“We don’t do hard-core rap music, because not everyone understands that. We’re not just out to please our own crowd. Rap is for everyone,” Salt-N-Pepatold David Denicolo in Glamour. Salt, also known as Cheryl James, and Pepa—nee Sandy Denton—are members of the first female rap group to cross over to the Billboard Pop Chart with the gold single “Push It,” from their first album, Hot, Cool & Vicious, which went platinum in 1988. Regarded as something of a phenomenon in the record industry, Salt-N-Pepa put women in the forefront of male-dominated rap music with the critically and financially successful “Push It.” The single got the serious airplay necessary to open the way for other female rappers like Finesse, who told Billboard, “In a way it’s good that they came first because they had to go through a lot of interviews and speculation while people just pushed them off. It’s made it easier for us.”
Avoiding the old-fashioned, frivolous image of girl groups, Salt-N-Pepa call their particular brand of street poetry “pop-rap.” Lyrics courtesy of their pro-
Group comprised of rapper Cheryl James (Salt), daughter of a bank manager and a transit worker; rapper Sandy Denton (Pepa), daughter of a nurse; and DJ Dee Dee Roper (Spinderella); James and Denton were raised in Queens, NY; both attended Queensborough Community College.
Rap performers and recording artists, 1985—. James and Denton worked as telephone customer-service representatives for Sears Roebuck until group was formed, c. 1985. Recorded first song, “The Showstopper,” as a college project for lyricist and then-coworker Herby Azor; signed with Next Plateau Records; recorded “Push It,” which went gold, 1988.
Addresses: Record company —Next Plateau Records, 1650 Broadway, Suite 1103, New York, NY 10019.
ducer—Herby “Hurby Love Bug” Azor—and borrowed “samples” from the music of Otis Redding, the Kinks, and Devo, to name a few, combine with a strong beat to create a mightily popular sound that earned rave reviews like this from New Statesman contributor Simon Reynolds: “Wholly inconsistent styles and ambiences, plucked from random points throughout pop history, are bolted together… affording the listener plenty of jouissance, ecstatic confusion.” David E. Thigpen in Time nailed down Salt-N-Pepa’s subject matter, reporting that they “punctuate soul-tinged R.-and-B. melodies with teasing, street-savvy raps about maturity, independence from men and sexual responsibility.”
Salt-N-Pepa are middle-class young women from Queens, New York, who grew up in an urban environment. James’s mother is a bank manager; her father is a transit worker. Denton’s father died in 1983, leaving Sandy and her eight siblings in the care of her mother, a nurse. Although neither member of the group has a musical background, they are both natural performers who came together by chance.
In 1985 the duo attended Queensborough Community College, where one was in nursing, the other in liberal arts. Not long afterwards the two took jobs as telephone customer-service representatives for Sears Roebuck, where fellow employee Azor asked for help on his midterm project. Azor, a student at New York City’s Center forthe Media Arts, needed to make a record to fulfill a class assignment. Encouraging James and Denton to record a number to “answer” a big hit rap single at the time, “The Show” by Doug E. Fresh, Azor called the duo Supernature and their recording “The Showstopper.” James and Denton made Azor a mid-term project that sold over 250,000 copies. When the rappers caught the attention of Next Plateau Records, Inc. they decided to quit their jobs at Sears. They launched a new career under the name Salt-N-Pepa, a phrase taken from a line in “The Showstopper.”
Ironically, “Push It,” the song that made their name and went gold on the same day Salt-N-Pepa’s first album, Hot, Cool & Vicious, went platinum—March 23, 1988—was a fluke. Another chance happening for James, Denton, Azor, and by then, Spinderella (Dee Dee Roper)—the crucial DJ addition to the group—James said of “Push It” in Essence: “We recorded [the song] in Fresh Gordon’s bathroom. We needed something quick for the B-side because we wanted to put out the single Tramp’ the next day.” The B-side became an A-side single after a California DJ concocted his own mix for “Push It” and sent the new version to Next Plateau Records.
Describing the group as “splendidly sexy,” Marek Kohn in New Statesman & Society chimed in with other reviewers in their enjoyment of “Push It,” which Kohn called “sex without smut.” “‘Push It”s lyrics, mostly a whispered refrain of the title, won’t win any prizes, but the music, more melodic and complex than most rap, gives the record an irresistible twist,” added Michael Small in People.
