Any reporter could interview Ultra Naté every week – or every day – and walk away with a great story. The legendary dance music diva doesn’t just have the personal charm and irresistible magnetism of a Hollywood star, but the wisdom of nearly two decades of experience in the mess that we call “the music business” to fall back on.
But even for someone that closely follows her career, Ultra’s hard to keep up with. After releasing her acclaimed 2007 album Grime, Silk and Thunder on her Blufire label in partnership with Tommy Boy’s Silver Label, Ultra’s launched a new imprint, Deep Sugar. She’s going into overdrive with releases by a stable of singers including Jada (known for her Code Red releases “Love Is (Love Breeze)” and “If You Should Ever Be Lonely” with DJ Spen and Ultra) and dance industry powerhouse Sybil (vocalist on the 1993 classic “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes), with more to come.
In addition, Ultra’s “Deep Sugar” party has hit the bigtime, attracting audiences from all over the Eastern seaboard that trek down to Baltimore once per month to hear Ultra with the likes of guest DJs Quentin Harris and Terry Hunter. And her name once again appeared on top of the heap as a performer with the unexpected hit “Twisted” with Louie Vega, which didn’t even appear on Grime, Silk and Thunder but nevertheless became a dancefloor sensation in the first half of 2008.
And if being a label owner, performer, promoter and touring artist wasn’t enough, Ultra Naté is also stepping out as a DJ with the one year anniversary of her residency on France’s Radio FG and a mix CD included in the double CD package Alchemy: GST Reloaded, which includes remixes by Kenny Dope, Craig C., Quentin Harris, DJ Spen, Ron Carroll, Thommy Davis of the Basement Boys and more. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there’s no resting on her laurels here: despite her name being a top draw, Ultra Naté takes mixing seriously, and you can check out her chops in her new mix for 5 Magazine posted in August as well.
I caught up with the wonderful Ms. Ultra in July, armed with a press release and what I thought was a good idea of what she was up to. And even I was surprised at everything that she has going on…
When we talked a little more than a year ago, you mentioned a number of singers you were signing to your label and working with. Is this the first release?
Yes! It’s out digitally now and we’re waiting on the vinyl which should be arriving any day now. It’s by Sybil, called “Shining Star”. This is the first official release for my new label, Deep Sugar.
How did you meet Sybil?
I’ve known Sybil for as long as I can remember – it’s one of those things that come from being in the business for such a long time. I was a fan of her music way back in the day. I’m not sure what year we stumbled on each other – I just remember it always being that way. I’m sure there was one day that we met and just said, “Oh my God, I love you and you’re such a wonderful person!” But we’ve been friends for a long time, and obviously fans of each other’s work and music as well.
Who’s the producer on “Shining Star”?
The producer is actually from Baltimore. His sound is known but his name isn’t out there yet. He’s been under the Basement Boys umbrella and the Jasper Street Company umbrella under DJ Spen. His name is Fruity, and he’s been working with them for a long time. But this is his first official production under his own name.
I want to ask about “Twisted”. I mentioned a single you had coming out on Silver Label to Wayne Williams last November, but he was all about this track. It just came out of nowhere to become a huge hit this year.
Yeah, we like that! [laughs] “Twisted” is one of those songs that’s been an underground hit but also an “overground” hit. A lot of people who are not necessarily Househeads – in the neo-soul scene and other scenes both here and abroad – gave it a lot of play as well.
“Twisted” was kind of unforeseen. I had the release party for my album Grime, Silk and Thunder at Cielo for Roots, which is Louie Vega and Kevin Hedge’s night. I performed a whole bunch of material from my four – now five – previous albums. I performed “Twisted” and Louie fell in love with it all over again. He came up with a new idea for it and worked with my old vocals and sent it to me. I really liked it, so we re-did it and let the chips fall where they may.
Now the Grime, Silk and Thunder album had already come out – that was the album release party for it, remember – so it was too late to put “Twisted” on there. But I’m putting out a new album called Alchemy: GST Reloaded and it’s on there. It’s a double-CD album with the commercial remixes from Grime, Silk and Thunder backed with CD #2, which is a DJ mix done by myself called The Sugar Sessions.
Wow, you’re really stepping out as a DJ now!
Yeah, I am! Alchemy is coming out in August and I’m really excited by it. There’s a lot of material that people haven’t heard yet, with songs that we were thinking about putting out as singles but didn’t, or songs that did come out as singles but didn’t have all of the remixes. We put together a real, real dope package. It’s on my label, Blufire, in partnership with Tommy Boy’s Silver Label.
Let’s talk about the Sugar parties for a second. I saw some bit of internet gossip that they had ended and then been reborn as “Deep Sugar” at a different spot in Baltimore.
The Sugar parties ended because I wanted to leave the venue where we’d been for the last four and a half years. I felt the venue was too small and we’d kind of outgrown it. I wanted to return to the Paradox – there’s lots of room, there’s great sound and really great lighting. The owner, Wayne Davis, really wanted to bring our music back to the club. This music is what he started with back in the day, but they kind of veered off to the left over time as the music and the scene changed a lot. Our effort as a team to reinvigorate and revitalize the scene here in Baltimore has really paid off.
