AN INSPIRATION TO A GENERATION of House Music divas, Ultra Naté (her real name!) is one of the most enduring dance music icons of our time. She exploded on the scene in 1989 with the release of “It’s Over Now” and the irresistible thump of “Scandal” with the Basement Boys, and was gobbled up by Warner Brothers in the groundswell when it seemed that House Music was about to breakthrough into the mainstream. There were more beats than bling on MTV, lyrics on the radio that made you move instead of grimace and a funky designer fashion mimicked but never duplicated.
Thrust into the spotlight when she was barely out of her teens, Ultra found herself frustrated when her music industry handlers tried to turn a nightclub goddess into an R&B crooner. Her smokey voice moved on to legendary dance label Strictly Rhythm, where she recorded some of her most popular songs. Today, she’s back with the release of her fifth full-length album, a wild aural kaleidoscope of sound textures and tunes, breakbeats and dirty House beats aptly titled Grime, Silk and Thunder.
Industry types may be cynical, but it’s impossible to talk to Ultra Naté for more than a few minutes without getting high on her exuberance. It’s not enough to haul around a scrapbook of Billboard chart hits, connections with the high and mighty and a body of work that would get her in the door of any swanky awards ceremony. In addition to being a marvellous songstress, she’s also a songwriter, a DJ, a label owner, impresario to a growing stable of talent, a promoter responsible for the cornerstone event on Baltimore’s House Music club scene, and, most recently, a mother.
Ultra was gracious enough to grant me time for a wide-ranging interview covering her almost accidental beginnings in the music industry, the lessons learned and her future plans for life, career, family and world domination.
You’re in Baltimore, which is the city that everyone identifies you with. Didn’t you ever feel the pull to migrate to New York or LA for your career?
Actually, not at all! I was born not in Baltimore itself, but close by. Then we moved to Boston, where I spent many of my childhood years, and then we moved to Baltimore just before my teen years. I’ve lived here ever since. I never felt the necessity to move in order to work in my industry. I was signed from the very beginning to an international label, and from the beginning I was travelling internationally. Because the music is such a global thing, it doesn’t really matter where you are.
I read that you became a mother recently. How has that changed things for you?
I did, 19 months old now – a boy! It’s definitely heightened the responsibility factor. You’re not flying by the seat of your pants like you were before – like whatever happens only affects yourself. Now you’ve got another person that you’re completely 100% responsible for. And you’re not only responsible for their financial security but also that person’s development emotionally, spiritually – all of those things. It’s really a heightened sense of awareness, but also very gratifying at the same time.
You’ve brought back a couple of your very early hit songs – “Scandal,” which is one of my all-time favorite tunes, and “It’s Over Now” – and released new versions on your latest record, Grime, Silk and Thunder. Why release these tracks again?
It was really out of necessity. So many fans from way back when that I’ve run into have asked where they can find a copy. Or they’ll say like you did that “Scandal” or “It’s Over Now” were one of their very first introductions to House Music, or that the song had some very special meaning or purpose in their life. They are really special songs to people but weren’t available for many years. I thought it was really cool with this album, taking on a whole new level of responsibility with starting a new label, becoming a mother – all of this evolution and transition – to rework these songs so they’d once again have a lifep and people that once appreciated and loved them will be able to hear them again. And also for people who just found out about me as an artist from big pop hits like “Free” and “Found a Cure” – those people missed out on my first two albums. It’s nice for them to be able to get that vibe too.
Going back to 1989, 1990, which songs from your early recording career do you think still stand up on their own?
A lot of them, really. People have their specific favorites. The stand-outs from the first album were definitely “Scandal” and “It’s Over Now.” A lot of people strangely enough tell me they love “Sands of Time,” which was a really downtempo song from the first album. From the second album, a lot of people tell me they really love “How Long Must I Wait” and “Joy.” Obviously the big hits were “Free” and “Found the Cure.” From Stranger Than Fiction, my fourth record, “Twisted” is like the end-all, be-all song that I still get emails about from people around the globe, and “Desire.” I think that it’s a pretty long list.
Grime, Silk and Thunder is your fifth full length album, which is almost unheard of in an industry that is so focused on singles. And there seems to be a greater concept to it, almost like a you’re a storyteller.