“Can the queens of rap make lightning strike twice?” asked Johnson about the group’s million-selling second album, A Salt with a Deadly Pepa. Rob Hoerburger’s review in Rolling Stone responded when the release went gold: “There’s nothing as galvanizing as ‘Push It’ on S & P’s new album, but Cheryl James, Sandy Denton, and Dee Dee Roper remain fixed on kicking rap in the pants.… In the best rap tradition, Salt-N-Pepa balance humor, arrogance and practicality.”
“Their music is full of energy and invention—and their lyrics have real wit,” stated Denicolo in Glamour after the group received a Grammy Award nomination in 1989 in the newly created rap category. The duo boycotted the show along with other rap groups, however, when the awards program did not televise the presentation of the award. That statement notwithstanding, Salt-N-Pepa do not court controversy as some hardcore rappers do. Salt-N-Pepa, as Kohn further observed, “believe in doing their duty as role models.”
Salt-N-Pepa’s concert tours bring the performers onstage wearing black spandex body suits under oversize leather jackets. Choreographed dance routines accompany each song in a show that People described as “more sophisticated than the cliched finger popping and arm waving of their male counterparts.” “You have to be strong on stage. You do things to hype up the crowd,” Denton told Johnson; James added, “They want to see something visual.”
With a song on the soundtrack of the controversial gang film Colors and a spot on rhythm and blues superstar Stevie Wonder’s MTV special behind them, Salt-N-Pepa released their third album, Blacks’ Magic —which had sold more than 500,000 copies by May of 1991—with an eye toward the business side of their careers. The future holds film prospects and new departures for the group. James, for instance, is interested in management, particularly as a producer. Both Denton and James would like to make political and social statements with their music, they told Kohn. “We’re older now and more mature, and we just felt that it was time that we said something about what’s going on in a positive way.” In this intention, too, Salt-N-Pepa are considered pioneers who are leading the way to recognition and respect for women in the music industry mainstream. As Denicolo stated, “If Salt-N-Pepa … are the yardstick, then the future of rap looks bright.”
Hot, Cool & Vicious (includes “Push It”), Next Plateau, 1986.
A Salt with a Deadly Pepa, Next Plateau, 1988.
Blacks’ Magic, Next Plateau, 1990.
A Blitz of Salt-N-Pepa (greatest hits), Next Plateau, 1991.
Billboard, April 16, 1988; May 21, 1988.
Ebony, January 1989.
Essence, September 1988.
Glamour, May 1989.
Jet, February 26, 1990.
New Statesman, February 13, 1987.
New Statesman & Society, April 20, 1990.
People, April 18, 1988.
Rolling Stone, December 1, 1988.
Time, May 27, 1991.
Members: Sandy "Pepa" Denton, vocals (born Kingston, Jamaica, West Indies, 9 November 1969); Cheryl "Salt" James, vocals (born Brooklyn, New York, 8 March 1964); Dee Dee "Spinderella" Roper, vocals, turntables (born New York, New York, 3 August 1971).
Best-selling album since 1990: Very Necessary (1994)
Hit songs since 1990: "Let's Talk about Sex," "Whatta Man," "Shoop"
The female rap trio Salt-N-Pepa debuted in the mid-1980s and made their mark in a male-dominated genre. The first major all-female rap crew, they combined pop sensibility, playfully feminist lyrics, and sexual swagger to become some of the first rap artists to achieve mainstream success, anticipating hip-hop's commercial ascendance in the 1990s. Unlike many of their 1980s contemporaries, Salt-N-Pepa managed to benefit from hip-hop's increasing popularity, extending their career well into the 1990s and enjoying the greatest critical and commercial reception of their career with their fourth album, Very Necessary (1993).
Cheryl "Salt" James and Sandra "Pepa" Denton met in the mid-1980s while working in a department store in their native Queens. Their co-worker and Salt's boyfriend, Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor, asked the duo to rap on a track he was working on for an audio production class. Entitled "The Show Stopper," the resultant track was a female response to the extremely popular Doug E. Fresh single "The Show" and featured James and Dento making fun of preening, overconfident men, a theme they returned to throughout their career. Released as a single in the summer of 1985 under the name Super Nature, "The Show Stopper" became an underground hit, leading to a record contract with independent label Next Plateau. The duo, newly named Salt-N-Pepa after a line from "The Show Stopper," released their debut album, Hot, Cool & Vicious, in 1986. The album was produced by Azor, who was also Salt-N-Pepa's manager, and featured a DJ, Pamela Greene.
