In the Bible, Matthew writes of the prophet who is not without honor, save in his own country. But what of the pop star who is honored everywhere but her hometown?
In Europe, in Japan, in Brazil, Ultra Nate is a star. A big star. Her last single, the guitar-driven dance tune "Free," was a global smash, a million seller that moved more than 400,000 copies in the U.K. alone.
Her current single, "Found a Cure," entered the British charts at No. 6, several places above such American hits as K-Ci & Jojo's "All My Life" and "What You Want" by Mase. Her European record companies have been champing at the bit for her new album, "Situation Critical" (which arrives in stores Tuesday).
Here in the States, "Free" spent 19 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, but never got above No. 75. (It did top both of Billboard's dance charts, however.)
In Baltimore, where Ultra Nate (pronounced, diva-style, as nah-TAY) has spent most of her life, the song went practically unplayed on local radio.
For the singer herself, the disparity between foreign fame and local anonymity is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, she likes being treated like a star and having fans scream her name and hold up singles as proof of their devotion. On the other hand, she enjoys the respite her trips home bring.
"It's really messed up," she says, shaking her head and laughing. But I feel both ways.
"I really appreciate being able to come home and have that balance of being a nobody," she says.
"Because [success] can be very overwhelming sometimes, and it's just important for me as a person just to not get caught up in that.
"So it's very helpful for me to live here. It's that comfort zone. ... I can drive down the streets where I've grown up, where I went to elementary school, where me and my friends from high school hung out. It keeps that star stuff still very surreal."
Still, she wouldn't mind getting at least a little of the attention lavished on her elsewhere. Particularly on Baltimore radio, where only one of her recordings, the 1993 single "Show Me," ever got aired. "[That's] the only record I've ever done that ever had any radio play in this town," she says. "I kid you not. Including 'Free,' a single that has sold over a million copies worldwide."
"The reason why we haven't played any of Ultra Nate's music is that we primarily don't play a lot of dance music on 92Q," says WERQ-FM music director, Buttahman. "We don't have a problem with supporting local artists in town, but we have a format we have to stick by."
Nor does her music fit the format of the more dance-oriented V-103. "I can see her frustration," says Albie Dee, music director at WXYV-FM. "But I treat [local] product the same way I would treat any national product that came across my desk. If it fits for the format, and fits for the radio station, then I would play it."
If Ultra feels slighted, however, her annoyance doesn't show. As she sits in her immaculate apartment overlooking Little Italy, she seems the essence of joviality and poise. Apart from the dye job that has turned her close-cropped hair a sort of dirty blond - it's her official "look" for the album, she says - she comes across like any other young working woman.
Even her name is unaffected; she was born Ultra Nate Wyche. Overall, the closest she comes to showing any "star attitude" is when she's asked her age. "I'm 22," she says, a big grin spreading across her face. "I started when I was 19," she says, laughing merrily. "And there's been eight years in between.
"I've known Ultra for eight years now," says Billboard dance-music editor Larry Flick. "She's basically the same person, and that's rare. People tend to reflect their success, and she doesn't. She's basically who she is, and I think people in the business who know that about her, they want her to do well. They support her."
Indeed they do. Her current single, the stomping, guitar-tinged "Found a Cure," is the club-play champion on Billboard's dance charts right now, lording it over the likes of Madonna's "Frozen" and Janet Jackson's "I Get Lonely." Moreover, dance-music fans have been behind her since she first started making records with the Baltimore-based production team the Basement Boys, back in 1990.
When she was a student at Dunbar High, music was just a sideline; she was planning for a career in medicine. But after she graduated from high school, she became a part of the club scene and met the Basement Boys while they were disc jockeys at Odell's. They were looking for singers, she auditioned, and within a few months, she had her first single: "It's Over Now."
In those days, Ultra made mostly house music, a throbbing, electronic offshoot of disco that grew up in the gay dance clubs of Chicago and New York. It wasn't exactly the big time - the Basement Boys owed their name to the fact that their recording studio was in a converted basement off Druid Hill Avenue - but those were heady days nonetheless. Not only did Ultra sign with Warner Bros. Records, but the success of another Basement Boys production, Crystal Waters' Top-10 hit "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)," made it seem as if the Baltimore sound might go big time.
But things didn't quite work that way when Ultra released her second album, "One Woman's Insanity," in 1993. "The beginning of the end was [when] my contract from Warner U.K. changed over to Warner U.S.," she says.
"They had to put my record out, because contractually, they had to. But they didn't have to be tenacious about promoting it or anything like that."
Eventually the project crashed and burned, and Ultra lost her label deal and terminated her contract with the Basement Boys. "A change had to happen, and it had to be on me," she says. "So it was kind of like baby bird leaving the nest in order to grow up."
Dance music with smarts
And grow up she did. With the guidance of Bill Coleman, the manager who steered the hip dance act Deee-Lite to stardom, she began writing and working on demos with various producers, while trying to find a record deal that made sense. Along the way, she recognized what it was that made her stand out as a dance artist.
"A lot of people [in the business] really respected what I did and loved my writing," she says. "I was actually embraced, with a lot of people wanting me to work with them."
Ultra, says Flick, "is probably a better songwriter than she is a singer. She writes intelligent words, and really good melodies, and really good hooks. She's a traditional tunesmith, which is almost unheard of in dance music."
Indeed, "Situation Critical" is a remarkably varied album. In addition to "Free," which turned the dance world on its head with its arpeggiated guitar and sly, melancholy melody, the songs run the gamut from the aggressive "Found a Cure" (note how the guitar hook evokes "Sunshine of Your Love") to the feisty, Chic-style "New Kind of Medicine."
"It's not a traditional dance record," says Flick. "It's a lot more experimental than almost any dance record that you're going to hear this year, or even maybe next year. That makes her a hard sell to mall America."
As Flick sees it, "In America, house music is largely considered black, gay music, and that still scares a lot of people. It always comes down to, 'God, it's awfully gay' and 'God, it's awfully black.' What's really funny is that Ultra herself is not a lesbian. But she pays her rent on the money of her gay audience, and I think that's unnerving to people."
"I think it's just because of the whole disco connotation," says Ultra, shrugging. But she's not about to let a bit of prejudice get her down.
"Hey - you never know what works," she says, and laughs. "You just never know."
The Ultra experience
To hear excerpts from Ultra Nate's new release, "Situation Critical," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6119. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.
Pub Date: 5/10/98