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Vivian Serrano (assistant)
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Downtown El Paso is buzzing with activity on a warm Wednesday evening in late summer. There’s a sporting event at Southwest University Park, soft launches of new businesses, and public displays of excitement. Families on scooters, lovers holding hands, groups of friends gathering for a night out. I’m seated at a plush booth at The Dome Bar next to Krystall Poppin, El Paso’s preeminent woman rapper, and we’re talking about the bar’s iconic dome made of Tiffany glass.
The Austin High alum’s career as a rapper includes opening for legendary and contemporary Hip Hop icons that include Ice Cube and Cardi B. Krystall is fresh off the high of performing at UTEP’s Minerpalooza the previous weekend, a full circle moment for the former UTEP creative writing student that took two weeks to prepare for.
“Longer than that,” she says, thinking back to the steps she took to make the performance one of her best — so far.
“I had to get myself mentally prepared, rehearse, pick my outfit, and make sure everything was on point. When it was finally over, I was like ‘I’m not going to do music today. I’m going to relax and eat what I want’ because I get so strict with myself before a performance,” she adds.
She works hard and rewards herself for it, often in ways we all might find familiar.
“At Whataburger,” she explains, “I like the number five, which is with bacon and cheese. Throw some jalapenos on there with ketchup and mustard, then cut it in half with large fries and a Dr. Pepper.”
Women in Hip Hop — especially women from Texas — have gained acclaim as queens of their genre, while Hip Hop remains the most popular form of music in the United States.
Writing Hip Hop bars, which are a unit of four crotchets or four single beats worth of lyrics, came naturally to Krystall who was a writer long before she was a rapper or performer.
“I got into music because I would journal and put my feelings on paper, and I noticed that my journaling turned from me just writing about my feelings and life into rhymes,” she says. “I started writing verses in my journals and then I started hanging out with some people from my neighborhood who made music.”
During a rap cypher, a circular gathering of rappers, beatboxers, etc. who extemporaneously make music together, Krystall decided to jump in.
“I spit one of the flows that I had from my journals and everyone tripped out,” she recalls, a proud smile glowing on her face.
She says she was expecting to recite her verses without much fanfare.
“But when I did it, everyone cheered me on,” she adds.
After that first cypher, it didn’t take long for her to catch the attention of local music producers who invited her to record and introduced her to the structure of song making.
“I loved music but didn’t know how to write it,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about the theory, so I learned a lot just by discovering what I liked to write about and what kind of music I like.”
Her confidence grew as she became more and more enmeshed in the local music scene. She created a rap group with two friends called LFDC (Live From Da Corner), and the trio spent a few years traveling back and forth for live shows and producing music videos.
LFDC was invited to perform at Neon Desert’s local stage, a big moment for the rap group, and garnered a big enough fan base over the years to play the festival’s main stage.
“We got invited to play the big stage and I was like ‘OH MY GOD’ this has been a dream to play on the big stage,” she said.
Caught between her dream of making it in the music industry and the reality that she was juggling music along with a job in beauty as a hairstylist, Krystall came to a fork in the road.
“I would work in the salon all day and then I’d be in the studio at night, just trying to make everything happen all at once. I didn’t have equipment so I was saving up for a laptop and everything like that and really trying to do it. That’s when I decided I needed to make moves, fast,” she says.
Krystall and her manager, D.S. Junior, packed up and headed to Las Vegas where she produced an album called “Starstruck” and honed in on her craft as a live performer on the streets of the Strip.
Despite the album’s success and the fast-moving momentum of her career, Krystall says she felt stymied as an artist.
And she felt lost.
“I went through a depression,” she shares. “I was doing what I felt like I was supposed to be doing but wasn’t taking the time to find out what I wanted to do or wanted to represent, so I took a big step back,” she adds.
Krystall went dormant on social media for about a year to reconnect with herself and rediscover her voice in the studio.
“I found that in the studio I was being way more experimental and was discovering things I liked. I learned how to deliver my voice and gave myself the schooling that I never had nurtured,” she said.
Freshly inspired, she started a band.
“It was D.S. Junior and me, and we have a friend who played guitar in Las Vegas,” she says excitedly. “So as he was playing guitar, I was making all these riffs and would just freestyle.”
“But I wasn’t rapping — I was singing,” she adds.
The experience, she says, helped her dissolve the boundaries she faced as an artist that alleviated the depression she felt.
“I felt like the walls were closing in on me and didn’t know what to do. That time helped me realize that I can do anything musically. Being creative brought me back,” she said.
Then it was time to get the heck out of Vegas.
D.S. Junior, her manager and bandmate, had an idea for a DIY tour.
“What if we get an RV? What if we move into it? We can go anywhere.”
They stripped down to the essentials to hit the road. Krystall sold 90 percent of her clothes and filled the RV with studio equipment.
“It felt amazing to feel so free,” she says. “We lived in that RV for two years and lived in places like Dallas, Nashville, and Atlanta.”
While on the road, Krystall would connect to the RV’s wi-fi and continue her self-education of music fundamentals. Once in Atlanta, her career in the underground Hip Hop scene really popped off.
“Oh my god, the underground shows!” she says. “You’d see so many talented rappers, and I was like ‘I’m here with them’,” she adds.
She remembers hyping herself up before her first Atlanta show.
“I looked myself in the mirror and told myself that I was going to do it,” she says.
“That was the best decision I’ve made because that show is what connected me to so many opportunities and I flourished like crazy,” she adds.
She was prepared for opportunities to come knocking thanks to the years of preparation she’d put in, as well as a lifetime of loving music.
“My parents were Hip Hop heads. My dad left behind a lot of his music before he passed away, his collection was heavily East Coast,” she says, noting their shared preference for East Coast Hip Hop.
As she began her own exploration of music, Krystall was drawn to grunge and indie rock bands like Nirvana and The Strokes.
“And of course, I was into singers like Selena,” she adds.
We’re sharing an order of cheesy truffle tater tots and shishito peppers and talking about her other influences like Kanye West over sparkling rosé when a man approaches our booth.
“Thank you for representing the city!” he says, shaking her hand with both of his. “I took off work so I could take my daughter to see you at Minerpalooza. She loves you and I just wanted to say thank you.”
I mention that’s a sign — if ever there was one — that she’s on the right path, doing the right thing.
“I just thank God for that,” she says, eyes gleaming with tears. “I will never take that for granted.”