The Untitled Magazine’s Indira Cesarine caught up with the “Queen of House Music” herself, Crystal Waters, for the second iteration of our micro digital issues, the “100 PERCENT” Issue. The poet, singer/songwriter, producer, social activist, and house music legend is most known for her 1990s hits “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” and “100% Pure Love”. With twelve No.1 singles on the Billboard Dance Chart and an additional eleven Top 10 hits, Crystal Waters has cemented herself as one of the most successful dance music artists in the history of the Billboard Dance Charts. She has been back in the studio recently working on a new EP, and dropping new hits, including her latest chart-topper, “Dance Dance Dance”.
This past September, The Untitled Magazine celebrated New York Fashion Week with a packed event at the Public Hotel that featured an electric performance from the 90s dance icon. The collaboration continues with our latest cover story for the “100 PERCENT” Issue, to be celebrated with a special event kicking off Art Basel Miami at the private members club, Soho Beach House, on December 3rd, where Waters will perform some of her signature hits.
Read on for our exclusive interview with Crystal Waters and get the low down on her rise to fame from working on the parole board in Washington, DC, to becoming one of the most celebrated icons in music.
Indira Cesarine: I want to thank you so much for giving us the time to interview you about your incredibly illustrious career. I’d love to talk about the early days of how you got into music and your rise from working on a parole board to dance music legend, which is truly inspirational. I’ve been reading a lot about you, and your whole story is just mind-blowing. I understand you came from a musical family; your father was a famed jazz musician and your great aunt was one of the first black American vocalists to be featured in mainstream Hollywood movies. Tell me a little about what life was like growing up at home? Were you surrounded by a lot of music?
Crystal Waters: Growing up at home was pretty normal. My father would have rehearsals in the living room. My uncle was a saxophonist for MFSB. There was a lot of The Sounds of Philadelphia around me. I used to go on tour every summer with my father. I got to travel around the middle of America with him while he was working. He would play at hotel piano lounges and those types of places. I used to go through all his jazz albums and listen to them. Ella Fitzgerald was my favorite. That was pretty much what I did in the summers. I was on the road with my father and then I would come home during the year and go to school.
IC: That must have been amazing, such a creative and cool vibe to be on the road with your dad going to all kinds of jazz performances. You’ve kind of been around that your whole life.
CW: Yeah, and I always think back to that because the first time I ever stepped on the stage, I didn’t have any stage fright. I always wondered why that was, I guess because I was around all that during my childhood.
IC: I know when you were young you were into writing poetry. I thought it was really incredible that you were inducted into the Poetry Society of America when you were only 14. I’d love to hear about your early interest in poetry. Was that also influenced by your creative family, or what inspired your interest in poetry?
CW: I was very shy. I was always in my room and listening to music and I remember my sister used to write poetry and I actually had a poetry class in school. It was always something that allowed me to be creative and expressive. I guess because I didn’t really talk that much and I was shy, it was an outlet and I really liked it. I think my mom found my poems and she submitted them. I had no idea. She submitted them to the Poetry Society and I got in!
IC: Wow, that’s incredible. It’s interesting that you were a shy little girl because you’ve become such an incredible force in the music industry, people would probably be surprised to hear that you were shy when you were a little girl.
CW: Yeah, I get that. They think I’m just this wild club kid, but it took me a while. I purposely worked on it because I hated being shy but I’m doing much better now. It took me a little while to get there. But I still have my moments where I’m introverted and I just have to go shut down. Sometimes I just need to be by myself, and that’s okay.
IC: Yeah, of course, everyone needs some “me” time. After graduating from Howard University, you worked as a parole officer, which is so fascinating.
CW: I actually worked on the parole board. I studied computer science at Howard and I got a job in what they called the “computer room” at the time. I had the only computer in the building, a massive one. I issued warrants for the parole board and calculated “good time”, and stuff like that. I did reports which basically calculated how long people would stay in [jail] and when they could get out. I kept track of everyone who was arrested in the DC area and I worked with the police in the warrant division.
IC: Do you think that those experiences shaped your songwriting and music at all, being around that environment? Because your music obviously has a component of social activism.
CW: Yeah, I think it was a lot of compassion. I mean, I was always liked that. Amnesty International is part of that and then at Howard University, there were a lot of protests and things to fight for. I remember talking to some of the people who got arrested, they were doing little things like just not calling in. They would call me and say “Please I just got this job, I couldn’t come…”. You heard a lot of the background stories, doing what I did. I think that compassion was definitely there.
IC: Amazing. Who or what would you say have been the biggest influences throughout your career?
IC: I would say as far as just your overall trajectory as an artist. It could be music, it could be your father. What do you feel has influenced your career the most?
