Leading Ladies Of Hip Hop: Salt-N-Pepa
By Kathia Dawson, Staff Writer
Few have paved the way for female artists in the Hip Hop industry like Hip Hop trio Salt-N-Pepa. The group’s influences are widely seen today, and more than three decades after their top hits have been released, their songs are still known by everyone. Salt-N-Pepa were the first female rappers to win a Grammy Award for Performance by a Duo or Group, and first all-female rap act to achieve gold and platinum status.
The group as we know them today started as a duo with Cheryl James (“Salt”), who was born on March 28, 1966, and Sandra Denton (“Pepa”), born November 6, 1966. The two met as first year students at Queensborough Community College where both were studying nursing. The group’s turntablist, Spinderella — real name Deidra Roper, born August 3, 1970 — would join the duo later, in 1986, after Salt-N-Pepa’s previous Spinderella was released. James and Roper are from Brooklyn and Denton is from Queens.
Salt described their college days in 1985 as less about learning and more about them bonding as sisters. “We were big time screw-ups,” James told The Guardian. “We never went to class. We’d just hang around in the lunchroom playing cards, and we formed this amazing friendship. Because we were polar opposites, we fascinated each other.”
In addition to going to school together, the close friends also worked together at Sears as telephone operators. Other notables who worked alongside them included soon to be Hip Hop duo Kid-N-Play, comedian Martin Lawerence, as well as Salt’s boyfriend Hurby Azor. Azor, a music student, was the main producer for Salt-N-Pepa’s early works and became a big contributor to their sound.
The group officially formed in 1985, at first under the name Super Nature. People began calling the women Salt-N-Pepa after a lyric from their debut single “The Show Stoppa.” The verse went, “‘Cause we, the Salt and Pepa MCs.” From then on, the now iconic nickname stuck.
Early in their rap journey, they weren’t thinking about the money that came from their songs. Their big goal was to be on the radio, but what started as a fun pastime later became a full time job.
SALT-N-PEPA’S BIG BREAK
Their first track was recorded in 1985 during a time where rap battles were big. “The Show Stoppa” was a diss track in response to big names Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh’s song “The Show.” It was ballsy for the two to take on established names for their first track in a male-dominated industry.
One day the pair were listening to the radio while driving in Queens and heard “The Show Stoppa.” Salt recalls in an interview with Rolling Stone, “Pep, being the crazy person that she is— she stopped the car in the middle of the boulevard, she jumped out of the car, and she started screaming, ’They’re playing my song! That’s me! That’s me on the radio! And I’m like, ‘Get back in the car!’”
Azor had taken it to WBLS and DJ Marl, who had a show called World Famous Mr. Magic Rap Attack. This exposure garnered the group attention, which eventually led to signing with indie record label Next Plateau. The label offered them $5,000 for the single “I’ll Take Your Man,” and another $9,000 for an album.
The duo went on to complete recording a whole album— a major feat for men or women in those early days of Hip Hop. In between the release of their first album, Hot Cool Vicious, and their sophomore effort, A Salt With A Deadly Pepa, the group produced a single which became an international sensation.
The B-side for the single “Tramp,” “Push-It,” was released in 1987. The pair actually hated this song and thought it was cheesy. Recorded in a bathroom, the track unexpectedly took off and propelled their career to a new realm of fame. The song sold more than a million copies, hit No.20 on Billboard Pop charts, and earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance.
In 1986, the group continued to evolve. They added a 16-year-old DJ Deidre Roper, with the stage name Spinderella. Thematically, they grew even more unashamed about delving into taboo topics. They embraced their sexuality on titles like “Let’s Talk About Sex,” released in 1991. And at a time when it was the prevailing global health concern, they addressed the HIV epidemic in the sharply-titled public service announcement “I’ve Got Aids,” voiced by the group WeTalk from Boston, Massachusetts.
THE END OF AN ERA
In the mid-1990s, Salt entered into the Christian music space, collaborating on the Grammy nominated “Stomp” with Kirk Franklin in 1997. This was also the year of their last album as a group. The group disbanded in 2002 when Salt wanted to focus on producing.
In 2003, Spinderella began work as a radio personality on KKBT in Los Angeles, spinning old school hip hop. Pepa was featured in the reality TV show The Surreal Life in 2005. In 2007 they flirted with a comeback, and starred in their own reality series, the Salt-N-Pepa show.
Tensions within the trio became public when Spinderella sued Salt-N-Pepa, alleging fraud, breach of contract, trademark infringement, and unpaid royalties. Spinderella is no longer a part of Salt-N-Pepa. Her departure was made official when she was barely acknowledged in the group’s recent Lifetime biopic.
WHO WERE SALT-N-PEPA INFLUENCED BY?
Spinderella has gone on the record noting she was influenced by vintage soul music from the likes of the O’Jays and Marvin Gaye. In an interview, they stated rapper Roxanne Shanté was influential and part of their blueprint.
WHO DID SALT-N-PEPA INFLUENCE?
It’s no doubt Salt-N-Pepa paved the way for many of the popular female rappers and groups that are well-known today; however, it wasn’t easy for them. They broke barriers in the male-dominated music industry, facing off with the double challenge of being women, and Black women at that.
Their influence is extremely broad. Just a few artists they’ve gone on to influence are TLC, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, City Girls, and many more. Spinderella also made a blueprint for female DJs. Before her, there weren’t many who could flaunt mainstream success.
Meatloaf, burgers, macaroni and cheese, and more are what’s on the menu next for James and Denton. The pair are launching their own show, Cookin’ with Salt-N-Pepa, which is set to premiere on The Cooking Channel. The premise of the show is that the pair will tour their favorite spots around the country, review the food they try, and spend time with the chefs who prepared it.
HONORS AND AWARDS
- First all-female rap act to go Platinum
- First females to win a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, for “None of Your Business” 1995
- MTV Best Choreography in a Video for “Whatta Man,” 1994
- MTV Best Dance Video for “Whatta Man,” 1994
- MTV Best R&B Video, “Whatta Man,” 1994
- Entertainer of the Year at Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, 1995
- Grammys Lifetime Achievement Award, 2021
- Hollywood Walk of Fame Star, received in 2022
- “The Show Stoppa,”
- “Push It”
- “What A Man”
- “Let’s Talk About Sex”
A LASTING LEGACY
The strength of Cheryl James and Sandra Denton’s friendship transformed them from screw-ups to international sensations.
More than three decades after their releases, hits like “Push It,” “Let’s talk about sex,” “Whatta Man” and “Shoop” still hold a place in history as some of the most cutting-edge lyrics of the time that are relevant today.
Salt-N-Pepa were the first female rappers to be certified platinum. Their recognition and success was largely because of their fearlessness to speak on taboo topics. The band hit the hearts of their largely female audience by speaking their truth and being bold with the things they had to say. They were one of the first female groups to explore female relationships with men in their genre. Their voice gave voice to future generations of female rappers as well as millions of other women in the world.