Metro Weekly

DJ Tracy Young on Madonna, Pride, and Why She Won’t Watch the News

Grammy-winning DJ Tracy Young talks about her astounding career, her work with Madonna, and why Capital Pride is her favorite annual gig.

Tracy Young -- Photo: Mike Ruiz
Tracy Young — Photo: Mike Ruiz

“What are the chances of a girl coming from Virginia having the life that I have, one in a trillion?” says DJ Tracy Young. “I’m aware, and grateful, and humbled, and very blessed. And I’ll throw luck in there, too. I don’t take it for granted.”

Young has had a lot of “pinch me” moments in a life surrounded by celebrities and fueled by her enduring passion for music.

“When I look back at my life,” she says, “I feel like I’ve never worked. And I owe that all to where it started. And I just don’t forget it.”

Ultimately, the Grammy-winning remixer and boldface name gay DJ got her start three decades ago in D.C. It was here where she fell in love with gay nightlife and clubs, from the moment she set foot in the storied nightclub Tracks. It was also here where she first found work as a DJ on the radio, at WPGC-FM 95.5.

Young would go on to relocate in Miami a few years before the turn of the millennium and just as that Florida hotspot’s South Beach neighborhood was in the midst of a gay-led revival. Almost immediately upon making the move, Young became part of Miami’s inner-circle, befriending nightlife impresario and cultural connector Ingrid Casares, who, as Young puts it, “just oddly happened to be best friends with Madonna.”

Young quickly established herself as “Miami’s Queen of House Music,” to cite a recent feature on CBS News Miami. She also became the go-to DJ for Madonna, at the time the world’s biggest pop star was also a Miami resident. Eventually, Young started remixing for the superstar, work that has continued through the decades. In fact, through Madonna, Young scored her a Grammy win for Best Remixed Recording of the pop star’s 2019 single “I Rise.” Young became the first female producer ever even nominated in the category.

Last year, Young garnered a Grammy nomination for her “Fashionably Late” remix of k.d. lang’s biggest hit “Constant Craving.” “Being nominated is just as much a win,” Young says.

Young’s life took a sad turn recently, when her mother, Patricia Ann Ray, died in February due to complications from COVID.

“My mom was my muse,” she says. “We shared the love of music. She would come to the club with me sometimes. She was just so proud.” Since the start of the pandemic, Young has become a regular presence on Twitch, mixing music in livestreamed sessions several times a week. Her mother had been a regular presence in the Twitch chat room. All that’s taken an understandable toll on Young over the past few months.

“I’ve been really down and I haven’t turned [to] music, which was always the thing that got me through the hard times,” Young says. “D.C. will be my first performance since [her death]. I haven’t even done any music since. I was actually quite worried about it. But I picked myself up, and I’m getting ready for D.C., because I’ve got to bring it. I’ve got to be ready. I have to perform for my family back home.”

Last week was the first time since her mother’s passing that Young was able to even walk into her home studio, where she streams on Twitch. “I don’t know what happened Friday. I actually prayed. And then all of a sudden, I’m in the room and I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ So I went with it.”

At one point last February, following her mother’s death, Young found herself looking to adopt a puppy for companionship, as her last dog had died the previous fall. “I went and got this dog, Brady, and I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ It felt really spontaneous and not very well thought out. I believe that she sent me the dog. So the dog is very special to me now. I’m falling madly in love with her. It’s a good distraction. It gets you up in the morning even if you’re sad.” Brady’s puppy energy, she adds, “keeps me young.”

Young is looking forward to her annual trek to help close out the Capital Pride festival and concert on Sunday, June 12. From the very start of a ninety-minute Zoom conversation last weekend, Young could barely contain her excitement about returning to her hometown pride.

“I miss D.C.,” she says. “It’s home. When I do this event, it’s like I never dreamt that I would have a career like I do. I mean, you always hope for it. But to be able to do music, I get really emotional.”