CW: I remember my father and my uncle, always telling me things about owning your publishing, doing your paperwork, all that stuff. They taught me almost the opposite of what you would think – that I would have learned how to sing or how to dance. Instead, they really instilled the business side of the industry. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson, and you have the stories of The Temptations, Supremes, always rehearsing, always having a plan, the whole outfit. I think that growing up watching all that and also being taught how to talk to people when I first started, those were my classes. I trained with Broadway choreographers who always taught you how to tell a story; you have a beginning, a middle, and an end, especially for the show. And then I always loved songwriters. I loved Michael, I loved Prince, and Gil Scott-Heron who was really more of a singer-poet. He had a lot of activism in his music. I think he was a big one. And I just remember when Prince got that first album cover where he just had on a bikini and I was like if this man doesn’t give a f*** what anybody thinks about him and his style of music, why should I care about what people think about me? I think that gave me the freedom to just write what I wanted to write.
IC: Amazing! I understand your career shifted to music after seeing a psychic who told you that you weren’t using your voice, which I think is such a fascinating story. I mean, it’s incredible that something like that could be a pivotal moment in your life. Is that really what happened?
CW: Yeah. I was at the parole board and when you’re working for the government, they send around a piece of paper telling you how much you’re going to make in 10 years. And I said, my God, I’ll never make any money here. My mom was really big into psychics and she was like, why don’t you go see a psychic? That weekend there just happened to be a psychic fair in town and I went with a friend. I remember getting up in the morning and my voice was fine. We were talking and everything, and as soon as I got to the event I couldn’t talk. I lost my voice! And I go to the psychic who says to me “You’re not doing anything with your voice”. I was like, yeah, whatever. It’s an easy one, right? I got back to work, and my friends were all saying “You love music, you should do something with music”. One of the guys said his cousin was looking for background singers. He had a little studio. And I said I’ll go if you go. So we went down, we did the audition and we got the job. Once I started, I was singing background on an album for an African artist. Once I got in the studio, it was just like a light bulb went off! This is where I’m supposed to be! This is what I’m supposed to do. And I did that project and I made like, $600. I was rich!
I hung around the studio trying to get more work but I realized I was going to have to write these songs myself. And I knew I could write. The one thing I knew I could do, I said, I can write! That just pivoted me into looking for someone to work with and I put an ad in the local paper. There was a music section in the local city paper and I met a guy with a keyboard and it just went from there. We were called Modern Art. We started writing songs and it just flowed from there.
IC: I understand you met the Basement Boys at a conference and that led to your hits like “Gypsy Woman” and “Makin’ Happy” and all these collaborations that you did with them. It’s an overnight success story. Your song “Gypsy Woman” – which was one of your early breakout songs – I understand it’s about a homeless woman who kept her honor by doing her makeup. Tell me about how your music is often inspired by real life and people, and the element of social activism that exists in your music. Why is that important to you and what do you want your audience to take away from your lyrics?
CW: I think there’s always been several sides to every story. Even now I probably don’t take sides when most people will pick one side, as there are always several sides. I always feel like I understood that and when I write, I write in double entendre, not directly saying you should think this or think that about it, but something to inspire you to maybe think about the subject in a different way. It’s important for me not to be directly telling you what to do, but to make you think about another side of what’s going on. I think that’s where I get the fun out of writing; to write around the subject and twist it up a little bit.
IC: Your song “100% Pure Love” has been one of the more iconic songs of your career. It was on the charts for 45 weeks when it was released and put you on the map as one of the legends in dance music. At the same time, back in 1994, you also signed with Ford Models. Tell me about the highlights of your early rise in music and your career going from working on the parole board to all of a sudden selling millions of albums and being a Ford Model! What challenges do you feel like you’ve faced going from one extreme to the other?
CW: It was very extreme and like I said, I was very shy so it went from me being to myself to having to put myself out there. It was a lot, I went from not having a passport one day to traveling around the world. I mean, I got to travel on the Concord! It was a bit overwhelming. And then the Ford Modeling thing just came out of nowhere. It was definitely life-changing and it was very quick, very fast.
IC: What sort of projects did you do with Ford models?
CW: We did Entertainment Tonight. I did some big photo shoots. I did a couple of fashion shows in Italy. Oh my God. I remember they styled me and the dancers. I did the runway and performed at Fashion Week – stuff like that.
IC: I first met you in 1995, when we did Entertainment Tonight together. I remember photographing you on camera for the show. It’s incredible how all these years have gone by and we’re circled back and are working together again, I love it. I was so young back then, it was one of my first jobs. At that point in your career, you were also a mother to two young daughters. How did you balance motherhood with all that going on?
