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] stylings. 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.
Ultra Naté's 20 year anniversary in the business comes at a time of non-stop work and recording sessions. In addition to prepping her eighth studio album Hero Worship (set for release in 2011), Ultra Naté's been busy in the studio with David Morales (for his upcoming album and hers); Robbie Rivera (for his new album); Quentin Harris (a project entitled Black Stereo Faith that Naté describes as "sexy soul meets rock with a twinge of disco funk"); Nervo (co-writers of David Guetta's worldwide chart topping "When Love Takes Over" featuring Kelly Rowland) and Nicola Fasano (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") and a new EP project with Baltimore's Unruly Records crew entitled "Things Happen at Night" (a mix of hyped-up hip-hop grooves, raw house beats, heaving bass and ass-shaking beats). Additional collaborations include "Waiting On You," a funky disco duet with Destiny's Child's Michelle Williams,"Right Now," with house music innovator Todd Terry and the chart-topping "Destination," with Tony Moran, a circuit party anthem which has just gone top 10 on Billboard's club chart.
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 recently released 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." Over the years, the indefatigable "Free" has been remixed by numerous DJs and producers, and was recently remixes by legendary producer Bob Sinclar for Strictly Rhythm's 20th Anniversary project.
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).
At the end of the day, and 20 years on, Naté's maverick style has not changed. It 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."
Well, this "one little self" continues to move forward with several currently smoldering collaborations and a new full-length due in 2011. "I want to continue to be in your face," says Naté. We wouldn't want it any other way.
by Michael Paoletta