One of the best things in life is when you get the opportunity to meet one of your favorite TV, film, or music stars. Even better is when you meet them, and they turn out to be mad cool, approachable and even kind, just as you’d hope they would be. In 2009, I had such an opportunity at the Miami Winter Music Conference when a chance meeting brought me face to face with incomparable dance music icon, Crystal Waters. Needless to say as a long time fanboy of her genius work, when I met her, I totally lost my sh*t.
Fast-forward to now, I was ecstatic to recently learn that Crystal will be featured in an upcoming episode of “Unsung,” – TV One‘s longest-running and award-winning docuseries. The popular program celebrates the careers of the most significant cultural figures in entertainment, past, and present. Previous episodes have featured profiles on artists such as Minnie Ripperton, Phyllis Hyman, Shalamar and more. This retrospective on Crystal Waters is long overdue as she is an innovator, ranked by Billboard Magazine in December 2016, as one of the most successful dance artists of all-time.
Since Crystal Water’s debut in 1991 with the brilliant “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless),” she’s been far more than just a recording artist. She is a masterful lyricist of substance who literally changed the game in House Music with her simplistic, yet poignant approach to writing lyrics. She’s part of the crossover revolution that brought House Music to radio but prior to her arrival on the scene, vocal dance tracks existed mostly as underground club hits. Take, for example, one of House Music’s original big vocal successes, Xavier Gold’s “You used to hold me.” It was a massive club track but you’d have to stay up all night waiting to hear it on the late night weekend mix shows if you wanted to hear it on the radio.
There were a couple of rare exceptions though, with hit singles by Jomanda (“Make my body Rock”), and Frankie Knuckles Protégé’ Adeva (“Respect”), but otherwise, House Music vocals were something you had to go to clubs to hear. Crystal Waters led the movement that changed all that, along with artists like Kym Sims (“Too blind to see it”) and of course powerhouse vocalists, Barbra Tucker (“Beautiful People”) and CeCe Peniston (“Finally”).
When these ladies entered the game, House Music infiltrated pop radio in a big way – yes with the obvious badass beats you’d expect – but also with infectious lyrics that could hold their own against the greatest pop hits of the day. Of this new crop of artists, Crystal was the most unique in my opinion. She sounded like nobody else vocally, with a more chill, laid back style that exuded confidence, yet vulnerability both at once. Her vibe was one of a narrative form with a sultry tonality of the legendary Earth Kitt – but without all that damn meowing and purring. She was a breath of fresh air in a genre traditionally saturated by big mama church girl voices belting out songs about how some no-good man did them wrong.
In her debut video for “Gypsy Woman,” she also looked different than other artists of the genre. She was without all the hyper-sexualized, girly frills often on display in female music videos. Instead, she was naturally gorgeous in what appeared to be a conscious effort not to be overtly feminine, her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, wearing hardly any makeup (a funny observation considering the lyrics of the song). A fitted black power suit rounded out her look, and then there was that bright smile, worthy of a Colgate campaign.
“Gypsy Woman” had already been blaring out of every club, boom box, and car radio before the video came out but by the time it did, the entire planet was in a collective trance, singing that new song about the homeless woman who woke up early every morning just to do her hair … “La da dee la dee da.”
The song was produced by the Baltimore hitmakers The Basement Boys and it turned Crystal into an international music star. What many people don’t know about the song though, is that she initially wrote it with The Basement Boys as a demo for then rising club sensation, Ultra Nate’ (“Free”). As it turned out Crystal’s recording of the demo, with her own voice was so impressive it was decided that the song should be hers. She then became the featured artist, and the rest is history. The single was part of her remarkable debut LP “Surprise,” released on June 25, 1991. The album marked the arrival of House Music as a real radio commodity with the additional hit singles “Makin’ Happy,” and “Surprise” also burning up the charts.
Despite this fantastic career launch, it would be a common assumption that an artist who rose so fast, would just as quickly fade away into that vacuous space known as the “One hit wonders.” But Crystal Waters is anything but ‘common,” and she easily silenced the naysayers with her brilliant follow up LP, the 1994 release “StoryTeller.” The lead single from the album – “100% Pure Love,” was an instant smash single as well, landing Crystal back on the global music charts, with one of the hottest dance records ever recorded. The single had a slick new video too, shot by famed video director, Mathew Rolston. It landed on rotation at all the important music video channels and “100% Pure Love” charted in multiple countries, going certified platinum in Australia (50,000 copies sold) and Gold in the US (700,000 copies sold).
Billboard wrote about the song: “The enigmatic voice behind the 1991 smash ‘Gypsy Woman’ returns with a percussive pop/dance twirler from her new ‘Storyteller’ opus. Though it seemed impossible to come up with a hook as catchy as ‘la-da-di, la-di-da,’ Waters and cohorts the Basement Boys have done exactly that and wrapped it with dramatic strings and butt shagging cowbells.”
