Tony McGuinness of Above & Beyond, William Orbit, Tracy Young and Shep Pettibone, all featured on the new Madonna remix compilation, reflect on editing the Queen of Pop.
While few would argue against Madonna‘s legendary status in the dance realm, her position as an icon, innovator and general party-starter was further cemented with the August 19 release of Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones. This remix compilation is made up of songs from Madonna’s historic run on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart, where she has a record 50 chart-toppers — the most No. 1s for any artist on any single Billboard chart.
Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones, an expansion of the 16-song Finally Enough Love, features career-spanning edits from dance world stars including David Morales, Junior Vasquez, Victor Calderone, Sasha, Dubfire, Axwell, Avicii, Honey Dijon, Felix da Housecat, Bob Sinclar and Benny Benassi, whose work altogether demonstrates not only the progression of Madonna’s catalog, but the sound of dance music itself.
Here, four remixers from the compilation — Tony McGuinness of Above & Beyond, William Orbit, Tracy Young and Shep Pettibone — reflect on their experiences remixing the artist who no doubt inspired us all to get into the groove during her nearly 40-year run as the Queen of Pop.
Tony McGuinness of Above & Beyond
Above & Beyond, the trance trio made up of McGuinness, Jono Grant and Paavo Siljamäki, appear on Finally Enough Love via their remix of What It Feels Like For a Girl, from Madonna’s 2000 album, Music.
So, how did this remix come to be?
I think our story is probably different from everybody else on the record, because I was working at Warners on Madonna’s music at the time… At the same time Jono and Paavo and I are building a bit of steam as remixers… I was in L.A. working with William Orbit and I went to see Caresse [Henry], Madonna’s now-dead, sadly, manager. She was a lovely lady, and we got on really well.
I think Caresse liked talking to me, because I was quite funny and irreverent with her, and I think a lot of people weren’t like that with her, because she worked with Madonna. So I went into her office and said, “I want to do a remix for Madonna.” I was Marketing Director at Warners at the time, so this is coming out of left field. She’s got no idea whether we’re good or not. But she listened to a couple of remixes and said, like, “They sound competent. How about you do it, and if we like it, we’ll pay you ‘X’? And if we don’t like it, we won’t talk about it ever again.” I was like, “That sounds great.”
How did you land on What It Feels Like For a Girl?
She said the next single was Music, from the album Music. She wanted us to remix that. I was like, “That doesn’t really work for me. I really want to do What It Feels Like For a Girl. And she was like, “Well that’s not the next single, and I don’t know if it’s going to be a single.” So I said, “Nonetheless, that’s the one that we want to do.” So she said we could have a go of it.
We had no direction from Madonna. We hadn’t spoken to her directly; I’d only spoken to Caresse. We put a lot of time and effort into it. There’s a lot of things in that remix, looking back on it now, that were really good. I think we took about two weeks to do it, maybe longer — working weekends and evenings, as that was all I could do at the time.
Then it was getting near Christmas. I remember we sent it off by courier in a Jiffy Bag to to Madonna’s manager in L.A. or wherever. We waited, and nothing happened. We didn’t hear back. We’re very nervous. And I did a thing for the first time: I emailed it to her. Warner had never sent music over the internet at the time… because we were so scared of stuff getting stolen. So I emailed the track to Caresse. I sent it at maybe 10:00 in the morning. Then at L.A. wakeup time, around four in the afternoon, I get an email from her — and it simply said, “This is the best remix I’ve ever heard.”
Wow. How did you feel?
I was absolutely blown away, I rang Jono and Paavo immediately to say, “She loves it.” Then the kind of interesting, weird part of the story took over. Caresse said, “Madonna wants to talk to you about it. She’s gonna call you tonight at 9:00.” I remember going out to dinner with some friends and walking outside with my mobile phone at 9:00, waiting for the call. I waited for half an hour, and nothing happened. I thought, “She’s not going to ring; I’ll just go back to the table.”
