Salt-N-Pepa Discuss Their Career and Legacy as Hip-Hop's Matriarchs

Cheryl "Salt" James and Sandra "Pepa" Denton are two women who have always had to push to get what they want in life.

The two New York-raised women are working mothers who push carts through store aisles, push their children to achieve their dreams, and push themselves to be successful in their career.

And what a career they've had. James and Denton are better known to the outside world as two-thirds of the iconic hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa. Along with infamous madam of the turntables, Deidra "Spinderella" Roper, the legendary trio is in the midst of a renaissance, anchored in part by the successful recycling of their smash single "Push It" on a Geico Insurance TV commercial.

James and Denton met at Queensborough College, where they were studying to be nurses. In 1985, the two decided to put school aside and jump undaunted into the boys-only world of hip-hop.

The women heard Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick's "The Show," and they decided a response was in order. Under the name Super Nature, they released "The Showstopper." They would later change names and DJs, hooking up with Roper. Under the name Salt-N-Pepa, they would go where no female rappers had gone before, and that was to speak out against the objectification of women that seemed to be pervasive in many early hip-hop songs.

Rather than cower in the corner on the subject of sex, Salt-N-Pepa embraced female sexuality and women's issues.
Salt and Pepa's first album, Hot, Cool & Vicious, released in December 1986, featured "Showstopper," "I'll Take Your Man," and "My Mic Sound Nice," produced by Herbie "Luv Bug" Azor, who is credited with discovering the group and writing/producing many of their initial hits.

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In early 1987, "Push It," originally a B-side to "Tramp," made a rumble. It was not until a remix by noted San Francisco DJ Cameron Paul added the right layer that the song became a hit. The first album was then re-released with the new single, and the rest is history. The song would go number one in the U.S. and number two in the United Kingdom.

After the 1989 sophomore release A Salt with a Deadly Pepa went gold, the group's third album Black's Magic (1990) would include "Expression" and "Let's Talk About Sex." The latter was a frank and open discussion about safe sex, and was purely sex-positive. 

The group's 1993 release, Very Necessary, the group's fourth album, would make them stars with the hit singles "Shoop" and "What a Man," sung with En Vogue, and garner them their only Grammy award with the song "None of Your Business."

On the strength of 7 million sales across the globe, the album ranks as the most successful female rap album of all-time.

The follow-up release, Brand New, would come in 1997, but it would be the group's last. Pepa would divorce husband Treach of Naughty by Nature amid rumors of abuse, in 2001. The next year, Salt announced she was leaving the band, due to mounting pressure from touring, recording, broken personal relationship with Azor, and battles over royalties with Azor.

The music world was not done with Salt-N-Pepa, however. After a few years off and a series of VH-1 Hip Hop Honor shows, The Salt-N-Pepa Show reality show put them back in the public eye, where they spoke candidly about their issues, and the show would partly inspire them to reform the group.

In 2014, an unlikely vehicle for furthering their legacy came by way of a humorous Geico Insurance commercial that featured a light-hearted series of vignettes using the rappers instructing people to do what else, push it real good, and the group is enjoying their continuing fame.

New Times caught up with the two MCs to talk about the ongoing success of the group, life as parents, and their enduring legacy. Salt-N-Pepa is scheduled to perform Friday, June 19, at Celebrity Theatre as part of an 11-show mini-tour.

New Times: So what was your reaction to being asked to do this Geico commercial and how has it affected the group?

Salt: Who knew the Geico commercial would be such a phenom? We were already working quite a bit, doing a reality show; we were back on the road touring. Since the Geico commercial, the popularity has doubled. We are trying to keep up with all the requests for different things.

Who made the decision to go with the commercial?

Salt: We had actually just done a TV commercial in Australia, [using "Push It"], so we were already familiar with the interest. I always put everything past my son, and he's the coolest kid on the planet. We weren't sure if it would be corny, puttin' on the old jackets, and he was like, 'No, Mom, it would be funny.' So that is how I decided to go with it.