CW: It was very hard. You have to understand that anytime I wanted to spend time with my children, the label would threaten me with “We’re not going to promote you”. Anytime I didn’t want to do a show I got threatened constantly, that I was going to be dropped. It was really really hard and at the other end, I had two little girls tugging on my legs saying ‘Don’t go.’ I think it’s a different culture now than back then – if you had children or you were pregnant you would be dropped, you were done, your career was over! You would be a woman that needed to go home and take care of her kids. Now, you’re pregnant and on the cover of Vogue. I was going through a divorce at the time. It was bittersweet because I was at the height of my career but really miserable behind the scenes with my personal life. But now I get to look back on it in hindsight. I’m glad I didn’t give up – no matter how hard it was.
IC: Yeah, you just have to keep going! I would imagine that would have been a massive challenge. I didn’t realize quite how much the world has changed with regards to women in the music industry and motherhood – and what’s accepted now compared to then, that’s for sure.
CW: I wish I had more support back then, it would have been really nice. I probably could have done so much more.
IC: I can imagine, yeah. Being a single mom with kids…I know that over the years you have had countless singles including 12 number ones on the Billboard dance chart and another 11 top ten hits. Out of all of your songs that have made waves on the radio, which one do you feel resonates with you the most, and why? Is there a track that you just think “this is me”?
CW: Probably ones that aren’t on the radio! The title song to my second album, Storyteller, was really a poem. It was really nice to get back into writing in that style and I wasn’t worried about it being a hit. That song, Storyteller. It’s still very dear to me.
IC: And fast forward a few decades, your music is still playing on the dance floor at every club. I hear your music all the time, which is just mind-blowing. So few artists have that level of longevity. You were ranked in 2016 as one of the most successful dance music artists of all time. What is your secret to staying inspired all these years? While a lot of other artists fall by the wayside, you’ve kept going.
CW: There was a point where I stopped. Everybody wanted another “Gypsy Woman.” Nothing’s ever going to be as great as it was. It beats you down, to try and outdo yourself. I just stopped for a while, and something just said, what do you have to lose? Maybe you won’t write another Gypsy, but you will never know if you stop writing. I tried to pull away from it but there’s this calling that keeps bringing me back to writing every time I stop. Something big comes and lands on my plate, it just comes to me. I do a lot of spiritual work. I do the affirmations, I meditate. I’m sure that has added to my longevity and my being able to create and still enjoy it. I really enjoy performing. I love traveling and I just don’t know what else I would do that’s more fun than what I do right now! There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing people smile and sing and dance to your music and knowing that maybe I’ve done something good to bring joy to people.
IC: Yeah, it’s funny – before we discussed working on our event for New York Fashion Week at the Public Hotel, I actually had your song “Gypsy Woman” on my Spotify playlist of favorite empowering female artists and then, all of a sudden, I started hearing it everywhere. When I was asked if we wanted to do an event with you I couldn’t believe it, I feel like I manifested that happening in a way! There’s something about your music that’s very empowering to women, as well as a universal message of humanity and survival.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of really incredible artists, including Alicia Keys. Tell me about some of your most meaningful collaborations. Are there any that really resonated with you or that are memorable throughout your career?
CW: My favorite is Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis because it was that whole era with Prince and Jackson. When they asked me to do it we did The NBA 50th Anniversary song called “Just Say Hey.” It was cool, I got to go to Minneapolis and go to the studio. That was a highlight of my career. I think they are my favorite people that I collaborated with. They even gave me a gift that I still have – and this must have been 15 or 20 years ago – some coasters that I keep on my living room table.
IC: That’s so cool. Lately, you have been back to back with live performances hitting New York Fashion Week as well as London Fashion Week, Dumbo House, and you did Sony Hall with Diplo. It was amazing working with you for the New York Fashion Week event we did together at the Public Hotel, such an incredible performance. How does it feel to be back on stage performing so much right now? You’re in very high demand at the moment.
CW: I’ve been on tour for 30 years. I started this year’s tour in May. And by the time we got to fall, it did steamroll a lot. It ends now this fall but it feels like it hasn’t stopped. It keeps going and the crowds are getting bigger. The Public Hotel event was phenomenal. I love going to New York. It’s always a great show in New York City. I keep thinking after all these years the people still come out. There’s still love, there’s still a lot of enthusiasm. It feels really good to know I can still do this.
IC: Yeah, there’s no time limit and there’s no age limit to creativity. Your latest single “DANCE DANCE DANCE” was released in September and you have a new EP coming out. Can you tell us about your latest release on your upcoming EP?
