Salt-N-Pepa on the legacy of 'Let's Talk About AIDS': 'People were afraid to talk about it at that time'

Thirty years ago, in 1991, first ladies of rap Salt-N-Pepa, a.k.a. Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandra “Pepa” Denton, released “Let's Talk About Sex.” Even for a group whose discography frequently addressed female sexual pleasure and agency at a time when such subjects were taboo — think “None of Your Business,” “Shoop,” “Whatta Man,” and of course their early hit “Push It” — the single raised a few eyebrows and hackles. Salt-N-Pepa even sarcastically quipped at one point in the song, “I don't think they're gonna play this on the radio,” assuming that it would be controversial.

But the Staple Singers-sampling track actually advocated for sexual responsibility, and it communicated the message of safer sex — in the midst of the growing and still very misunderstood AIDS epidemic — in a non-preachy manner that connected with the group’s young fans. The song’s final verse bluntly addressed the dangers of various STDs, with Salt-N-Pepa rapping: “Like a dumb son-of-a-gun, oops, he forgot the condoms/’Oh well,’ you say ‘What the hell, it’s chill/I won’t get got, I’m on the Pill’/Until the sores start to puff and spore/He gave it to you and now it’s yours.” One version of the video even flashed an image of a skeleton after the word “AIDS,” with a stamp that said “CENSORED” in the skull’s mouth.

“The problem is not talking about [sex],” Salt tells Yahoo Entertainment. “And having kids, you start understanding that. I grew up with that subject being taboo. My sex talk was: ‘Not till you're married!’ So, I got into a lot of trouble, not having any understanding. So, it's important that you talk about sex.”

The track was later reworked as “Let's Talk About AIDS” at the request of TV news journalist Peter Jennings, with the important lines “I got some news for you, so listen, please/It’s not a Black, white, or gay disease” and “To the unconcerned and uninformed/You think you can't get it?/Well, you're wrong/Don't dismiss, dis, or blacklist the topic/That ain't gonna stop it/Now if you go about it right, you just might save your life/Don't be uptight/Come join the fight!” As Salt-N-Pepa sit with Yahoo Entertainment ahead of World AIDS Day , Salt says she’s especially proud of that 1994 remix.

“‘Let's Talk About Sex’ was around the time that Magic [Johnson] made his announcement [that he was HIV-positive], and it got us to really thinking and talking very intimately about three degrees of separation within the industry — like really being careful and taking it seriously,” Salt explains. “And then we had the song, but then Peter Jennings asked us to change it for a special he was doing on HIV and AIDS. So, I rewrote the lyrics and made it a PSA.”

“At the time, it felt like a sense of obligation,” Pepa elaborates. “We’d seen our audience, how much it grew. Then we started seeing children in our audience. Using our platform and having a voice, it was a great feeling to be part, and that's what Peter Jennings did. What happened with him, his daughter or his kid was listening to [“Let’s Talk About Sex”]. He was trying to understand: ‘What is this that they're listening to?’ But when you listen to the lyrics, the awareness, we were ahead of our time… advocating for this message at the time. For him to change ‘Let's Talk About Sex’ to ‘Let's Talk About AIDS,’ it was a no-brainer for us to how to get that message out. If you just take the time to listen to the [original] song, it really was that message.”

“The thing about Salt-N-Pepa is, we are trailblazers in a lot of ways, but one of the things that I really love about that particular moment is that people were afraid to talk about it at that time,” says Salt. “It was a very unpopular, unspoken thing. We took it head-on and we remade the song, and we became advocates for AIDS and HIV awareness. I think that's a huge part of our history. Something to celebrate.”

Salt-N-Pepa's 1994
Salt-N-Pepa's 1994 "Let's Talk About AIDS" promotional cassette (Photo: Next Plateau Records)

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

· Erasure's Andy Bell recalls fan support after revealing HIV-positive status: 'To me, that's like winning an Oscar'

· Elton John's warning during coronavirus benefit: 'Not long ago, there was another infectious disease that was ignored'

· How '80s LGBTQ band Bronski Beat’s haunting ‘Smalltown Boy’ made a difference: ‘It was very bold’

Follow Lyndsey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Spotify.