There’s always a theme with a full album. Albums are really about a concept, a vibe, a story, a feeling. They capture a period of time, a moment – you know what I mean? To me, album projects show more depth, reach and artistry than just a collection of singles. Singles are very linear – you’re only getting one perspective of that artist, that one vibe from them, that one interpretation. Being an artist is broader. It’s also necessary to be considered a substantial, “real artist” in the eyes of the world. People would never expect the Rolling Stones or Gwen Stefani, who they consider to be “real,” credible artists, to just put out a single or a compilation of singles. It’d be ridiculous. That’s one of the things that’s been lacking in the dance music community in terms of the artist: artistry, as opposed to these very linear, fragmented projects.
You started your recording career on a major label, Warner Brothers, and then moved on to an indie label, Strictly Rhythm. Was starting with a major label something of a cautionary tale?
There are pros and cons to every situation. When I started out, I didn’t think one way or another about being on a major label because I didn’t have enough experience to know the difference. You’re a kid, you’re making a record and you don’t know what you’re doing – and then Warner Brothers says “Hey, I want to sign you!” Sure, what have I got to lose? [laughs] A little bit of time, that’s all…
I was just kind of coasting because I really didn’t plan on becoming a singer, or a singer by trade. I was still in the process of writing my first album – my first efforts at even trying to write songs – and then to sing them, and then to be in a studio recording them to bring them out to the world… That was enough going on for me! The fact that I was on a major was so mind-boggling and overwhelming that I think I downplayed that part of the equation. Six months from the day I sang this little ditty that came to me, which was “It’s Over Now,” and then being in England for the first time – I was just out of my teens (if I was even out of my teens, I’m not even sure)… That’s a lot for a kid to digest. I’m in a different country, I’m shooting a video, going on Top of the Pops – I was just kind of going through the motions. That was the only template that I ever had. You have these major marketing meetings, you meet with this department and that department, and then these departments get together and decide how they’re going to market your project and they do all of these great things and suddenly your face is going by on the side of a bus!
After the second album – that’s when I became more aware of the business side of things. My project was transferred from the UK being my home label to Warner US, and that was a whole different ball of wax. My first record was cut on Warner UK and that was really cool, because these were people that really understood dance music and I was being marketed to a consumer that knew, understood, appreciated and purchased dance music. When I was sent to the US label, I was being handled by people who didn’t know or care about dance music and wanted to figure out how to change me into an R&B artist, which I didn’t want to do. When that wasn’t happening, I was shelved.
The light came on for me then. To be on a major sounds very glamorous, but I didn’t have fifty dollars in the bank. I’ve got videos, I’ve been on Top of the Pops, I’ve traveled the world – I’ve done this, I’ve done that, I’ve got a great name and credibility in the underground and above ground but I don’t have fifty dollars in the bank. That’s when you say, “Okay, maybe I need to go independent on the next go-round…”
I decided to go to Strictly Rhythm after Warner Brothers when Gladys Pizarro, my A&R person, worked hard for a year and a half to sign me. I was really kind of gunshy. And also, after I left Warner, I left the Basement Boys as my production team. I didn’t have a record deal or a production team anymore.
You took a lot of chances on Grime, Silk and Thunder with a lot of different sounds – from downtempo to pop to straight-ahead House with producers like Quentin Harris and singers like Dajae. You could easily make a good living as a “hired gun” on other people’s productions – why stick your neck out?
Yeah, but that’s so short-sighted. That’s a nowhere street for me. Not everything is for everyone, and I won’t dis anyone that’s gone that route, but for me, personally – I’m a little bit of a psycho in terms of believing “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” If you don’t take the risk, you have nothing to win. I don’t want to live with the regret of what I would’ve, should’ve or could’ve done. Whenever that day comes that I decide to call it quits, I don’t want to say, “If only I tried to step out on my own, invest some of my money in myself, I would be much further along in my career.” I don’t want to look back and feel like I sold myself out and didn’t at least try.
But it is a tough gamble – this is my own money, and quite a few of my own dollars were spent to get this up and running over the last five years that I’ve been working on the album. That’s difficult for some people to do. There can be a lot of revenue streams in this industry but it can also be feast or famine. But I believe that if you don’t bleed, sweat or cry over it, it ain’t worth havin’.
I remember seeing your videos on MTV and I’m glad to see you’re still making them. I can’t imagine the Rolling Stones or Gwen Stefani doing a song without a video, either.
It’s absolutely imperative, and I really have a hard time accepting anything less. I feel like what I do is just as credible as anyone else in any other genre. It’s just that this particular genre is treated like a bastard child, so people expect less and people strive for less in it. To me that’s so short-sighted. That’s never the way I want to lead my project. I want to compare my project to everyone else’s, in every other genre. It’s just as credible. I want what everyone else has!
