Cheryl James says of her groundbreaking three-lady hip-hop group whose music you likely sweat to over the past three decades, "We're in a class by ourselves." No shit. Salt-N-Pepa has no contemporary equivalent, James, AKA Salt, believes. And she's really right.
Talk about staying power. Salt-N-Pepa formed in 1985 with Sandra Denton, AKA Pepa, soon after adding Deidra Roper, AKA DJ Spinderella. Their last album came out in 1997, and they still get radio play. "I think that young women identified with us beyond the music," James says. It was what they said and how they represented themselves. They were strong, sassy, and bold, and all us little girls looked up to them in every way. Including their fashion sense.
With '90s nostalgia in full effect, Facebook Salt-N-Pepa mentions of "these are my fashion icons" are not uncommon. James says what they brought to to hip-hop was femininity and fashion.
"I think that's what made us stand out," she says. "A lot of women were into oversized clothes, looking a little more like the guys, and here we came with our spandex and our eight-ball jacket and our kente hats and our diva boots. Had this whole superhero look and our asymmetrical haircuts. I think that people really gravitated towards us." She says it was refreshing. It wasn't about stylists, designer clothes, or fashionista posturing. "We were just doing us... making it up as we went along," James remembers. "You come from the streets and you wear what you think is hot, and it turns out to be something that lasted over time."
But was it difficult to make it as feminine women in hip-hop? Not exactly, but it wasn't like they gained industry respect immediately. James reminisces about a concert where she overheard someone ask Russell Simmons what he thought about her group. He gave them the thumbs-down and shook his head. "I remember that really hurt my feelings, but it also fueled me to prove him and all the other naysayers wrong."
She was wholly vindicated when he later asked Salt-N-Pepa to sign to Def Jam. They were the first women to do a lot of things, she says, like win a Grammy, go platinum, and have international success. "We became the voice of women in hip-hop on a commercial level and a personal level."
Salt met Pepa when James was working at Sears as a telephone solicitor with her boyfriend, Hurby Azor, and attending her first year at Queensborough College. She told Denton to come work with them. "They'll hire anybody," she told her, laughing. Those "anybodies" also included Martin Lawrence and Kid 'N Play. Azor was their first producer and they modeled themselves after Roxanne Shanté. They debuted their song "The Show Stopper" on Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick's radio show.
Salt-N-Pepa are playing with their old comrades -- Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick, and Kid 'N Play -- on the "Legends of Hip-Hop Tour." They're again the sole women on the bill. "We love being the only females," James admits. "We get all the attention; we get all the love. The guys bow down, literally."
James is a religious woman who speaks at churches and school and is involved with LIFE Camp, which attempts to stop interyouth violence. "I'm very into community action," she says. "That's my passion." She even uses the example of Martin Lawrence when teaching about the power of believing in yourself. He moved from D.C. to New York to become a comedian, opening for Salt-N-Pepa. "I remember him telling me, before we were performing or anything, that his plan was to be this big-time comedian. I was amazed by how much he believed in himself, and he made it happen." She was also young and confident. "I knew that I knew that I knew that this was my saving grace," that this was what she'd be doing and doing it up big.
Though James and Denton have appeared in a reality program together, The Salt-n-Pepa Show, they're not planning on putting out any new music. Unlike other early early hip-hop acts that continued to record, Salt-N-Pepa completed creating music together more than a decade ago.
Sometimes, she admits, they play around in the studio together, but, "I feel like the height of our career has come and gone as far as music is concerned." She had an amazing time, they still have loving fans, and she says of performing together: "[You're] guaranteed to have a good time because we go hard onstage. We have a party up there. It's always fun."
Follow her on Twitter at @daonlysalt.
Salt-N-Pepa perform on Friday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m. with Legends of Hip-Hop alongside Kid N Play, Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh, and others at Nova Southeastern, Don Taft University Center, 3301 College Ave., Davie.
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