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How Salt-N-Pepa Went From College Students to Best-Selling Female Rap Group

When Cheryl James and Sandra Denton met as first-year students at Queensborough Community College, school was the last thing on their minds.

“We were big time screw-ups,” James told The Guardian. “We never went to class. We’d just hang around in the lunchroom playing cards, and we formed this amazing friendship. Because we were polar opposites, we fascinated each other.”

It was the strength of that yin-and-yang relationship that turned the school friends into international sensation Salt-n-Pepa — the first female rappers to be certified platinum — thanks to the fearless way they dove into topics so seldom talked about at the time.

More than three decades after they formed, their music — including hits “Push It,” “Let’s Talk About Sex,” “Whatta Man” and “Shoop” — still hold their place in history as some of the most innovative and breakthrough sounds and lyrics of their time, and remain just as relevant today than ever before. 

Denton ‘auditioned’ for the group while working at Sears

The two students soon took their friendship off-campus — and also became coworkers as part-time telephone operators for Sears, working alongside Martin Lawrence and Kid ‘n Play. “It was that sense of humor that we both had,” James told Vibe. “Laughter was contagious when we were together. We always made each other laugh.”

During a shift, James’ boyfriend at the time, Hurby Azor, had an idea. “Hurby was a music student and he was always working on beats and music and he wanted to produce a song,” James told Rolling Stone in 2017.

He needed a group and thought Denton might be the perfect fit. “I remember him asking me, ‘Can you rhyme?’ … at work. At Sears. His desk wasn’t too far from mine, his cubby hole,” she told the music magazine. “I’ve never rapped in front of a crowd, ever in my life. I grew up with park jams. That’s how I knew about rap.” But she went for it and showed what she had with a couple of lines like “I’m Sandy D. from coast to coast.” “That, to me, was an audition,” Denton said.

Salt-N-Pepa, September 1988
Salt-N-Pepa, September 1988 Photo: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Their first track ‘answered’ Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh’s song “The Show Stoppa”

Clearly, Azor saw something in the girl in the nearby cubical, even though she had never seen it in herself. “I just had my little raps that I used to write, but I was nervous, I was scared. I always wanted to, but I never did,” Denton told Rolling Stone.

They went to Azor’s attic and Denton and James recorded their first track in 1985. At the time, rap was all about battles, so even though they were an all-female group trying to break into a male-dominated industry, they decided to take on some of the most established names — Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh — by starting with a bold response song, called “The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh).”

“That was the best way for us as female rappers to get noticed, which was crazy for us to do because Doug and Slick Rick were the biggest thing ever and ‘The Show’ was the biggest song ever,” James told Vibe. “It was very ballsy for two women that nobody knew to do something like that!”

Eventually, they recorded it again more professionally at Power Play Studios — and Azor took it to WBLS DJ Marley Marl who had a show World Famous Mr. Magic Rap Attack. “Back then, you could only hear hip-hop on the weekends,” James explained to Rolling Stone. “And [Marl] promised Hurby that he would play the song.”

James and Denton were glued to the radios every weekend — until one day they were driving in Queens down Guy Brewer Boulevard and heard “The Show Stoppa,” which James called “one of the most exciting moments of our career” to Rolling Stone.

“Pep being the crazy person that she is — she stopped the car in the middle of the boulevard, she jumped out of the car, and she started screaming, ’They’re playing my song! That’s me! That’s me on the radio!’” James recalled. “And I’m like, ‘Get back in the car!’”

But that exposure was exactly what they needed. From there, they started doing local shows just from the one successful single. The bigger the song got, the more they were “bitin’ our nails” waiting for a response from the two established rappers.

“One time we saw them at a club and they were just really nice to us,” James said. Denton added, “I remember Doug E. Fresh telling me that Slick Rick was gonna get us, but Doug Fresh said, ‘Ah, let ’em live.’”