CW: I decided at the beginning of this year to do another album. House music was back on the minds of everybody because of Beyoncé. We started writing and got some really nice traction right from the start. I wanted to write something uplifting. “Dance Dance Dance” is about being out in the club and just meeting someone for the first time and being attracted to them and that whole atmosphere of just dancing the night away. I wanted to put that as the first song, something positive and uplifting. And it’s been a lot of fun. I’m meeting a lot of people, the remixes are really awesome, and everybody is excited. It’s nice to have this group, this team around me. That’s helped me. It’s going really well. We have the video that’s coming out. I’m still writing the album. I’m hoping to be done, fingers crossed it’ll be out next year by summertime.
IC: That’s exciting. I saw that you just recently collaborated with Keke Palmer for the music video for Black Owned Friday, which supports black-owned businesses.
CW: This is Google’s fourth anniversary for this series. Every year they do a thing on Black Friday for black-owned businesses. This year, they asked me to participate. I think Keke’s mother picked “100% Pure Love” as one of her favorite songs. When I went to shoot the video with them it was another full-circle moment. I wanted to cry. She re-sang the song and she did a great job on it. She also put on a little rap. I’m actually singing the background vocals on the song so I went in the studio with them and recorded that. Like I said, it’s something that’s on my plate that just takes it up to another level. It’s been really fun and we’ve had a great reaction.
IC: I thought it was really playful and definitely a cool piece. I also really enjoyed checking out your Apple Radio podcast “I Am House” during our photo shoot. I love the music and what you’re doing with your podcast, which I understand now has millions of listeners. What inspires your podcast? You just launched that a couple of years ago?
CW: Yeah I did just before Covid, four years ago maybe. I wanted to have a place to go where I could listen to good house music and I was searching around and it was just not to be found. It was lots of instrumentals, beats, and stuff like that. I wanted to hear some vocal house. I met the distributor, and they came to me to ask me if I wanted to do a show, and I wanted it to be about vocal house. I wanted to make sure that I said the names of the artists and who was doing the songs. A lot of times when we listen to dance music we don’t know who’s behind it, it’s just a mix. You don’t know who’s playing what and many times the artists, vocalists, and writers don’t get credit. I wanted to give names to the music. It’s been going really well. I have the podcast on Apple and I have a Sirius XM radio show.
IC: I already favorited it. I’ve been listening to it ever since our shoot, it’s so good! You recently received the Icon Award for outstanding contribution to the music industry, along with a number of awards throughout your career. What do you want to be remembered for most when it comes to all of your achievements?
CW: I just want to make people happy and dance. There is so much power in just dancing and being happy. Raising your head back and singing along is just freedom. It’s a stress release. I hope my music inspires people to do that.
IC: Are there any words of wisdom that you live by to stay positive?
CW: One of my favorites is ‘this too shall pass’, whenever it gets a little rough. This too shall pass.
IC: What advice would you give to a young artist today, trying to break into the music industry?
CW: Learn your craft. Get a good attorney for the business part, because a lot of people think it’s all fun and limousines. But it’s actually a business. You have to run it like a business. If you don’t you’ll get lost in the sauce. The music business will chew you up and spit you out if you don’t have your stuff together.
IC: That’s good advice. We’re really looking forward to our upcoming “100% PARTY” with you during Art Basel Miami, which is going to be celebrating your new cover at Soho Beach House. I’m sure it’s going to be a fabulous performance. I can’t wait. Are there any other performances you have coming up that people can look forward to?
CW: I’m in Cuba now, and heading to Miami for our party. We’re doing a couple more events in Miami. I have something coming up in Philadelphia then I’m going to perform in the Dominican Republic. And then I’m taking some time off.
IC: All those performances! It sounds like a whirlwind!
CW: Yeah, it’s a lot of time zones, not sleeping or not eating well. Things like that happen when you’re in a rush, when you’re going through airports. I call it the candy store. Whenever I get in the airport I say, ooh pretzels, ooh that…. so, I’m going to take a little break from that for a month. I’m already booked for February and March.
IC: Wow back to back. It’s good to take a little break. So tell me, what does “100 Percent” mean to you personally?
CW: Something I’m still working on – being authentic, being your true self. I think if you can get close to that 100% and you do what you say you’re going to do, feel what you say, be what you say – that’s 100%.
IC: it is so important to live authentically, right?
CW: It can’t be anybody else. You’ve got to be happy with yourself.
Photography and interview by Indira Cesarine
Fashion styling by Ty-Ron Mayes
Makeup by Roberto Morelli
Photo Assistant: Jeffrey Gamble
Fashion Assistant: Jean Mary Auboug