INTERVIEW: Ultra Nate (2003)

DJ Ron Slomowicz: Growing up, who was your most favorite artist? When you were out driving around town, who did you want to listen to and sing along with the most?
Ultra Nate: I loved a wide range of artists as a kid. Everyone from Marvin Gaye to Boy George. Anyone with a soulful vibe, it didn’t really matter what the genre or style. I was pretty much a sponge when it came to music.

RS: How, if at all, have they influenced your career?
Ultra: I think it’s definately made me more open to be experimental with style and production.

RS: Did you desire to be a top 40 mainstream crossover artist?
Ultra: Absolutely! But on my own terms of course.

RS: The reason I asked is recalling the hit “Desire” from 2000, it gives a feeling of wanting more. Is there more of a personal meaning to that song?
Ultra: It’s actually speaking of wanting the greatest love of all. And not being afraid to shout it out loud. Many people think it’s hot to say ‘f*** the world! I don’t need anyone or anything.’ But that’s not my reality. I’m very clear, I need a mighty love!

RS: How much ability and freedom do you have to write your own songs, and could this be the reason the messages are bounced all over?
Ultra: I’ve always had the freedom to write what I want. Sometimes it may be focused to something specific like a TV show, a movie or an album concept. But it’s all my personal take coupled with the producer.
I’m not sure what you mean by “bounced all over” but if you mean that subjects vary greatly, I see that as a good thing. Things don’t become “cookiecutter” that way. That predictability happens to much in the dance genre as it is.

RS: Which producer have you enjoyed working with the most?
Ultra: Most people I’ve worked with have been very cool and there’s something to take away from every experience. I’ve had more concentrated periods with Basement Boys early in my career and Mood II Swing later. So those 2 teams are definite standouts for the considerable amount of growth during those years.

RS: When you wrote “Free,” did you have any idea it would become as big as it did?
Ultra: No. I don’t think you every really know. I was completely on the floor when it started to blow.

RS: What’s the story on your song “Ain’t Lookin’ for Nothin'”?
Ultra: It’s actually pretty autobiographical. I met a guy who was really diggin’ me but he was freaked by my career/star thing. He was a state trooper (a very meat and potatoes, everything is black-or-white type of person). I think he really didn’t know how to be with me and “Ain’t Lookin” was just saying RELAX!!!! this ain’t rocket science dude. We’re either gonna work and figure it out as we go or we’re not and we’ll still be cool.

RS: “Grime Silk & Thunder,” sounds like a dark title, what should we look forward to with regards to the songs?
Ultra: Yea, so was “Situation Critical”. I’m a very melancholic writer and singer so it reflects that vibe. The music is more experimental in an edgey and electronic direction while maintaining the warmth and depth of my vocal and writing stylings.

RS: How does your personal spirituality guide your musical artistry?
Ultra: It’s a constant influence, whether subtle or overt. Not that I’m all holy roller but my just my basic make-up.

RS: You’re well known in the gay community. Any reasons why you think that is, and, does it affect you at all when recording something new?
Ultra: I’ ve been fortunate to be embraced early in my career by the gay community. They’ve been very educational and supportive. I don’t really consider the gay community specifically when writing because their tastes are as varied as anyone elses.

RS: Can you name anything about the business that is just apalling to you that you would love to get off your chest?
Ultra: The way artists signed to label deals are nickel-and-dimed to death. Everything comes out of the artist pocket so in the end your being prostituted. The system is designed to keep the artist as an indentured servant. Obviously in order to make an artist happen the label is incurring all the financial risks, but there are ways to spend the money smarter so the bills are not so through-the-roof. The splits also could be light years better. Artist are given such a small percentage of the profits when they do happen that after all the chargebacks do they even have enough to live off of? Meanwhile the record label takes the lion’s share. It’s disgusting.