The venue is really, really important to me. There have been parties that have been continuing for years now, on the smaller tip or in venues that are really restaurants, where they kick back the tables after everyone finishes eating, or in bars that have a DJ booth – a lot of makeshift stuff but not a place that’s like a home for our genre of music.
You know, you’re not alone in feeling that way. That’s happening in other cities as well.
I’m so over the whole “Martini House” thing! [laughs] That’s not where I came from. It’s cute, but it’s just cute – you don’t come away from it feeling gratified or anything like that.
People who have gotten into the music in recent years have been kind of cheated because they don’t know that power and passion that you can experience in a venue where this music and this scene was intended to be played, like the Warehouse in Chicago or the Paradise Garage or the Loft or Shelter or any of those kind of places.
So I wanted to go back to a place that would return our music to where it should be. We re-started in June as Deep Sugar at the Paradox, going monthly every second Saturday. In July we brought Terry Hunter from Chicago as our guest DJ along with myself and Thommy Davis from the Basement Boys.
You started out with the Basement Boys – you’re still close to them?
Oh yeah! Those are my big brothers, and I hope that will never change. We’re still family and I couldn’t be where I am today without those experiences and those emotions driving me. They’ll be an integral part of me no matter where I go.
You mentioned your radio show earlier. Someone’s actually playing House Music on terrestrial radio and not an internet station?
Yes, it’s actually on the radio! It plays in France and all French-speaking territories, and I’ve been a resident DJ on there since last summer. My spot is every Sunday night at 9pm French time, so wherever you are, you just need to backtrack – that’d be Sunday at 3pm on the East Coast or 2pm for you in Chicago. It’s an hour-long show called Radio FG. They stream it on the internet as well, so you can go to radiofg.com and hear it every week.
When we talked last year, there was still a lot of buzz about you DJing at the Winter Music Conference in 2007. Are you gigging now as both a DJ and a performer?
I do gigs where I may just be singing or may just be DJing or I may be doing both.
I’m sure there are DJs in certain cities that will sit back with their arms folded and wait to hear you – probably more than they would with any other out-of-town DJ.
Oh, I’m sure there are because of my name. But I’ve been doing this now for five years, since Sugar began.
You know, I grew up in DJ culture, and I grew up with really great DJs and I listened to what they played and how they played it. This goes all the way back to when I was just a club kid dancing around on the dancefloor. I have an understanding of that relationship with good music and programming and how music should sound both technically and emotionally. It translates from one to the other.
As an artist, it’s not that difficult for me because you know what you like and what you get a response from and you can understand from that how to program for the dancefloor. The tough part as an artist is learning the technical skills that go along with it. That’s a matter of practice.
I’m sure there are people who will have their arms folded, waiting to see, and that’s fine. I’ve never been terribly worried about people who are overly critical. It’s a question of, “Are you a DJ because you play out and put yourself into a position for people to critique you?” If you play music and you’re into it, that’s what DJing is really about to me.
I got into the music business because I was adventurous and experimental – I wasn’t a trained vocalist or an expert songwriter or had any training of any sort before I went into the Basement Boys studio and wrote “It’s Over Now”. That’s how I’ve always approached everything I’ve done in the music business. Whether it’s up front or behind the scenes, I approach everything I do with the spirit of adventure and with no fear of making a mistake, because that’s where the real lessons are learned. Fear is what holds people back more than anything – people are afraid of making a mistake or making a fool of themselves or hearing what people will say. That’s never been my hang-up.
So if I trainwreck, which doesn’t happen often… [laughs] It’ll at least be a trainwreck between mixing two really great records by FranÁois K. That’s been my attitude and it will never change.
I think it’s because of the celebrity culture in dance music – there are a few people we can probably name who made their career as performing artists, and then switched to DJing when their stars dimmed a bit. And that’s great, but some of them don’t attempt to be GOOD DJs or learn any of the technical know-how – they’re just banking on their name.
See, that’s just unacceptable. If you’re going to do it, you really need to bring it! When you’re coming from a place when you’ve excelled in something else, some folks are naturally going to hear news that you’re branching out into something else with a bit of skepticism. I’m not going to do something where I’m just using my status in the community as the get-over, because that’s unacceptable to me.
That’s a lot of stuff you have going on! Let’s recap here all of the releases that you have coming up.
“Shining Star” by Sybil is out now on Traxsource, Beatport, all of the download sites. We also have a track by Jada called “Beautiful” produced by DJ Spinna. We’re in the process of getting the remixes together and I’m forecasting a release of that in early September. And Alchemy: ST Reloaded will be out mid-August.
It’s been an interesting year so far, for my own projects, for the new label, my radio show and all of these collaborations with singers and producers – there are a lot of irons in the fire!