Hot, Cool & Vicious yielded three minor hits in 1987, "My Mic Sounds Nice," "Chick on the Side," and a rap remake of the Otis Redding-Carla Thomas hit "Tramp." Although their raps were simple, Salt-N-Pepa delivered them with winning verve, and their equally sassy stage show (complete with male strippers) soon brought them a loyal local audience. This audience expanded when Cameron Paul, a San Francisco DJ, started playing his own remixed version of the Hot, Cool & Vicious track "Push It." Released nationwide as a single, the slinky and sexy "Push It" became a huge pop hit and eventually became one of five songs nominated for the first ever Best Rap Performance Grammy in 1989. When it was announced that this new portion of the awards would not be televised, Salt-N-Pepa, along with fellow nominees LL Cool J and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, interpreted it as a slight against hip-hop and boycotted the event.
Meanwhile Salt-N-Pepa had replaced Greene with DJ Spinderella and rushed into the studio in 1988 to release a hastily produced second album, A Salt with a Deadly Pepper. The album featured a few more rap remakes of old R&B songs, one of which ("Shake Your Thing") became a minor hit. Although A Salt with a Deadly Pepper eventually went double platinum, it proved less fresh than its predecessor and seemed to confirm the hip-hop community's general view of Salt-N-Pepa as pop crossover artists with little to say.
Salt-N-Pepa began the 1990s by contradicting this view. As they commenced work on their third album, Salt, Pepa, and Spinderella took over some creative control from Azor, who had been credited with all the songwriting up to that point. The result was their breakthrough album, Black's Magic, released in March 1990. True to its cover, which features the trio surrounded by the images of black music icons, Black's Magic features a funky R&B-based sound. Although this stylistic turn improved Salt-N-Pepa's credibility in hip-hop, it did nothing to diminish their appeal with pop audiences, who responded to their sassy wit and frank sexuality. The album's first single, "Expression," neatly summarizes the group's playful and confident message of female empowerment: "I express myself on every jam / I'm not a man, but I'm in command / Hot damn, I got an all-girl band." "Expression" topped the rap charts for eight weeks. Another single, "Do You Want Me," was also a hit, but it was the catchy safe-sex anthem "Let's Talk about Sex" that really struck a chord with audiences. The song was fortuitously in keeping with the then-prevalent efforts at AIDS awareness and was eventually reworked as "Let's Talk about AIDS" as part of a televised public-service campaign.
In the three years it took Salt-N-Pepa to produce a follow-up to Black's Magic, the trio parted ways with Azor (whose relationship with Salt had also ended), and each became a mother. Despite the three-year lag, the album they finally released managed to build upon the artistic breakthrough achieved by its predecessor. Released in October 1993, Very Necessary grounds itself in the same pop-friendly, R&B-infused hip-hop that made Black's Magic so successful while updating the sound to make it sexier and more sophisticated. Very Necessary provides ample opportunity for Salt-N-Pepa to showcase their feminist yet lighthearted take on female sexuality, particularly in its pair of singles, "Shoop" and "Whatta Man." While "Let's Talk about Sex" amounted to a cautionary tale about promiscuity, "Shoop" is an unabashed celebration of lust in which the females do the ogling: "Ummm, you're packed and you're stacked 'specially in the back / Brother, wanna thank your mother for a butt like that." On "Whatta Man" Salt-N-Pepa team up with female R&B group En Vogue for a celebration of monogamy that is equally concerned with carnal pleasures: "My man gives real loving, that's why I call him Killer / He's not a wham-bam-thank-youman, he's a thriller / He takes his time and does everything right / Knocks me out with one shot for the rest of the night." Both of these singles hit the pop Top 10 and resulted in impressive sales for the album. A third single, "None of Your Business," did not chart as well but went on to win Salt-N-Pepa a Grammy for Best Rap Performance in 1995.
Very Necessary proved to be the peak of Salt-N-Pepa's career. It took them four years to follow it up with Brand New (1997), and by the time they did, their trademark ribaldry sounded tame compared to the hardcore antics of newer female rappers such as Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown (whom Salt-N-Pepa had no doubt inspired). Although Brand New was considered a solid album and eventually went gold, it lacked the impact of their earlier efforts.
