x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The hip-hop duo Salt-N-Pepa are set to entertain Dubai

An interview with Salt-N-Pepa ahead of their concert in Madinat Jumeirah.

From left, Sandra ‘Pepa’ Denton and Cheryl ‘Salt’ James-Wray of Salt-N-Pepa performing in New Orleans in February. Erika Goldring / Getty Images / AFP
From left, Sandra ‘Pepa’ Denton and Cheryl ‘Salt’ James-Wray of Salt-N-Pepa performing in New Orleans in February. Erika Goldring / Getty Images / AFP

It was the classic that nearly never was.

When the legendary hip-hop female trio Salt-N-Pepa conceived Push It, their biggest hit to date, it was put together quickly as a B-side to their 1986 single, the male-baiting Tramp.

But American radio DJs had other ideas. Seduced by the track's disco-stomping beats and synth-lines, Push It eclipsed Tramp and elevated the group's debut Hot Cool and Vicious to platinum sales (one million) in the US - the first ever by a female hip-hop artist.

While grateful, Cheryl "Salt" James-Wray says she and Sandra "Pepa" Denton remain somewhat bemused by the song's success, stating it's one of the group's least favourites.

"It's just such a weird song and we just put it together really quick," she says.

"Pepa and I didn't really care for it and now it's the song that won't die. There is a Hyundai commercial that is popular in the States right now that is using it. It's ironic, as it's a song we still don't care for."

Despite the misgivings, Salt says the group - now down to a duo with DJ Spinderella (Deidra Muriel Roper) presently estranged from the group - will perform the song "and all the other hits" when they appear tonight at Dubai's Madinat Arena in Jumeirah.

The group is headlining Guilty Pleasures, a Christmas-themed "ladies' night" with supporting acts including international DJs, the UK's Anna Greenwood and New York's Cosmo Baker.

Salt says the duo's debut UAE performance is part of a growing resurgence of interest in the group, which began since ending their five-year hiatus in 2004. Since then, demands for performances extended from Australia to Europe and Africa.

Salt explains the interest comes from the group's enduring girl-next-door persona, with their songs viewed as a welcome return from today's misogynistic modern hip-hop landscape.

"People say they relate to us," she says.

"We got our foot in the door by being regular girls, for being fun, into partying and just being real. That has always been our appeal, and that's why women and men are fans of ours."

The group used their femininity as a means of being noticed in a fledgling 1980s hip-hop scene. Formed in New York in 1985 under the name Super Nature, the original trio announced themselves with the diss-track Showstopper - an answer record to Doug E Fresh's hit single The Show.

Salt explains it was a method the trio - who were in their early 20s at the time - used to be noticed in a testosterone-driven scene.

"We were very aware of the fact that we were women and the fact that there was a way to be recognised," she says. "We just focused on performing, didn't think about all the prejudice."

The "prejudice" Salt alludes to is the novelty tag the group were given by peers and music-industry heavyweights.

As the group started racking up the hits, including Shoop and What a Man, the novelty tag was changed to "sell out".

Salt explains that the constant criticism only encouraged the group to work harder.

She describes a backstage incident with hip-hop music mogul and Def Jam Recordings founder Russell Simmons as a major catalyst for increasing their work rate.

"Russell Simmons didn't know I was standing near him at one point when we were at a concert," she recalls.

"Someone happened to ask him how do you feel about those Salt-N-Pepa girls? He shook his head and gave us a thumbs down. I remember thinking I am going to show him! Instead of being discouraged, that really fuelled me to keep going forward and not many years after that he tried to sign Salt-N-Pepa to Def Jam. We said no, we are fine where we are."

However, the group's determination to succeed and beat the odds came at the price of the group's relationship, which eventually broke down when Salt suddenly quit the group and with DJ Spinderella's present refusal to tour with the reconciled duo.

While the door is reportedly open for Spinderella to return, Salt says her close yet challenging relationship with Pepa remains the nucleus of the group.

"Pepa gives me hell - it's the most challenging relationship of my life," she says with a laugh. "But like any relationship, feelings get hurt sometimes; it's constant work and we are still working at it."

 

Salt-N-Pepa performs tonight at Guilty Pleasures alongside Anna Greenwood and New Cosmo Baker at Madinat Arena, Jumeirah, Dubai. 7pm. Tickets start from Dh150 to Dh1,000 for a VVIP pass for a Salt-N-Pepa meet-and-greet session backstage. Tickets are sold at www.timeouttickets.com

 

sasaeed@thenational.ae