After dinner I got in my car and was driving home and the phone rang, and I knew immediately it was going to be her. I pulled over, and Caresse said, “It’s Madonna. She wants to talk to you.” I had this brief, very scary conversation. I’d met Madonna before and spoken to her, but she’s obviously incredibly successful and incredibly busy. I have an inkling of what it must be like for her in this job where everybody wants to know you. You become a little bit… not curt, but efficient, in dealing with people. She said, “The big Euro sound, I want you to take that out. I want you to take that out and make this short or do this.” They were really weird instructions.
Did you figure out why she was asking?
What we didn’t know at the time was that she decided to get her husband [Guy Richie] to direct a video to our mix. What she was telling me were instructions for making the video version. We didn’t realize that she was perfectly happy with the club mix…So we did all of this work and sent it off.
Then I was at the BRIT Awards…I’ve got my evening suit on, and I’m just sitting down at the table. There’s only one other person at the table of 12 who’s turned up, so I’m of course telling them that I’m mixing Madonna, and I’m looking forward to telling the other 11 people. Then the phone goes, and it’s Caresse, and she’s like “Madonna wants to talk to you.” so I get on the phone. I’ll never forget it. Madonna was like “Tony, I need you to do some work on the mix. I want this and this, I want that bit shorter, I want this bit taken out. I was like, “I’ve just arrived at the BRITs. And she said, “You can watch it on the telly.”
So I got in a in my car and drove to Jono and Paavo’s studio again. We worked on it again for that night, ’til two or three in the morning. Then we sent it off and Caresse phoned to say, “It’s perfect.” She explained what was happening with the video, and I was taken a bit taken aback, because it’s kind of unusual for any pop artist to make the video… using a club mix. She said the original club mix was absolutely perfect, which was a huge relief… So we are obviously incredibly excited. I’m plotting an exit from Warner Music at this time thinking, “This thing could really fly.”
Did it fly?
Having worked in the music business for a decade and seeing so many acts fail, I had a very hyper-realistic view of what might happen. But I thought, “maybe this thing has got legs.” I had been so keen to be a full time musician my entire life, and I saw the door opening. Then it felt like the door closed almost immediately, because MTV banned the video. It was deemed to be not suitable for kids, basically.
That’s incredibly disappointing.
At the time, we all felt like we’d missed the bus… The first indication that this thing had actually made a difference was we got a call from AVEX records in Japan, saying, “We love your Madonna remix.” They wanted us to remix this girl called Ayumi Hamasaki, who was huge in Japan. That led to our first ever DJ gig as Above & Beyond, in Tokyo. So it opened that door.
How do you feel about the remix now?
We remain enormously proud of it. The way it goes from silence to the first breakdown is one of the best build-ups to any record of that kind I’ve ever heard, and I never tire of listening to it. The fact that it’s Madonna probably inflates my view of how good it is — but I do think that we were given an opportunity, and we nailed it.
Since connecting with Madonna in the early 2000s, Miami-based producer Tracy Young has delivered a flurry of Madonna remixes, including edits of Nothing Fails, Hung Up, Four Minutes and Revolver. In 2020, she become the first woman to ever win the Grammy for best remixed recording (non classical) for her edit of Madonna’s I Rise. Finally Enough Love features Young’s edits of Crave and I Rise from Madonna’s 2019 album, Madame X.
How did you first connect with Madonna?
It was a long time ago, but I remember I had just released an album called Tracy Young Remixes Living Theater. Madonna had plugged it on [Miami pop radio station] Y100, and I sent her a thank you card. She had just come out with American Life, and I told her Nothing Fails should be remixed, because it’s a beautiful song. And that’s how I got it.
Does the gig come with directions? Does Madonna or someone from her team offer instructions, or are you left to your own devices?
She made a few suggestions for me with me on Crave. But other than that, my experience has always been that she doesn’t want to interfere in the creative process, which is cool. A lot of people in some of the music departments I deal with want to try ideas, and I’m always open to ideas — but sometimes they don’t really work, and then it kind of ruins the experience. When you do a remix… it’s a lot of trial and error, and you experiment.
Do you remember getting any feedback on Nothing Fails?