Salt-N-Pepa's success as females in the once male-dominated rap industry paved the way for later female rappers such as Missy Elliott and Lil' Kim. Their success as rappers in crafting clever and catchy songs able to connect with the pop mainstream paved the way for hip-hop in general, helping it transcend color and cultural barriers to become one of the dominant forms of 1990s popular music.
Hot, Cool & Vicious
(Next Plateau, 1986); A Salt with a Deadly Pepa (London, 1998); Black's Magic (London, 1990); Very Necessary (London, 1993); Brand New (London, 1997).
Salt-N-Pepa , one of the first, most important, and longest running of all woman acts in rap. membership: Salt (real name, Cheryl James), rapper (b. Brooklyn, N.Y., March 8, 1963); Pepa (real name, Sandy Denton), rapper (b. Kingston, Jamaica, Nov. 9, 1969); Pamela Green, DJ. Later Spinderella (real name, Deidre Roper), DJ (b. N.Y.C., Aug. 3) replaced Green. In the early 1980s, Cheryl James and Sandy Denton were both nursing students at Queens Borough Comm. Coll., supporting themselves by working in the telephone sales department at Sears, with Kid n Play and Martin Lawrence as workmates. Another fellow worker was Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor (not to be confused with Bronx rap pioneer Herbie “Luv Bug” Starsky), also a college student at N.Y.C.’s Center for Media Arts. As a final project, Azor wanted to produce a rap record, and asked James and Denton if they would be his “talent.” They went into the studio and cut “The Show Stopper,” an answer record to Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s hit “The Show.” Azor got an A, but more important the record was released under the name Supernature, where it rose to #46 on the R&B chart in 1985. This launched Azor’s production career and the “Salt n Pepper MCs” (as they called themselves on the record—a reference to James’s slightly lighter complexion) getting signed to a larger rap- oriented independent record company, Next Plateau. Azor remained with them as their manager, producer, alleged songwriter, and James’s boyfriend.
James and Denton entered the studio with Azor and a new deejay, Pamela Green. Their Next Plateau debut, 1986’s Hot, Cool and Vicious, started off as a moderate success, with three mid-level R&B hits: “Chick on the Side,” “My Mike Sounds Nice,” and a reworking of the Otis Redding/Carla Thomas hit “Tramp.” A San Francisco deejay liked the flip side of the latter cut better and created a remix of the frankly sexy “Push It.” It rose to #19 pop, going platinum and taking the album to platinum and #26.
Before they went in to record A Salt with a Deadly Pepa, Green left the group and was replaced by Diedre “DJ Spinderella LaToya” Roper. The record produced a couple of moderate hits, including a reworking of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” which they recorded as “Shake Your Thing” with the Washington D.C. go-go band EU. That tune went to the R&B Top Ten, the album reached #38 pop and went gold in 1988.
Striking while the iron was still at least lukewarm, they released a remix package, A Blitz of Salt n Pepa Hits, an ironic title as it turned out, because their greatest music and success was yet to come. During the three years between A Salt… and their next release, Black’s Magic, the group became more active in their direction and started to shoulder Azor out of the way, with good results. With each of the trio co-producing, along with the help of Steevee-O, 1990’s Black Magic was a breakthrough, bringing a level of conscious Afro-centricity to the pop image the group had put forward on its first two albums, without losing the sexy fun of its more pop side. The first single, “Expression,” went high in the R&B charts before running up to #26 on the pop charts and going platinum. “Do You Want Me” reached #21 pop and went gold. The anthemic “Let’s Talk about Sex,” aided by an amazing video, went to #13 pop and also sold gold. They later turned it into an even more important project, recutting it as “Let’s Talk about AIDS,” an extended public service announcement for safe sex. The album reached #38 and platinum status.
Over the next two years, the group separated from Azor. In 1993, Salt-N-Pepa released their fourth album, Vety Necessary. The new album brought a sheen of sophistication to their previously jejune sexuality, which went over in a very big way. The first single, “Shoop” rose to #4 and went gold. The follow-up, a reworking of an obscure single by Stax artist Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man” recorded with vocal group En Vogue, reached #3 and went platinum. The third single, “None of Your Business,” only reached #32, but came out in time to be eligible for the 1995 Grammy Awards, winning for Best Rap Performance. They went on tour with R. Kelly.
