin music (Mando is half Peruvian), Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, and James Brown. As he grew up, he found his own beautifully varied tastes. He smiles at a memory of listening to Lil Bow Wow on his Walkman as a kid and passionately explains why he wants to see Taylor Swift in concert: “Female pop stars, I just know they’re gonna be fire,” he says. “I want to see that in person.”

With Powers-Knapp and Jackie Robinson scholarships, Mando came to the UW to study marketing (though if he could do it again, he’d pick philosophy: “Something to feed my mind,” he says, tapping two fingers to his temple). When he wasn’t shooting hoops at the SERF (now the Nicholas Recreation Center), he was in the WSUM radio studios, hosting a show and practicing his craft.

Practice made perfect, as they say it will, and today, Mando is one of the Midwest’s most sought-after DJs. He packs standalone shows, he opens for chart-toppers like T-Pain and 21 Savage, and he’s the in-game MC for the Milwaukee Bucks at the Fiserv Forum as well as the DJ for your very own Wisconsin Badgers basketball and football teams.

A DJay Mando show isn’t a product, but a service. It’s a unique, listener-first form of live entertainment that combines music, spoken word, choreography, costumes, and lighting to create a one-of-a-kind moment in time. “We try to make moments out of moments, if that makes sense,” Mando says. And for your next important moment — be it a graduation party, a family get-together, or a DIY wedding — take some advice from the pro to build out your perfect playlist.

Don’t make it about you.

You may love a genre, artist, or song, but if none of the attendees do, it won’t be a good experience for anyone.

Listen to the audience.

If the music you planned just isn’t hitting with the crowd, try out a handful of songs from different genres. You’ll know it when you hit the right vibe; shift your playlist to match. And don’t be afraid to take requests. “People aren’t always wrong!” Mando says. “It kind of bothers me when DJs don’t take people into account.” Try to avoid becoming a “human jukebox,” but sprinkling in requests (or shouting out requests from songs you’d planned to play anyway) can be a real crowd-pleaser.

Hiring a DJ? Do your research.

Pricing is a big factor, but a high price tag doesn’t necessarily guarantee high quality. The best thing you can do is research. Find out if they have any upcoming shows and go see them in person or check out their YouTube and social media for clips.

Consider your event duration.

For longer, drop-in events, you’ll want to start with something high energy, taper off a bit, swell to a peak around the time the most people will be there, then gradually chill it back out to the end. For a short event, keep the energy high the whole time.

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