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It's Memorial Day weekend, and Miami is partying. With no alarm clocks set for Monday's workday world, South Beach sidewalks and nightclubs have turned into a rocking planet hip-hop. But a few miles away and across Biscayne Bay on NE 11th Street, another huge (if not overlooked) scene is building steam.
Muscle guys with military haircuts and pretty boys with spiked coifs cue up behind an iron barricade at Space 34. Dressed in tank tops and low-riding denim, los hombreswait with good manners to get into this cavernous dance palace, where resident DJ Tracy Young is spinning up a tizzy at the Queer as Folk Babylon Party. Tonight, she will pummel the men with aggressive jungle drums, blast them with freight-train horns and blinding white lights, and make them jump and raise their arms in collusion with the screaming diva vocals so dear to gay clubland.
The men in line know what to expect musically and socially when Young plays. Once inside they will size one another up behind their J.Lo specs before tying their designer muscle shirts strategically to their waists. They will spend the rest of the night looking lean and buff and glistening in a layer of sweat beneath Space 34's mammoth disco ball. This is what typically happens when Young's name appears on a glossy club flier, whether it be in Miami, New York, Philadelphia, or any town the high-profile DJ is scheduled to play. Though she continues to DJ at straight clubs, her name generally attracts the buff-boy crowd.
Since breaking out big as the female DJ who remixed several hits from Madonna's chart-topping CD Music, Young's name has become synonymous with raving, bare-chested (need we say gay?) parties. Her crowd buys up her releases and sells out her appearances at circuit parties and special tours such as the recent Queer as Folkshowcase around the world. How did it happen?
"I got lucky" is Young's nonchalant explanation for why she's playing records at major clubs and producing songs for some of the biggest names in pop music. A Maryland homegirl with the healthy pallor of a Mousketeer, Young is at times puzzled by her trajectory into the limelight. All she ever wanted to do was bring people to a dither on a dance floor. She didn't expect the large-scale hero worship that would eventually come her way.
Although she doesn't sniff at being flown around the world to spin at parties for the glitterati (Madonna's wedding to Guy Ritchie, Wesley Snipes' personal soirees), she never bargained for some of the things that have happened to her since becoming a celebrity DJ. Namely, starstruck fans mobbing her at airports and stalker letters appearing in her mailbox.
"It sort of freaks me out a little bit. I remember when people didn't even know who the DJ was," she says, smiling behind dark wraparound shades and ordering a venti latte with four sugars at Starbucks Cafe on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. "I play other people's music, and so many people respond to me. It's hard for me to see that I'm a celebrity, because I'm just me. It's a hard thing to get used to."
Whether it's because of the threat of an overzealous fan or the realization that she'll probably never go back to being a low-profile DJ at a small-market FM radio station like WPGC in Washington, D.C., the apple-cheeked Young is nonetheless putting up the barriers that come with a certain level of success in the music business. She has a personal manager who doggedly deals with the press; outsiders can't visit her home studio; she no longer welcomes guests into her booth while spinning at clubs; her cell phone number is beyond the sacred. These are the things that happen when you've become a brand name in clubland.
Young's status as a DJ phenomenon can be traced back to when Chris Paciello and Ingrid Casares flew her from D.C. to the original Club Liquid in the mid-1990s as an exotic treat for South Beach club kids. From there, she connected in a big way with the divine Ms. M. Casares, the pop diva and former Miamian's close friend, introduced the two, and soon Young was spinning at Madonna's parties and creating dance versions of the songs on Music.
"All of the sudden, I became this big DJ after Madonna," Young says. "But that's what happens when she touches you. She kind of said, 'Here's your career, Tracy, do what you want with it.' She didn't say that exactly, but that's the way it happened."
Young's career entered another stratosphere after earning Madonna's seal of approval. Record executives regularly approach her to remix songs for scorching hot pop stars such as Enrique Iglesias ("Bailamos"), Shakira ("Whenever, Wherever"), and Christina Aguilera ("Dirrty"). Prospects such as Emilio Estefan's sputtering pet project, Latin crooner Shalim, have also looked to Young to score them a dance hit. Her two mix CDs, 2000's Inside My Headand 2002's Party Groove: White Party 02,have both sold well and earned high marks from fans.
With the recent release of Tracy Young Remixes Living Theater, the 32-year-old artist hopes to scale even greater heights. On the CD, Young remixes various tracks originally produced by European dance-music superstar Joey Baldessari, including Erica Jennings' cover version of Sonny and Cher's "Bang Bang," Panagiotis Melas' interpretation of the jazz standard "My Funny Valentine," and even operetta pieces. She describes it as a "chill" record, one that could even be played at dinner parties. "I wanted to slow things down and make a record people can really appreciate and get in to," she says. "It's not so much the 5 a.m. banging type of club stuff that you hear -- it's more musical." Still, Young lays down her signature tribal rhythms on a few tracks that one can expect to soon hear knocking around various clubs in the months to come.
Tracy Young Remixes Living Theaterstands out in her career because, compared to other projects in which she was given vocals and instructed to build a dance sound around them, she was given complete artistic control for the first time. "I worked on it for almost a year," she says. "Kunduru Records gave me complete artistical freedom. I did whatever I wanted."
Though reluctant to get into details, Young reports that she is in the final stages of launching her own label. "I always wanted to have my own creative control over music," she says, "instead of having another label take my music and kind of give me their guidance, so to speak." The new venture will begin small, but don't count on it remaining so. Young's dream is big. "I want to be Emilio part two," she asserts with a straight face, referring to media mogul Emilio Estefan.
But to do that, she knows she will have to diversify her productions and stop relying on the tribal drums and operatic echo-chamber effects her devotees love. The problem is, her fans have come to love only a certain aspect of Young's music, the one they are used to listening to at clubs, and she feels obliged to serve them.
"I play for my crowd," Young says. "Before I played for Madonna, I was a straight DJ, and I couldn't get a job in a gay club to save my life. Then I do remixes for Madonna and its 'Tracy Young, she's it!'
"That's how it happened," she laughs. "And now I'm a gay DJ."
Despite residencies at Space 34 and New York City's Roxy nightclub, Young faces the celebrity DJ's Sisyphean dilemma: moving your crowd beyond the same records you've been playing for months. She personally tries to steer toward harder and darker dance music or more soulful old-school records than the Disneyfied, feel-good, diva-charged pump of Deborah Cox, Madonna, and Cher. "The gay audience likes a lot of anthem vocals," she admits. "It's very stereotyped, but that's what they like."
And when you're in charge of what looks like 10,000 shirtless guys writhing spiritedly on the floor of Space 34 on a holiday weekend, you better give them what they want. Up in the DJ booth, Young looks like a chef supervising line cooks: turning up the heat on one record, slowing down another, listening intently to the results through her headphones. Young stops only to check the levels on her soundboard. At times, she looks out into the sea of sweaty bodies bouncing before her. She smiles and winks to one of her acolytes as she throws on yet another wailing diva echoing the chorus "Do it naturally."
Naturally, the men respond: Hands reach out to the air, and hips begin to swivel. As the sonic tide builds to a frenzy, men jump and grind to the beats as bass-heavy vibrations resonate against their chest cavities. The night bursts wide open.