Anyone who considers themselves a true hip-hop baby can appreciate the significance of the female perspective in the male-dominated culture. In 1986, Brooklyn met Queens in the form of Grammy-winning female rap duo Salt-N-Pepa nee Cheryl “Salt” James (now Wray) and Sandy “Pepa” Denton whose debut single “The Showstopper,” a tongue-in-cheek response to Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s 1985 radio smash “The Show,” gave voice to a bolder, fairer sex. After more than a decade of hits, including “None of Your Business,” “Chick on the Side, “Whatta Man,” and “Shoop,” the first ladies of rap would be credited for breaking barriers that would open doors for a bevy of future female rappers.
Now, in their new reality show, The Salt-N-Pepa Show, the women are reunited and bringing back the flavor and femininity that their fans adore. Essence.com caught up with the duo to talk about old beefs, Salt’s private battle with bulimia and why Pepa has a hard time giving folks compliments.
Essence.com: Ohmigoodness! So to whom do we owe thanks for making this reunion happen?
Cheryl ‘Salt’ Wray: Pepa. I was like, ‘Why don’t you just let Salt-N-Pepa die?’
Sandi ‘Pepa’ Denton: (Laughs) And I was like, ‘Hell naw! I ain’t never gonna let it die!’
Essence.com: Long live S-N-P, baby! So Salt, Pepa strong armed you, huh?
Salt: (Laughs) She called me one day and asked, ‘Can we do a sitcom?’ I’m thinking, No, I’m married, I’m in love with my husband, I’m in love with my children. I have a normal life. You have to understand I’ve been doing this since I was 18 years old and I just wanted some normalcy. My challenge now is how am I going to do this and still maintain that normalcy? It’s hard because you’re part of a duo, but you’re trying to do what’s best for you and your family, but eventually I came around. We pitched a sitcom idea, which was very Laverne & Shirley and based on our lives and we were presented with the idea of a reality show. I was like, “No way, I’m much too private.” But when I realized we could have some sort of control then I was cool with it.
Essence.com: Now that you’ve reunited, has it been difficult getting reacquainted?
Pepa: It feels different, but we are still working through it day by day. For so long, I felt bitter and I still get nervous like, Will she bail on me again? I came into this business at such a young age and was dealing with personal issues throughout the years so I ran to Salt and the business to escape them because they were my link to sanity.
Salt: Awww. The more we talk about this stuff and the more I hear, it’s like food for my soul. For me, it’s like two Black girls from the ghetto who don’t necessarily have the best communication skills. I think when Sandy and I communicated we felt that we were being attacked and had to defend ourselves like, You ain’t gonna play me.
Essence.com: Do you think the tension between you two was too much?
Pepa: The players we had around us were more of a divide-and-conquer team and I fell into it. I lashed out on Salt even though I knew what they were doing. I never expressed it to her because I never thought it would ever come to our separation. But they made me mad at the situation and I took it out on Salt.
Essence.com: Yeah, it’s kinda like the insecure woman who discovers her man is creeping but wants to harm the woman, not her man.
Pepa: Exactly. And not knowing you’re doing it but that it’s just happening. But I never thought, I’m about to leave Salt because I can’t deal with her.
Salt: You lash out at the people you’re closest to because you know you can. I’m thinking, Why you beating me up? I’m feeling like I’m working so hard because I was the workhorse in the group and I’m feeling unappreciated and resented, but I don’t know where these feelings toward me are coming from. I couldn’t handle it on top of other issues like my bulimia, depression and self-esteem that I had never dealt with that began to mount up. I felt like my life was spiraling out of control and I had to remove myself from the chaos to be clear.
Essence.com: What year was that?
Pepa: The year we released our last album, Brand New (released in October of 1997).
Salt: Yeah, Brand New was the thing that brought it to a head. It was a very pressurized situation. We were breaking up with Hurby (“Luv Bug” Azor), breaking up with management, record companies were switching on us, our album wasn’t properly promoted, so it was a culmination of everything. It made me say, ‘I want to be an individual and know who I am a part from this group that I’ve been in all these years.’ It was a really good thing for me to do because I got myself, my health, my family and my spirituality together. I just didn’t verbalize it right because I didn’t even know how or that it was a problem. All I knew was that I was in this pressure cooker and I wanted out. Unfortunately, I hurt some folks in the long run which I’ve apologized for many, many, many times.
Essence.com: I hadn’t heard about your battle with bulimia. How long did you suffer with it?
Salt: Honestly, I don’t even know how long. One time we were in Europe and Pepa came into my bathroom and asked, ‘Why is your toilet seat up?’ You remember that?
Pepa: Yeah, I was like: ‘Do you have a man in here?’ Wow.