If you reach for the stars and you fall a little bit short – at least that’s what you were aiming for. If you don’t strive for greatness of some sort, you’re always going to be mediocre, and who wants to be mediocre? You wouldn’t accept that. I also think it’s really important because the market is so media-driven now that you have to have a strong visual in order to push things further than just that underground, in-the-club, dancefloor moment.
You DJ as well, correct?
I do. That’s causing quite a stir at the moment, actually. I guess the first time that a lot of industry people saw me DJ was at the Winter Music Conference in March. People came away kind of raving about it – I was really kind of shocked. I was being accosted on the street the rest of the week! [laughs] I’ve been doing it about five years, since the inception of my Sugar parties.
How would you characterize your DJ style?
Energy, soulful, vocals, gospel, straight-up Jersey hump style. We mix it up between Baltimore basement style, New York kind of groove stuff – whatever’s soulful and will make the crowd jump, we’ll play.
Tell me about the Sugar Party in Baltimore.
It’ll be four years old in September. Myself and my DJ partner Lisa Moody were disheartened at the way the scene was going here in Baltimore, with very few venues, very few people who were giving the music a moment to shine or build an audience or anything like that. Historically, Baltimore’s been a very thriving House-oriented city – meaning, a lot of radio support, a lot of venues that played House music and club music and all that stuff. In the mid-’90s it seemed like it was starting to dry up. I was running around the globe like a psycho at the time, so I really didn’t see it. Then in the aftermath I was like, “What’s happening here?”
There needs to be a place where people can go where it’s all about dancing and not about being pretentious and turning into a really chic kind of “Cocktail House” – the lounge thing where it’s all glamorous and everyone pretends they’re in a Puffy video. That’s really what’s happening! They want to be in a really chic-chic place and put on their chic-chic clothes and they want to dance with martinis in their hands to House Music. And that’s cool in its place – I’ve got nothing against martinis! But I come from the place where you go out and you sweat and you dance and you close your eyes and you sing, throw your hands in the air and you scream and you take a ride with the DJ. You come together and you feel the vibe in the room, and there’s a gay person over here and a white person over here and someone over there that you really can’t identify – whatever! I like having a good time, and that’s all that matters.
There was nothing like that happening here and I felt like it was my duty to provide it, so I started Sugar. You’re not going to hear hip-hop, you’re not going to hear rock. All you’re going to hear is soulful underground House. Lots of vocals, lots of bangin’ tracks. It’s all about the vibe and having a good time. That’s what Sugar is.
I also periodically bring in a guest artist to perform. Obviously, being an artist myself, I think it’s really important for people to reconnect to the music and bring it to life beyond that moment on the dancefloor. I’ve had a lot of artists come through, like Jocelyn Brown, Jody Watley, Kathy Sledge, Ann Nesby, CeCe Peniston, a lot of DJs like Quentin Harris… Louie Vega been through twice. I try to mix it up and also have some of the more underground artists like Monique Bingham, Kenny Bobien – I could go on for days. A lot of heads have come through and a lot of heads are still trying to come because they know that when they come, it’s nothing but mad love.
So how about the singles off the album?
“Automatic” is doing awesome on the charts, and the video’s getting a lot of hits on YouTube – it’s only been up for a week and I think it’s had 10,000 hits already. On the Billboard club chart I think I’m at #4 in the fourth week it’s been up there [as of April 10], so it’s been climbing pretty aggressively. I think it was the most downloaded track on iTunes last week.
I think I’m going to release “Falling” as my next single, which I wrote about my son when he was on my lap one morning when he was seven months old. He inspired me to write the song.
You also started your own record label?
I started a label called Sugar Music to put out my own artists. The first one I signed is named Jada. I signed her in partnership with Code Red, DJ Spen’s label. She has a record out now called “Love Is (Love Breeze)” which was picked up by Defected and is the first song on the Defected in the House: Miami 2007 compilation. The first week it was out, it was the most downloaded song on the Defected website, so people are really feeling it.
The second artist I signed is Lisa Mack, who is another vocalist with a track on Code Red that was picked up by Defected called “Shine.” Jada especially reminds me of myself as a budding writer and vocalist. She’s a really sparkling talent that just needs the right kind of development to get out there and do her thing. Lisa is a little more developed as an artist because she’s been out singing in bands for many years. She really wanted to work with someone who is going to champion her as an artist.
That’s the main thing I’ve been working on now – their projects for the Sugar Music label and also working with known acts. Spen and I also did a partnership on a song called “Don’t Give Up” and it was also picked up by Defected. So I’ve been busy!