Ultra Naté, singer, songwriter
I fell into club culture in my first year at university in Baltimore. During the week, I’d be in classes, studying medicine. At weekends, I’d be letting it all go in clubs to the sound of underground house. I met the DJ team the Basement Boys and when they found out I sang in church, we started writing songs. Things got pretty surreal when the first, It’s Over Now, was a hit in the UK, where club culture was driving the charts. One day I was in medical school; the next I was flying to London to do Top of the Pops.
After a few more hits in Britain, the major UK label I was with relocated to the US. But the American end didn’t get underground house and dropped me. When I signed with Strictly Rhythm, an independent label in New York, they basically gave me a blank cheque. I teamed up with producers Mood II Swing and we discussed my comeback. I wanted guitars, because I was really into REM’s Losing My Religion. We wanted a rock song that would work in clubs, so the guitar line and the first verse (“Where did we lose our faith?”) pull at your heartstrings, then it erupts into a clubby anthem. It was intentionally very different from what was happening in dance music.
Some people think Free is autobiographical, about me being “set free” by the major label, but it isn’t. We just needed a short phrase that would connect with everyone. Lem went: “It needs to be something like, ‘You’re free to do what you want to do.’ And everyone went, ‘That’s it!’”
Little Louie Vega was the first DJ to play one of our red vinyl promotional copies. It was 1997 and it blew up in the clubs. I had no idea it would be such a global hit. It even got to No 1 in Italy. To this day, if I didn’t sing it at my concerts, people wouldn’t let me leave.
Lem Springsteen, songwriter, producer
When Ultra and I got together to write lyrics, we had a blast. I wrote the chorus, she did the verses, and then we worked on the bridge together. The words came flowing out. We’d talked about formulas in dance music and what labels wanted. We wanted to be free from that – which is partly where the chorus came from. Plus, I remember talking to Ultra about my personal life and feeling trapped by other people’s expectations. We were both in our 20s and feeling stuck in various ways.
I asked Woody Pak, a guy I knew from the Manhattan School of Music, to play guitar. That hypnotic riff he opens the track with really grabs you. And we hired a vocal coach, Danny Madden, to do the chorus. We expected him to bring some session singers, but he walked in with all these divas! Audrey Wheeler, Cindy Mizelle and Khadejia Bass were top backing singers who’d worked with David Bowie and Luther Vandross – and there they were singing the chorus with Ultra.
I remember going: “What are we doing? We’ve got rock guitars, gospel background, jazzy chords and a simple house beat. This is crazy!” And I ran out of the session. Of course, when the record took off, I said: “I’m so sorry, guys!” I hadn’t travelled round Europe and had no idea that mixing genres would be so successful.
Free was never political, but the gay community saw it as a song about empowerment and made it a huge anthem. But any group who wanted to be free could take it as their own. Headie One, the drill MC, recently sampled Free for his track Both. I don’t really know what drill music is, but it’s great that our song is still finding new audiences.
• Strictly Rhythm’s 30th Anniversary: The Definitive 30 album is out now, and a 12-inch vinyl series is being released between now and March.