RS: You’ve been on a major label and an independent dance labels, what inspired you to start your own label – BluFire?
Ultra: Cause I’m freeee to do what I want to do! Just kidding. I wanted to take some chances and really harness my career from all angles. It would be nice to reap ALL of the rewards of my hard work. And believe me, a sister works hard!

RS: What experiences from your previous label do you bring to BluFire?
Ultra: My manager and I have always been at the helm of things when it came to my prior records; the biggest difference now is that I have to be on top of every detail and pay all the bills.

RS: Is there any coincidence that BluFire shares the same color as BlueChip?
Ultra: I named mine first. Actually I have no idea how that came to be..? Mine speaks of depth, intensity and passion. Bluechip is not so esoteric, as in a bluechip stock, I believe.

Image Courtesy of Dennis Petkovsek

RS: Do you prefer performing in front of an audience or working in the studio?

Ultra: I’ll take the stage anytime over the studio.

RS: What inspired you to cover “Brass in Pocket”?
Ultra: I loved it as a kid and it came to me in brainstorm out of the blue. My instinct said go with it. My manager thought it was an excellent idea. The rest is history.

RS: Is there a video for “Brass in Pocket?”
Ultra: I’m putting “Brass” out myself on my own label, so unfortunately we don’t have the budget for videos (yet).

RS: With club mixes by Junior Vasquez of the new Pretenders song “Time” doing well in the clubs, have you heard of any DJs mixing the songs together?
Ultra: I’m not out enough to catch it. Most of the time if I’m giggin’, I’m in and out. But I hope the DJs like the track and it would be dope if they did something like that. I think it’s a great confirmation that the “Pretenders” are back in the mix.

RS: Remixers often drop a vocal over the trendy, big room sound of the moment. The remixes of “Brass in Pocket” instead emphasize the soul and sensuality of your voice, did you choose remixers with this in mind?
Ultra: Yes. it’s very important to maintain the integrity of the song. It’s really important that remixers realize that to give a song and even this genre in general more credibility and longevity they have to give the music substance. So many nameless and faceless records out there continue to be the stumbling block of this genre. Obviously not all tracks are created equal. There are some killer tracks out there that are not vocal records. I’m speaking of artist based material solely.

RS: The b-side of “Brass in Pocket” is the live version of “It’s Over Now,” what was the inspiration in the unique rendition for the live show?
Ultra: I was doing a whole featured night of performance with my band. Doing that cut with the human beat box was another context of presentation and just basically having fun with it and catching the heads off guard. That’s the beauty of the dance music genre. You can just go all over the place with it.

RS: Was it harder to perform to a human beat box than a backing track or live band?
Ultra: Absolutely not. Because weren’t trying to be perfect. We just wanted to be spontaneous and fun. So no one cared if we made mistake. Mistakes are a lot more human and interesting.

RS: How did you choose the producers for your new album?
Ultra: I write to whatever inspires me. People send me stuff and my manager solicits stuff from various people. It usually happens pretty organically like that.

RS: You have worked with lots of clubland’s best producers, is there anyone out there that you would like to work with but haven’t?
Ultra: Daft Punk or Basement Jaxx. But there’s a host of others who may not be dance specific.

RS: You work with a lot of great singers on this new album – N’Dea Davenport, Jody Watley, Jill Jones, Lisa Shaw, Renee Neufville (formerly of Zhane’), Rachid, Jay Williams, McKay and Elisa (formerly of Basscut) – what about them have inspired you?
Ultra: They’re all dope artists in their own right yet very giving as creative people. That can be a rarity these days. Everyone wants to be the “star”. They’re all amazing vocalists and writers, and I’m so flattered and grateful that they have worked on this record.

RS: 14 years in the dance music world has probably left you with a lot of stories, what is the strangest situation you have found yourself in?
Ultra: I’m not sure I have one, or maybe it’s not strange to me because it’s just my life. I think being home with my family and friends one minute and the next being on stage in Slovenia singing to a crowd of 2000 people who know every song and love the fact that I’m there. Is one of the strangest yet happiest moments I’ve experienced.

