During the 33 years since they scored their first hit with “Push It,” the Queens, New York, rap duo Salt-N-Pepa have sold more than 15 million albums worldwide. Their 1993 LP Very Necessary, home of the classic hip-hop hits “Shoop” and “Whatta Man” sold seven million copies alone, which is more than Public Enemy, N.W.A. or even Run DMC ever sold of one of their original albums. Commercially speaking, of the early rap groups, Salt (Cheryl James), Pepa (Sandra Denton) and DJ Spinderella (Deidra Roper) stood alone.
Salt-N-Pepa’s track record would be a big deal for any rap act, but the fact that they were the first female group to have that kind of success remains monumental. And it’s because of that success that the group’s legacy has grown over the years. Artists from Queen Latifah and MC Lyte to Nicki Minaj and Cardi B have cited Salt-N-Pepa as an influence, and their hits remain a near constant presence in our lives in 2019. Think about how many times you’ve heard “Push It” or “Shoop” or their ground-breakingly frank 1990 hit “Let’s Talk About Sex” on the radio, on TV or in films.
The group’s influence on modern hip-hop, particularly on female hip-hop artists, is undeniable. And no one is more surprised by that than Salt herself, Cheryl James.
“For me, it’s something I can appreciate and still be amazed by,” she tells Free Times. “I’m amazed by how much appreciation we still get. I definitely am as much in awe as anyone else about the barriers that we did break, because this wasn’t a pursued career for me. It was something that was just written in the stars.”
Ahead of Salt-N-Pepa’s upcoming headlining performance as part of Columbia’s Famously Hot New Year’s Eve celebration, James says that she’s almost as surprised by the group’s longevity as she is by their legacy.
“I was just talking to a girlfriend of mine who got married, and it seemed like yesterday to me,” she offers. “I asked her how long it had been, and she said seven years, and I just feel like I took a nap and woke up and seven years had passed! And that’s exactly what this feels like. You have this amazing career, and you’re on the fast-track, and constantly busy and before you know it, it’s been 33 years, and you realize how fast our time is here on this planet. And suddenly people are calling you legends and pioneers.”
Not that it’s been a continuous, smooth ride for the group. In fact, Salt-N-Pepa broke up somewhat acrimoniously in 2002.
“What really forced the breakup was that the friendship deteriorated,” James explains. “It was based on a friendship and we weren’t getting along, so I wanted to walk away and raise my kids and work on my marriage.”
She says that the group could only be put back together in 2007 once the friendship between her and Denton was repaired.
“As much as people loved this music that we created, the friendship was the more valuable part, and I wanted to put that back together,” she says. “I wanted to see if we could come together and find common ground and not have it be so toxic. So we worked on the friendship first, and in 2007 we came to some understanding, and that felt good. That was helpful in terms of us dipping our toes in the water as far as performing, and after that, we just completely jumped in the pool!”
It has to be noted, though, that not everyone is still in that pool. After being part of Salt-N-Pepa for more than 30 years, Spinderella announced in an Instagram post right before the group’s tour last May that she had been “terminated” in January 2019. Free Times was informed ahead of the interview that James couldn’t discuss the DJ’s departure for legal reasons, but she does note that she and Denton have become a lot more conscious of talking to one another when tensions arise to avoid another breakup.
“With any relationship, there’s maintenance involved,” she relates. “You’re making a commitment to communicate when things start to feel off. It’s a constant scenario when you have a partner in business or friendship, and we’re both.”
But since James and Denton seem to be getting along fine these days, people have asked if there’s a new album in the future. And James’ answer to that is a firm, “No,” at least for now.
“People have been asking us that for years,” she laughs, “and we’ve had record company interest, too. But for whatever reason, I feel like it’s hard for me to believe that people want new music out of us. And the marketplace has changed so much from what we were used to that I don’t feel like we can ever live up to the standard of what we’ve established.”
For now, James is happy just to hit the stage with her friend and perform songs from Salt-N-Pepa’s classic albums, particularly in a festive environment like a New Year’s Eve show.
“New Year’s Eve is an exciting night,” she says. “It’s exciting to be going into a new year feeling blessed to still be thriving, And we’ll be doing all of your favorites, going back to 1986, songs like ‘I’ll Take Your Man,’ ‘Tramp,’ ‘Let’s Talk About Sex,’ ‘Shoop,’ ‘Whatta Man,’ all those songs, and, of course ‘Push it.’”
What: Famously Hot New Year
Where: 1201 Gervais St., Columbia
When: Tuesday, Dec. 31, 6:30 p.m.
With: Salt-N-Pepa, The High Divers, Cottontown Soul Society