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Salt-N-Pepa on their very necessary legacy: ‘We were always underestimated in the industry’

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·8 min read
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First ladies of rap Salt-N-Pepa (Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandra “Pepa” Denton) just released a new makeup line for Milani Cosmetics, inspired by their iconic “Push It” jackets and other bright, bold looks from the 1990s — a time when, Salt says, they added “fashion, fun, and femininity to hip-hop. …I think for us it was very important to be sexy and hardcore. Back then, they thought women had to just be hardcore, because it was a very male-dominated field.”

The flashy colors in Salt-N-Pepa’s “Hot, Kool & Vicious” and “Very Necessary” palettes are all named after their classic songs, with one standout sapphire shade in the latter collection called “None of Your Business.” That defiant, groundbreaking hit (from the quintuple-platinum Very Necessary, the all-time biggest-selling album by a female hip-hop act) won the 1995 Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, and it became an anti-slut-shaming anthem. But Salt, the more conservative member of the group, tells Yahoo Entertainment that she has mixed feelings about the track now.

“That song I actually had trouble with,” Salt reveals, “because there's a part in the song: ‘If she wants to be a freak and sell it on the weekend.’ I had a daughter by then, and for me, those words were hard to say.” For years, Salt would not perform “None of Your Business” live — although on last year’s nostalgic Mixtape Tour with New Kids on the Block, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, and Naughty by Nature, she and Pepa incorporated some of it into a greatest-hits medley.

“I love the song and the message as a whole,” the flashier woman of the two, Pepa, insists. “You think of music now and everything what's going on, that line was just that line for me. It was about control your own body. …And that's what I take, that message from that song. I love performing that song today. [Salt] doesn't perform that song. I love in a whole what that message of that song it is. And that's who I am, because it's none of your business. I am responsible and I do teach my daughters the do's and the don'ts. I do enlighten and build and understand how to control your life, and don't let anyone else control you. I love the song. I stand by it.”

Salt-N-Pepa in the '90s. (Photo: Mick Hutson/Redferns)
Salt-N-Pepa in the '90s. (Photo: Mick Hutson/Redferns)

At the time of its recording, Salt became more comfortable with the track after adding her own line to it. “I put a message at the end of the song to make it feel more responsible: That no one can judge your life and what you choose to do with your life,” she explains.

Such messages were always crucial to the Salt-N-Pepa discography. “None of Your Business” was one of the group’s many hits that addressed female sexual agency and female sexual pleasure, at a time when such subjects were taboo. “Push It” (now the inspiration for a fiery red lipstick), “Shoop” (a matte mauve lip), and “Whatta Man” (a deep eggplant eyeshadow) were downright lusty, while “Let's Talk About Sex,” later remixed as “Let's Talk About AIDS,” preached sexual responsibility. Salt is especially proud of that latter track.

“‘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 [TV journalist] 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. 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. 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.”

“Using our platform and having a voice, it was a great feeling to be part, and that's what Peter Jennings did,” adds Pepa. “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 problem is not talking about [sex],” Salt stresses. “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.”

“I remember my grandmother saying, ‘You get one hickey, you're pregnant,’” Pepa chuckles. “I remember [thinking], ‘Oh God, I'm pregnant!’”

At the start of “Let's Talk About Sex,” Salt-N-Pepa quipped, “They're not going to play this on the radio.” As they sit with Yahoo Entertainment for Women’s History Month, they explain that that blunt line was a direct “challenge” to the music industry, in an era when few stations would play female rappers’ music in general.

“There was a radio personality. I don't want to say his name out loud, but as he would say, he s***ted on us,” Pepa recalls. “They weren't playing our music when they should have, because we were selling the same units. But they did not push our songs.” A moment later, Pepa blurts out with a cackle that that man was Funkmaster Flex, but notes that Flex later apologized and admitted he’d been wrong: “He's dope, because he was a man about it.”

Salt-N-Pepa in 2015. (Photo: Getty Images)
Salt-N-Pepa in 2015. (Photo: Getty Images)

“We were always underestimated in the industry,” says Salt, who founded SNP with Pepa in 1985. (DJ Spinderella joined in 1987 and parted ways with the group in 2019.) Salt reveals that another powerful man, label mogul Russell Simmons, also doubted Salt-N-Pepa at first. “He gave us a thumbs down, [claiming] we'll never last. And then a few years later, he tried to sign us to Def Jam! I always joke with him about that story and, like, push it in his face all the time. But that's an example of how women are always underestimated in music, in corporate and in the world, period. But I think that we were so hungry, and we were so excited about finding our passion — we had tunnel vision, and we were just focused on what we were trying to accomplish — that I don't think we really noticed [the sexism] as much. Because I think that can become an obstacle and we didn't let that become an obstacle for us.”

Obviously, Salt-N-Pepa eventually proved all naysayers wrong. Their debut album, Hot, Cool & Vicious, sold more than 1 million copies, making them the first female rap artist to achieve gold or platinum status, and they went on to sell more than 15 million records worldwide — making them one of the overall top-selling artists in hip-hop history. “It was very difficult in the beginning, but we just kept pushing it,” Pepa says with a smile.

Almost 35 years later, Cheryl James and Sandra Denton, as different as they can be sometimes, are proud to still be making music — and makeup — together. And they see their influence everywhere. (Salt jokes that “it’s a sea of ‘Push It’ jackets and asymmetrical haircuts” every time she looks out into their concert crowds.) “We have the Latifahs and the Missys, they pay homage and they're always like, ‘We couldn't have been here without you,’ through those voices on those platforms, to outlets,” Pepa marvels. “To this day, we have been still selling out [tours] and are so relevant, and our fans have been amazing.”

Watch Salt-N-Pepa’s full Yahoo Entertainment interview below, in which they discuss their Milani makeup line, ‘90s fashion, the story of what happened to their “Push It” jackets, their odds of one day getting in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and their upcoming biopic for Lifetime.

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