RS: Dance artists come and go, yet your fifth album is about to be released; how
have you managed to stay on the forefront of dance music?
Ultra: I have a lot of people around me who soulfully care about me.

RS: What advice would you share with the up-and-coming dance artists seeking to follow in your footsteps?
Ultra:You’ve gotta work harder than the average bear. Don’t be afraid of change and maintain your integrity

Special thanks to Claudia Cuseta of Maxi Promotion and Bill Coleman of Peace Bisquit Productions for arranging this interview. Special thanks to Dennis Petkosek for inspiration.

Interview originally posted October 2003.

Frankie Knuckles: Beyond the Sound Factory (1991 Interview)

Frankie Knuckles: Beyond the Sound Factory
by Andy Reynolds

This is most definitely not Frankie Knuckles? first interview. He is the most popular DJ in the world. He DJs at one of the best nightclubs in the world: Sound Factory. ?The Whistle Song? ? the first single off his Beyond the Mix album ? has hit No.1 positions on radio and club charts across Europe and is getting pop airplay on the top station in New York ? Hot97. Frankie?s a popular boy. Especially with me. I?m at Sound Factory at 3:30 every Saturday night ? other clubs simply don?t enter the picture. Sound Factory is about dancing, sweating, and working out whatever needs to be worked out right there on the dancefloor ? Sound Factory is therapy. Frankie and I talked about Sound Factory, his music, and his album.

Andy Reynolds: So how do you choose what you play at Sound Factory?
Frankie Knuckles: Vocals are really important to me ? good voices, good vocals, good lyrics ? as well as the music and rhythms that go underneath them. Sometimes it can be a song that just has a good rhythm to it. I try to stay away from a lot of nonsensical music ? songs with samples that have been used, used, and overused. To me, there?s nothing that?s that exciting about playing a bunch of records like that throughout the evening. There are a couple that I will play ? that (I) know automatically will work well ? but I generally try to break up the evening.

Andy Reynolds: When you get your crowd up to a peak, what?s that like for your up in the booth?
Frankie Knuckles: It?s crazy. I never really get a chance to focus in on it because when I do get the room going like that there?s a ton of people that try to rush the booth at the same time. It breaks my concentration up.

Andy Reynolds: People have to realize that you have to concentrate!
Frankie Knuckles: Well, on the average, people don?t. And I?m not just talking about people that are hanging out. I mean industry people. They have to be in that booth and they always have something they got to say while I?m trying really hard to feed off the energy that?s coming back from everybody on the dancefloor. When the room starts taking off, I don?t know, I guess a lot of people feel that they need to be right there?

Andy Reynolds: They need to be on that dancefloor. They don?t need to be in the booth!
Frankie Knuckles: I agree with you there, but I think they feel the need to be in that booth where all that energy is coming from.

Andy Reynolds: How do you decide where to go from a peak?
Frankie Knuckles: That?s generally instinct. That depends ? I have to pace myself considering that the fact that I?m playing eleven to twelve hours. I try not to wear everybody out early. I build it up to a certain peak and then I try to change directions a little bit here and there without dragging everybody?s energy level down. When I change directions it?s to give people a chance to catch up with themselves so they don?t wear themselves out too early and say, ?well, I can?t take it anymore,? and then before you know it they?re all out of there and the room would be empty by six o?clock. It?s like teasing them, you know, but I just like to keep the relationship lasting between the audience and me.

Andy Reynolds: Is that a long night for you?
Frankie Knuckles: Its definitely a long night that actually starts going by pretty quickly ? especially between the hours of three and eight in the morning ? those hours generally fly by.

Andy Reynolds: How do you feel out the crowd when it?s around 9:00?
Frankie Knuckles: I can tell the audience that?s there is generally feeling a lot more physical ? people hanging on one another, dancing in one another?s arms, playing with each other like that ? it?s kind of a romantic kind of thing and I?ll try and play on that for a while. Sort of sleazy rhythms, but not sleazy songs.

