Cover Story: Don’t Call It a Comeback
In a surprisingly candid interview, rap stars Salt-N-Pepa dish on everything from their rocky history to hitting the road for the first time in 12 years.
Television networks that once played their music videos are now producing their reality shows; former pop stations newly favoring variety formats are playing “Push It” as often as Katy Perry; while the tours of today’s supposed greats are folding due to ticket sales, they’re headlining a tour that’s going strong. In the words echoed by Cheryl James-Wray in the song that put her record-breaking act on the map, “Salt-N-Pepa’s here!” And, thanks to the evolving industry, it’s like the rap group never left.
Formed in Queens in 1985 by friends Cheryl James-Wray (“Salt”) and Sandra Denton (“Pepa”), Salt-N-Pepa (a name taken from lyrics in their first single, “The Showstopper.” Prior, they had been known as Super Nature) experienced early and unprecedented success that equated to a heyday that spanned the entire subsequent decade. DJ Deidre Roper, better known as “Spinderella,” joined the group prior to recording their first album (1986’s “Hot, Cool & Vicious”), and the trio wasted no time in taking strides toward earning their now widely adopted “first ladies of hip-hop” title. Their first milestone was undoubtedly “Push It,” which originated as the B-side of an early single. Remixed then repackaged, the song went platinum, earned a Grammy nomination and is credited for the platinum sales of Salt-N-Pepa’s premiere album, a first for a female rap act.
Between 1988 and 1997, the group released four additional albums, each of which went gold, platinum or multi-platinum. Selling 1.6 million copies, 1990’s “Blacks’ Magic” featuring “Let’s Talk About Sex” was a highlight yet paled in comparison to the follow-up, which proved epic. Housing hits “Shoop,” “Whatta Man” and “None of Your Business,” 1993’s “Very Necessary” sold 7 million copies, making it the best-selling female rap album to date. Adding to their list of pioneering achievements, the album‘s “Whatta Man” single earned Salt-N-Pepa the 1995 Grammy for “Best Rap Performance,” which prior could have been mistaken for an exclusively male category.
But, with success came hurdles, a cliché today, thanks to such fame-centered series as “True Hollywood Story.” Pepa acknowledged her group’s disadvantage in launching at a time in which the public wasn’t privy to stars’ cautionary tales. “It’s a tough business to be in, but I think people now are more fortunate; you can read up on artists, people who have had shitty deals or what happened to them, and try not to make the same mistakes other artists have.”
What happened to Salt was an eating disorder she now attributes to stress and calls “the catalyst” for her fleeing the business in 2002. “I was bulimic, severely. It was not knowing who I was apart from this entity I created; it was fighting over money. What started out to be fun and creative got to be all-business and lawsuits; my relationship with Pepa had become strained…I just shut down. I said, ‘No more. I’m done.'”
Then she proceeded to find herself. “It was through going to church, through prayer and
meditation, through surrounding myself with people who loved and supported me. It was necessary because I was deteriorating. I look at artists like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, and I think, ‘They didn’t take that break.’ It’s a business; if you’re not strong and you’ve been doing it since you were very young, it can chew you up and spit you out. I refused to let it happen.”
Still, a longtime fixture in the world of hip-hop, you can’t quit the industry like you quit a clerk job. Business-driven reunions with Pepa proved regular occurrences, including at VH1’s Hip Hop Honors in 2004, where they were honorees, and the same event in 2005, at which they performed with En Vogue. In 2007, Salt and Pepa decided to put aside their admittedly many differences, and regroup. Soon after, they signed on to do “The Salt-N-Pepa Show,” a 14-episode reality series that aired on VH1.
“We are total opposites, but we are very much alike in so many ways,” Salt asserts. “It kind of bugs people out.” The most noticeable difference, it seems, is the presence of a metaphoric “switch.” By day, Salt is Cheryl, a Long Island resident and wife and mother of two (a 19-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy) who wears ponytails and Uggs and flies under the radar. “But then I have to put on my ‘Salt hat’ and I have to be trendy. It’s a challenge for me.” She describes herself as “such a homemaker” (“I love being home; I’m a terrible nester; you have to dig me out like a tick.”), but calls Pepa (who also has a son and daughter) “a jetsetter” who is always “on.” “She goes to clubs, she hangs out with celebrities, she’s in Europe with the prince, she’s always shopping…she’s in that zone.”
“I’m a fame and fortune kind of girl,” Pepa agrees. “But, forget getting paid; I really just love hitting the stage.” And, currently, she’s indulging—on the road with Salt for the 20-city Salt-N-Pepa’s Legends of Hip-Hop Tour, which hits St. Louis’ Chaifetz Arena on March 12. “We started doing some spot dates here and there with some of our old friends, like Houdini and Doug E. Fresh and Kurtis Blow and Rob Base and Slick Rick—and it was really working; we were loving it, and the audience was loving it, so we decided to put together this tour,” recalls Salt.
Their first since 1999, the current tour suggests mended relationships with both each other and their fans. “We were friends before we started this, so there’s this genuine friendship there, and I think that’s what has been able to sustain us,” Salt theorizes. “And, according to the audience, there’s just this really uncanny chemistry that we have and they love. When we get together, it’s electric.”
In addition to their classic hits, audiences can expect stage costumes that reference their most iconic fashion moments (for instance, a Patricia Field designer was brought on to update their “Push It”-era jackets, spandex and Kente hats with a “superhero” vibe), and two new songs. Lyrics to one, “Big Girls,” could have been plucked from “The Story of Salt-N-Pepa: Been to the limit/Been to the wall/Been to the wire/Been through it all.”
Although plans following the tour are not set in stone, there is no question that Salt-N-Pepa will be here; Pep’s sights are set on a fragrance, a hot sauce and the big screen (she was recently bitten by the acting bug, and has guest-starred on TBS’s “Are We There Yet?”), while Salt has dreams ranging from developing a women’s fitness system, to working behind the scenes as a music producer, to starring in “Cooking With Salt-N-Pepa” on The Food Network. Regardless, we’ve got their music. As Pepa puts it: “We’ve contributed to hip-hop and have proved we are worthy in this game, and it feels great.”
Salt-N-Pepa’s “Legends of Hip-Hop Tour” stops at St. Louis’ Chaifetz Arena on March 12.