It was not easy by any stretch to break into the male-dominated genre of hip-hop in 1985, but you did it. Did you realize you would still be doing it 30 years later?

Pepa: It was great to know we could have an answer to their song, and that 30 years later, we are still together, and that's awesome. When they said we would not last, we were able to prove them wrong, and to stand the test of time in a male-dominated industry, we were able to stay true to ourselves. It's just a good feeling overall.

Salt: Now, I did not think I would be in my 40s still doing it. I did not think that was possible for a rap artist, that you could be older doing it, because that was such a young music. And now you have people like Jay-Z and people from my era that are still doing it, and the young people love them.

You were both very young, yet confident through your meteoric rise to fame, even when things fell apart. Do you look at things differently now as adults and parents?

Salt: I always knew that it was gonna be huge. I had no clue how, or the steps we would have to take to get there, but for me it was do or die because I was not doing well in school. I never had a fire ignite inside me like I had, and I would never experience again until I had my daughter. I knew I had to do it, and I had such a passion for it.

Pepa: It does give you a more positive light. A lot of younger people are coming to our shows, and the show when we were younger was edgy and we had to say, "All right we gotta change some things." I would have changed some of the people who were in my life. We went through a lot back then but we were fortunate to have our music.

Pepa, your daughter Egypt has musical aspirations and was in a reality show called, Growing Up Hip Hop. How do you respond as a parent now to that interest?

Pepa: I am able to guide her and let her know all about what I went through to help her - the ups and downs. So I got to instill some of that knowledge in her.

Salt, you also have a daughter and son. How did you look at your music, which was edgy in the beginning and spoke about sex?

Salt: When I had my daughter that is when it really made me examine who I wanted to represent myself as, what I wanted to say and whether or not my music was contributing. It made me think a lot about females and their value and worth.

Fame and fortune, contract obligations, fans, and relationships with the men in your lives all seemed to come to a head. How did you survive these tumultuous times?

Salt: I was becoming more and more stressed more and more depressed; everybody now knows I was bulimic. I knew that if I didn't stop and get to know who I am and what I wanted apart from this legacy I had created, it wasn't going to end well for me. What got me through that time was my faith.

What has been the key ingredient to keeping it real, extending your legacy as hip-hop's matriarchs, and remaining friends?

Salt: Pepa and I were friends already. We always bonded in an unusual way. To this day, I have a lot of friends, but she's my bestie. She makes me laugh, and that's what made us bond from the beginning. She is my sister in my life and that bond is unbreakable. Trust me, I tried to break it.

The main thing is communication, and before we go on stage we look at each other and say, "Have fun." Because if we're not having fun; you're [the crowd] not having fun.'

Pepa: We were true friends from the beginning and we have that love in our relationship. So, even when we went through that down period, we're family, and we reconnected and we toured again, we found our way back. We are like tighter than ever now. We've got each other's back.

As your fan base continues to grow with your continued success, is it easier to appreciate those fans and know your efforts made changes in the lives of your women fans?

Salt: I love it; the encouragement they give you and how they remind me how impactful Salt and Pepa were. We brought feminine fashion to hip-hop at a time when it was not popular. We came about at a time when it was more hardcore and we were very girly, and I think we just spoke to a generation of women and men as well as relatable artists.

Pepa: We do have fun, we talk about the shows and to still see those fans our age, in their 40s coming out to see us, we appreciate that so much. Some of them [the fans] come to the shows dressed like Salt-N-Pepa and it's all good fun. They're there for you and it feels good.

As for your place in history, when you were getting known and making hits records, you were kind of in the moment then, but do you each now see yourselves as role models, trailblazers, and pioneers?

Salt: When people like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah and Nicki (Minaj) are coming up to you on how you inspired them. You realize how impactful we were in that music and that genre. The fans tell us that all the time, "You were the soundtrack of my life."

Correction: This blog originally misspelled Sandra Fenton's name.

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