Dispatches | February 15, 2014


By Alison Balaskovits

So, you’re picking up author Colson Whitehead from the airport for a a reading before taking him to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the opportunity, but also a bit nervous. Relax. You need not worry. You’re going to ace the assignment. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you rolled up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, intuition, and internet sleuthing I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable.

As with heavy-duty psychedelics, the central elements to consider when crafting a mixtape are set & setting (i.e. who are you going to be with and how/where are you going to be?). The second part of that is easy here, you need music for a post-flight, possibly jet-lagged, drive to a destination where you and your passenger are going to want to be lively/engaged/thoughtful. You want upbeat & energetic stuff, cut occasionally with more downtempo/groovy jams.

You’ll be conducting an interview so, as much as possible, you want to develop a good rapport with a total stranger in the 25 minutes between throwing his carry on in your trunk and pulling into the steakhouse parking lot. The music is key here. The small talk may fizzle, the silences may deafen, the pressure may mount, but there’s going to be music soundtracking every second of that potential agony…make it count. Here’s where that who you’re with thing comes into play: you’ll (obviously) need a mix he’ll actually like. That means attempting to tailor it to his tastes. You’ve got to have some classics that he’s sure to know and love and, if you can, some newer stuff in the same vein that he’ll appreciate too. Now, I’ve never actually read any of Mr. Whitehead’s books, though his twitter is pretty damn funny and The Intuitionist has been on my Amazon wish list for long time. Fortunately we live in a beautiful age when internet stalking a public figure is simple, convenient, and likely to yield some high-value intel.

Such was the case here. I Googled “Colson Whitehead Music” and without leaving the 1st page of search results I found these two resources: an archived copy (with some more recent exposition) of a Whitehead-penned 1993 review of Basehead’s second album and, even more helpful here, a 2011 interview he did with The Hairpin where he’s actually selecting and discussing personal-favorite tracks throughout, jackpot. From the 1st I reckon that he likes golden age hip-hop, inventive sampling, and has little time for the incorporation of lazy or offhand political ire into what’s basically chillout music. Not a lot to go on, but I’ll take it. That Hairpin piece offered a much greater bounty in terms of what kind of stuff he’s into. I assume his tastes are extremely varied in terms of period & genre, but here there’s a definite concentration of post-punk & new-wave (and it mostly skews toward tunes with traditional instrumentation rather than the synth-soaked variety), plus he really likes horror flicks. We can work with this.

I below offer a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick him up and to not discuss it at all unless he brings it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been here before. I can in no way guarantee that he’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck.

1.Nina Simone – See Line Woman

Energetic, a great post-flight pick me up. A solid bet given that virologists have yet to discover a human being immune to Nina Simone.

2. George McCrea – I Get Lifted

Low-key yet driving funk on an under-appreciated classic. IF it comes up you might mention that the KC & The Sunshine Band version of this was sampled on the Jaz-O track Pumpin’ (ft. Jay-Z)

3. Strafe – Set It Off

Try to cue this just as you’re hitting the highway. I questioned including this because you’ll probably want to be chatting, exchanging pleasantries, thinking of last-minute interview questions, etc. and all of that will have to stop once you inevitably crank the windows down and start blasting this classic.

4. New Order – Age of Consent

If played in sequence this is a definite shift in tone/genre, but not in energy, and that’s what’s important. The tail-end of this especially is crazy-forceful.

5. Grimes – Skin

Solid come-down with some hypnotic vocals, but it won’t be putting anyone to sleep anytime soon. Provides an opportunity for discussion re: what type of food will preferred and interesting recent reads.

6. A Tribe Called Quest – Electric Relaxation

Maybe keep the passenger-side door unlocked because if anyone you ever encounter in your life objects to this song I’m pretty sure you’re authorized to reach over and push them out onto the interstate at full speed in 37 states.

7. William DeVaughn – Be Thankful For What You’ve Got

Level 10 cruising jam right here. Grooves like all hell. Unforgettable gangster lean chorus. Straight up covered on Massive Attack’s brilliant debut and sampled by N.W.A., Ludacris, and many more.

8. XTC – Making Plans For Nigel

My personal favorite XTC song. It’s been covered a bunch (The Rembrandts did the best job with it IMO) but the original is still tops. Probably best for driving back to the airport when the visit is all said and done, but it’ll fit in anywhere.

9. Talking Heads – Born Under Punches (Live in Rome 1980)

Mr. Whitehead likes new-wave, he’s heard this sung up and down a billion times (as we all should have). But there’s a chance he hasn’t heard this live version and you might be able to score some bonus points for hipping him to this because…damn. So effing good. If he has heard it I’ll just say there’s never a bad time for revisiting this track. It’s long so you want to make sure you give yourself plenty of highway.

10. Childish Gambino – Zealots of Stockholm [Free Information]

Insane mix of tempos/styles, fantastic samples. Slight gamble here, but I’m feeling confident on this one. Unassailable night driving song.

11.Little Dragon – Brush the Heat

Simply infectious. Airy, almost elfin, vocals paired with a straight thumpin’ beat. From 2011 but untied to time.

12. Bauhaus – Kingdom’s Coming

If you like post-punk and you like horror you like this song (and probably everything by Bauhaus for that matter, but this one is extra good…and was on the soundtrack of the Blair Witch Project).

So there we have it. As I said, no guarantees, but I think this lays down a fairly solid base for the interview. Best of luck!


weshazard_pubshotWes Hazard is a Boston-based writer, stand-up comic & radio DJ. You can follow him on Twitter @weshazard