Tracy Young -- Photo: Courtesy Tracy Young
Tracy Young — Photo: Courtesy Tracy Young

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your childhood growing up in Northern Virginia. Did you play a musical instrument?

TRACY YOUNG: I played piano. I started with the trumpet, and I didn’t like that too much. But I just used to really communicate through music.

I remember being eight years old and it was my favorite thing in the world. And fortunately, I had a mother who encouraged me to dream big and go for whatever it was that made me happy. She used to tell me, make your choices based on passion and not money. Because the money will come if you’re doing something you love. And here I am, I’ve done this all my life.

MW: How was coming out for you, and when was it?

YOUNG: I’ve always kind of been outspoken. I never said, “Hey, I’m gay.” I was myself. My mom always knew, because I was running around questioning my sexuality when I was a teenager. And I would talk to my mom. I’ve always kind of been who I am.

I kind of had it easy. But they knew. I’m the type of person, if you ask me a question, I’m going to tell you the truth. When I worked at WPGC, if somebody would say, “Are you dating women?” I would say “Yeah, I do. I’m exploring my sexuality.” Fortunately for me, I work in a field where it was pretty accepting.

My mom always prayed for me to meet a man. But she didn’t love me any less. She wanted me to go to heaven. What I always tell people is, we don’t choose this life. We choose to be happy. It’s a hard life. I mean, why would anybody pick a harder way to live? We always, as human beings, look for the easy way. This is who I am. I was born this way. Lady Gaga said it best.

As gay people, we have time to process it. But there is another factor that people don’t think about. If your parents have no idea and you come out and you go, “I’m gay, yay!” it’s not fair to the parents. They need their time to process it. And that’s the part that I’ve learned. We act like our parents should love us no matter what. My mom loved me, but she wanted me to be with a man. She wanted me to have kids. And that’s okay.

Tracy Young -- Photo: Mike Ruiz
Tracy Young — Photo: Mike Ruiz

MW: You learned a lot in your time as a DJ at radio station WPGC, right?

YOUNG: Yeah, I was doing mix shows on the radio, but I also was learning the music business, as they say. And that was my whole ambition as an eight-year-old, was to find the business of music. I knew I wanted to do music. I applied to MTV. I had huge dreams.

And they came true. They did. And that’s what I tell young people. I’m living proof. The odds were so against me. But you have to pick something that you love to do for work. I would spend all my time DJing because I loved it. And I loved creating a song, putting an acapella over an instrumental, or whatever it was that I was doing. And I was lucky that I just pursued what I fell in love with at an early age. And I was determined, driven.

MW: Do you remember the first club you went to?

YOUNG: Tracks. I was 17, and I was like, “Oh my God, look.” And it was ladies’ night. I didn’t understand where all these women came from. I eventually met some people who I’m still friends with today — Michele Miruski was one of them. She was a huge inspiration to me. She would give me records and I would watch her.

MW: When did you start DJing at clubs?

YOUNG: My first DJ gig in a club was the Marriott in Blacksburg, Virginia, where Virginia Tech is, they had a little club in there. And then when I came home for the summer, I just knew I wanted to be in the club. Because that summer, when I came home, I had found Tracks and I basically lived there. I should have put a bed in there. I mean I literally went every night it was open.

Michele was [also] working at Hill Haven, a girls club in Southeast. It was down the street from Tracks. One time she called in sick and they called me to do the backup. So that was the first club in D.C. I spun at. And then I was hooked.

Up to that point, I had no career. I was a clubgoer. Then I started getting gigs. And Michele had Thursdays and I think Saturdays and I was given Fridays and Sundays at Hill Haven. Eventually, I went up to the radio station, I just walked up to WPGC and said, “Can I intern here?” And they just hired me [in 1990].

Tracy Young -- Photo: Courtesy Tracy Young
Tracy Young — Photo: Courtesy Tracy Young

MW: What inspired your move to Miami?

