The right flavor of hip hop: An intimate chat with “Salt” Cheryl James

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By Leslie J. Griffin

Salt, Pepa, and DJ Spinderella

Salt, Pepa, and DJ Spinderella

The standard has been set and the era has come and gone. That is real hip hop as we know it possessing the five required elements. Even a male-dominated industry could not contain the rich “flavor” of Salt N Pepa. The two iconic female emcees blazed trails and pioneered the way all while earning respect through hard work, creativity and lyrical ingenuity. They defined the essence of womanhood, confidence and set fashion trends.

Now 25 years later, the world still grooves to hits like Push It and Respect Yourself.  The Palace of Sports and Entertainment recently welcomed them for a mini concert and an up-close conversation with Tipping Point Education Post. Relive an era as Salt dishes on family, winning against all odds, the state of hip hop and why female emcees can no longer just rely on their looks.
How have you been?
I’ve been good how are you?

I’ll start by saying thanks for giving the world such great hip hop music for the last 25 years. You all really kept the standard high.
Thank you for saying that.

What is everyone doing these days?
We have been on the road a lot over the past five years. We were on tour in Europe and Australia for the Legends of Hip Hop Tour three years ago and we’ve been continuously getting calls to go all out over the United States to go to all kinds of different venues. We’ve just been working hard. And now it’s 25 years later. Besides that I am a wife and a mom. I have two kids and my daughter is graduating from college and my son is getting ready to go to high school. So being a homemaker has been my major vocation in terms of my priorities. That is what keeps me really busy.  Besides that, Pepa and I have decided to explore television options. We’re coming back from LA where we had some meetings with TV One so we will see.

Will that be reality TV?
We are exploring both reality and sitcom. We would prefer sitcom because we consider ourselves to be very much like the odd couple LaVerne and Shirley and so we think it would be really funny if we had our own show. And then there is the possibility of another reality TV show with the children.

Speaking of your traveling you all just finished a show in Lagos, Nigeria. How was that?
I have been to Africa on mission trips with my church, but I’ve never been to Africa to perform so I was really looking forward to it and it was awesome. We had a great time.

What was it like being the best female hip hop rap artist group in the world?
Wow, that’s such a huge title and I am somewhat detached from that hustle. It’s like you’re doing something that you love and that you’re passionate about. So the building and the growth of making records and videos and when you are in the studio creating, you are not really thinking about ever becoming an icon or a pioneer or anything like that. It’s really like something that comes later on when people say it to you. So I feel honored and I feel like it was just what was meant for us. I don’t want to say that it was just easy, but it was something that just came to us. It came really quickly and once we got started we just kept rolling and rolling. And so now it’s like 25 years later and it’s like we really did reign for females over an entire era. We had such longevity and I am looking at the artists now which is so rare and it really doesn’t happen that much. You know some of it is like cookie cutter music. I cannot even keep up with who is coming and going.

Salt N Pepa Photo OneHas hip hop evolved with our new female artists and is this real hip hop?
For females I don’t think it has evolved that much. Actually there aren’t that many females out there. There was a time when there was MC Lyte, Missy Elliot, Lauryn Hill and there was Queen Latifah. There were so many different women making a mark in hip hop and now the only name I hear is Nicki Minaj and that always baffles me as to why there aren’t any more women out there representing. You know she is representing one side of women and Salt N Pepa, we represented fashion, fun and femininity and so a lot of women identified with that. And then you had Lauryn Hill who was sort of Neo Soul and spoken word. Her music spoke to your soul and it’s not like that anymore.

