by Michael Paoletta
In her two decades of making music, Ultra Naté has remained a musical chameleon, embracing a variety of sounds, from R&B/hip-hop, soul and disco to house, rock and electro-pop. Her reasoning for doing this is quite simple: “I hate boxes,” Naté says. “Where’s the fun in being totally predictable?”
She continues “It’s always important to experiment and be a bit of a maverick in your [musical and personal] styling. Win, lose or draw, when it’s all over, people will respect you more if you don’t always play it safe.” Indeed.
Twenty years after sashaying onto international dance floors with the club anthem, “It’s Over Now,” Naté stands tall and proud, proving that artist longevity, though not common for singers of dance music, is alive and well—and a real possibility for those willing to work hard for the money.
In 2010, that means non-stop recording sessions for our girl Ultra, who’s in the studio with David Morales (for his upcoming album and hers); Quentin Harris (a project Naté describes as “sexy soul meets rock with a twinge of disco funk”); Nervo (co-writers of the chart topping worldwide hit, When Love Takes Over, by David Guetta featuring Kelly Rowland) and Nicola Fasano (the Italian DJ/producer responsible for the club hit “75, Brazil Street,” which was reworked by rapper Pitbull for his smash single, I Know You Want Me). She also has two singles waiting in the wings: the anthemic Turn It Up with U.K. newcomers Count DeMoney, and Waiting on You, a funky disco duet with one of Destiny's Child-ren Michelle Williams.
Working hard for the money also means wearing numerous hats. Sure, Naté is the singer of the song, but she is also a songwriter, producer, DJ, label owner (BluFire and Deep Sugar), club promoter and live performer. For the Baltimore-residing Naté, such diversity is a natural extension—or evolution—from one creative aspect of the music scene to another. “I’ve been in this scene for a long time, so it’s easy for me to transition from one area to another rather seamlessly,” she explains. “Sure, I’m still learning some particular dynamics, but that’s the fun part of the process. When you stop learning you’re doomed.”
Consider this: A few years ago, Naté stepped behind the turntables to learn the art of DJing, which paved the way to her monthly Deep Sugar party at Baltimore’s Paradox club, where she is DJ, host and promoter. Now, she is a much sought after artist and DJ on the international dance/electronic/ house music circuit.
At the end of the day, though, Naté always heads back home for inspiration. Witness the new six-track EP, Things Happen at Night, a collaboration between Naté and Unruly Records that spotlights Baltimore’s homegrown club sound—a mix of hyped-up hip-hop grooves, raw house beats, heaving bass and ass-shaking beats. The project’s lead single and video, Faster Faster Pussycat (Let’s Go!), would do Lil Jon, M.I.A., and Rihanna proud.
According to Naté, Baltimore keeps her grounded. “The city sometimes has a brash, in-your-face, unpolished quality that can be very refreshing when things start to get too watered down,” she says.
Naté’s schooling in all things music began in the late-’80s. At the time, she was taking pre-med courses in college. When not buried in books, she discovered the local nightclub scene, which is where she met production outfit the Basement Boys. After a night of dancing, Naté went back to the Boys’ studio and, before the sun had a chance to rise, wrote and sang the lyrics for what would become her first single, the now-classic It’s Over Now.
It’s Over Now paved the way for Naté’s debut album, Blue Notes in the Basement, which spawned such club hits as Scandal, Is It Love?, Deeper Love and Rejoicing (I’ll Never Forget). Four years later, in 1993, Naté delivered her sophomore album, One Woman’s Insanity. Dance music enthusiasts were pleasantly surprised by its R&B undertow, clearly evident on singles like Joy, How Long, and Show Me, which was the artist’s first #1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart.
In 1997, after switching labels, from a major (Warner Bros.) to an independent (Strictly Rhythm), Naté had the biggest success of her career with the worldwide smash single, Free. The anthemic track topped Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play and Maxi-Singles Sales charts before crossing over to Top-40/dance radio. In England, Free became a Top 5 pop hit; in Switzerland and France, it went Top 10; and in Italy and Spain, it scored a bull’s-eye, reaching the pole position of the national pop charts.
Free was one of many highlights featured on Naté’s third album, Situation: Critical, which also included the hit singles Found a Cure, Release the Pressure and New Kind of Medicine. To be sure, Situation: Critical was Naté’s greatest commercial success.
It is also safe to say that Free pushed Naté into the mainstream on a worldwide level, greatly impacting her life and career. “It definitely felt like a great payoff for the many years of hard work I put in before it,” the singer says of the song. “Since then, it has taken on a life of its own and become an anthem to people around the world.”
Free is the little song that could. “It certainly captured a moment in time and has immortalized itself in people’s hearts,” Naté explains. “The lyrics continue to resonate with people around the world. It’s a beautiful thing.”
In 2010 the indefatigable Free was remixed by leading French DJ/producer Bob Sinclar as part of the celebrations for Strictly Rhythm’s 20th anniversary and included on the album Strictly Rhythm Est. 1989 - 20 Years Remixed.
Four years after Naté struck gold with Free, she released her fourth studio album, Stranger Than Fiction, which found her spreading her musical wings (again), working with such producers as 4 Hero, D-Influence and Attica Blues as well as collaborating with Nona Hendryx, Lenny Kravitz and N'dea Davenport. Two songs from the album, Desire and Get It Up (The Feeling), reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart, while sleeper hit, Twisted (Got me Goin' Round), continues to have a life all its own.
In 2007, Nate’s fifth studio album, Grime, Silk & Thunder, arrived via Tommy Boy Records, spawning two #1 club hits: Give It All You Got (featuring Chris Willis) and a cover of the Pointer Sisters’ Automatic. Lead single, Love’s the Only Drug - given a major electro-kicked re-rub by Morgan Page—missed the top spot by only one position point. Equal parts Grace Jones and Little Boots, the track wickedly championed the electro-pop fusion that’s all the rage now.
Of course, Naté’s 2005 collaboration with Stonebridge (Freak On) also found the diva reveling in electro-kissed beats. Since day one, Girl has always remained steps ahead of the game, following the beat of her own drum.
Both Freak On and Page’s mix of Love’s the Only Drug are included on Naté’s 2008 collection, Alchemy: G.S.T. Reloaded. The two-disc set spotlights remixes of tracks from Grime, Silk & Thunder—as well as Naté’s DJ skills (it is her first official DJ mix)
20 years on, Naté’s maverick style remains intact. She says her creative process, over the years, has not changed either. “I still work in many different ways,” she explains. “I’m very open to trying things differently. Remember: I don’t like boxes.”
When asked if there is one moment from her two decades in music that will be forever embedded in her mind, Naté pauses. Smiling, she says, “It was in 1998 when Free had hit its stride. I was performing at an outdoor festival in front of 300,000 people. Midway through the song, I had the sound engineer stop the music so that I could hear the people sing the song a cappella. It was a sea of 600,000 hands in the air, singing a song I wrote—a song that came from my one little self.”