Cheryl James is reclining poolside at a los Angeles hotel, talking about her late friend Tupac Shakur. "There's no telling what happened to him during that period when his mother was on crack," says James, the Salt of Salt-n-Pepa. "Who knows who was telling him, 'You piece of crap; you'll never be shit'?"
Suddenly there is an angry shout from the pool: "Mommy!" James bristles. Her 6-year-old daughter, Corin, swimming nearby, apparently heard the last sentence. "You're right, Boo," says James. "I was trying to express something, but I got carried away. A bad word is a bad word, and I made a mistake."
Corin narrows her eyes. Finally satisfied, she dives back underwater. James leans forward in her chair. "She's like the curse police," James whispers. "She'll hear you two rooms away. I don't curse a lot, but sometimes I get so passionate." She laughs and tells a story about Salt-n-Pepa's upcoming album, Brand New: "There were a few s-h-i-t words that we said, and you know how they bleep things out in radio versions? We did it on our album. You listen to it, and just before some s-h-i-t words, you hear bloop."
James cackles. Calling the record Brand New is barely an exaggeration. After a phenomenal four straight platinum albums, Salt-n-Pepa have split with their creator, mentor and producer, Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor. James herself co-produced and co-wrote nine of the 13 songs, including the current single "R U Ready," and recorded most of the album in her home studio. After more than 10 years in the business, Salt-n-Pepafinally have complete freedom.
But that's not the half of it. The biggest difference is that James feels she is getting closer to her true calling. What she really wants is to spread the word, capital W. So on Brand New, you might still hear "Gitty Up," a patented SNP-style sexual romp, co-written by Rick James, but you'll also hear "Hold On," a hallelujah-shouting gospel song featuring Christian R&B singer Kirk Franklin.
Lounging by the pool in cutoff jeans and a bikini top, James talks about her group's new direction with almost evangelical zeal. She is supposed to be the quiet member; it is Sandi Denton (Pepa) who is the loud one, always at the center of attention. But when James speaks of her faith, she can't control herself. Her eyes grow wide; her voice booms. Salt-n-Pepa are her mountaintop, and she is shouting.
All of which has created a tiny glitch.
"I don't want to do another Salt-n-Pepa album," says James. "The only way I would want to do another Salt-n-Pepa album – and I told Pep this – is if she would respect the fact that I don't want to do any more 'Shoops'; I don't want to do any more 'Gitty Ups': 'If you can respect me just wanting to do inspirational and/or gospel music, then I would do another album.'"
And what did Pepa say?
"She was quiet," James says with a laugh. "She was basically . . . quiet."
Pepa is laughing. she is seated between her longtime friend and partner, James, and Spinderella (Dee Dee Roper), the group's DJ and surrogate kid sister. They are at a table at the posh L.A. hotel they checked into yesterday. "They had us up in the Radisson," says James. "Yo, honey, that's not gonna happen. We have been through too much. All we ask is that we fly first-class and we have a nice hotel. That's all we ask."
And so the ladies lounge in style. Tonight, SNP will attend the premiere of How to Be a Player, and in two days they are scheduled to perform on the new talk show Vibe TV. At the moment, however, they are resting. And laughing. It seems that the threesome went to a comedy club last night, and one stand-up, not even knowing that Salt-n-Pepa were in attendance, started singing "Push It." "It was, like, old school," says James. "We was like, 'We're in with the old school.' " They all bust out laughing again.
The funniest thing about "Push It," SNP's first big hit, in 1986, is that it started out as a joke. Azor came up with the synth line and, thinking it was too corny, James and Denton added the "Ooh, baby, baby" to mock it. Denton even walked out of the recording session.
But there's no making fun of it now. It made them millionaires. "Know what I'm saying?" asks Denton. And then the laughter starts all over again.
Initially, "Push It" was released as the B side of "Tramp," but when a West Coast DJ flipped the disc over, "Push It" ended up selling a million copies and helped to make the album it was on, Hot, Cool and Vicious, go platinum. Salt-n-Pepa's run began in earnest.
After the record's release, the original Spinderella, Pamela Greene, got married and quit. Azor discovered Roper, then in high school, who jumped on board and has completed the group's triangle all the way through A Salt With a Deadly Pepa (1988), Blacks' Magic (1990) and Very Necessary (1993). Now, with Brand New, Salt-n-Pepa are simultaneously old school and stars of the video age – no easy feat, considering the relatively brief life expectancy of most hip-hop careers. (Heard anything from Monie Love lately? Dream Warriors? Yo Yo? Exactly.)
"We're not just three dumb girls from the ghetto who got lucky," says James. Denton interrupts. "I see the look on people's faces as they get it," she says. "It's, 'Damn, y'all ain't no joke. Y'all are still here.' "
Not that it's been easy. This is the music industry, after all, and they are women – black women, at that. As they have persisted, they have taken firmer control of their business. It is no coincidence that many rap artists are forced to wear more hats – artist, producer, business person – than musicians in traditionally white genres just to make sure that their interests are protected.
"They're racist more than they are greedy, believe it or not," says James of record companies. "They'll sit on your record in a minute, just to make a point. We've had comments come back to us that people from companies in charge of our records say, 'We've gotta get those girls in line.' 'We're grown women who've been in this business for over 10 years. And you feel like you have to put me in line? What is it about you, when you look at me, that makes you think I have to be put in line? I am in line.' "
And then there's the current climate, not just in the rap world but in society at large. In many ways, Brand New is a reaction to the tumultuous last few years. Sure, Salt-n-Pepa are savvy enough to know they can't abandon the franchise altogether. There is "Gitty Up" and "Boy Toy" for those who want it down and dirty. But in addition to the gospel track "Hold On," there is "The Clock Is Tickin," a rock tune about domestic violence inspired, in part, by the O.J. Simpson trial. And there's "Imagine," which features Sheryl Crow (yes, you read it right) and is about confronting prejudice.
The reality is that Salt-n-Pepa see what is happening. They have lost friends. And now, as James insists, it is time to minister. They were close with both Shakur and the late Biggie Smalls, and, even in retrospect, the women are not sure that there was anything they could have done to help prevent the stars' deaths. James wrote Shakur numerous letters while he was in prison, encouraging him to turn his life over to God.
"Tupac was a young man who had a lot on his mind," says James. "He was going through this transition, and it ended up that somebody who was not the best influence for him came and got him out of jail and paid his bail."
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