How did you all set the standard? Did you have to give up something being in a male-dominated industry?
When I talk to the young people, I know that there was a lot of misogyny and a lot of discrimination.  I also remember being overlooked and spoken about as if I were not even in the room during meetings. But for me personally, I was so driven and I was so excited about Salt N Pepa so that I did not really see those barriers. I knew this was my destiny and I knew this was my dream. One time I happened to be standing next to Russell Simmons and someone happened to ask him what he thought about the Salt N Pepa girls and he gave like a thumbs-down gesture basically signaling that it would not last. Well I remember that always being fuel for me and years later at Def Jam, he wanted to sign Salt N Pepa when we became successful and so I always tell young people that people’s opinions do not matter and what anyone thinks.  You can listen, but you do not have to receive it into your spirit as your destiny. If you have a raw talent, a passion or a drive then you can do it. I didn’t see any barriers. I only saw my goals.
Do you ever just look at the some of your old pictures and say what was I wearing or wow our fashions were pretty out there?
I look at our pictures and I crack up. I am like what in the world were we thinking and to me it represents being young, innovative, resilient and out of the box. Pepa was really responsible for a lot of those looks because she is Jamaican and so Jamaican people are really colorful people (laughing). We had the asymmetrical haircuts and when she dyed her hair blond, I did mine as well. But it really ended up being a statement for young women that they loved and imitated. So that was amazing. Even to this day, sometimes Rhiana will get a little Salt N Pepa haircut and they’ll put it in a magazine.

What’s the major difference between the ‘then and now’ hip hop?
Hip hop really lifted the people. That has definitely changed. The real answer is I don’t know so I would be speculating. If I had to guess it is because it has become less of an art and more of a business and what is already trending people continue to trend in that direction. When it first started as a pure art form, it was about the art. It was about the music, the lyrics, the lives, the community and the bond of the people and now it seems that’s it about being hot and keeping a trend going.  It’s about going naked and disrespecting women or glorifying drugs. And I know that because I have spoken with a lot of artists, especially the ones that are not really known and I listen to their music and it’s like what are you talking about? They are just following a trend. They aren’t even living the life that they talk about on the records. Some people and artists just do what they see and what they think people want to hear. It’s just more of a business.

Please talk about how Push It, Respect Yourself and I’ll Take Your Man set the stage for you all being respected emcees.
‘I’ll Take Your Man’ was the song that put us on the map. I know ‘Push It’ was the most popular song and the song that went platinum and international, but I’ll Take Your Man really got everyone’s attention. And when we performed, people went crazy on most of the songs. It was our underground that solidified us. That set the tone for who we were as outspoken feminists type but yet still feminine. We were the first females to really be feminine in hip hop and then after that, other women begin to showing their femininity. Push It just really blew up and it was actually the B-side to a track and the DJ turned it over and started playing it. It was never really meant to be a single.

What were some of the challenges associated with being an all-lady group? Were there lots of disagreements?
Yeah there were petty female disagreements about the clothes and about who’s getting more attention from management…just a lot of petty things. We were very young 18 and 19. As we grew up we put childish things behind us. Over the last few years, we are just starting to understand the path we set and what really happened.  We are starting to understand everything that was involved and the lives that we touched. You go through life and some really hard things and things that affect your soul emotionally. So we are in a good place right now.

Salt N Pepa

Salt N Pepa

Who were your greatest influences both male and female?
I’ve always loved Lauryn Hill. The Salt side of me is a very spiritual person.  I do a lot of community service. When I listen to her music it is so uplifting. I’ve always admired her because she followed her heart when it came to her music.  As a group, Wendy and Steve were our role models. We felt like they were just powerful the three of them together. The way they commanded the audience always impressed me.

Is there a new album in the works?
No (laughing). We tried working in the studio and putting something together but there is a pinnacle in your career and I think this is it. We are good. That was the time and that was the era and the reign. That was good enough.

What message do you send to the hip hop industry today as a whole and to women?
I want young women to understand their value apart from their bodies and sexuality and what they have to offer physically. We are so much more than that. The industry is saturated with images of misogynistic lyrics that are so extreme. And so many women are believing that their looks and their bodies is their true value. You’re a spiritual being. You are not your physical body. You are intelligent. Education is important and there is so much that this world needs that is inside of you aside from what you look like. My daughter is a beautiful girl. I mean she is an extraordinarily gorgeous girl. She is physically blessed and I raised her to know that her looks is not a talent. That is an attribute. I never wanted her to lean on that and make that over important. She is graduating from college and she is a humanitarian.  Those are the things that are important and the things that last. I’ve always wanted to build up her self-esteem. And so men value her. No one wants a desperate person.  Know your value and your worth because that’s what men respond to.

What role has Detroit played in your career?
Detroit is one of our cities. Yes I love Detroit because they come out. Detroit has always supported us. You all come out dressed and ready to go. A good concert is a big deal in Detroit.

About Leslie J. Griffin