I just remember being like, “Is this really happening?” I still get that with certain projects, but I’ve been doing this now for 30 years. But then I just remember being like, “Oh my god, I got a Madonna record.” It was life-changing.
How did it change your life?
Because a lot of men are in those positions in the music industry. And they would tell me, “No, you can’t do this; only the men do this.” I would turn in my cassette tape in a nightclub, and they would say, “Girls don’t do this, and you need to find something else to focus your attention on.” It would just get me so fired up and angry. So when I connected with Madonna and started DJing — working with her on other types of projects, especially remixes, that changed your life. Instantly. I mean, she’s a powerful person, a force to be reckoned with. I never expected one remix, let alone — I’ve done like, 14 or something.
You two made history together.
Well, she made history, I just was along for the ride.
In 2020 you became the first woman to ever win the Grammy for best remixed recording, for your edit of Madonna’s I Rise. That’s a big deal.
It is big, and I’m very proud of it. And I am so glad that happened with Madonna, because it’s that much more meaningful. The opportunities she’s given me, it’s given me a career. I mean, I’ve had to do the work, but I feel very grateful for the opportunities she gave me. I just always expected it to end, and it hasn’t. You don’t expect to get one opportunity from an artist like that, let alone as many as I’ve gotten.
In the grand spectrum of dance music, what role does Madonna play?
She comes from the clubs. She’s part of the dance music community. She would go check out what was going on in New York. Take voguing, for instance. That was an underground thing that was going on, and she brought it to the forefront and created a conversation… She was influenced by the nightlife just like we all were, but she made it more mainstream, which created conversations around the social aspects of it — especially the gay lifestyle. HIV was happening, and it was like an underground thing, but she brought it to the forefront.
Social issues that were taboo and maybe people didn’t want to talk about it, she would make a conversation about it. She’s always on the cutting edge; she’s got a great ear for music, and she has a real gift for seeking out talent and creating conversations. That’s what I think a true artist is.
UK producer William Orbit first entered the Madonna realm with his 1990 remix of Justify My Love, which was followed a 1992 remix of Erotica. The two famously paired in 1997, with Orbit serving as co-producer of Madonna’s 1998 blockbuster LP Ray Of Light, which in 1999 won Grammys for best pop album and best recording package, with its title track winning the awards for best dance recording and best short form music video.
How’d you get the Justify My Love gig back in 1990?
Well, I was with Warner Music, and Rob Dickins, the then chairman, was keen for me to break out a bit and connect with her. He asked if I’d like to do a remix. Of course I said yes, and it was Justify My Love… I did this mix, and I loved doing it. I wrote my phone number on the cassette and sent it off as we did with DHL or whatever.
When did you hear back on it?
[A bit later], I picked up the phone — this is landline times — and it was Lenny Kravitz, who I’d never met before. He said, “Hey, Lenny Kravitz here.” I said, like, “Oh, hi.” He said, “I just wanted to thank you for making my backing vocal so prominent in the mix.” I thought, “What a charming thing to say!” And I said, “Well, my pleasure, Lenny. I only did it because they’re so beautiful.” In fact we met a couple of times later when we worked together. I love him. I think he’s a terrific guy.
But the remix was great because, my phone number being on it — some years later Madonna was for some reason not able to work with the producer she had lined up straight after Evita, for that slot in ’98. There was my phone number, and she did the same as Lenny — she called up. I picked up the landline, and it was her asking, “Would you like to come on board?” She had actually heard some stuff of mine, obviously it wasn’t for no reason. But yeah, a good ball point pen on a cassette and my phone number turned my life around.
I mean, what would your life be like if you hadn’t written down your phone number?
I believe in destiny, so I don’t question these things. Look, chance is just gonna do what it does. I mean, you try to give it a helping hand by taking care, but things happen in synchronicity. They do.
Did you get any feedback from her on the Justify My Love edit?
No, I didn’t. I did one shortly afterwards for Erotica. and similarly, I didn’t hear anything back. Not that I expected to hear anything back. It’s just the way of it, quite often.
