Mobile DJ Playlist Tips: 10 Must-Add Disco and Funk Songs

When I'm not keeping the party flowing at a wedding or another private gig on the weekends, there's one music genre that I always go back to when it comes to listening to music in my downtime: the disco, funk and soul classics of yesteryear.

There are so many big names and dancefloor anthems associated with those genres. Marvin Gaye, Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, the late Aretha Franklin, Kool and the Gang, Chic, The O'Jays and many more are still synonymous with tracks that keep any sweaty masses of partygoers energized and engaged during a live DJ set.

Considered to be tacky and overdone by some, I still find that inserting some of these soulful, bassline-driven jams into my DJ mixes can help elevate any mobile gig from average to truly special. Sometimes, hooking listeners with that one throwback cut that they forgot how much they loved can be the difference between leaving a lasting impression on all those who attend a party or not.

Just to be clear: I'm not referring to the oldies that are such massive hits that they've become synonymous with the very fabric of DJing. Songs like Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" and "Show Me Love" by Robin S continue to make their way into DJ playlists precisely because they're staples. It's almost expected that, if a DJ is going to work some retro material into his or her mix, those songs would be at the top of the call sheet. 

What I'm talking about is doing the unexpected and going for the deeper cuts.

Of course, that term is relative depending on your audience. It's important to try and gauge what the average age of your attendees might be (I try and pinpoint years or 5-year spans where the guests would've been in their mid-20s and go from there) and let that inform your decision-making to a degree. Also, since songs that came out in 1990 will be 30 years old (gulp) in just two years' time, it's crucial to categorize your song catalogue appropriately. The definition of a throwback is constantly evolving and changing.

Ideally, the songs you select should be somewhere in the middle when it comes to accessibility or perceived obscurity. Oftentimes, I tend to go with lesser-known tracks from bigger artists - that way, those listening to your mix are likely to have, if nothing else, some familiarity with the voice belting out the lyrics.

If you're not using disco, funk and soul records from the 70's and 80's to beef up your DJ playlists in this way, I highly encourage you to do so. Not only do the vast majority of these tracks feature some incredible grooves and toe-tapping rhythmic hooks, the four-to-the-floor structure of the production will help you make seamless transitions from those older records to more modern fare. 

(Note: in making that last statement, I'm assuming you've already got a handle on manually beatmatching by ear and not relying on your DJ software or, even worse, the dreaded "Sync" button. If you're not at that level yet, there's plenty of online video tutorials that are just a few clicks away to help you get started)

So, with all this in mind, here are 7 great retro tracks that should enhance your next DJ set, regardless if you're in front of a live crowd or streaming your mix online:

1. James Brown - "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine"

Arguably the most iconic record made by the Godfather of Soul, "Get Up" is a funk track that immediately pulls partygoers in with that infectious countdown vocal hook that comes in right off the top. The phenomenal guitar work combines with a steady, hi-hat driven groove that is one of the best in Brown's entire discography. It's one of those classic cuts that makes it literally impossible to sit still.

2. Chic - "Everybody Dance"

According to Nile Rodger's autobiography (which is a great read for music nerds, by the way), "Everybody Dance" was the song that made Chic a staple of 70s-era club DJ sets, including those played at the infamous Studio 54. All the elements of a funk classic are present on this record: a virtuoso baseline from the late Bernard Edwards, a glittering keyboard riff and soaring vocals that ooze sexy soul vibes. This will fit right into your uptempo dance playlists with ease.

3. Aretha Franklin - "Freeway of Love"

As of this writing, the music world is still mourning the loss of soul's de facto queen, Aretha Franklin. While cuts like "Think," "Jump To It" and others have resurfaced and regained popularity with DJs worldwide, there's still something about this 80s track of hers that puts me in a dancing mood. The chugging, synth-heavy beat surrounds her unmatched singing ability with a more clubby vibe, a move that helped her execute a comeback of sorts back in the day, along with Tina Turner and other female soul staples of that era.

4. Billy Ocean - "Nights (Feel Like Gettin' Down)"

At some point, many mobile DJs will likely have introduced other Billy Ocean tracks, such as "Caribbean Queen" and "Get Outta My Dreams (Get Into My Car)" into their sets, but this 70s gem is still my absolute favorite track that he ever did. The slinking baseline, the ultra-cool R&B flavor, the catchy chorus - they all combine for a oft-forgotten piece of music that more DJs need to dazzle their audiences with.

5. George Michael - "I Want Your Sex (Pts. 1 & 2)"

Maybe not a name that most equate with the funk or soul genres, but George Michael's long-form version of "I Want Your Sex" is one of the best cuts in his entire body of work. Granted, the song is probably not 100% appropriate for an all-ages kind of party; however, if you've got a room full of attendees who are ready to drink and dance the night away, you could do worse than set the mood and tone of the evening with something from this 80s idol.

6. Grace Jones - "Pull Up To The Bumper"

A disco and dance culture pioneer, I recommend that any DJ who wants to be turned on to some serious 70s club hits check out the work of the one and only Grace Jones. Taken from an LP that's full of floor-filler material, "Pull Up To The Bumper" is exactly what it sounds like - a track that will kick the rump-shaking into high gear. Don't sleep on this and other songs by her.

7. Michael Jackson - "Workin' Day And Night"

If I had to pick a lesser-known MJ record that always gets a nice reaction, it would be this selection from his seminal solo debut. A hard-driven disco song with some fantastic vocal and guitar accents complementing a brass section that's operating in overdrive, it's a souped-up version of something like "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough." Late-70s club anthems aren't made much better than this.

8. Mtume - "Juicy Fruit"

A funk track that later become a mainstay in hip-hop sample culture, Mtume's "Juicy" works as both a straight-up playlist item and a transition tool for many, many other party anthems (bonus points if you've already done this with songs like The Notorious B.I.G.'s classic of the same name). A deep-rooted groove that is incredibly versatile, this 80s jam is a must-have for DJs who are looking to spice up the R&B portions of their sets.

9. Prince - "Controversy"

The Purple One gifted music fans and DJs alike with several undeniable classics, but one that doesn't get played as often as it should is "Controversy." Released during an era where the last gasps of the disco clubbing era were slowly transitioning over to house music, this is a party record that deserves some more airtime at weddings and events everywhere.

10. Stevie Wonder - "I Wish"

Finally, we end with a song that may not be that deep a cut but just hear me out. When most mobile DJs think Stevie Wonder, they pounce on the iconic drum opening of something like "Superstition" or the majestic horns you hear on "Sir Duke." A great playlist item from his 1976 double album is "I Wish," a track that combines both of those elements and envelopes them in an incredible bass part in what remains one of Stevie's funkiest creations. It's also another song that was a huge influence on rap music, so do your homework and some natural transition opportunities will be there.

Did I miss a disco, funk or soul classic favorite of yours? Let me know in the comments below!