Another three-year hiatus followed, with the group recording a tune here and there for soundtracks and appearing in the film Who’s Da Man. They headlined the 1995 fundraising project, “Ain’t Nothing But a She Thing,” with their contribution hitting #38 on the pop charts. During the fall of 1997, the group put out Brand New. Despite an eclectic line-up of guest artists, including Kirk Franklin, Sheryl Crow, and Queen Latifa, the album didn’t perform as well as expected, despite going gold. Denton married Treach from Naughty By Nature. James had already married and had a couple of children. Roper made a solo album (with an appearance by Salt-n-Pepa) and opened a Queens-based day spa. Denton opened a clothing boutique in Atlanta. Another greatest hit package was planned for release in 2000.
Hot, Cool & Vicious (1986); A Salt with a Deadly Pepa (1988); Black’s Magic (1990); Very Necessary (1993); Brand New (1997).
At a time when hip-hop music was shunned by mainstream radio, Salt-n-Pepa broke through in 1986 with their multi-platinum crossover debut, Hot, Cool and Vicious. Along with Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, Salt-n-Pepa were among the first hip-hop groups to be heard on a wide scale outside American urban centers during the mid-1980s. The Queens, New York-based Salt-n-Pepa also were the first all-female hip-hop group to gain commercial success in a genre dominated by men, opening doors for such female hip-hop artists like MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Foxy Brown, Lil' Kim, Lauryn Hill, Lady of Rage, Missy Elliot, Queen Latifah, Bahamadia, Heather B, and others. Further, in a genre where the life of a hip-hop career is about one year, Salt-n-Pepa persevered, continued to have hits, and were still active well into the late 1990s.
Formed in 1985 under the name Super Nature, Cheryl "Salt" James, Sandy "Pepa" Denton, and their Sears department store coworker turned producer Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor released a minor hit called "The Show Stoppa," an answer record to the Doug E. Fresh hit, "The Show." Super Nature's song reached number 46 on the Billboard R&B singles chart, making enough of a name for the group to perform in local New York clubs. The women changed the group's name to Salt-n-Pepa and added a DJ named Spinderella (Pamela Greene, who was later replaced by Deidre "Dee Dee" Roper). Salt-n-Pepa signed to the independent hip-hop label Next Plateau and released Hot, Cool and Vicious in 1986. The album sold successfully with a number of singles doing well on the R&B charts, but it was not until a remix of "Push It" was released in 1988 that Salt-n-Pepa were launched into the mainstream of pop music.
In 1988, they followed up their success with a relatively lackluster album, A Salt with a Deadly Pepa, which did well enough with the singles "Twist and Shout" and the EU collaboration, "It's Your Thang." But after facing the gendered charges of "selling out" and "going pop," they put out the Afrocentric-tinged Black's Magic, a commercial and artistic success with the number one Rap chart song "Expression" and the Top 20 Billboard Pop hit, "Let's Talk About Sex." For their fourth album, Salt-n-Pepa signed to the major label, London, and distanced themselves from their longtime producer Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor (who the group felt imposed too much control (for instance, he got full songwriting credits on their first album, despite the women's assertions that they also contributed lyrics).
Very Necessary, released in 1993, was a massive hit—the biggest of their career. It spawned the Top Ten Pop hits "Shoop" and "Whatta Man," and a lesser hit, "None of Your Business," and won the group a Grammy in 1995 for best Rap performance. Songs like "Shoop" and "None of Your Business" exemplify the assertive female-centered sexuality that they have cultivated since their earliest recordings like 1986's "Tramp." They have been able to successfully walk the line between engaging in a fun-loving sexual expression and avoiding reducing themselves to purely sexual objects, primarily because of their smart, in-your-face lyrics. For instance, Salt-n-Pepa often engaged in dialogue with their sexist male peers in their songs, challenging traditional notions of femininity and sex-role double standards. In 1995, the group recorded the single "Ain't Nuthin' But a She Thing," the theme song of a documentary about women that aired on MTV in November of 1995.
Having completely split with Azor and taken time off from their careers to raise their children, Salt-n-Pepa entered a new hip-hop era in which many more female hip-hop artists were gaining popularity. For a variety of reasons, including changing audience tastes and poor record company marketing, their 1997 album sold poorly.
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