For artists, every Grammy Award nomination is special. But when DJ/musician/producer Tracy Young received a nod in the Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical category for a remix of Madonna’s Madame X standout “I Rise,” it was extra special: She became the first woman ever to receive a nomination in the category.
The nod is well deserved: “I Rise (Tracy Young’s Pride Into Radio Remix)” preserves the song’s empowering vibe and layers on propulsive beats and dynamic rhythm undulations. Small arrangement edits — such as moving Parkland Shooting Survivor Emma Gonzalez’s sampled quote to the song’s middle — further increase the song’s power. In the end, Young’s remix is simultaneously intimate and extroverted.
“People are saying that it should have happened a long time ago,” Young says of her landmark nod. “I kind of disagree, because I think everything happens in the right time. And it’s a Madonna record, [and it] means the world to me to be nominated for the first time on a record that she was involved with and wrote and performed.”
Indeed, Young has been part of Madonna’s musical orbit since the mid-’90s — first as a DJ and then as someone who regularly remixes her singles, including “Don’t Tell Me,” “Music,” and more. (In fact, Young has done 14 “official” Madonna remixes.) However, Young has amassed more than 60 chart-topping Billboard club hits and has also put her unique spin on tracks by Cyndi Lauper, P!nk, Shakira, Britney Spears, Stevie Nicks, Mary J Blige, and dozens more.
Young — who has also worked as a music director at Washington D.C. radio station WPGC and promotions director for Interscope Records — grew up with eclectic tastes, adoring Olivia Newton-John, as well as artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Prince, and Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. She later became an avid record collector who would buy singles at a now-shuttered record store called 12 Inch Dance Records in Washington D.C.’s DuPont Circle, meaning she was set when she finally bought her first set of turntables and taught herself to DJ. “I already had a big collection of music to practice with,” Young says. “I’d spend all my money on music, always.”
Before a DJ gig in Miami, Young hopped on the phone to talk about her Grammy nod and how her career unfolded.
Congrats on the Grammy nomination. Where were you when you found out?
I was at home on a call. My manager Amy kept texting me, and I was like, “God, I told them I’m on a call.” I was getting annoyed. Then I realized that it was Grammy nomination day, and I was like, “Oh my God.” I said [to Amy], “Did I get nominated for a Grammy?” and she’s like [yells] “Yes!” And I immediately started crying, and it was completely overwhelming.
The whole Madame X record is obviously such a personal and powerful statement. What was your approach to the “I Rise” remix?
Knowing that it was Madonna’s LGBT anthem, I wanted a version to play in the nightclubs and on the dancefloor. There wasn’t a version at that point in time. I had the idea, and Madonna was like, “That’s cool.” And that’s how it happened. I have a long history in radio, and when I sent it to radio and they were embracing the song, wanting to play it, it escalated organically. And then it was World Pride in its 50th year. The pieces fell the way they fell.
You’ve worked with Madonna for so long. What makes you two both work so well together? Where do you sync up?
I owe her a tremendous amount of gratitude, because she’s provided me with opportunities that I don’t really think I would have had otherwise. Our relationship just kind of evolved. I never really thought about it until I got nominated: I started with her as a DJ, and then it was the remix production [for her]. And the remix I did for “Crave” is in her Madame X concert. We are more collaborative now. If you had told me 20 years ago, “You’re going to be collaborating with Madonna,” I wouldn’t have believed you. But [our relationship] seems to be evolving in an organic way. And I want what’s best for her. I’m a very loyal person, and she’s done a lot for me.
Looking at your career trajectory it is an interesting path; you’ve done a bunch of different things. When you were originally kind of starting out, is there anyone who made you want to become a DJ? What really got you into it originally?
I snuck into a nightclub. First of all, it was music that I had never heard—it was in this gay club called Tracks. I didn’t understand how the music wasn’t stopping — I was young, I was underage. [Laughs.] I became curious about it. When I saw how it was done when I went to college, I said, “I have got to learn how to do that. There’s nothing cooler than two vinyl records mixing together.” I was on a mission. I went out and bought two turntables and taught myself. I mean, I had people help me along the way with pointers, but I really taught myself. It was something that I love to do. I never thought I’d really make a career out of it.
When you were starting to DJ, what was your approach and your style? What did you want to mix together?
At the time on WPGC [where Young worked] there was a mix show. What they were doing in the club then went to the radio. So because I was underage, I couldn’t get in. [But] I actually could listen and I would record the radio and try to mimic it or do what the DJ was doing. I really studied it. I practiced every day; I drove my roommates bonkers, I’m sure. [Laughs.] It didn’t always sound so good. It was loud and noisy and my technical skills weren’t that good at the time.
Nobody coached me. I just kind of did it. [Laughs] I would play open format. I played a lot of hip-hop. I did play dance music, because I found a record store [in Washington D.C.], which was called 12 Inch [Dance] Records — it’s closed now. And I started learning about underground music and dance music and sounds that I had never heard before, and this genre of music that you would only be able to hear in the club. But I was young, so I was really attracted to it.
When you moved to Miami, how did that kind of influence your music and your career?
In Washington D.C., I was more urban-leaning. The market dictated what I would play in clubs. My philosophy is always play for the people, and if you want to listen to the music you want to play, you do that at home. I went to Miami for Winter Music Conference in the mid-’90s. And I got off the plane — I hadn’t even seen the city — I said, “Oh my God, I gotta live here.” I felt something. While I was in college at the University of Maryland, I was working at the radio station [WPGC]. And I started focusing on Miami. And then Ingrid [Casares] opened a nightclub called Liquid, and I started playing there. It was the hottest club on South Beach. That helped me build a name in Miami, which was a huge nightlife scene. And then Interscope offered me a job, and they were like, “You can live wherever you want in the southeast.” And I said, “Miami it is.” It was, again, perfect timing. It was all meant to be.
What was the first remix that really put you on the map?
I want to say the Pet Shop Boys and then Madonna. It was [the latter’s] “Music.”
I love that record — the single and the entire album.
Nobody had heard anything like it; it was amazing. But I went under The Young Collective, because I didn’t want people to be focused on the fact that I was a female. But they found out anyway, so I just started using my name after that.
Was the industry that resistant to having women remixers at that time?
Oh my God, it’s still that way. I’m the first one nominated in this [Grammy] category.
Yeah, I saw that Cyndi Lauper had posted about you on her Facebook page and mentioned you were the first women nominated in this category. I was blown away.
I know. It’s crazy. But I don’t think people really think about it until it happens, and it’s brought to your attention. We go through life not thinking [about things] unless it directly affects you. Like I was always saying, “No woman has been nominated,” since I was aware. [And] there’s no female Calvin Harris or Steve Aoki. Why is that? Like, why isn’t there a girl on that platform? There’s a ton of good female DJs. [But] it’s all men.
Do you think that you being nominated is going to have any impact? Or has it had any impact already?
It’s too early. [But again] I’m not upset that it took this long — I’m just happy it’s happened, because I think moving forward, yes, there will be more attention to seeking out female producers. Another issue is what comes first? If women aren’t getting hired, how are they supposed to build a name? And then they’re not going to be nominated because there’s no women doing it.