Crystal Waters got into house music essentially by accident. Originally aiming to be a jazz vocalist, the New Jersey-born singer — whose father is jazz musician Junior Waters, and whose great-aunt is singer and actress Ethel Waters — met house production duo The Basement Boys at a conference in Baltimore in the late ’80s. Waters had moved to Washington D.C. to attend Howard University and after graduating was working a government job, issuing arrest warrants. In her heart, she knew she was meant for other things.
The Basement Boys asked Waters to write them a pair of demos — one of which was “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless).” Waters scatted “la da dee da da” on the socially conscious track, which told the story of a well-dressed woman Waters had seen panhandling in D.C.
The song was never passed to another vocalist, and became Waters’ first major hit when it reached No. 1 on Dance Club Songs in May 1991, where it remained for the two following weeks. Now considered one of the greatest house songs of all time, the hit was followed by Waters’ 1994 classic “100% Pure Love,” which spent 45 weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at No. 11. That song helped bring house music to the masses, as a key track in the genre’s crossover from clubs to top 40 during the mid-90s.
Since then, Waters has been steadily making music. In 2021 alone the singer, who still resides in Washington D.C., released five singles, the latest being “Never Enough,” a collaboration with rising Irish producer Richie Blacker that dropped Friday (Dec. 3) on the Atlantic Records dance imprint Signal >> Supply. The song is a driving piano house anthem that showcases Waters’ unmistakable voice and the same jazz-style delivery that helped make her famous. Here, Waters discusses her journey to this moment, and what’s next.
1. Where are you in the world right now, and what’s the setting like?
Right now I’m at home sitting in my studio. I live in a suburb right outside of Washington D.C.; it’s about 16 miles from the White House.
2. What is the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
The first piece of music I bought was Stevie Wonder’s album Songs in the Key of Life, and it was all vinyl back then.
3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do or did they think of what you do for a living now?
Well, I come from a musical family. My father was a jazz musician. I used to tour with him every summer. My great-aunt was Ethel Waters, a very famous singer and actress. My uncle was Zack Zackery, lead saxophonist for MSFB. My brother played in bands, so there was always music in the house. Even though it wasn’t obvious when I was a child I think they were very happy that I continued the legacy. I’m sure they wished I pursued a jazz career, they didn’t really understand house music.
4. What was the first song you ever made?
The first song I ever made was called “Tell Me” on a 4-track.
5. If you had to recommend one album for someone looking to get into dance music, what would you give them?
Lil Louis’ Journey With the Lonely.
6. What’s the first thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as an artist?
A BMW car!
7. What’s the last song you listened to?
“Essence” by Wizkid, Tems and Justin Bieber.
8. The legend goes that you were dissatisfied that clubbers weren’t catching on to the social message behind “Gypsy Woman,” and so you had the label add “She’s Homeless” to the title. Is this story true? If so, why was getting this message through important to you?
Well, it was true that I wasn’t happy people weren’t getting the message. I felt it was an important one and still is. They were only hearing “lada dee ladada” and treating it like a nursery rhyme. But it was [house music pioneer] Tony Humphries that actually went to the label to demand they add “She’s Homeless” to the title, because he had the same sentiment. After he did that, all the 12-inch records had a silver sticker on them that said “ladadee ladada she’s homeless.” Tony was very instrumental in breaking the song in New York.
9. “100% Pure Love” is also consistently ranked as one of the best dance songs of all time. What are your strongest memories of making that track?
I always remember getting the track, it was just a bass line and a beat. I just loved it! The first time I handed the song in, the Basement Boys hated the hook. They laughed me out of the studio and said, try again. Then I came back with what you hear now.
10. What about the track makes it work so well?
For me it was the bass line, the rhythm of it changes every eight bars, which keeps you moving. And of course I love the lyrics. “100% pure love,” everyone wants that.
11. If you actually go “from the back to the middle and around again,” where do you end up?
That is hilarious. In my mind it’s more of an infinity symbol. The love is never ending.
12. Early in your career, you were collaborating closely with the Basement Boys. What were they doing during this era that no one else was?
They were helping to pioneer the craft of house music. They were in Baltimore, which gave them a slightly different sound. It was all so new. I think what made them different was that Teddy Douglas had the mentality of a Quincy Jones. He wanted structure, live instruments, real songs. I still think he’s one of the best producers out there.
13. I know you were originally a jazz artist. What were your impressions of house music and the dance scene — its sounds, places, people — when you first got involved?
Yes, it was all so new. I remember them taking me to the Soundfactory in New York. Junior Vasquez was at the helm. There were these huge speakers you could sit on, and the music would vibrate through your whole body. I’d hung out in clubs, but they were nothing like this. It was actually house music all night long. There was such a positive vibe and everyone was accepted. Everyone was dancing, baby powder on the floor. There were vogue battles, drag queens doing runway in designer clothes. The hair, the makeup, the clothes, everything was over-the-top. I was hooked; I loved it.
14. You’ve released five singles this year, most recently “Never Enough.” Have you been feeling particularly creative in 2021?
I’m usually on the road doing shows. With the pandemic, I’ve had more time to focus on writing, as has everyone else. I have a lot of songs that are recorded and are just sitting with the producers until they have time to work on them, so I never know when they are going to pop up and be ready for release. Seems like this was the year. I am constantly writing and recording.
15. How did you spend your time during the pandemic?
I think I went through different phases. At first I just chilled. Then I started fixing and changing things around the house. Then it was back to the music. I built a new studio in the house and decided to learn Logic so I could track my own vocals.
16. What does the term “house music” mean to you?
It’s a feeling. It’s unity, positivity, love, soul.
17. What is your favorite place to listen to and experience dance music?
In a club. Usually after I perform I’ll hang around to hear new music and get the vibe of the crowd. Every now and then I’ll wander out into the floor and place myself in the middle of the speakers just so I can feel the music.
18. What’s the best business decision you’ve ever made?
Signing my first contract with the Basement Boys.
19. Who was your greatest mentor, and what was the best advice they gave you?
My father. He said never give away your publishing.
20. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Never listen to any of the haters or doubters. Just believe!