But Rob Dickins urged me to go and see Freddy DeMann, her longtime manager who was still her manager then. Fred was very polite, and I played him a bunch of different tracks, and he said, “She’ll like these when she’s working out in the gym,” I thought, “Great,” and didn’t think any more of it — until this call came through from her. We’d never spoken before. And then of course, once I was on the record working with her, I got calls every 10 minutes. That’s her way. [Laughs.] She’d call up all the time, and then you don’t hear from her for years. She’s just a total manager, basically, of everything.
It sounds like once you’re with her, you’re on her timeline.
You are, and you have to engage — and she can sense if you slip away for a second, even if you’ve been up for 24 hours and you lose attention for a minute. She sort of senses it. She demands complete engagement, which I respect.
What’s her role in the grand spectrum of electronic music?
It tends to be get mentioned as if there was nothing electronic before Ray Of Light. It’s an easy thing to say, you know, “William Orbit, electronic guy comes on board and Madonna gets electronic,” but it was a it was a much more infusive process for her — and for me too. Also I played a ton of guitars on that record. Ray Of Light is nothing but guitar.
What was it like being in the studio with her?
Four things will loosen her up in the studio: Don’t be shy; she loves a bit of gossip. And a good laugh. She likes to have things on paper — she likes good old fashioned letters. French cinema, she loves to discuss. She can deliver a serious critique on French cinema. She will urge people to watch something.
But the two things actually in the studio are recording orchestras, because there’s nothing for us to do. Everyone’s on their game, and we can just frolic for once. She’s the most expeditious artists you’ve ever met, and she tends to collaborate with people such as myself who are lone wolves doing everything. So it’s a hard job for anybody. But when there’s an orchestra, there’s nothing we can add. Neither of us read music, we can’t conduct, and they are all working away. We sit back and enjoy. It’s costing tons of money for somebody — probably Warner Brothers — so let’s enjoy it.
The other thing is guitars. She would say, “William get your inner teenager out.” I’d get a guitar out and everything would just go a bit light, and I would start showing off and being a guitar hero. She’s a good producer of guitarists. This is long before she learned to play it.
Sounds like you guys had some fun adventures together in the studio.
We did. And Ray Of Light is a jam session. It’s not her M.O. to improvise, but when we did that, I’m flying around with a guitar hanging off my neck and this synth doing all that “wee ooo wee ooo” [at the end of the song], and she’s in the vocal booth singing and going so high and so passionate. You can hear it, and she breaks into this huge hoots of laughter at the end as if to say, “Did I just do that in one take?”
That was when I felt — actually, that record — that I wasn’t just a rookie. I remember opening the doors of this studio and playing it really loud to everybody else in the studio. This is what you do in studios; it’s a bit of one-upmanship. If you’re onto a core track, open the doors and play it real loud so everyone can hear.
After rising to prominence as a remixer for artists including Janet Jackson, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, George Michael and Whitney Houston, Shep Pettibone had a hand in several of Madonna’s most iconic hits, reworking classics like Into the Groove and Causing a Commotion, in addition to crafting the single versions of Like a Prayer and Express Yourself. He was also the co-producer and co-writer of Vogue, which — 32 years after its release — recently made headlines via its use in Beyonce’s Queens Remix. Pettibone’s contributions to Finally Enough Love include Express Yourself and Keep It Together
How did you first enter the Madonna orbit?
I mean, at that point, I’d probably done hundreds of remixes. I knew Madonna from back before she did Everybody [in 1983] actually. I did something called Mastermixes for Kiss FM in New York, And so every time they would play one, the deal was, they would say my name. So I guess I was a big deal on radio. So she knew me from that.
When did you first work together?
The first mix I did for her was True Blue. And I was kind of like, “Ew,” because it was so bubblegum. Like, “Really? This couldn’t have been Into the Groove or something I could’ve really sunk my teeth into?” But I did it anyways. The Way You Make Me Feel by Michael Jackson was out at the time, and had very hard drums to it. So I re-did the drums to True Blue. I figured if I made it have that oomph that Michael Jackson had, DJs might play them together. And they did. It did well.
What happened then?
