“It was all a dream! I used to read Word Up! magazine! Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine,” go the immortal first lines of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.” But if you’re old enough to remember Word Up! in its heyday, you don’t need Biggie’s words to remind you that the image of Salt-N-Pepa alone could represent an entire genre of music. And if you don’t know, now you now: Salt-N-Pepa are living icons. The duo’s spicy brand of sass helped bring hip-hop to the mainstream in the ’80s, and their sense of humor, tangling flows, brazen independence and unmistakable consciousness kept it there into the ’90s. They persevered in a genre that was and is disproportionately male-dominated, not despite their femininity but because of it. They weren’t just the first female rappers to show the world that women could be a force in hip-hop, they were the best.
I got to spend some time with Cheryl “Salt” James Wray and Sandy “Pepa” Denton at Salt’s house on New York’s Long Island last week, as they shot promos for their upcoming reality show, The Salt-N-Pepa Show, which premieres Oct. 15 on VH1. While Cheryl’s house teamed with family members laughing, talking and eating, Salt-N-Pepa did their thing as veterans whose years in the entertainment industry date back over 20 years. They are nothing if not seasoned.
If you saw the preview for The Salt-N-Pepa Show that we posted a few weeks ago, you know that the fact they’re in the same room together (and often these days!) is a big deal. After years of estrangement and changing attitudes (for one thing, Cheryl intensified her spirituality), they’ve finally reunited. For me, it was an even bigger deal: I grew up loving these women and getting the chance to talk to them was an unbelievable opportunity. It was all a dream, indeed. Toward the end of their busy day, Cheryl, Sandy and I gathered around Cheryl’s dining room table to talk about their show, their music, hip-hop and so much more. Part 1 of our exclusive interview with Salt-N-Pepa starts after the jump…
It’s awesome to see you guys back together. How does it feel?
Salt: It feels good. It feels different. It’s a reality because it’s a learning experience this time around for both of us. I’m learning as I’m going, for the better. It’s good. New team, we’re in charge.
I found this quote from 1995 that I thought was prophetic. Salt told Mary Wilson in Interview: “There’s going to come a point in my life where I’m probably not going to want to make records anymore.” Salt, when did you start to realize that the music business wasn’t for you?
Salt: I don’t know when it started. I just got really, really tired and depressed. I had issues. I had self-esteem issues. I was severely bulimic and it was getting more and more out of control as the stress mounted, as the pace of being a superstar got more hectic. It got sour between [Pepa and I] because of other things. Miscommunication. We felt like we couldn’t express ourselves to each other. Other people got in the mix. There’s so many people in your life: managers, lawyers, record-company people. “You gotta do this. You gotta do that.” It just caught up with me. Since I was 18, Salt-N-Pepa just took off. It wasn’t a gradual thing. So this was a build up of many things as well as normalcy. I just wanted some normalcy. If I could put it in one statement, it would be that I felt like I had no control over my life. And that’s not a good feeling.
Pep, could you relate to any of this? You were both in the situation together…
Pepa: It’s funny because we were both in the situation, but I felt totally opposite. I felt that, yes, we were in it since we were 18 and that’s all I knew. All the things that came with it were expected and worth fixing. It is what it is on my end. My issues and all the things I was going through with Salt-N-Pepa, my relationship with Salt was my escape. She’s running from it, I’m running to it. But now I’m starting to understand [Salt’s position], and I didn’t before. But I love [working on the show]. I’m an entertainer and what I want to do is entertain. Even with this, I don’t want to tour forever and I don’t want to make music forever. I want to do behind-the-scenes things, but from the strength of what I’ve accomplished with Salt-N-Pepa, everyone is taking it do different levels. That’s what it’s about right now: growing and having an empire. But the root is Salt-N-Pepa.
I’m just trying to get a picture of when it all went sour. Would you say that 1997’s Brand New (Salt-N-Pepa’s final studio album) was the beginning of the end? I know that you had label problems with that album.
Salt: Brand New was a very, very difficult time for everybody. We were breaking up with Hurby [“Luv Bug” Azor, the group’s longtime producer], we were breaking up with management. We were switching record labels. Everything mounted up at once. It was a lot of confusion. For me, it brought everything that I was feeling to a head. There was an opportunity that came up after that that was an out for me. And I took it. I wasn’t obligated to any label and I was like, “I’m out.”
When the label (Red Ant) folded, that was your out?
Salt: There was a clause in the contract that was a miracle to me. The heavens parted and it was like, oh my God, I can get out of this with this little clause right here.
And I’m assuming that it was the opposite for you, Pep. This must have been cataclysmic.
Pepa: Yes. To me, we were getting out and changing management, but I was like, “Who’s gonna be ours now? New team!” Brand New, for me, meant optimism. A new beginning for us. When the out came with me in mind, too, it was a shock.
But you didn’t officially disband until 2002, right?
