Salt 'N' Pepa spice things up -- They're rap's top women, but is the hip hop trio too sexy for their own good?

By Heather Keets
March 18, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Salt ‘N’ Pepa have an album in the top 10 and two singles that are leaving burn marks on the charts, which can mean only one thing — they must be making somebody angry. Again. Rap’s most successful women seem to have a knack for rubbing people the wrong way, though this time the charge is new: sexism. Specifically, S’N’P are getting flak from feminists for ”degrading men” in their ”Shoop” video, the first single off their fourth album, Very Necessary. Perhaps you’ve seen them shaking their newly toned bodies in the skimpiest of hot pants, mercilessly teasing bare-chested members of the opposite sex?

”Oh, please,” snaps Sandra Denton (Pepa). ”If Madonna went and wrapped a chain around a guy’s neck, it would be considered cool. We have a few guys without shirts and it’s degrading? People seem to be most upset because we show just a bare chest without showing the guy’s face. They think it’s wrong to show only the bottom half. That happens to women all the time — why shouldn’t men know how it feels?”

What about their own brief outfits? Aren’t they simply objectifying themselves? ”It’s not like we’re naked. All our private parts are covered,” she laughs. ”If you feel good about yourself, there’s nothing wrong with showing your stuff.”

Denton is equally impatient with critics who feel S’N’P should follow fellow rapper Queen Latifah’s lead and politicize their message. ”We’ve never been political and our fans like us that way. Music is supposed to be fun,” she says. ”But we do drop a positive message. We’ve always been for women and for biggin’ up their self-esteem. That’s why we do songs like ‘Independent.’ And helping women like themselves and not depend on men — what’s more political than that?”

Just to set the record straight, it’s not like these little controversies are putting a crimp in the careers of Denton, 25; Cheryl James (Salt), 25; and Dee Dee Roper (Spin), 23. Necessary has quickly gone platinum (their third album to do so, an achievement no other female rappers can claim); ”Shoop” has reached No. 4 on the pop charts, and their second single, ”Whatta Man,” is currently at No. 3. ”Salt ‘N’ Pepa are a definitive MTV group — core artists along with Nirvana and Aerosmith,” says Traci Jordan, VP of music and talent at MTV. ”Their videos are some of the most requested. The fact that they flipped the script in ‘Shoop’ — women ogling men instead of vice versa — is exactly what makes the video appealing to men and women.”

”Salt ‘N’ Pepa are sexy, but they’re not raunchy,” says Dean Valentine, an executive VP at Walt Disney Television, which is currently developing an S’N’P sitcom with CBS. ”It’s a light sexiness that appeals to a wide audience, much like Fresh Prince.” Appealing to a wide (non-hip-hop and white) audience was what got them in trouble four years ago, when the release of their third album, Blacks’ Magic, and the crossover success of the top 20 single ”Let’s Talk About Sex” made hardcore rap fans slag the trio off as sell-outs. ”In the rap community, it isn’t ‘in’ to cross over,” says Kierna Mayo-Dawsy, a senior editor at the rap magazine The Source. ”But if I were Salt ‘N’ Pepa, I wouldn’t worry about street credibility. Hip-hop itself is pop, which means the whole genre has sold out.”

Maybe so, but the ”Sex” flap ”made me angry,” says Denton. ”We never said we were hard-core, or that we didn’t want our music crossing over or being popular. Those who talk about killing and the ghetto and they’re not from the ghetto — that’s selling out. Why is it selling out to make records a lot of different people like? If you only want certain groups to listen to your music, make little private tapes and personally hand them out.”

Disgruntled fans were the least of S’N’P’s problems back in 1991. Lopsided deals with the independent Next Plateau Records and producer-manager Hurby Azor had left them poorer than platinum-selling artists ought to be. It was Azor who had first recorded James (who was then his girlfriend) and Denton back in 1985. A senior at New York’s Center for Media Arts, he had enlisted the duo to rap on a track he was producing for a class project. The resulting ”The Showstopper” earned him an A and Salt ‘N’ Pepa a deal with Next Plateau. Their first album, Hot, Cool & Vicious, was released in 1986 (Roper was recruited, as DJ Spinderella, in 1987). The raw lyrics of their debut (”Can’t you hear the music pumpin’ hard/like I wish you would” — from ”Push It”) not only helped them edge their way into the heavily male rap scene but set the in-your-face standard for female hip-hoppers to come.

But it wasn’t until the current Very Necessary that S’N’P walked it like they rapped it: They renegotiated a more equitable contract with Next Plateau, pressuring the label to align with PolyGram for major distribution. They also insisted that Azor loosen his iron grip, which allowed them a bigger role in producing Necessary. ”We call this our fed-up-to-here album,” says Denton. ”We were fed up with all the opinions and input. We just went into the studio and did what we felt. We supervised everything.”

Straight-up tracks like ”Somma Time Man” and ”None of Your Business” attest to that newfound independence and demonstrate the classic S’N’P stance: tough enough to go toe-to-toe with men, without stooping to trendy male bashing and wanna-be-hard imitations. ”If we had come back hard, I don’t think it would have worked,” says James. ”We’re not hard people. We would have been phony.”

Their sensitive attitude is epitomized in ”Whatta Man,” a tribute to men who stay home and take care of the kids. And by working with En Vogue, who costar both on the song and in the heavily rotated video, S’N’P instantly broadened their fan base. According to James, the idea to use the pop divas came about spontaneously, as they were recording the track. MTV’s Jordan calls the decision inspired, ”a surefire concoction that helps both acts. They know how to work an audience. They’re visual.”

Visual and adaptable. As hip-hop trends change, so do the chameleon-like S’N’P. Taking a cue from En Vogue, the three now put an emphasis on skin and glamour. The newly hard bodies, however, have nothing to do with sexy videos and everything to do with having children. All three got pregnant during the three years between albums, and all three packed on the pounds. ”I would go into the store to get dresses and stuff, and my stomach would be like ” Denton laughs, cradling an imaginary belly. The three went on diets and hired personal trainers six months before recording Necessary; a workout video, Pushin’ It With Salt ‘N’ Pepa, to be released this fall, shows off the results.

”We felt a little pressure to get in shape for our fans,” says Roper, ”but…”
”I didn’t care about nobody else,” insists Denton, who lost 40 pounds.
”This wasn’t even for Salt ‘N’ Pepa,” agrees James.

The three, who quibble and tease like sisters, absolutely agree on one thing: making time for their kids. ”Let me tell you, I can count the hours on my hand that I see my daughter, that I actually spend time with her,” says Roper. The group’s self-described little sister, Roper lives in Teaneck, N.J., with Christenese, 1, the child she had with ex-boyfriend Kenny Anderson of the New Jersey Nets. ”That’s what’s hard on me, not seeing my daughter.”

Denton, who lives in Englewood, N.J., seconds that. ”It was really tough for me in the beginning,” she says of raising Tyran, 3, her son. (Denton denies that the father is onetime boyfriend and fellow rapper Prince Markie Dee.) ”You think you’ll be with the father forever and get married and the whole nine, but for me it didn’t happen that way. I was a single parent from day one.”

James, who lives on Long Island, N.Y., gets help from ex-boyfriend Gavin Wray, a carpenter and the father of their daughter, Corin, 2. ”He’s still around, so I don’t consider myself a single parent.”

Nevertheless, all three chose to have children without getting married, and without full-time support from the fathers, which may account for one other topic of total agreement: what is sexy.

”Seeing a fine guy with a cute kid. A man taking care of his child,” says James. ”Yeah, that’s sexy,” laughs Denton. ”I just stop and stare.”