YOUNG: After I graduated from the University of Maryland, I had been at the radio station for seven years and I applied for the music director position there. And they gave it to another person. I was devastated. I kind of resented the fact that I had been there so long and worked [so hard]. I thought I wanted that job. So I ended up leaving. I had my sights on Miami already.

I think it was in ’95 that I went to Winter Music Conference one year and I fell in love with it. Miami was bubbling. I fell in love the minute I came off the plane. Fast forward to ’97 when I didn’t get that WPGC job, I got a job offer in Miami to work for a record label, Interscope Records. And I knew nothing about it. I said, “Okay, let’s go. I’m ready.” I just never planned, I never thought about anything, I just went with what felt right. And I had a salary, I had an expense account.

I promoted Eminem when he first came out. Enrique Iglesias. And I was in charge of the Southeast region. It was the first time I had a little bit of money and success, and I could buy a car. So I ended up coming here and my friend Ingrid [Casares] had opened a club, Liquid. So I had a job there. And then I started working at a radio station. I had three jobs in music when I moved here.

It was a nice, easy transition. I was with a good group of people, as far as my career. And I had already done a few parties and met Madonna, and I just never talked about it because I didn’t think people would believe me.

So I’m in Miami and that’s where things kind of fell into place. I started DJing full time and then that’s when I started producing. At that point, I asked, “Can I have the vocals for Enrique?” So my first remixes were “Bailamos” and “Rhythm Divine.” And Power 96, the radio station down here, played them. That’s how I started remixing. I was just immersed in music all day long down here. It’s what I did all day long, just music, music, music.

MW: I think it’s notable that you’ve managed to maintain your relationship with Madonna all this time.

YOUNG: I respect her. I’m so grateful for her. I wouldn’t be where I am without Ingrid and Madonna. I feel very lucky. And at the time Madonna was also a big club person. So remixing for her, it changed your life. And it changed my life.

I’m a very loyal person by nature. And I know the opportunities she’s given me. I DJed many, many events for her when I first met her. And then I started remixing for her. My first record that was released was the remix of Pet Shop Boys’ “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore.” I mean, that doesn’t happen — I didn’t know it at the time. But I went under The Young Collective because I didn’t want people to know I was a girl. I wanted to stand on my own. So my first record for Madonna was “Music,” under The Young Collective. But they found out. So I was like, “Fuck it. I’ll just put my name on it.”

Tracy Young -- Photo: Mike Ruiz
Tracy Young — Photo: Mike Ruiz

MW: That was over two decades ago, and you’ve been churning out remixes pretty consistently ever since. But it wasn’t until 2019 that you garnered your first Grammy nomination, for your remix of Madonna’s “I Rise.” How did that remix come to be and what would you say is its significance in your career?

YOUNG: Like any business, the work ebbs and flows. And I hit a dry spot. I thought I wanted to retire from music. In my head I just felt like this is going to end one day. It’s too good to be true.

I’ve always approached my life like it’s my last day at this. And being a woman had a lot to do with it, because there weren’t girls doing it. When I started DJing in D.C., some of the club owners would say, “You’re not a DJ, you’re a girl.” And that just fired me up. Madonna and I are similar in that way — it made me angry. Don’t tell me no, because then I’m going to do it. It didn’t discourage me like it might some people, it made me work harder.

This was a few years ago. I’m nearing 50, I’m running around clubs, I was ready for something new. I wasn’t very active doing music because I was in an ebb, not a flow. I learned Madonna’s coming out with her new album, Madame X. And we hadn’t talked in a while. I ended up asking her, “Can I remix ‘I Rise?’ I think this is an anthem for gays, and I would love to have a version to play on the dance floor.” Mind you, I wasn’t DJing that much. I just wanted to apply the knowledge to the song. I sent it out to some radio contacts, and it started taking speed.

That’s what put me back in music again — it was Madonna. It’s full circle. She’s always there. I don’t know if she feels that way, but I do. It’s always her that gives me that kick in the ass. So we were texting. She loved it. She released it. We submitted it for a Grammy, and I won a Grammy for it. Then I was like, “Okay, Tracy, this is what you’re supposed to be doing.”