Salt-N-Pepa in 1989: (L to R) Sandy
Salt-N-Pepa in 1989: (L to R) Sandy “Pepa” Denton, Cheryl “Salt” James, Diedra “DJ Spinderella” Roper Photo: Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives

Salt-N-Pepa recorded “Push It” in a bathroom

Even though Denton was 20 and James was 19, suddenly their lives had an entirely other dimension. “We were going to school, we were working at Sears after school, and on the weekends we were doing shows in Manhattan,” James told Rolling Stone. “Making money wasn’t the goal, nor was the goal being extremely famous. The goal was to entertain, to make good music and to have a good time,” she added to The Morning Call.

With their newfound side hustle, they needed a more fitting name. Originally called Supernature, they took a note from their own lyric, “We go together like salt and pepper,” and realized that the name Salt-N-Pepa “felt perfect” — James became “Salt” and Denton was “Pepa.”

With a name and airplay established, it seemed like the duo was headed to the top, but the road there wasn’t so smooth. They soon found counterfeit versions of their group performing in clubs and couldn’t get a record deal because rap was a “man’s art.” 

Eventually they met Eddie O’Loughlin of an indie label Next Plateau, who offered $5,000 for the single “I’ll Take Your Man” and another $9,000 for an album. When the song “Tramp” needed a B-side, they were at Azor’s friend Fresh Gordon’s house. Gordon developed a riff, Azor wrote lyrics, and the girls recorded a track called “Push It” in the bathroom because of the echoes from the tiles in there.

“Pep and I were in there trying to go, ‘Ooh baby baby,’ thinking it was so corny,” James told The Guardian. “The song didn’t make a lot of sense to us, then when we were on tour, a DJ in San Francisco called Cameron Paul flipped ‘Tramp’ over and started playing ‘Push It.’ All the stations followed suit and it just took off.”

That song launched them into another realm of fame, as it sold more than a million copies, hit No. 20 on Billboard’s pop charts and was nominated for a Grammy. James added, “It’s a very popular song in maternity wards. An aquarium once told us that when they played ‘Push It,’ the sharks started mating.”

Salt-N-Pepa, March 1992
Salt-N-Pepa, March 1992 Photo: Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives

They weren’t afraid to hit the issues head-on

Even with the success, they continued to grow their reputation and their image, adding a 16-year-old DJ Deidre Roper with the stage name Spinderella. They dove into what seemed like taboo topics by talking about safe sex in “Let’s Talk About Sex” in 1991 and the HIV epidemic in the bluntly-titled 1993 “I’ve Got AIDS.” “We were in the era of HIV,” Roper told the Herald-Tribute. “That was a time when no one really was sure how you contracted it. So we used our platform to create discussion and dialogue.”

While their mission may have seemed calculated, it was precisely the opposite. “We came along at a time when female rappers weren’t really having that much commercial success, and we brought fun, fashion and femininity to hip-hop,” James told The Morning Call. “[We also came out] hitting the heart of a female audience and speaking their truth, and stepping out and being as bold as we were with the things that we had to say, the way that we dressed. Being successful in such a male-oriented genre, such a misogynistic genre, I think that women were really hungry for a voice.”

On top of it, they soon had their own children and were traveling the world as working mothers, thinking about the influence they were spreading. “We all have little sisters and cousins who look up to us, and we see what they go through, so we have to be an example,” Denton told Interview. “As you get older — and now that we also have children — your conscience starts working on you. You have to give your fans and your children something they can use in life.”

While the group did go through their ups and downs, what started as a friendship between two college students has continued to seep its influence on the industry today. “Back then we didn’t think a lot about what we were doing — was very organic,” James told The Morning Call. “And 31 years later, to see Beyoncé dressed up as Salt-N-Pepa on Halloween is just, like, ‘Wow.’ That’s not something that I definitely thought would be happening.”

Salt-N-Pepa airs Saturday, January 23 at 8/7c on Lifetime. Watch a preview:
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