Crystal Waters has continued making hits ever since. She returned to the charts in recent years with her Billboard hits, “Believe,” “Testify,” and “I am House.” Her longevity has been secured by the fact that she does not limit herself to typical dance music lyrics. Instead, she tells stories on a range of emotive topics, and then those messages are delivered with the sickest, club-jumpin’ music productions.
Before her breakout debut in 1991, dance music lyrics were relegated to mundane subjects or innocuous lines in which every artist seemed to ask over and over again, “Can you feel it” or “Don’t you want it.” Literally, if I had heard one more dance record asking me to “feel it” I was gonna bust through the DJ booth and smash somebody’s turntables. Thank Goodness it was Crystal Waters to the rescue –“Gypsy Woman” and “100% Pure Love” saved me from doing jail time for DJ booth vandalism.
At the end of this month, Crystal will be heading down to Miami for the massive Winter Music Conference, but beforehand, I had the pleasure of catching up with her for a little Q&A:
CA: Hi Crystal! First off, congratulations on your upcoming episode of TV One’s “Unsung.” I’m so excited to watch it. What was it like reflecting back on your career since “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless”) made you an international music star?
CW: Well it was a mix of feelings, there were a lot of good memories but also bad …things I forgot about. It was very nice when everyone that was involved in my career came to do interviews, it was like a family reunion. We had a great time looking back.
CA: Many people are always so surprised to learn that pioneering Jazz vocalist and actress Ethel Waters is your great Aunt. Was she an influence in your career, and if yes how so?
CW: I think she was a great inspiration to me, she did a lot of great things. My father influenced me the most. He was a jazz singer and musician. I spent a lot of time with him on the road so I learned a lot from him.
CA: I would imagine you draw from many musical inspirations but recently I saw that you posted on Instagram a throwback performance of Teena Marie doing her big hit “Squarebiz” with the hashtag #Inspiration. How did Teena Marie inspire you as a songwriter and artist?
CW: She was a girl! lol and I loved the fact she wasn’t singing the music everyone thought she should because she was white. She opened my mind, I knew I didn’t have to be like everyone else. Prince did that for me too, when he came out in that bikini and heels, I was all in.
CA: This would explain why you have such a talent for lyrics if it’s true – but I read that you were/are the youngest person ever accepted into the National Poet’s Society? Is that correct? And if so, do you still write poetry today outside of music?
CW: Yes I love lyrics, Gil Scott Heron influenced me the most with that. He always had a message and it resonated with me. Yes, the story is true about the Society, not sure if it still exists tho lol … As for poetry, I jot phrases down here and there but then I go back and use them in my songs.
CA: One of the new dance artists I love today is Dua Lipa because her vocals and productions have such a great, classic 90s dance vibe, reminds me a bit of CeCe Peniston’s tracks. What’s your take on today’s dance/pop music artists and are there any that stand out in your opinion?
CW: I love Due Lipa. You have to understand how hard it is to be a female in the Dance music scene and stand out. It’s a male-dominated community and most DJ/producers keep the singer almost unknown or only as a featured artist. Big ups to her for being “the Artist.” As for the track I wasn’t impressed. To me, the producers knew that House music is hot right now so they just ripped off the 90’s sound, used their names to get the hit. There’s nothing to new here with the production in my opinion… It’s the same story in the history of black music.
CA: Wow, all very valid points I had not considered. So aside from STILL cranking out smash Billboard Hits you also now have an exciting new venture, a men’s skincare line called “Boyface.” So … tell the boys all about it:
CW: Ah yes my beloved Boyface! I got into skincare about 10 years ago because I wasn’t finding products that were geared for my skin type as I was aging. So I really got into how products were made and what the compositions do. Fast forward I found a lot of great combinations. I ended up testing everything on my dancers and male friends who loved it and a light bulb went off. So Boyface is an easy to use anti-aging skin care line for men and it’s plant-based so it doesn’t have all those nasty chemicals in it. You can check it out at www.boyfaceme.com
CA: Well, I personally have used it, and I love it! Congratulations on that too! So I have one final question, and it’s big; one that literally might be one of the most debated things ever in pop music history, like for real. I’ve almost come to blows over this, so please help me settle it: So in “Gypsy Woman,” when you sing “Her day wouldn’t be right without her make up,” is the next line “not without her makeup” or is it “she never had a makeup?”
CW: LOLOL! I did not know this was being debated. The line is “Her day wouldn’t be right without her makeup, she’s never out of makeup” Hope that helps lol
CA: OMG! Thank you for clarifying that once and for all so now I, and people all around the world can stop soundin’ a fool on Karaoke night!
TV ONE’s “Unsung” featuring Crystal Waters airs on Sunday, March 31st. 9 p.m. ET/8C
h/t: For more on “Unsung”