Remember back in 1997, when Ultra Naté assured you that “you’re freeeeee to do what you want to do”? That lovely little mantra has since become dance floor scripture, but we would have known this woman was free, even if she was singing “la-da-dee, la-dee-da.” Her voice was powerful enough to blast off to new spaces, yet flexible enough to sound right at home wherever she landed.
“House music gives me all kinds of freedoms,” she says more than two decades after “Free” cemented her rep as one of house music’s premier vocalists. “It’s an amalgam of different styles, period. It started with disco, but there’s rock, and R&B, and pop, and gospel in house music . . . You can make it all work for clubland.”
Making it work has been her life’s work. The Maryland native — (“Ultra” and “Naté ” are the first and middle names on her birth certificate) — caught her first break in the early ’90s alongside the Baltimore production team the Basement Boys. And when her record contract with Warner Brothers evaporated two albums later, her continued commitment to dance music began to feel more like a way of life than a career choice. By 2003, she had switched over from the microphone to the turntables, and, along with DJ Lisa Moody, founded Baltimore’s Deep Sugar, a durable dance party that the duo first brought to the District in 2010.
“Me starting to DJ was out of necessity for what was happening in our local community,” Ultra says. “We made a commitment to preserve what this scene is about, and to create an opportunity for others to step in and find a family that’s engaged and fortified by the music.”
Now, with Deep Sugar’s 15-year anniversary fast approaching, Ultra says she’s proud of her longevity — but she ultimately hears house music’s warm, indestructable pulse performing the same working-class function that it always has: “It’s about the music taking you on a journey with people who are letting go of their stress and drama at the end of the week.”
Show: Opening for Giorgio Moroder at the Blisspop Disco Fest on Sept. 1 at 8 p.m. at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. $30-$40; headlining the Deep Sugar 15th Anniversary on Sept. 14 at U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW. $10.