Who they are and why they matter
By Melis Schildkraut
If you haven’t heard the song “None of Your Business,” released by female rap stars Cheryl “Salt” Renee James, Sandra “Pepa” Denton, and Deidre “DJ Spindarella” Roper in 1993, I urge you to put down this magazine, pull out a pair of headphones, and tune in. This song has been a part of my repertoire since junior year of high school; my best friend, Ilana, and I would blast it in her car on our way to gatherings when we were sick of the sexless drawl of our conservative, suburban town. Four years later, you can still find me blasting this and other Salt-n-Pepa tunes on my way out of the house before nerve-wracking first dates—and, admittedly, often while retrieving books from the Olin stacks during my job as a circulation assistant. Fortunately, no one has caught me dancing yet.
WHO THEY WERE
An odd sequence of events led to the members of Salt-n-Pepa joining together. The group was founded in 1985 and continued producing records until 2002. Salt-n-Pepa forerunners Cheryl and Sandy met while working at a Sears Retail store in the Bronx. Both women were telephone clerks, and they worked selling warranties on washing machines. When they weren’t on the phone with customers (and they were hardly ever on the phone with customers), they used their phones to connect with each other during work. In telephone clerk solidarity, Cheryl and Sandy developed a close friendship.
Ernst “Hurby Luv Bug” Azor was also an employee at Sears, and he fell in love with Cheryl while on the job. I always envisioned Salt-n-Pepa as a self-made, completely female-dominated trio, but it was actually Hurby who pushed the group to get together. While enrolled in New York’s Center for the Media Arts, he asked the rambunctious Sandy and his girlfriend Cheryl to help him record a track for a school project. At the time that the group was conceived, Cheryl and Sandy found it hard to believe that a single project would turn them into hip-hop sensations. In a video interview of the group’s members, Sandy speaks about how the first time she and Cheryl heard themselves playing on the radio, they immediately stopped their car, jumped out onto the street, and began to dance.
While Cheryl and Sandy were the group’s MCs, they needed the help of a female DJ to make their track. The group employed two different “Spindarellas” throughout their career. The first was Pamela Green, a 19-year-old from Queens. Pamela served as a decent DJ for the first two years, but she was let go when Cheryl suspected her of having an affair with Hurby. Soon after, a 16-year-old from Brooklyn by the name of Didi Jones became the new, permanent Spindarella.
WHY YOU CARE
When Salt-n-Pepa was established in the ’80s, the members were among the first female rappers to ever hit the hip-hop scene. They were preceded by Roxanne Shante, a 14-year-old girl from Queens. In 1985, Roxanne released her first single, titled “Roxanne’s Revenge.” When Roxanne released this track, she began a new movement within the largely male-dominated hip-hop scene. However, as Roxanne’s popularity quickly died out, Sandy, Cheryl, and Didi took over.
What is so significant about Salt-n-Pepa’s music is the stance they took toward sexuality during a time when the hip-hop scene was monopolized by men. Though they were popular in an era when women were generally less sexually autonomous than they are today, Salt-n-Pepa were not afraid to rock their bodies in tight jumpsuits, occupy the stage of a male-dominated profession, and rap about explicitly sexual topics from a strictly female perspective. The lyrics of “Shoop” say it all:
S and the P wanna kick with me, cool (uh-huh)
But I’m wicked, G, (yeah) hit skins but never quickly (that’s right)
I hit the skins for the hell of it, just for the yell I get
Mmm mmm mmm, for the smell of it (smell it)
They want my bod, here’s the hot rod (hot rod)
Twelve inches to a yard (damn) and have ya soundin’ like a retard (yeah)
Big ‘Twan Love-Her, six-two, wanna hit you
So what you wanna do?
What you wanna do?
Mmmm, I wanna shoop
In the lyrics of this song, MCs Sandy aWWd Cheryl use the word “shoop” as a euphemism for sex. They unabashedly rap about their own sexual desire, challenging the idea that men can talk about women in a sexual way, but women should not talk about themselves in such a manner. Sandy, Cheryl, and Didi make it clear that they are in charge of their own sexuality. By producing songs like this, they created a new dialogue, opening up the genre of rap for later female artists such as Lil’ Kim, Queen Latifah, and Mary J. Blige.
By no means did Salt-n-Pepa’s lead members reach this point of sexual confidence painlessly. Sandy, at age six, was assaulted by her friend’s grandfather in Queens. She lost her virginity when she was 13, with a 17-year-old boy who seduced her as a neighborhood prank and deserted her after the event. In her recent book, Let’s Talk About Pep, Sandy reveals that, in order to regain confidence in her sexuality, she remained celibate for a few years. She realized that she was using her sexuality as a crutch, and wanted to change that.
“ What is so significant about Salt-n-Pepa’s music is the stance they took toward sexuality during a time when the hip-hop scene was monopolized by men.”
Cheryl and Didi both suffered romantic losses while touring with the group. Hurby, the group’s manager (and a bona fide asshole), was Cheryl’s boyfriend from the start. However, he constantly cheated on her and co-opted most of the group’s musical decisions. Eventually, the group split with Hurby in the mid-’90s. Didi suffered a terrible loss and heartbreak when her first boyfriend AD (who had originally taught her to spin), was shot to death while she was on tour. All three girls grew up within the boroughs of New York City, and all lived in poverty for most of their childhoods.
DEMISE AND REUNION
In 2002, Salt-n-Pepa officially disbanded. After suffering from a bout of internal turmoil, Cheryl called Sandy one day and announced that she was done. The band had been slowly disintegrating since its split with Hurby in the mid-’90s. They were upset with Hurby’s management and dissatisfied with the royalties that he was paying them. Salt-n-Pepa went on to produce one more album, Brand New, in 1997, but followed a general path of decline since going solo in 1996.
If there’s one thing that irks me most about Salt-n-Pepa and their career, it’s that they could not manage to stay afloat without the help of their patriarch, Hurby. The “I don’t need no man” vibe that the girls gave off seems negated by the fact that it was a man who brought and kept them together. However, the girls did manage to reunite in 2005, and they are currently on tour. They may no longer be the forerunners of the female hip-hop scene, but they will be forever ingrained in the minds of hip-hop fans. So, the next time you jam out to Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj, or Missy Elliott in your car, remember the women that they owe their voices to.