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Salt-N-Pepa Do It Their Way

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"That's what the record companies encourage," adds Denton. "That's a meal ticket for people. I know, for Biggie, he didn't have a clue it was going to be like this. In his lyrics he was witty with it: He didn't really kill a lot of people, and this and that. He talked the talk in his music, but I know he didn't have a clue that it would get like this."

"The challenge to those who are still here, carrying on," says James, "is that if you're going to talk about that part, then what's the solution?"

And then, for a short while, no one says a word.

Singing about sex is rock & roll's oldest obsession. So, before they decided to have a message to their madness, Salt-n-Pepa were talking about sex. Which seems pretty obvious, especially if you look at the song titles. "Let's Talk About Sex" springs to mind. In fact, about the only people who don't seem convinced of this fact are Salt-n-Pepa themselves.

"It depends on your mind-set," says James when the topic is broached. "When I listen to 'Gitty Up,' I think of two people on the dance floor, dancing. It depends where your dirty little head is at."

Denton quotes from the song: "I keep it hot like a block full of hustlers/We can make it blaze like us/Bless you to death/Wanna freak me from the back?"

"Wanna freak me from the back"? Excuse me?

"'Wanna freak me from the back' means dancing, but if you have brain dirt . . ." says James. She stares. "Most men think like that," she adds. "Most men will never believe 'Push It' was never about sex."

She's right. Most men wouldn't believe that.

"And that's why the record went No. 1," says Denton. "Everybody thought it was about sex."

"But the song was about dancing," says James. "It was about pushing it on the dance floor."

So what about "Shoop"? "I wanna know, how does it hang?. . . /Come on, gimme summa that yum, yum, chocolate chip, honey dip/Can I getta scoop?" Surely that is sexual?

"But we do it in such a cute way," says Denton. "The way we say it and the way we portray it, it looks and feels so fun and clean. It doesn't feel like you're just nasty."

Sandi Denton is backstage at the television taping, leaning over a pool table, dressed in tight camouflage shorts and a T-shirt, knotted below her breasts, that reads pervert. In her cleavage is a tattoo of a scorpion; around her bellybutton are the words HOT PEPA; an Egyptian eye keeps watch from the small of her back. She runs the cue ball all the way down the rail and slams the eight ball into the corner pocket. Dee Dee Roper winces. She has just lost her third game in a row. Denton twirls the cue like it's a medieval sword.

Both Roper and Denton love games. Each owns her own bowling ball (Denton's is hot pink), but it is futile for Roper to try to outgame Denton. She might look as if she just stepped out of a Russ Meyer-style movie (Sandi Denton as, say, Urban Vixen), but in reality, she is a big kid. She has a pool table at home; she cajoles her band mates into hours of Scattegories and the children's game Steal the Bacon; she performs magic tricks.

Denton is the lone member of SNP who does not immediately retreat from her stage persona when the lights go down. Although it can't be proven, it's a safe bet that her wild hairdos over the years have much to do with the fact that there is always a cellular phone, with its accompanying static, at the side of her head. At one point during an interview, the phone rings. "That was a cute call," she says when she hangs up. "Ooh, you would die if you knew who that was." She is pressed to tell. "No way," she says. "I would be fried."

"Pep is the same on- and offscreen," says Roper. "That's just her personality."

"I'm gonna be in miniskirts at 50," agrees Denton. "Tina Turner."

The interesting thing about SNP is that unlike the majority of their contemporaries, their personas are not born of the artists' upbringing. The streets of New York's Brooklyn (James and Roper) and Queens (Denton) have never filtered into their musical image. When they are together, they listen mostly to old soul, like the O'Jays and Marvin Gaye, rather than hip-hop. Which makes sense, considering that in the R-rated universe of hip-hop, Salt-n-Pepa have always been PG-13 (adult situations, sexual content, occasional language). They sell playfulness and sexuality, never urban realism.

"It's not that I don't want to talk about it," says Roper, who grew up in the projects. "I still have family out there, and I still visit. I have great memories; I have not-so-good memories. But I'm not stuck on it."

All three women now live far from their old neighborhoods. James is on Long Island; Denton and Roper are in New Jersey. Their childhoods, however, left indelible impressions, as much for their families' staying together as for any tough financial times. For Denton, life was easiest. She was born in Jamaica, the seventh of eight kids in a strict, fairly well-off West Indian family, then moved to Queens as a young child. Education was paramount in her house. One sister is now a lawyer; another, a geologist. Other siblings own businesses.

What Roper remembers most about her childhood in the projects is music. From the age of 8, she was a dancer in the East New York Theatrical Workshop; she was the fifth of six kids, all of whom were musical. Her father (who worked for Con Edison before falling into a manhole and injuring his leg when Roper was in high school) had painted the living room red and black – it was the age of disco, after all – and his turntable featured a lighted ball that would splay patterns about the room. Childhood was toughest on James. She was the middle child, at first closer to her older brother than to her sister. But her brother began to be influenced by the streets, and the two kids could no longer relate. To make matters worse, her father, a subway conductor, was drinking.

"I love my dad now, but back then, me and my dad were bitter enemies," James says. "If we weren't having a confrontation, there wasn't much else we were saying to each other."

Finally, her brother was arrested for robbing a woman. Despite the fact that it was his first offense, he was sentenced to a juvenile facility. After that, his problems only got worse: He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and now lives in an institution.

"I gradually watched my brother deteriorate – his mind," says James, talking publicly about her brother for the first time. "There was a lot of confusion in my home – a lot of physical drama, a lot of mental drama."

James' mother, Barbara, a retired bank manager, agrees. "She had more than her share of turmoil, more than a child should," she says. "But Cheryl is very strong and willful. She's such a quiet warrior."

It is a description similar to the one that Cheryl uses when speaking of her mother, whom she considers her hero. It was Barbara James who held the family together, who helped Cheryl's father to stop drinking and gave him and his daughter the close, loving relationship they have today. It is a story made more remarkable by the fact that as a 9-year-old child, Barbara watched her own mother get gunned down by a police officer who had chased one of her siblings into their home.

"Losing her mother and then losing her firstborn to mental illness but maintaining her faith and being such a loving mom – that's the ultimate in womanhood," says James of her mother. "I watched her with my father – always fighting for his respect and fighting for her independence as a woman. That drives me to maintain my spirituality."

And that, in turn, is what rubbed off on Salt-n-Pepa.

The strength of Salt-n-Pepa has always been in the differences – the group exists somewhere in a valley between the polar personalities of Salt, Cheryl James, and Pepa, Sandi Denton.

"Sandi pulls me to the edge," says James. "She's like, 'Live, diva, live. It's OK.' And I love her for that. But then I snatch her from going over the edge. I'm like, 'Come back, honey. You're going to drown if you take one more step.' "

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