The roots of women in Hip-Hop stretch back to the origins of the genre. As we praise artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, and Nicki Minaj, it’s increasingly important to pay homage to the trailblazers that came before them. Salt-N-Pepa, one of the top-selling music groups of all time and the first female rap group to go Platinum, helped define a generation.
When men were completely dominating rap and Hip-Hop, Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandra “Pepa” Denton infused feminism, fun, and fashion into their lyrics. They used their platform to speak up about sex, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and women’s rights. The New York-based duo and Deidra “DJ Spinderella” Roper were one of the first female rap groups to win a Grammy.
Thirty-five years after their debut, James and Denton are bringing their story to the small-screen in the Lifetime biopic, Salt-N-Pepa. Helmed by New Jack City director Mario Van Peebles, the artists signed on as executive producers for the film, which chronicles their rise from nursing school in Queensborough Community College to becoming two of the most recognized women in the world.
The musical icons entrusted All American’s GG Townson and The Bobby DeBarge Story’s Laila Odom to step into their shoes.
“Cheryl just embraced me wholeheartedly,” Townson said during a press conference for the film. “She was an open book. She told me the good, the bad, and the ugly about everything. Any question that I ever had, I didn’t have to try to figure it out on my own. I could always ask her. There was no wrong question to ask. Cheryl’s love and openness were how I prepared.”
For her part, the similarities between herself and Denton were stunning for Odom. “Sandy and I are very, very close in personality,” she explained. “When Cheryl was on set, and I would do something. she would laugh and be like, ‘Oh, Pep would have done it just like that too.’ During casting, GG and I formed a tight friendship, and it was just very reminiscent of the girls — of them growing together and going on this journey of music.”
Odom and Townson had to go beyond James and Denton’s personalities for the film. They had to infuse themselves in the time period while playing these women across several decades. It took a great deal of studying and focus.
“We looked at music videos and old archive interviews and things like that,” Townson revealed. “Then we had boot camp, and we did performance training. Mario [Van Peebles] had this super vintage archive interview, and we all got together one day and watched it. I’d never seen that before on the airwaves. I don’t even know how he got it, but that was awesome to see that side of them too. For every interview, I feel like I got something different from both of them.”
Though their actual connections with Salt-N-Pepa gave them a wealth of information, both actresses took a step back to analyze the women as not just entertainers, but human beings.
“When it came to me understanding Pep, I read her book, Let’s Talk About Pep,” Odom said. “I was trying to figure out who she was and what I needed to make my performance realistic and believable. We didn’t have a lot of material. Now, if you look at Cardi B or Nicki Minaj, we can spend the whole day just looking at their Instagram.
“Being around [Salt-N-Pepa] and then being around people that know them became a place for us to pull from. For me to understand [Pepa] better and really tap into who she was, I had to think about how an 18-year-old would act. Then it was, how would you act once you hit it and became this huge figure in hip-hop? It was a lot of work, but definitely the best work I’ve ever done.”
Salt-N-Pepa premieres Jan. 23 on Lifetime.