The 8-Ball jackets. The asymmetrical bobs. The giant earrings. The tight, shiny leggings. Sandra "Pepa" Denton and Cheryl "Salt" James, alongside Deidra "DJ Spinderella" Roper were not merely an amazing hip-hop group, they were doyennes of sartorial supremacy loaded with inspirational messaging and an arsenal of big, walloping hits. These three fierce feminisitas stood out in a landscape littered with testosterone, helping to pave the way for everyone from Queen Latifah to Lil' Kim and Lauryn Hill. From their very first album, Hot, Cool & Vicious, Salt-N-Pepa made no apologies for the female-first anthems that asserted women could handle the mic just as well as their male counterparts. Not a popular opinion back in '85. From Push It to Shoop, the trio helped take hip-hop to the world, winning a Grammy for None Of Your Business and selling millions of records in the process. Most importantly though S & The P also had something to say, addressing everything from HIV and AIDS (before it was 'cool' to do so), friendship, solidarity, infidelity, sex, sexuality, bulimia and domestic violence.
Later this year, they join peers including Vanilla Ice and Coolio on the I Love The 90's Tour where they'll play a string of hits from Lets Talk About Sex to Whatta Man. Today - minus Spinderella - the queenz from Queens take us on a tour of the hip-hop classics that have shaped their lives and careers.
1. The Showstopper - Super Nature
Salt: We first met when we were studying nursing at [Queensborough Community] College. When Pepa needed a part-time job, I sent her down to Sears, where I worked with my then boyfriend Hurby ["Luv Bug" Azor]. Pep was so wild, but they would literally hire anybody, so I was like, 'This is the perfect place for you, you can be as wild as you like and they don't care! No one can see you, you're just in a cubicle selling agreements for dishwashers and refrigerators'.
Pepa: Erm, I did a great interview by the way [laughs]. So we worked there, Kid-N-Play and Martin Lawrence. We used to say that whoever made it big first, would put each other on. For our first gig, at Inferno, a club in Manhattan, we had Martin do our warm-up. He did his standup before our show. We put him on!
Salt: So this was when we were known as Super Nature. Hurby came with this idea that we should do an answer to Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick's The Show. Back then, Roxanne Shanté had dissed UTFO, so she was our role model really when it came to getting our foot in the door. You know, battling and diss records is actually what hip-hop is built on. We were a little nervous about doing it, but we recorded the song, and got the lyrics together with Hurby and then he took it up to Marley Marl - who back then, was the DJ. You could only get hip-hop on the radio for like one hour at the weekend and that was on Mr. Magic and Marley Marl's Rap Attack show. So Hurby took it up to Marley Marl and we kept waiting to hear him play our record - we would be disappointed weekend after weekend. Then finally one day, we're in Queens, we're in the hood. Pep's driving down Guy R Brewer Boulevard and all of a sudden we hear 'Please, please, please don't stop'….
Pepa: I jumped out of the car. Literally.
Salt: She's driving and she jumps out of the car, shouting, 'That's our record on the radio'. That was the most exhilarating moment ever; to hear your record for the first time on the radio and Marley Marl is playing it? It was crazy. From there, we started getting booked for shows. We played some wild places back then.
2. The Bridge Is Over - Boogie Down Productions
Pepa: We were so lucky, growing up in New York during the dawn of hip-hop. It was a great time.
Salt: I lived across the street from Bushwick High School and behind Bushwick High School was a park, and I could hear them jammin' out in the park. I was too young to go out, so I used to sneak out. My momma came and dragged me outta that park quite a few times [laughs]. But I remember experiencing hip-hop for the first time - the turntable hooked up to the light-post, the b-boys throwing their cardboard on the floor, and the battling… It was just mesmerising and so infectious. It was where you had to be. It didn't matter if I got in trouble, I had to go. If I found out it was a block party I would walk with my friends for miles. You lived to be there.
Pepa: It was word-of-mouth. You'd go anywhere just to hear hip-hop. I remember the battles; you'd have Busy Bee and Kool Moe Dee onstage, right across from each other, battling. You couldn't do that now.
Salt: That's what hip-hop was.
3. I'll Take Your Man
Salt: We had a lyric in The Showstopper that said 'We the salt and pepper' and people started asking the DJs for 'That salt and pepper song' so we cut Super Nature and became Salt-N-Pepa. As soon as we became Salt-N-Pepa, it all happened so fast. It wasn't about figuring out what to do next, people just caught on to us and held onto us. I'll Take Your Man was hardcore, for the streets and that solidified us as legitimate MCs. Once I'll Take Your Man came out, we put out Tramp. On the b-side of Tramp was this track called….
