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Salt-N-Pepa: Our Life in 15 Songs

The hip-hop pioneers tell the stories behind “Push It,” “Shoop,” Whatta Man” and more

Salt-N-Pepa: My Life in 15 Songs

Everett Collection

Over the course of five albums released between 1986 and 1997, Salt-N-Pepa were funky pioneers popping the bubbles of rap machismo, taking aim at tramps, cheaters, gutter-minds, slut-shamers and smooth-talkers. After becoming first female rappers to be certified Platinum, partially thanks to the success of 1986’s smash “Push It,” they were included the very first crop of nominees for the Rap Performance Grammy. “I’ll Take Your Man” helped shape the sound of New Orleans rap and 1988’s “Shake Your Thang” became an important bridge between hip-hop and D.C.’s percussive gogo scene. Bolstered by singles like “Shoop” and Whatta Man,” their 1993 album Very Necessary became a five-times-Platinum success, and the group ended up everywhere from Woodstock ’94 to Deadpool.

“Back then, touring was really hard for us,” says Cheryl “Salt” James. “We had young kids, and so the boys would be out on the road, they would tour for a whole year, Salt-N-Pepa, we would do, like, three months at a time. Now we’re touring, like mad.”

The group is currently making up for lost road time crossing Canada as part of the I Love the ’90s Tour alongside Kid N Play, Coolio, Kool Moe Dee, Tone Loc, Young MC and more. After an October run in the U.K., the tour will convene in January for the inaugural Ship-Hop Cruise, taking a nostalgia trip from Miami to Cozumel. It’s a fine time for them to look back, and Rolling Stone caught up with Salt, Sandra “Pepa” Denton and Deidra “Spinderella” Roper to find out the stories behind these trailblazing hits. 

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“Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She Thing” (1995)

Salt: Yes! Yes! I wrote that song. … It was the polar opposite [of “None of Your Business”]. And when I listen to the lyrics, I’m like, “Damn!” It’s so empowering to me. And the video, I put the concept together and everything, the female soldiers and the firewomen and the astronauts. Celebrating being able to give birth. And Pep at the end of the video – guy was trying to rape her, and she beat the crap out of him with her purse. It was just like, Yes! Now this, for me, it wasn’t a commercial hit, it didn’t win a Grammy, but it was such a powerful female song. 

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“Champagne” (1996)

Salt: Pepa, we call ’em “Pepa-isms,” you know. Pepa’s a talker. And she’s Jamaican, so she says funny things a lot. So when I’m with her a lot of times, she’ll say something and I’ll be like, “That’s a song.” So it was one of those days. And she was talking about her life and, you know, how fabulous she is, and everybody wants to hang out with her. She was like, “‘Cause you know, I got the champagne and the ha ha, right?” And I was like, “Damn, that’s a song.”

It ended up being for the movie [Bulletproof]. I remember having a conversation with the head of the record company at that particular time, and saying, “Yo, can we push this? Can we put this out as a real single? Like take this seriously and put some weight behind it.” And they were like, “Why?” I remember trying to fight to get that song played on the radio and not just have it be part of a movie soundtrack, but, you know, I lost that fight.

It was a changing of the guards time, which Salt-N-Pepa get caught in a lot. Executives start leaving the company and then things start falling through the cracks. It was one of those situations. We were going from one company to another, so nobody really wanted to be bothered at that point. And that’s kind of what happened with [final album] Brand New. We didn’t really have a real home, and then Hurby wasn’t involved, and it was a bad time for Salt-N-Pepa. So that record was never taken seriously at all, or never even attempted to be promoted. 

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“Gitty Up” (1998)

Salt: I think it was the first, last and only attempt the record company made to kind of put something out for [final album Brand New]. It got a lukewarm response. But that video was insane. I practically edited that video myself, because it was like, we were in that situation where nobody cared. I had to fly to L.A. and sit with the editor. They were, like, so over us at that point. I just feel like based on the the Rick James sample, the video and everything, I thought it would have done better. But, you know, everything is not gonna hit.

Pepa: Yes, I had higher hopes for that song. I don’t know what happened. … I felt cheated. The video was great. The song is sexy. Our flow was great. I had high hopes for that song. Something went wrong, and I wish I could play it again.

Spinderella: It wasn’t our biggest single, of course, but it was a good depiction of us being sexy, and delivering those lyrics, and we were right in our prime

Salt: I had shortly left the group after that, because it was just emotionally, so many things going on and a lot of it was the friendship between Pep and I … it was going south. And I didn’t really understand what was going on. It was just one of those really bad, bad times in our lives, in our careers, personally, and business-wise, changing record companies and not knowing where we belong. I think that was just not a good time for Salt-N-Pepa period, to put out – even try to put out – music, because of all the things that were happening between us.

It took a while. Salt-N-Pepa got back together and we grew up and we had therapy and we hashed out our differences. With Iyanla Vanzant, actually. She helped us work out some stuff. And we realized a lot of things about our relationship and what happened between us. And the bottom line is I think we both just felt under-appreciated. But we were young. Once Salt-N-Pepa started, it just never stopped. 

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