MW: What is your relationship with Madonna like?

YOUNG: We talk about stuff, not like buddy-buddy, but, who better to learn from? The good thing about Madonna is she comes from the clubs. I had a relationship with her because of it. I would be at dinners with her, and we went to the movies once, all of us. I’m like, “I’m in the car with Madonna!” And I DJed her wedding.

I feel like we have a great relationship. I don’t know, I’m speaking for myself. I’m not putting words in her mouth. I wouldn’t say we’re friends — we have a working relationship, and she’s been very good to me. And I’m grateful for that relationship, because at a time when women weren’t doing this, especially the production part, she encouraged me and was very supportive. And I owe a lot to her. I do.

I had to walk in the door and stay in the room. The part that people always remind me, “You know, Tracy, you’re talented, too. She didn’t just give you a chance and you suck.” But she’s given me many opportunities, introduced me to people. I’m lucky.

I’m not unaware of the fact that some of my music didn’t work in the clubs, but it had its place. I think the radio influenced me a lot, as far as my production. I’m a woman, and it’s a little softer touch. There’s a place for all of us, is what I’ve learned.

MW: You don’t DJ big parties or on the circuit as much anymore, right?

YOUNG: I don’t. For me, I like the outdoor stuff right now. It’s where I am in my head. I need to know what I can do physically. I’m 51. I want to do different things, and COVID provided me an opportunity to focus on production. I Twitch a lot, and that’s fun. And you make money doing that. It’s not a lot, but I walk out of my living room and go in my studio, and I’m in heaven. So I’m okay.

If I live in the past, I can’t be in the future or the present. And I did that for a while and I missed the times. I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. There’s no question in my mind.

I am open for new opportunities. I’ve just had a rough few years as far as business. People tell me to write a book, which is interesting to me because I want to pass on what I’ve learned. Or inspire other people. Madonna inspired me. And everybody gets inspiration from something.

I’m just at a different point. I love the clubs. I’m not turning work down, but I don’t know, those after-hours, I’m not really there anymore. I’m more into the happier, outdoor stuff.

Tracy Young -- Photo: Mike Ruiz
Tracy Young — Photo: Mike Ruiz

MW: That’s a great segue to talk more about Capital Pride. You’ve been coming here every year for a while now. I remember the first year, they were so behind with the entertainment lineup, you barely got to play anything before the hard cutoff at 10 p.m.

YOUNG: Yeah, I played like two songs. I forgot about that. You know what? I also have a history. I’m a gay person. And I remember the times when friends of mine got beat up or even killed, and when AIDS happened. And to be part of something in front of the Capitol, that’s what’s important to me. It’s not about me. The world is a big place. And just the fact that we’ve come this far. Of course, there’s more to do, but I remember a harder time to be gay. And the symbolism, I mean, for me, I just get emotional because I did lose friends to AIDS, and that was the worst thing. And thankfully not a lot, but I knew people that were murdered, and all because of love.

And so just being there, the fact that I played two records didn’t bother me because I see the bigger picture. I look out and everybody is celebrating love. And it’s bigger than me. It’s so much more important than playing records. I’m not curing cancer. I don’t take myself that seriously.

It’s become a tradition. And I look forward to it every year, because it’s a way for me to give back to the people that I started with, at least mentally.

MW: A lot has happened since you last came to town for Pride, and I know you’ve had a rough go of it over the last year especially.

YOUNG: Yeah, the past year has been really difficult for me. I had a friend in Surfside. She was a DJ, and she was in the building that collapsed down here. So that’s kind of what started it. It was a series of losses. Then my dog, then my mom’s house caught on fire — and then my stepdad passed, and then my mom.

