The lure of easy money first brought the sassy Cheryl "Salt" James and the robust Sandra "Pepa" Denton together. A chance meeting took place in a Queens Community College lunchroom, where James, as an employee of Sears, was soliciting credit applications to anyone who would listen. Denton, who was more interested in finding out how she too could collect the $1 per completed application, struck up a conversation with James and, later, a friendship. Eventually, their music changed rap, and their distinct look changed fashion in Sears stores across America.
From their huge debut single "Push It" to their last high-charting track "None of Your Business," Salt-n-Pepa's fourteen-year career has transcended two eras of rap, sold millions of albums, and provided the archetype of female hip-hop. James has trouble believing it was twelve years ago that the seductive "Oooh, baby, baby" of "Push It" put Salt-n-Pepa on the map. "Sometimes I can't believe it," she says. "We had rehearsal today for this [greatest hits] tour that we're doing, and there's this particular part in the song where me and Pep face each other and rhyme on 'Push It.' That's when I feel it. We've been doing that same move for so long, it's like, Oh my God. It reminds me of the beginning."
James, a liberal arts major, and Denton, a nursing student, didn't hone their talents in dingy, smoke-filled clubs or teenage basement parties. Instead, their big break was a Sears co-worker's college class project. Herby Azor needed to produce a single for a class at the art school he attended. He wrote the single "The Show Stoppa," which was an answer to the then-popular Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick tune "The Show." He enlisted the enthusiastic James and Denton to rap on the track under the name of Super Nature. This began a successful relationship: Azor would write for and produce the first four Salt-n-Pepa records. Once the single appeared on the rap charts, the girls had the performance bug.
As students, James and Denton were just going through the motions. As entertainers, they were dedicated and tenacious. "It was a saving grace for me, as a matter of fact," says James. "I was in school, my first year of college, and I was very depressed. I had no incentive to do anything. When I got into this, it totally changed my personality and my energy. Everything went into making this happen. It just felt right. It was like the only thing in my life that got me excited."
There is little that Salt-n-Pepa--Dee Dee "Spinderella" Roper joined in 1987--hasn't achieved since their cafeteria meeting: sold-out concerts, Top 40 singles, and even an appearance at 1994's Woodstock. But it wasn't until the women finally won a Grammy (for "None of Your Business") that they realized how far they had come. Although they had been previously nominated for "Push It," winning the award wouldn't have had the same impact to them in 1987 as it did in 1994. "It meant a lot because it was ten years down the line," James says. "Honestly, I'm one to really reach for the stars, but I never really expected to win a Grammy. It shocked me, which was good, because then I really got to feel the joy of winning a Grammy. After growing up watching Stevie Wonder and people like that winning Grammys, it was like, Oh my God; here are three rapper chicks from Queens winning a Grammy. Only in America."
It was a long time coming, but the female rap artist has finally been recognized as a viable, creative force in hip-hop. The recent MTV special Ultrasound: Ladies Night featured a roundtable discussion with some of today's hottest female rap acts. Joining James was current chart-topper Foxy Brown, the business-minded Missy Elliot, and the soulful Mary J. Blige. This unprecedented forum validated the importance of female hip-hop within the musical community. It was no longer just a novelty.
"I feel like I was able to open doors for people like Missy and Foxy," she says. "I'm glad to see them taking control, doing their thing, and not just limiting themselves to being rappers, because that's not what it's about anymore in this business. I felt like I had been around for a while, but in a good way. It actually felt really good, because I'm proud of those guys."
Salt-n-Pepa seems to be content with the knowledge that it is not the star attraction it once was. The group's last release, Brand New, was its first without Azor and its least successful. Azor declined to work on the project, but it was probably for the best, especially for James. Her future, aside from wanting another child, appears to be headed behind the scene. She is producing Roper's debut solo album. James wouldn't discuss her business plans, but a record label/management venture doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility. Denton is also staying busy. In addition to motherhood--she had a child with Treach of Naughty by Nature--she has opened a hip-hop clothing store in Atlanta.
These days, James, Denton, and Roper are spending more and more time apart, but there will be future Salt-n-Pepa projects, like their current greatest hits tour. Once again, it's the lure of easy money--"People have been putting checks in front of our faces"--that has brought the three rapper chicks from Queens back together.
"You know what? It feels like a dream to me now. It all happened so--I can't say fast, because it wasn't really fast--but it was so much success back-to-back that I didn't really get a chance to bask in it. We were always working. Now, for the first time, it's really slowed down for us," James says. "When I look back on it now, I never really got to feel it. It was like being lost in a whirlwind of events. I think in a way that's good. It kept us humble. It never went to our heads. Everybody was telling us we were superstars the whole time, but there was never a point where I felt like a superstar. And I still don't. I just feel blessed."
Salt-n-Pepa. 9 p.m, Friday, March 12, the Odeon, 1295 Old River Road, the Flats, $20 ($25 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.