No place to be somebody Her music tops that of Madonna and Janet Jackson on the dance charts. She's a superstar across the Atlantic. Meet Ultra Nate: the Baltimore diva you never heard of.

CATCHING UP WITH ... ULTRA NATE

May 10, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

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."

Baltimore beginnings

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."

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