How to DJ at a house party

There's really no DJ gig like the house party, where the usual rules of mixing, crowd reading and genres can often be completely thrown out of the window.

The shape of a great house party set

In my teenage years, as I was first getting into DJing, I attended a house party that made an impression on me. Or rather, the DJs there did. They were two guys playing back-to-back, each with very different ideas of how to handle the task.

One was playing more or less what I would buy at the time: trendy, recent dance music, mostly deep house and minimal. The other guy would roll his eyes at these records, then counter with some kind of big, retro pop hit, including the likes of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It.” The first guy was playing like we were at a Berlin afterparty. The other, a middle school dance. 

I was on minimal guy’s side, but there was no denying his tunes were falling flat. The tension broke when the other DJ spun back one of his records, allowed a moment of silence, then played “La Bamba“—original version, unmixed. I was offended on minimal guy’s behalf, but at this particular moment, at this particular party, “La Bamba” was quite literally a floor-filler. After that one, even I was hoping minimal guy would admit defeat. 

In the many years since then, I’ve thought about those guys every time I’ve played a house party. Neither one, in my opinion, knew what he was doing, but together they serve as a useful framework for how (and how not) to play a private gathering with friends. 

Picture it as a graph, with minimal guy on the Y axis and “La Bamba” guy on the X. A good DJ well-versed in the art of the house party will zig-zag between those poles, veering one way or the other based on the chemistry of the night. The result should be looser and more down-to-earth than what you get in a club, but still with an elevated standard of music selection and sensitivity to the moment that you only get from a great DJ.

Try to be serious and unserious

Like every kind of DJ gig, the house party is unique, with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, challenges and opportunities. Much of it has to do with a particular balance, one that’s important in all DJ scenarios but this one especially. You need to take the task seriously, but you can’t take yourself too seriously.

Play the best music you can manage, tailoring each track to the moment better than a playlist could. But don’t let yourself seem self-important, in your track selection, your mixing or your demeanor. After all, you’re basically just whacking on tunes for a bunch of friends hanging out.

One clear way of practicing this balance is by preparing as much as possible, while also tempering your expectations for the night. Pack your music and organize your playlists as diligently as you would for a paid gig. If it’s your house, or the house of close friends, make an effort with the setup. If you need to, lug over decks, monitors or whatever else will make you feel comfortable playing.

If you have swirly lights, colored bulbs or cheap lasers, by all means, let ’em rip. A little atmosphere can go a long way. But don’t get carried away with visions of some ecstatic bacchanal. Many house parties turn out to be relatively modest affairs. The ragers of Hollywood films and Euphoria don’t actually happen very often. But what happens instead can still be great. (For a more realistic house party ideal, see Steve McQueen’s excellent short film Lovers Rock.) 

Don’t expect too much

Set your expectations accordingly. If someone lets out a woop to one of your tunes, great. If a few people are dancing at one time, amazing. If you get a properly heaving dance floor, consider yourself very lucky.

It’s very possible, though, that no one will dance. If that happens, don’t take it personally. Even with a nice bit of floor space cleared, the vibe just may not allow for a proper dance floor. In a living room, you’re unlikely to create the kind of ethereal atmosphere that makes it easy to lose yourself in clubs. With darkness, smoke machines and a crowd of strangers, you can dance like no one’s watching, because for the most part, they aren’t.

Most house parties will have at most a few dozen people there, all clearly visible to one another, and you’re only one person removed from anyone you don’t know. The hosts can decorate the spot as much as they want, but it’s likely everyone will remain somewhat grounded in the day-to-day world. 

Intimate setting, eclectic tunes

If you know how to roll with it, though, this down-to-earth aspect is what makes house parties special. In most clubs, there’s an expectation of a kind of rolling high energy that’s best achieved with, well, club music of one description or another. At a house party you’re less restricted. You can play whatever music best suits your mood and the atmosphere of that moment.

If no one’s there yet, play like you’re alone. When one person turns up, play for yourself and that person. Draw from whatever sounds you see fit—downtempo, hip-hop, jazz, pop, whatever you would naturally put on in this kind of situation. As with a home mix, you’ll be rewarded for playing to the moment as honestly and organically as you can. 

Embrace the intimacy of the occasion. Give musical shoutouts to specific people there, songs you know they like or that represent some kind of shared memory. Maybe choose one person, a known party-starter, and play tunes you know they’ll react to. In a small crowd, one person feeling it can boost the energy in a big way. 

As best you can, use the music to make people more comfortable. House parties often need shaking up. People cluster in the kitchen because they feel safer in there, perhaps because, were anyone to ask what they were doing, they could say they were getting a drink. Out in the wilderness of the living room, they have no easy way of explaining themselves other than to say they’re… hanging out, having fun. Make that room a self-evidently appealing place to be in. 

The best way to achieve this is to play music that doesn’t overshoot its mark. No one wants to be in a room with jacking house tunes and no one dancing. Chances are you won’t have the soundsystem for that anyway. If you’re working with not much bass and medium-ish volume (as is the case at most house parties), play music that’s less affected by those limitations—pop, hip-hop, stuff with vocals and clear hooks, music made for radio and home listening rather than clubs. (Depending on where the party is, you may get a noise complaint and have to dramatically lower the volume or kill the bass. If that seems like a possibility, prepare a playlist that’s light on bass, and therefore less likely to bother neighbors.)

Mix differently (or not at all)

Keep a keen eye on the room—how many people are there, who they are, what their energy is like—and adjust to it on the fly. Prioritize track selection over slick mixing and narrative building. That stuff may matter in a club or a recorded mix, but no one will really notice it in this setting. They will notice, though, if the energy flags or the music is monotonous. If the right track occurs to you, don’t overthink it, just play it, with or without a smooth transition. 

Think of the night’s soundtrack less as one big arc and more as a series of mini sets. Playing for big and relatively anonymous crowds, DJs achieve a kind of cruising altitude with the music and maintain it for long stretches. The energy and atmosphere at a house party change more quickly, often as a result of something as minor as three people heading to the kitchen. A lot of people might arrive at once. A lot of people might leave at once. The energy in the room might go way up for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Or you might notice that, from one moment to the next, everyone is exhausted, there’s sunlight in the windows, and the only thing to do is switch to chill-out mode. 

Don’t be thrown by these ups and downs. Learn to play to them. Be prepared to play both rowdier and mellower than you might at a club gig. I was once at a house party whose clear highlights included Pinch’s “Qawwali,” a dubstep classic, Dua Lipa’s “One Kiss,” and, once it all died down, “Sex,” an hour-long, minimalist jazz vamp by The Necks. On New Year’s Eve, I saw someone play DJ Technics’ “Party People,” a storming Baltimore club tune that repeats the titular phrase over and over, for about six people. It went off, by which I mean the one person dancing let out a little yelp, the people on the couch bopped their heads, and someone very emphatically said the word “yes.” Most importantly, there was a shared sense of everyone being suddenly locked into the music. 

And so, as it always goes with DJing, plenty of it is down to your instinct, your read of the situation, your taste, and your connection to the people in the room. If you follow those subtle signals closely and honestly, you’ll play more broadly and unpredictably at a house party than you would in possibly any other DJ scenario.

Of course, if the party is populated entirely by music nerds and other DJs, you can get away with chugging it out the way you would in a club. But I’ve been to many house parties like that, and I always feel like something is lost. There’s an element of pretending in playing a house as if it were a club. As with any DJ gig, the more you unlock the special potential of the particular setting and occasion, the better the experience will be for you and everyone else there. 

Words: Will Lynch