A$AP Ferg’s secret weapon is a girl. The hands behind the board — often immaculately manicured — belong to Crystal Caines, helmer of brilliant hits like “Work” and “Shabba.” The Harlem producer and rapper is quietly chipping away at the boys’ club of hip-hop. It’s kind of a big deal, but the twentysomething isn’t brushing her shoulders off in self-aggrandizement; she still has a day job to go to. It’s a balmy evening and Crystal has just finished her nine-to-five in human resources at a children’s school when we meet at Café One on 140th Street and Amsterdam. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail and exposes her flawless complexion, which appears to be free of any makeup. She wears a simple black T-shirt. The typical accoutrements of hip-hop success are notably absent.
“I’m so tired,” she admits. She’s soft-spoken and nervous about this interview. She doesn’t order anything — she hates coffee unless it’s iced french vanilla — and sits across from me at a small table while her smartphone intermittently blinks.
Born in Harlem to Guyanese parents, Crystal was the middle child of three daughters. She remembers her upbringing as conservative, often resulting in cross-cultural clashes over things like partying and dating. A self-described high school “class clown” who was “kinda, sorta” popular, she says she still felt removed, unable to connect with her peers. “I was antisocial to a point where I felt music was my only escape. I still felt like I was missing in the activity around me,” she says. “That’s why I started to do music. I felt like I was able to express myself that way.”
Crystal initially wanted to be a singer, but “after realizing that [she] wasn’t that good,” she decided to rap. Inspired by rapper Eve, Crystal began her professional foray into music at sixteen when she linked up with local artists on a high school social network (a predecessor to MySpace). This led to a friend-of-a-friend introduction to Harlem rappers Vado and Jae Millz and their Most Hated camp. Harlem’s rap scene was welcoming to the ingénue (who rapped under the stage name “Allure”), and Crystal remembers the vibe as familial. If anything, she was the one bugging out over seeing the neighborhood celebrities in the flesh. “I was shy all around,” she admits. Crystal’s parents were accepting of her career choice and even helped bolster her dreams by accompanying her to open-mic nights at adults-only venues like the Pyramid.
But even with all the local love and family support, Crystal’s trajectory was fraught with challenges. She went through several musical affiliations, and her demo, a remake of Sade’s “The Sweetest Taboo,” failed to land her a recording contract.
“I thought, ‘Yo, I’m getting signed off this record!’ ” she remembers. “Nope!”
She used the lull to get comfortable with D.I.Y. production and her own vocal abilities: “When you first start recording, you’re not used to hearing yourself. That’s why a lot of girls rap [high-pitched], because when you hear yourself it sounds totally different from what you’re used to.”
The year 2012 was a defining moment for New York City hip-hop with the invasion of A$AP Rocky, and the trickle-down effect changed Crystal’s life. She happened to catch her friend D Ferg (a/k/a A$AP Ferg) in the music video for Rocky’s “Peso.” Ferg was a local fashion designer dabbling in music at the time. With Rocky’s success, Ferg became heir apparent to the A$AP throne. He encouraged Crystal to produce, and the two worked on several tracks, starting with “100 Million Roses.” Crystal would later serve as sound engineer on “Work,” from A$AP Mob’s Lords Never Worry mixtape, and “Shabba,” from Ferg’s 2013 debut, Trap Lord. “Crystal has an old soul, just like me. We are both into being innovative and not being trapped into a box of creativity,” explains Ferg. “I think that’s where we connect.”
Sessions took place in Crystal’s childhood home — often with her parents asleep in the next room. “We recorded most of his mixtape and his album in my room,” she says. Her parents were — and still are — remarkably relaxed about the cadre of rappers coming through their doors. The only house rule: no smoking. “It’s dope having my parents around. They support it,” she says. “We are always pushing boundaries in music,” Ferg explains of how their recording sessions helped hone his style. “Crystal was one of the first people to encourage me to sing when nobody wanted to hear me sing.”
“Work” still gets plenty of play in the city, and was a bona fide banger when it dropped. “I remember listening to the radio at work because I knew they were playing it back to back,” Crystal giggles. She didn’t reveal to her co-workers that she’d worked on the song, but people found out regardless. “Friends were coming out of the woodwork. I didn’t even produce it; I engineered it.”
Crystal still tries to keep her professional life clandestine out of fear of opportunists and haters: “I don’t tell [people]. I’d rather the friendships and the people I meet be genuine.” She rarely goes to industry or celebrity events. “I don’t like too much scenery. Partying around me, music — I gotta be drunk to enjoy that,” she laughs. When she does avail herself of the spoils of her labor, she’s very selective about which friend to bring as a plus-one. She cringes when someone fans out over A$AP Ferg — it happens with both men and women — or asks to take a photo with him. Crystal’s co-workers at her day job now know who she is (thanks to Google), but even complete strangers in the most non-hip-hop of situations have become groupies.
“Look what he wrote,” she says, sliding her phone over to show me her Tinder dating profile. A guy who vaguely resembles Carlton Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has messaged her; he’s asking whether she’s the producer Crystal Caines. Nowhere on her profile does she share that information. Faux Carlton geeks out and kills whatever libido I had that day. “Everybody got a cousin that rap,” says Crystal. We laugh and vibe over the strange and wonderful adventure of dating as women in hip-hop. Is every guy a scumbag? Why are guys so eager and thirsty? She’s loosened up, chattier than when we began.
Conversations like this — honest and uninterrupted — seem fleeting. This year, Crystal embarks on her solo rap career, and I wonder what’s going to happen after she blows up. Having released a five-song EP, she’s prepping her album Vertigo for release later this year. “Even though I don’t have a major label behind me, I don’t want to minimalize the great work I’ve put into it.” She records every day but is hitting the road this summer with stops in Toronto, London, and Australia. She continues to work with artists like Baauer (“Swoopin’ “), Dawn Richard, and Smoke DZA. Crystal cites Drake and French Montana as two dream collaborations. “Maybe I should DM him,” she muses, referring to reaching out to Drake via Twitter when she’s in Toronto. She’s had success with using social media for networking, and I encourage her, joking that she should first send him a sexy pic.
She laughs. She can’t do that! She’s not yet a household name, but no longer just a fan. Crystal Caines is somewhere in between. Wherever that is, she feels good about it. “Everybody has a time and things happen for a reason,” she says. Her time is coming. “I used to question myself. I don’t question myself no more. Records I’ve done are on the radio.”