Ultra Naté is the consummate professional. When interviewed, the Maryland-bred and -based maverick diva of deep house, R&B, and the Billboard dance charts steadily holds your gaze, answering questions without a single awkward pause, but in a manner that never feels rehearsed.
She speaks freely on the industry she entered with her 1989 single "It's Over Now," and discusses how over the last 20-plus years she reacted to its transitions, going from the major label ecosystem to being an entrepreneurial, independent singer, songwriter, DJ and party promoter. She cherishes every appreciation people have for her craft, whether it's on the dance floor or when it's been used in a porno movie. She's fierce, forthcoming, and radiates positivity throughout an hour-long interview as she gears up to perform live at the Clevelander on Wednesday, March 9, and release her eighth studio album, Hero Worship.
Crossfade: After your two decades in the game, do you feel now that people are more or less able, as your own song "Free" says, "to do what they want to do?"
Ultra Naté: I think now there is definitely a certain sense of freedom more so than before. But I think the upset that has happened globally on the financial side of things has shaken everyone's whole state of security, normalcy, whatever. What used to be the way things were done, those models do not apply anymore, the same rules don't apply anymore. And within that there's a freedom, a flexibility that comes because people learn how to adapt under difficult circumstances.
So how have you adapted your business model?
My situation has changed in so many ways. I used to be signed to a major label when I started for my first two albums, then I went to a major independent with Strictly Rhythm, and then I started my own label and started investing my own money in putting my own product out in order to be able to own my own master recordings and have more control on the business side of things, not just the artistic side.
When would you pinpoint this shift?
It was definitely the late '90s into the early 2000s. The sign that we were no longer in Kansas was when Polygram dismantled all of the labels, started dissolving certain ones, and then merging the ones left in the fray. It was a mess for the music industry. That, coupled with the internet and technology proliferating before anyone could get a handle on what was happening, it upset everything, turned it all around.
What would you say was the greatest struggle you had to overcome in that shift?
When you're paying all of the bills, it's one thing to have great grand schemes. I'm used to working a certain way, having a certain caliber of production. But when you're paying for everything, it's a whole different game.
What are some of the key ways you learned to compensate, and how has the technology caught up with the necessity?
You learn because you just have to. You find ways to get it done a little quicker, a little less labor intensive and more cost effective. The good thing is everyone experienced the same shake up, so everyone is willing to work at a level at which they might not have been before, just to get product out there, keep the music industry moving, keep it viable. So you can do more barter deals with things, and there are more collaborative things going on within the business side, not just the artistic side.
In that there are more people, say, trading beats for guest appearances, and vice versa?
Something like that. Or trade a remix for an appearance. There's just been a lot of trading, bartering, just to keep things moving till they settled and people had a hand on what's going on.
When would you say things began to feel more stable again?
It's really just gotten more stable within the last four to five years. It's still quite tricky, it's a quagmire to navigate, and you have to work harder than the average bear these days. The technology has made it easier to get things done, but it's also enabled people who may not be investing the time and effort to put the best product together to also get it out there to the masses, so the consumer becomes inundated with so much from every direction every day it becomes harder for them to differentiate between what is really good and what's not, and it makes it harder for artists to really find a platform even with all these seeming outlets. There's just so much coming out every minute.
What would you say would be a number one lesson in how to make a product stand out?
That's a lot of things, and it also depends on what type of project it is, and what kind of profile the individual or group has going into it. Obviously, if you're more high profile, it's easier, people are paying attention. But if you're unknown it's more of an uphill battle. But the first thing is to make sure of the quality of your project, and your product is A+, because that's what represents you. After that it's relationships, seeking all avenues of marketing and promotion, from the obvious social networking stuff to guerilla marketing schemes, and you have to keep building on that, building your profile with people, be willing to go the extra distance sometimes to make things happen. And always think outside the box, keep your ear to the ground to understand what others are doing that is successful. Maybe they have a concept of a clue about something you haven't gotten wind of yet.
How have shifts within the club scheme itself changed how you could test a product? Has it become more or less difficult to play a track out regionally before you launch nationally?
Not for me, not necessarily. I think you definitely have more freedom to just try things out, people have ears more opened to diversity. It's not so streamlined. People are open to things being more experimental.
So you could say it's easier to launch wide. But how is it now to launch locally?
Local is difficult, no doubt. Hopefully, whoever the individual is they put time and effort into creating a profile for themselves on a local level, but the local situation is often the hardest, because you're homemade, grown in the backyard, and that doesn't have as much luster as something that's foreign. But that's kind of the way it goes.
Could you give me your viewpoint of how the local scene has changed over the years?
Well, the scene I specifically hung out in was the deep house scene. I did the fringe of the more rave-oriented parties. But soulfully for me, it was deep house. So when deep house blew up in the early '90s and labels signed traditional, real house records, before it was a million different versions of house, the scene was really strong here. There were a lot of artists, DJs, producers from Baltimore that were relevant in those days in terms of where the scene went globally. And we had full radio support, and having the average joe hear deep house on a regular basis really fed the scene. Additionally, we had venues with great sound systems, as deep house is all about how good the sound system is. And then the dark days came and the major labels stopped supporting in the US, and the trickle down was the radio stopped supporting. So the trickle down from there was the average joe stopped supporting and you were left with just the diehards that lived, ate, and breathed. And it became a much smaller, more struggling scene.
It was really difficult to find parties in Baltimore. I was running around the world, so kind of in it but not so much affected as I was away working. But I decided at a certain point to give something back instead of complain about it, which is why I started my Deep Sugar party when I did, because we needed to have something that presents that genre the correct way - with the right sound system and the right venue to build things again. And from there people find it through the grapevine. Without radio you struggle to bring new people in, they don't know the DJs and the music, so what's the carrot. And the house music scene splintered, taking different people in many directions, into many little factions that no longer support each other. So it's a really tricky place.
-- Tony Ware