The house caught fire because my stepfather was struggling with beginning symptoms of dementia. I don’t know, I just had a bad feeling. They got COVID. And my mom, as beautiful and wonderful as she was, she wasn’t the healthiest person. So my stepdad died December 18, and then my mom had COVID so she couldn’t be around anybody for Christmas, which is always heartbreaking. And then my mom passed in February of COVID.

It’s just been a lot these past years for everybody. I feel like I skipped a grade in high school or two grades, and we’re still going through it. Now they’re talking about monkeypox. What the hell? I’m careful. I never got COVID. Thank God. I’ve just got to live my life. I can’t stay in the house all day, because it’s not healthy. Our genetic makeup isn’t to be alone. I think it’s bad for society. I think COVID really fucked people up. Look at what’s happening. We get out, we don’t know how to behave in normal society anymore, because we’ve been alone all this time.

How do you feel Pride will be post-COVID? This is the first time. Do you think people are a little scared still?

MW: I think a lot of people are kind of gung-ho.

YOUNG: I lost a lot of people I knew from this, over 30 people, so I understand the hesitancy. But also, I don’t know, life’s short.

It’s hard to juggle. Our health is important and we take it for granted. But I try not to watch the news as much. I think it’s bad, unhealthy, especially when I’m grieving. They don’t give any positive message at all. And they don’t give facts, they give opinions. I don’t need your opinion. I just want to know the facts.

I just wish that we could get to a place where we could talk about our differences and not have it turn into a shootout. I grew up in D.C., a political place. I don’t ever recall differences creating such hatred and divisions the way it has today. I like to learn from other people’s differences.

I think it stems from the media. It’s all opinion. I studied journalism. Give me the facts and let me decide. I just think we need to accept our differences. And I’m just trying to really work on that. I can only change myself. That’s just where I am right now. I think losing my mom has made me want to be a nicer person.

I’ve been that person. “How could you? Why would you think that?” I can only change myself. And that’s what America is, we’re all different. That’s what makes this place so amazing. We’ve lost sight of what it means to be American.

MW: Back to the topic of your personal life, I understand you’ve been with your girlfriend for a while now.

YOUNG: We’ve been together for, oh my God, 2015. Seven years? And her name is Stacy. Don’t laugh. Stacy and Tracy. We were set up on a blind date. We’re not married or anything.

MW: Do you think that might happen?

YOUNG: I don’t know. I grew up thinking that we couldn’t get married. So it’s kind of hard for me, to be honest. I’m very committed, though.

MW: What’s your sign?

YOUNG: I’m a Scorpio. November 9. I’m into that stupid stuff.

MW: What’s her sign?

YOUNG: Gemini.

MW: Is that compatible with Scorpio?

YOUNG: No, I’m not a match. If I listened to astrology, we wouldn’t be together. Funny story: We were set up by a mutual friend, and I didn’t want to meet her because, on the outside, we were too similar. Our names rhymed. I was like, “Oh hell no! Stacy and Tracy?” It turns out that she’s my love.

MW: Is Stacy going to come to Capital Pride with you?

YOUNG: Yes! She’s coming. She’s there every year, it’s her birthday. And this year it’ll be her 50th birthday.

MW: We’ve talked a lot about Madonna, but what about Gloria Estefan? She also lives in Miami, obviously.

YOUNG: Oh, I love Gloria. We’re friends. She’s awesome. She’s very down-to-earth. She walks around, she’s a person. Madonna’s a little intimidating, I will admit.

I’ve done a remix for Gloria and I DJed her 50th birthday. I’m friends with her children. Emily’s a huge talent.

MW: And a lesbian. Or maybe it’s queer, I’m not sure exactly how she identifies or what she calls herself.

YOUNG: No, I don’t like that word. That word is not a good word.

MW: You don’t use the “L” word?

YOUNG: No, queer I don’t use. If you look that up in the dictionary, I don’t know why we’re saying that. It’s not a good word.

MW: The idea is to reclaim it though, use it as a positive descriptor to take the power out of its use as a pejorative.