4. Push It
Salt: So this one radio station DJ flipped Tramp over and played the b-side and Push It went viral - before we knew what going viral was! Push It became the song that made us crossover into pop, it took us international, it broke that glass ceiling for us.
Pepa: Almost to a fault though. Being pop back then was not a good thing in hip-hop. You were a sell-out if you were pop. We all wanted the international success, but we're from the street, so we didn't want to be seen as 'pop'. It's the opposite nowadays. But it was crazy. We're travelling the world, we're doing Top of the Pops, we're playing for the Prince of Brunei, Sultans in Saudi Arabia, we're on private jets and yachts. It was huge. Man, we was ahead of our time.
Salt: When we started we had different writers and producers, but as time went on we took a lot more control. But whether it was a track like Tramp, that we didn't write, or later on, Shoop, which we did write, everything that we did was what we wanted to do and what we wanted to say. That went through everything we did; from what we said, how we looked and what we wore. We always said we bought fun, fashion and femininity to hip-hop. Nothing with Salt-N-Pepa was ever planned. Like Pep's asymmetrical hair, that happened when her sister, Jean, was training to be a beautician and used Pep as a dummy and burned her hair! She came to me and we shaved it off and I razored lines in her hair and then did the same thing to mine! That's the authenticity of Salt-N-Pepa. We were regular chicks who liked to have fun, who made great music, who said what we wanted.
Pepa: We broke down barriers.
6. Lets Talk About AIDS
Salt: Peter Jennings was a TV journalist and his daughter was listening to Lets Talk About Sex. He asked what she was listening to and she explained, so he approached us to ask if we would change the lyrics to Lets Talk About AIDS because he was doing a PSA on HIV and AIDS. I re-wrote the song and we did a video and he aired it. We were the first to really adopt HIV and AIDS as something we wanted to talk about before it was popular, because for us it was a little personal. When Magic Johnston came out with his announcement, it felt close to home to us, you know, it could happen to anyone.
Pepa: Back then we weren't knowledgeable about it so we thought it was a gay disease. When Magic got it, it was a wake-up call for lots of people. But it's still serious out there, in 2017, it's still a necessary message to talk about, because there still is no cure. You can't go get a shot.
Salt: We became involved with the Gay Men's Health Crisis because we thought it was important to inform people. At that time people really had it twisted. How you get it, how it spread... we felt like it was something we needed to be a part of talking about.
7. Keep Ya Head Up - Tupac Shakur
Salt: We met Tupac at various places, you would spot him everywhere. The first time we spent proper time with him was the Whatta Man video, where he had a cameo. Tupac met my daughter one time, when she was very little. He had this long conversation with her and, I don't know, I guess she just struck him somehow. He called me this one time and said 'By the way, I dedicated a song to Corin'. I never really understood why, the only thing I can say is that he was just enamored with her and so at the beginning of Keep Ya Head Up, he dedicates the song to my daughter.
Pepa: Pac had a liking and admiration for us as women, as artists. This one time we were in our dressing room at the Grammy's, and a cake arrived. It was black…
Salt: And it was shaped like a glock.
Pepa: We were like… what the hell.
Salt: We didn't know if he was mad at us!
Pepa: We were like, 'What did you say to him'? 'I didn't say nothing'!
Salt: We were staring at that cake for so long like… what did we do! Then we realised it was his way of congratulating us on winning our Grammy.
Pepa: Crazy. That was Pac.
8. A Salt With A Deadly Pepa
Salt: Since we first met, we have the weirdest thing going on. It's so annoying.
Pepa: I'm sitting here like [puts her arms around Salt]…
Salt: That's how she be on me all the time - like white on rice [laughs]. Like, I ain't going nowhere! When we met, we were the most unlikely couple on the planet. We're totally opposite, but then there's so many things that are the same about us. I can't really explain it, it's just a spooky connection that we have. We can talk with our eyes. We could have an argument right in front of you and you would have no idea we were arguing.
Pepa: We can have conversations from weeks ago and just pick them up with one word and we'll know what the other is talking about.
Salt: I think the stars align, certain things are deigned to happen at a certain time. I always say that about Salt-N-Pepa - besides the fact that we're beautiful and we're talented and we're sexy and we're fabulous (laughs), and we did great records, and her and I had this amazing chemistry, and we empowered women… all of those things came into play, but also the stars lined up. Some things happen at a certain time and I don't believe any of this could have happened at any other time.
Tickets for the I Love The 90s Tour are on sale now.
Text Hattie Collins