Essence.com: Was it the pressure of the industry’s beauty standards that caused you to become bulimic or something else?
Salt: It was a lot of things including my home life, getting in the business and trying to keep up with looking good, being skinny and the pressures of life. I never thought I was pretty because I went through a chubby stage as a teenager—and kids are mean—so I had to fight girls all the time. Bulimia is an addiction like any other addiction I know a lot of people don’t understand it, but it’s the thing that caught me by the throat. Growing up in that environment affects you as a kid with all the arguing in the house. But I stopped and did the work. I did the digging, figuring out and healing, so now I’m good. I still have my issues, but I know how to get on my knees and lay it at the altar and keep it movin’ as opposed to getting depressed, overeating and throwing up. I learned how to cope through my spirituality.
Essence.com: What’s the one thing that each of you has discovered about yourself since doing this show?
Pepa: I’m learning to give more compliments. I might like something but I won’t say it—but I wait for my props. I am realizing that sometimes people need to hear, ‘You did a good job.’ I think I never complimented before because I didn’t have that growing up. I knew my family loved me, but you never, ever heard the word “love” from my mother or father. No hugs, no nothing, so it’s hard for me to share and say those things myself.
Salt: I’m an enabler, which isn’t good because you don’t know how to ask for help because you don’t want to be a burden. In the meantime, you’re drowning and you are no good to anyone because you start resenting people even though you never even asked them for help from the beginning.
Essence.com: Pepa, Salt gives you plenty of advice on the show. What bad habits do you try to get her to stop?
Pepa: Don’t bail and stop taking on all the pressure until it consumes you and becomes too overwhelming. It’s like she gets in a maze, but she doesn’t know how to get out.
Salt: It’s true. I shutdown when it gets to be too much. I’m learning to say, ‘Can you help me please?’ It’s so hard for me to say that to anyone.
Essence.com: Has maturity made you more accepting of one another’s personalities?
Pepa: Absolutely, that’s where we’re at with one another. We’ve always been opposites since we met in high school. I was a punk rocker and she was more demure.
Salt: I think personality-wise we’ve always been this way and have always tried to influence each other a little bit. She never understood why I didn’t like to go to parties. I never understood how she could party so hard.
Essence.com: Pepa, do you ever feel like Salt is judging you?
Pepa: I wouldn’t say judging, but sometimes I’m like, What is she thinking? What is she saying over there when she gives me this look with this little smirk on her face?
Salt: Pepa was always fascinating to me. It was never about judging or changing her. The show is about how we are going to do this and work together creatively—and make each other comfortable. I don’t want to take away from her hotness. She’s Pepa. Do you (to Pepa). I love her. This is my best friend. I don’t want to insult her because I love her. She has so much personality and I don’t want to be one of those people who smothers who she is. I think she’s fabulous and she fascinates everyone.
Essence.com: What tips are you giving Salt?
Pepa: Always loosen up. Today, I used the word sexy and I looked at her like, ‘Is it okay for me to say sexy?’
Salt: (Laughs) I’m like, I’m sexy! I’m not allergic to sexy. For the record, I am very loose in my own zone. My loose just isn’t her loose. My loose is get loose with the family. We went on the tour bus to Jena, Louisiana and we marched with the Reverend Al Sharpton and I partied on the tour bus until 4 a.m. standing in the chair and singing Kelly Clarkson’s, “Since U Been Gone.” That’s my kind of loose. I get loose at weddings and with the families.
Essence.com: So Pep, are you and Treach still in touch?
Pepa: Yeah, it’s cool. He’s around. Our daughter Egypt (she’s 9) is like, ‘What happened?’ It’s good, but it’s hard scouting, prowling….
Essence.com: If there was one personality trait you could borrow from one another what would it be?
Salt: I admire that Pep’s outgoing and has no fear. Also, she’s so friendly and can talk to anybody. I would want to take some of that friendly openness because I tend to over think things a bit too much sometimes.
Pepa: I’ll take a little bit of Cheryl’s walk. It’s a shame it’s all wrapped up and closed up.
Salt: (Laughs) It ain’t that wrapped up!
Pepa: No, seriously I think we bounce off each other. I love that Salt is an encourager and I admire her intelligence.
Essence.com: When you go down in herstory, what do you hope folks will say about Salt-N-Pepa?
Pepa: I want that Salt-N-Pepa empire that I so believe in. I want to be 70 and have a Salt-N-Pepa Academy. I just want people to always remember that we stand for the empowerment of women and giving back to our community.
Salt: My hope is similar in that just knowing that our career and accomplishments were not achieved in vain. That people recognize we represent female strength. At the end of the day, I want to know that our image, what we said, and what we allowed people to be a part of had a positive affect on their lives.
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PhotoCredit: Courtesy of VH1