alt-N-Pepa: Pioneer Spirit
By Tim Parks
The term “pioneer” is bandied about quite a bit in showbiz circles, but in the case of rap and hip-hop superstars, Salt-N-Pepa, it is a very fitting description of their 26-year career.
In 1985, the duo of Cheryl James and Sandra Denton emerged on the scene as Super Nature, and enjoyed moderate success with their first single, “The Showstopper,” which would prove to be indicative of the type of effect they would have on the music scene. But that wouldn’t happen until the next year with the release of “Hot, Cool & Vicious,” a major hit with the single “Push It,” the addition of Deidre “Spinderella” Roper to their lineup, and changing their group name to Salt-N-Pepa.
From that point on, it was evident that there was a new force to be reckoned with, as the group continued to break established molds that were laid down by their male counterparts. In effect, they reinvented the wheel of what women could do in the world of rap and hip hop, by going for the gold in selling 1.3 million copies of “Push It,” and also being the first female rap group to snag a Grammy nomination for their monster hit.
What was to follow was a steady stream of crossover hits, such as “Shake Your Thang,” “Do You Want Me,” “Expression,” “Shoop,” “Whatta Man,” and the song that won them a Grammy in 1995, “None of Your Business,” whose accompanying video featured a healthy depiction of gay sexuality.
They made the advocating of practicing safe sex a lyrical triumph with their controversial hit, “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which was the equivalent of being a one-two punch with its follow-up, “Let’s Talk About AIDS,” which they used to highlight the plight of AIDS with a safe sex campaign that was produced in collaboration with ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings.
However, in 2002, James decided that it was time to call it quits for their trailblazing trio. But, as history has taught us repeatedly, you can’t keep a good woman, or rather women, down. Reality TV served as the vehicle that chronicled their reconciliation on VH-1’s “The Salt-N-Pepa Show” in 2007, while Denton had previously appeared on two other shows for the network, “The Surreal Life” and “Let’s Talk About Pep.”
The ladies headed out on the road, after being recognized on VH-1’s “Hip Hop Honors” in 2004 and BET’s Hip Hop Awards in 2010. On February 4, 2011, Salt-N-Pepa were among the acts, including Doug E. Fresh, Whodini, Rob Base and Kool Moe Dee, that headlined the “Salt-N-Pepa’s Legends of Hip Hop Tour.”
Now, the women, minus Spinderella, are literally setting the stage to entertain the Pride Festival crowd on Sunday, July 17. LGBT Weekly caught up with one-half of this dynamic duo, Sandra “Pepa” Denton, and we talked about sex, among other things.
LGBT Weekly: What is your take on the word “pioneer?”
Sandy Denton: Oh wow, awesome. It’s a very great feeling to this day to be so relevant after 25 years, and the shows have been going great, and we travel overseas a lot. And our fans have been so dedicated and it just really feels good.
LGBT Weekly: What was it like to break down barriers and get into the boys club of rap and hip-hop?
SD: It was definitely difficult in the beginning; we had to prove ourselves, so fortunately for ourselves, we were making hit after hit. Because in the beginning, people thought we were going to be an overnight success, a fly-by-night type of thing, and we kept coming with the hits. And, we started headlining our own tours; the boys had to start taking us seriously. We still get a lot of compliments, and recognition through the Missy Elliot’s and a lot of people, who to this day, would say that we’re pioneers and we opened the doors for them, as well.
LGBT Weekly: Was it important for you to have messages in your music?
SD: Yes, especially coming from a male-dominated field to this day, it is so male-driven. Plus, a lot of women looked up to us, so we would do all of our own fan mail and meeting fans face-to-face; they’d tell us how we inspired them. We were like a voice for them, and that was something that was good for us and how we grew in the business. Now, we’re all moms, but, yes, it was very important for us to have messages. And we do it now, we try to give a message in our shows, because it’s so important for us and we want people to take something with them. You can party and have fun, but we always like to be like, “O.k., I like what you just said, or what you’re standing for.”
LGBT Weekly: How proud of you, of not only the songs “Let’s Talk About Sex” and “Let’s Talk About AIDS,” but the accompanying safe sex campaigns that went along with them?
SD: That was amazing and we did a lot of work for the community and different AIDS awareness campaigns and charities. And, we continue to do that, and recapping that song, especially “Let’s Talk About Sex,” and “Let’s Talk About AIDS,” it opened a lot of doors. It’s always good to be a part of charity, giving something back however we can. That still is always an amazing feeling.
LGBT Weekly: And when you released the song in 1991 – did you ever imagine that we would still be dealing with HIV/AIDS in 2011?
SD: No, but people have got to keep talking about it, because it’s still important, and like I said, even in our show now, we do “Let’s Talk About Sex,” and I say a little something at the end. Because it’s still serious out there, and I think people are still confused, so you would be surprised, it’s not educated enough to know about how you get it and how you don’t, just like the song says. So, it’s just important to constantly talk about it, educate people on it. It’s sad, but I think we’re kind of getting close.
LGBT Weekly: Congratulations of celebrating the 25th Anniversary of “Hot, Cool & Vicious -” what was it like to be on the “Legends of Hip Hop Tour” with so many other great acts?
SD: To me, watching the show, especially Doug E. Fresh, because his song (“The Show”) was one of our first songs that was a hit, which was “The Showstopper.” We did an answer to “The Show,” and us going after Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, helped put our foot in the door.
And watching him, it’s like, “Wow! And now you’re on my tour!” And he’s a great entertainer, as it is, and we’re still here and it was your song that made my song go big; it kinda trips me out sometimes.
LGBT Weekly: What were your thoughts when you discovered you had a large LGBT fan base? And what song are you looking most forward to performing at San Diego Pride?
SD: To this day, supported all the way, I just love the support and I especially support it, the gay community. It’s fun, it’s great to always have that great support. The show is always a party, a drag queen recently performed our song, and I thought, “Hey! What if we were doing that song?” (laughs). But, it was “Body Beautiful” from the movie “To Wong Foo,” and the crowd went crazy, so I’m happy. It’s a ball, the gay community comes to have fun, they come to party, and it’s one big party, and I enjoy it!
Well, “Push It” is always the big one and everyone loves it and goes crazy over it, but we always love performing “Shoop.” It’s so funny, both of us just really enjoy when “Shoop” comes on.
LGBT Weekly: If you had to pick only one moment as the highlight of your career, so far, what would it be and why?
SD: Can I do two moments (laughs)? Well, one moment was definitely winning the Grammy, because being in a male-dominated field, and coming from where we come from, and that in itself was not on the map fully yet. So for females to actually take a Grammy home for female rappers, that was great.
And, of course, I was happy to be a part of Oprah’s last moment on television. When she called we were like, “What? Oprah wants us to perform?” Because I know everybody was fighting for that slot, from what we heard everybody was trying to get on. And we made the cut! And we didn’t even call, they reached out for us. That was a good moment, and it just proved that you never know.
To keep up-to-date with both Salt-N-Pepa, log onto saltnpepa.net