YOUNG: I know, but I can’t say it. Because I’m older, I remember being called queer is like calling someone a faggot. That’s what I remember. I can’t say those words. People tell me, you can’t say gay anymore. Why?

MW: Well, technically speaking, that’s only one letter in the umbrella acronym LGBTQ.

YOUNG: I can’t say that either. It’s like saying the alphabet. I just say gay. It means happy. We overthink everything now. Let’s just be kind to each other. Does it matter? I mean, yeah, it does to some people, and I need to remember that, but it’s just…

Tracy Young -- Photo: Mike Ruiz
Tracy Young — Photo: Mike Ruiz

MW: We get hung up too easily.

YOUNG: I feel like we’re losing the big picture. I read the book Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff. Let people be who they are. When I have to fill out what to be called as a pronoun — I don’t know, maybe I’m turning people off. I just think there’s so much more we have to devote our energy to. But it matters to people. That’s what I need to work on for myself.

I can’t say queer, I can’t call myself queer. Let’s look that up right now, as a matter of fact, the definition of queer. “Strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint. Unusual, different, singular.” Nope. Not saying that word. I feel like the straight people want us to say queer. I’m not unusual, I’m not odd. I’m not any of that. That’s how I feel about it. Words have meaning and power. I’m going to call myself something positive, like gay, not something that’s a negative word. I’ve said gay my whole life, and that’s what I identify as, a gay person. I’m not conforming to using what’s acceptable. I never have, and I’m not starting now, that’s for sure.

MW: What do you see for yourself and your career over the next five years?

YOUNG: I think the most important thing for me right now is to pass it on, because I do have a lot of knowledge. I just feel like I want to give back to people, especially to women, because I’ve been told no all the time. I still get told no. Being told no often discourages people.

MW: When you say sharing your knowledge and inspiring people, do you mean as in teaching, becoming a teacher?

YOUNG: Maybe. I’m open. I remember back when everybody was so competitive with each other. And I’m at a place where it’s like, you can’t keep it if you don’t give it, is what I’m trying to say. If I want to continue in music, I have to give it, because I can’t keep it by holding it. And back then I would. I didn’t want anybody taking my gigs. And me and Peter [Rauhofer] were always competing for Madonna. I just don’t have that in me anymore, I don’t. I’m where I’m supposed to be. And what’s next for me? We’ll have to see, but it’s definitely production and definitely Twitch right now. And I have a few gigs. And just relearning all that without my mom.

I think you just helped me verbalize that. So, thank you. I didn’t know why I was having such a hard time. Like I’ve done this my whole life. Whenever a hurdle would come, that’s where I would go — to music. I’d be like, “I’m going to show you!” But it just wasn’t happening this time.

MW: I totally get that. I wish I could give a hug.

YOUNG: You can when I see you at Pride!

It all goes back to my thought process about approaching my career. I always thought it would go away, like this is a dream. I’m living a dream, and I don’t take it for granted. But I have to relearn with my mom not being here. So that’s what I’m going to do. Start over without my mom. Start over without my mom.

Back to Gloria. I ran into her after I won. “Tracy, you won a Grammy!” I said, “I just can’t believe it.” She was like, “You’ve been nominated before, right?” When I said no, she goes, “You won your first time? Oh my God! This doesn’t happen!”

I wanted that music director job at WPGC. But had I got that, my life would’ve been totally different. Who knows what would have happened? I would still be sitting at that desk, probably. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve worked with amazing talent. I have a great life and it hasn’t been easy, but you have to go where the energy takes you. If you go left and it ain’t working, take a right. It’s the truth. At least with my life.

Tracy Young closes out this year’s Capital Pride Festival and Concert as the official DJ for the Capitol Sunset Dance Party on Sunday, June 12, from 8 to 10 p.m., on Pennsylvania Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets NW. Visit www.capitalpride.org.

For more on Tracy Young, visit www.tracyyoung.com.

Follow Tracy Young on Twitter at @djtracyyoung.

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