The dance music legend on his career
Crystal clear waters is a house music legend. As the voice behind the iconic hits “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” and “100% Pure Love,” if you spent any time on a dance floor in the ’90s, chances are you’ve heard her voice. Crystal stays at work, with a bunch of projects going on. There is the label (I am House Records), a podcast (Crystal Waters I Am House Radio), and music (his most recent single is “love each otherin collaboration with Soul Central). Last year, Helena Star called Crystal to find out a bit more about her history in the world of electronic music.
In the 90s, house music was mostly in the queer, black, and Latina communities. Is that where you got into house music? Or was it listening to the radio?
It was underground, but you have to remember, we didn’t really know that. We were just doing it. It wasn’t really a genre yet. I heard it on the radio late at night, after midnight, but it wasn’t until I arrived in New York in 1991 that I was truly immersed in the community. They were clubs, there were no bars and there were no VIPs. It was just baby powder on the floor and people came dancing.
Baby powder on the floor?
So you could spin.
I never heard that.
Yeah, baby powder. Everyone had baby powder and a handkerchief in their pocket. The handkerchief was for sweat and baby powder so you could spin, go on your back, over your head, whatever you wanted to do. It was very cool. They also had houses, which were built because a lot of children were being kicked out of their homes because they were gay, so they formed their own families. I love to see that it’s recognized now. They got house TV shows now. These houses were very important to many people.
When you started music, was it by accident? I read that you grew up in a family of musicians, but did you know that you were going to work in music?
I did not know. My dad was a musician all his life. My brother too, and my aunt was very famous. No, I’ll just tell you the story. I liked music. I loved to write poetry. Then I was working in a government job, and when you get there, they give you this paper that tells you how much you’re going to earn each year. If I had been there for 12 or 15 years, I still wouldn’t have made any money.
I was like, “Oh, this is depressing.” Then my mother said, “Well, go see this medium.” So I went there, and she said, “You don’t do anything with your voice. You gotta do something,” and I was like, “Yeah, okay, whatever. I got back to work and a friend of mine said, “Well, I have a cousin who has a studio. They are looking for background singers. He said, “I’ll go if you go. So we went.
Once I walked into a studio, I was like, okay…this is where I belong. It is the house. It was a light bulb moment. Then I realized, you know what? I have to do this for me. I said one thing I knew I was good at was writing. So I was like, I can write my own stuff! I don’t need to sit here and be in the background.
It seems so strange now, and it’s dangerous, but I put an ad in what was called the City Paper. There was a music section for artists and songwriters. This guy answered, and it went from there with this keyboard player.
This guy named Burt Collins. We formed a group called Modern Art. That was until I met the Basement Boys, because I was doing more of a Sade thing. I wanted to be Sade. Even in the first video I had the ponytail and all.
You know what? I just watched the video! It’s good. The power costume too, with the ponytail and the red lips… big atmosphere.
Then I met the Basement Boys, because I have more of a jazz voice than a gospel voice. They wanted me to write at these dance speeds. I said, “As long as I can keep my style,” they said, “We want that style over that.” Once I walked in…that was it. I was hooked.
Is there a record for you that is important in your journey in the world of house music? Is there a song for you that, maybe from when you were younger, that you listened to and said, “Wow, I really feel like I could get into it.
Well, for home, because it really started in 85. I came in 1991, so it wasn’t much. It was disco with house. I remember the first thing I heard on the radio was “Lonely People” by Lil Louis. I thought that was so cool. It was so cold. Then, of course, C&C Music Factory. We all loved it.
You also have your radio podcast. Is it so you can keep sharing the music you love and all those underground sounds?
Yes, because there is a lot of new good music. I like singing and a lot of DJs only play beats. You don’t have a lot of voice. I wanted to listen to a podcast where I could hear songs, something where you can sit and listen to music.
I knew there were a lot of good things there. That’s why I started the podcast, especially to help females. Because we get lost. The DJ has the big name and [sometimes] you don’t even know who the girl is. DJs get all the shows. I also wanted to help in this way, to help certain female artists to be known.
Absolutely. There have been a lot of conversations recently that I’ve also been part of regarding the erasure of black women in dance music and their voices. Like you said: it’s the main DJ or producer who will get their props, but the women who sang on them and the vocals on them…
And wrote them too!
And wrote them too, exactly. They won’t have the same kind of accessories. I guess we have moved in the right direction, but we still see these issues. What was it like for you in the 90s to work your way through the scene as a black woman?
Well, just two things; one thing, obviously at the time, it was more important to be a producer and not to be the star. I wouldn’t be Quincy Jones. I was lucky that my name came out that way because I think if it happened now it would be the Basement Boys and Crystal Waters. I was lucky. I think it’s probably still the same.
It’s a very male-dominated music industry. How can I explain it? You get explained, you get a lot of “She doesn’t really know what she’s talking about.” You have to stand up a little harder with this. When I was younger it was more about gender. I had to go to the studio with a straight face. I was not playing. I would say “I didn’t come here to play with you and then make the record.”
You’re here to work, and you were kind enough to show it.
Yeah, because otherwise they’ll just try to, I’m about to swear, they’ll just try to fuck you, basically. I was a little too serious, I think, for some people. It was just a form of protection.
I see it still happening. There are lots of female DJs, but most of the time you only see male DJs. I think it happens in many areas, not just in music. I don’t just want to pin it to the music.
You had such an impact on dance music and music history. How important is it that we respect and honor these women who shaped the scene? How can we do more?
I think it’s very important. I heard some people in Europe think that house music came from David Guetta.
Yeah. It’s frightening.
It’s frightening. I think it’s important to know the story. I always tell people who ask me for advice that you have to study your trade. You must know. I can tell producers who are just DJs who don’t really know how to produce a voice or structure a song. I think it’s very important to study the history and the voices and the women who wrote a lot of this stuff.
I think if they studied some of the stuff from the early days, there would be a lot in there. Some of the drum loops and stuff that people still use…it was used a little more creatively back then. I think it is very important to study history.
Study history and celebrate that history.
Yeah, know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, not because you want to be on stage. You will be a flash in the pan. You know what I mean?
What is your process when writing a song?
I hear the song. I like music to inspire me. I’ll get the track and then I’ll find the melody first. Usually, when I get the melodies, I also hear a little word, and that will let me know what the song is about. I find that if I try too hard, try, it doesn’t work. I just sat down and let it flow. Sometimes the words come out a little weird, but I’ll wait until the song is over and come back to it. I call it painting.
For all things Crystal, visit her Instagram here.