I’d say like a month or two months later, Craig Kostich [the then-Head of Dance Music at Warner Bros. Records] called and said, “How would you like to mix Into the Groove for the [1987 remix album] You Can Dance“? I was, like, jumping-up-and-down excited for that.
Is it a collaborative process in terms of you sending your edit and then getting feedback from her?
No — actually, the best way we worked was when she just left me alone and I did my thing, and I would send it to her. It was always a yes. It wasn’t, “Change this or do this to that” or anything like that. I did my thing. With Vogue, for instance, that was just supposed to be a throwaway B-side for Keep It Together. She wasn’t in the studio for the final production the mix of it. You know, it was like, “Who cares.” But I thought, “Hey, this is my chance to do something great here,” and I gave it my all. I gave my all, of course, for every mix I did, but with hers, I think I gave a little something extra. And it definitely came across.
I mean, you made one of the most enduring songs of all time.
But I’d like to go back a little bit in the story here. So Into the Groove, I used to lot the original tracks and did additional production with them. I don’t know if I’m being chronological here, but Express Yourself came out, and I was, again, “This is a bubblegum, kind of eh kind of song.” I thought it was like, a little hokey.
So I did a mix of it with some additional production, and then I did something that nobody had ever done: I wiped all the music, except for the vocals, and totally re-did the music. She loved so much that that became the single version and the video version.
It’s very interesting. If you watch the video, to my version of Express Yourself, they didn’t change the video. There’s a part where I took all the horns out and replaced them with strings, and they have a carousel of horn players at one point in the video, and there’s nary a horn playing.
I can hear those strings in my head right now.
Dum Dum Dum. So I took a chance. That isn’t what you were really hired to do when you remix, to totally take out the artist’s music and replace it, but it worked.
This source material is obviously iconic now, Express Yourself, Into the Groove — all those songs that are canon at this point. Did you have a sense at the time of, “This is something really important”?
Oh, it was important and shocking at the same time. When the video came out, I was like, “Holy hell, she used my version for the video.” Then when she did, I think it was the MTV [Video Music] Awards, and she walks down the staircase and the steps light up as she’s coming down — she used it for that also. I was super happy.
To put it mildly, I’m sure. What did it do for your career?
I already was in demand. I was doing like four remixes a week, probably. How, I don’t know, looking back on it — but I was driven. That’s how Vogue came across. Because I had done Express Yourself, And again, Craig Kostich put us together to make the B-side, which was Vogue. And I came up with the music, sent her the music, she said, “I love it, I’m going to come into New York to sing it.”
And she said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to call it Vogue. At that point vogue-ing had kind of had come and gone in the underground club scene, but I was like, “Okay.” She sang the song, and I was like, “It needs something.” It was really good, and it was supposed to be in coordination with the Dick Tracy movie [co-starring Madonna], which was about glamour and all that. So that’s how the movie star rap came about in the studio. We, at the last minute, came up with that.
Well, that obviously worked. When you listen to these now, where does it take you?
They still sound so fresh. I mean, this is 32 years later, and the songs still sound as good as they did when they came out, which is pretty amazing. They don’t sound dated. I’m very proud that out of the 50 number ones, she chose to have my remix of Into The Groove released as the first digital single, way ahead of the album release.
In the grand scheme of dance music, what role do you think Madonna occupies?
She deserves her queen diva status there. Everything she has done dance-wise is always been a big, big hit. I’m particularly happy that I got to do what I did at the pinnacle of her career.
The culture thanks you!
You know, when out of the blue, Beyoncé is re-singing her song over my music [on Break My Soul (The Queens Remix)] — they didn’t even try to recreate the music. They just lifted the music right off the instrumental track. I was blown away. Then re-doing the rap to include all the the legends and people she’s talking about, that’s one of the kind.
It’s such a nod to your work that they didn’t change anything. They didn’t try to redo it, it was just like, “This is perfect. Let’s just like take the source material and give it straight up, because you’re not gonna improve upon it.”
Right. They didn’t even ask for the masters to remix it. They just took it right off the record, the way it was mixed 32 years ago.