We asked him a bit about his album, Beyond The Mix. The project was produced by Frankie, John Poppa, Eric Kupper and Danny Maden. Appearing are the notable talents of David Morales, Peter ?Ski? Schwartz, Shelton Becton, Lisa Michaelis, Roberta Gillian and Paul Shapiro.

Andy Reynolds: How do you feel about your first single, ?The Whistle Song,? a very underground record, being added first at Hot97, New York?s No.1 pop station?
Frankie Knuckles: I?m really shocked, I?m going to tell you. Everybody knows that the music on the underground club scene is for the most part instrumental. My whole perception of ?The Whistle Song,? when me and Eric (Kupper) were working on it, was to make it very underground ? (something) afterhours and underground clubs could really relate to. On a commercial level they said it?s a nice instrumental, but that?s all it is. [Laughs] Well, I mean [laughs], they?ve definitely blown my mind ? being number fourteen on the pop charts in England, and it?s number two or number one on most of the radio stations over there. It?s really kind of scary. It?s great, but I never looked at it as being a pop record! Not at all, not in the least ? and for it to be the first single off the album and for it to go pop, that?s an amazing thing.

Andy Reynolds: On the album I really like ?The Right Thing? ? now that?s a pop song!
Frankie Knuckles: [Laughs] I get tickled from everybody that has gotten copies of the album and that have listened to it, you know? The thing that I was scared about the most about this album was being able to develop something that Virgin wouldn?t be afraid to get behind. I figured if I gave them three songs on that album that could work well for radio, then the rest of the album could be pretty much a piece of cake, because I can do enough club stuff that will work really well for the clubs, and they?ll have three songs on the album that they can pull for radio. As it stands they can?t make up their minds, you know [laughs], they can pull almost any track off the album, you know, according to them (and work it) for radio, which is really a nice feeling ? that they feel that strongly about it.

Andy Reynolds: What do you look for in a mix of your own work? And how do you feel about other people mixing your work?
Frankie Knuckles: I don?t know, I?ve never had anything of my own mixed by somebody before ? other than David (Morales). I know David?s work and I know his approach, I never preconceive anything where he?s concerned, I?m always surprised by anything he does. With this album I?m going to have an opportunity to have some other people come in and mix things. There?s a number of people I want to have mix different songs off the album ? Bobby Konders, Pal Joey, Tee Scott, David Todd ? people that I have a lot of respect for. I want them to be able to play around with some of this stuff. I never thought that this album would warrant this much importance ? that people would be calling way in advance to try and get mixes on the album. It?s one thing to be a producer and a remixer, but it?s another thing to be a producer slash artist, and then the responsibility of deciding who?s going to mix your stuff is resting in your lap ? a bit different.

Andy Reynolds: And lastly, what is your favorite remix that you?ve done?
Frankie Knuckles: Favorite record remixed to date would probably be ?The Pressure? by Sounds of Blackness. I?d like to think that of all the records that I?ve ever mixed, that?s probably the best thing I?ve ever done.

Frankie can be heard every Saturday at Sound Factory (New York) ? 1 am until 12pm. Some advice on your first visit to Sound Factory from Frankie: ?If I have friends who are coming from out of town, I tell them, look, go out Saturday, have a good time running around the city taking things in, then lay down and take a nap and don?t get up until about 2 or 3 in the morning. I tell people to get there around anytime between 2:30 and 3:30, from that point on.?

Originally published as a cover story in DMR (Dance Music Report), April 17 ? 30, 1991. Reprinted with permission of original writer.

At the time this interview of Frankie Knuckles was published, author Andy Reynolds was the Creative Director/Editor of US dance trade, DMR (Dance Music Report), co-owned?by Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Entertainment and Vince Pellegrino of Pellegrino Promotions. Subsequently, Reynolds worked for several dance labels including West End Records (owned by Paradise Garage financial backer, Mel Cheren), where he served as general manager from 1999 – 2002. He is now a book and music publicist and can be reached via email.