Female rap crew Salt-n-Pepa burst onto the national music scene in the mid-’80s, dropping their first full-length "Hot, Cool & Vicious," in 1986, the same year fellow New Yorkers the Beastie Boys dropped "Licensed to Ill." Six years after Sugar Hill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight" and two years before the debut of "Yo! MTV Raps," record execs were still dubious about hip-hop’s potential beyond a regional phenomenon, let alone the viability of a female rap group. The pair of young fem-cees were undeterred. Rocking asymmetrical hairdos, doorknocker earrings and a brash attitude they slammed down the synth-driven party anthem "Push It" and spit their way into platinum sales and international celebrity.
Their sound was pop-oriented with broad mainstream appeal. Their lyrics were bold, frank about sexuality and loosely feminist. They had a good run, continuing to drop significant hits into the mid-’90s. And then they stopped. Abruptly. The group disappeared for the better part of a decade, re-emerging in 2007 in a most millennial fashion, with a VH1 reality show.
"Originally the idea was for a sitcom, but reality was on the rise," Cheryl "Salt" James said earlier this week from her home in suburban New York City.
"I said if I have input and control and it’s not just me being followed by cameras it would be a safe way to not only reintroduce Salt-n-Pepa to the world, but to answer all the questions, because most groups don’t disband at the height of their career. People were wondering what happened to their favorite female hip-hop group."
It was also a chance for the two women to reconnect and heal old wounds.
"I think we both had some great revelations concerning a lot of things. One of them being we both felt totally unappreciated by the other and misunderstood. We had zero communication skills because we were really young when we started and we kind of grew up in this business and were figuring it out as we went along," James said.
Through the show James revealed she was in a very dark place when she quit the band. "I was sick. I was bulimic and depressed. I just wanted out and I wasn’t able to articulate that to (Pepa) at the time. I just knew that I needed to get away from the chaos and the confusion, the miscommunication and the lawsuits and everything that this business becomes that is contrary to what you’re in it for."
The show ran for one season as the women worked out their differences. It was emotional and, sweeter than the average reality show. Tensions built around the contrast between Salt’s grounded, deeply religious family life and Pepa’s freewheeling flamboyant style, but through it all ran the deep feeling of sisterhood the two women were grateful to reclaim. According to James the show did well in ratings and the response was positive, but as management shifted at VH1, it was canned.
"We couldn’t compete with the more controversial shows that we were up against at that time. I think it was ‘I Love New York’ and ‘Flavor of Love,’" James says with a laugh. "We’ve always been a pretty tame group in comparison."
In advance of the group’s Saturday show at the Belmont, James shared a few thoughts about Salt-N-Pepa’s return to the stage last year with a 20-city "Legends of Hip-hop" tour and the state of women in hip-hop and the media.
Statesman: In the VH1 show you expressed a lot of apprehensions about starting to perform again. How did the tour go last year?
James: It went great. I think it actually was a blessing that we kind of disappeared because it made people hungry for Salt-n-Pepa again. People are feeling pretty nostalgic these days, especially our age group because the music has changed so much. We’re one of those groups that has a cult following. I’m always thinking it’s going to slow down and my husband is like "Oh, another three shows came in." I’m always surprised. It’s a blessing.
As a vocal Christian, you’ve struggled with the fact that a lot of your songs had strong sexual content back in the day. Have you cleaned them up?
I don’t do certain songs. I know that a lot of people don’t agree with me and I’m OK with it. It’s my personal thing. But I’ve come to a more balanced place concerning that. That was then, this is now. People loved us and people look up to us. We’re a group that inspired women and the feedback that I always get is in the most positive way, female empowerment. "You helped me get through college. You helped me get out of an abusive relationship." And so, I know that Salt-n-Pepa meant a lot to a lot of people. And I’m OK with going out there and reminiscing with my fans. It’s fun.
What have the crowds been like, mostly grown folk who remember you from back in the day or a mix of young kids in there, too?
Mostly grown folks, but a lot of young people. The moms always say, "I brought my daughter because I want her to know what real hip-hop is. I want her to experience what I experienced when I was young." So we get the generations at our shows, which is awesome. And guys. We bring in a lot of different people, but the majority are definitely people who want to go back to that happier time in hip-hop.
At the time Salt-n-Pepa started out as a female rap group it was very groundbreaking. It seemed like you were opening doors for other young female hip-hop artists. Are you surprised at the lack of female rappers really making waves today?
I am. Especially after Lauryn Hill. I really looked at her 11 Grammy Award-winning groundbreaking moment and what Salt-n-Pepa did as "Yay, now it’s gonna be open to a more diverse group of women who can come in with different messages!" And it kind of went in a very overly sexual way down to basically just one person who’s getting any type of recognition. I’m baffled by that. I don’t really have an answer. I just know that there are a lot of extremely talented women out there that are not, for whatever reason, getting the opportunity to shine.
In Lauryn Hill’s album she talked about some of the struggles she had breaking away from some of the men who were controlling her career stuff. Is that something you experienced, too?
I always say that it’s like if you don’t belong to a man camp it’s just not happening these days for women. Hip-hop is a very misogynistic male-dominated, oppressive kind of music and most women come in through -- I call them man camps -- you know. And then when you’re in the man camp you tend to go along with what men think you should be expressing until you break off on your own which is something that Salt-n-Pepa did. But the great thing about Hurby (Azor), who was our producer in the beginning, was that he tapped into that female audience for us and helped us to really get in touch with the female audience on a deeper level. That gave us longevity, but these days, I don’t know, it’s really just a sad, sad, thing. I think there need to be more voices out there representing things than sexuality.
As someone who has been very candid about your own struggles with eating disorders, do you have any thoughts about all the controversy that’s coming out about the photoshopping (of women’s bodies) that happens in fashion magazines and advertising?
My sister and I were talking about this yesterday and it’s really unfortunate because it’s so damaging to young women. It seems to me like young people are getting involved. They’re getting sick of trying to live up to these extremely unrealistic images that cause eating disorders and low self-esteem. My son, ironically, the other day he pulled up one of those magazine (websites) where they catch celebrities without their makeup. He loves Rihanna, he’s 12, and he saw Rihanna without her makeup and was devastated. I said, "Babe, this is reality, nobody looks like that! You can’t buy into it because it’s so far from reality." It’s important that young people know this. I’ve struggled with it my whole career. I still sometimes struggle with when I gain an extra 5 pounds and I look online and somebody’s like "Oh, Salt’s getting fat again." I’m a grown woman and a little weight comes with age and it’s a constant struggle within yourself to learn acceptance without having to be compared to these ridiculously unrealistic images.
What can people expect from the show on Saturday?
Fun. Before we go onstage, we look at each other and say "Have fun." And we go hard. It’s just an old school block party park jam. We’re just going to take you back and reminisce together. It’s very interactive our show. We get the people involved.