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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.
"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-Pepa told 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 producer--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 mid-term project. Azor, a student at New York City's Center for the 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 hard-core 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."
by Marjorie Burgess
- Selective Works
- 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.
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