Pepa: Yeah, we promoted. It was lingering a little. There were a couple of videos.
So you went through all that and then the friendship went downhill, too. Was that like going through a breakup?
Pepa: Heck yeah. I was shocked.
Salt: I still wanted to be friends, but…
Pepa: I was mad.
Salt: She was bitter.
Pepa: (Laughs) I’m still…not mad. But this is, to me, therapy. I’m trying to work through it. Because I held a lot in.
Salt: She’s still a little mad.
Pepa: (Laughs) I’m nervous. Whenever I see things that are OK, it makes me scared. We’re just starting, so I still have this nervous feeling.
Salt: That’s the thing with being in a group. It’s very difficult. What if somebody wants to change their life? What if somebody wants to do something else? There’s this huge obligation that you feel to the other person that is not fair on you when you want to do something else. I would be afraid now to say, “OK, we did a reality show. That’s good. I’m done.” Because then I’ll be back in the hate zone.
Pepa: Some people go into their group thinking, “This is it. This is the group.” I admire some groups that are going through hell, but they do what they gotta do. Because you don’t think that. Some people don’t fathom the thought that, “We’re breaking up.” Now, even though you get a little nervous, you capitalize. I will do whatever I can do now, because I put all my eggs in that. I had that one vision. She says she always knew it wasn’t forever, but I didn’t think that was possible.
On the show, there’s an odd-couple dynamic: Salt is conservative and Pepa is sexy. Was that always the way it was?
Pepa: Definitely. We’ve always been sexy together, but I’m sure Salt would feel a little…she was always sexy, but I never thought twice (laughs).
Salt: It was a stage persona to me. It was really her personality. And see, that’s another thing: for me, being in Salt-N-Pepa a lot of the time meant doing what works in order to be successful. I lived as Salt on stage and I lived as Cheryl off stage. It was always a challenge to me. I’d battle with the things I’d say and the things I’d do on stage, but once again, you feel like you have no control over your life. When you’re a celebrity, you don’t just belong to yourself. I belong to you. I belong to Sandy. I belong to the record company. And so you do what you have to do to keep that machine rolling. And then creatively, after a while it becomes a challenge. If you listen to Brand New, what I was talking about was Kirk Franklin, “Clock Is Ticking,” about abuse with women. These were the things on my mind that I wanted to express more than the stuff I said when I was 20.
You surprised me, Salt, because you say you had some problems with your old songs on the show’s episode, but even when you guys did talk about sex, there was always a strong sense of morality. So I wonder if you honestly look back on your stuff and say, “I wish I hadn’t done that”?
Salt: This is the thing that’s not expressed in the reality show, because we have a limited amount of time to tell our story. My thing with the songs that we did is not that I wish I could go back and not have done those songs. Those songs were done at a time in my life where that was what I was expressing from the person I was then. Now, as a Christian, as a mom, as a wife, that’s not what I want to say. And so when I get on stage to perform certain songs, it does not feel that it works with what I’m thinking, where I am spiritually and what I have on my mind. No matter what anybody thinks about it, whether they think I’m crazy or over-doing it or I’m stupid or what, in my head, it’s just not what I want to say. I have a totally new song that I want to sing right now. It’s a me thing. But it’s not that I’m ashamed of Salt-N-Pepa. I love Salt-N-Pepa.
I thought at first that maybe you had a problem with secular music in general.
Salt: Not at all. There’s nothing in the Bible that says music is evil. I don’t have a problem with secular music. As long as it is balanced.
Pepa: And that’s what we’re trying to figure out. That balance. You have your Mary J. [Blige], who’s changed. She’s got these new inspirational songs that she does, but people are definitely gonna want to hear “Real Love,” and she knows that. But then, it’s like, here’s a message, too. We’re exploring different ways to come to a comfort zone, if that’s possible. That’s where we are.
Salt: This is a process for me. This is a journey and a process. I don’t have all the answers. We’re figuring it out together.
A lot of time is spent on the show talking about Cheryl’s spirituality. I wonder where you are with religion, Sandy.
Pepa: I definitely believe in God. I have a different…love. I will go to church, but I’ll go out the night before, have my drinks and whatever. I [got freaky with] a banana on The Surreal Life, but I went to church the next week! I handle it a little different, I don’t care about what people think. I’m gonna have to deal with that at the end of the day. I deal with me, because you don’t know what He’s thinking. And he deals with me.
Salt: And for me, that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. That’s my pet peeve, to be perceived that way. God gives us all a choice to live. This is my choice and I don’t have a problem with your choice. Just don’t have a problem with my choice. But creatively, the challenge is making her choice and my choice into one choice. And that’s the show.
Check back next week for Part 2 of our interview, in which Salt-N-Pepa talk about the current state of women in hip-hop, motherhood and the question that’s on everyone’s mind: where in the world is Spinderella?