By Drew Ailes
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By Tom Murphy
Although Sandi Denton, known to members of the hip-hop nation as Pepa, sees no reason why she shouldn't continue to prosper in the rap game for many years to come, she realizes that her thirteen-year-old group, Salt-N-Pepa, is a bit long in the tooth by the genre's standards. Which explains, in part, what the hell she was doing on a recent episode of--no kidding--Hollywood Squares.
"That was our first game show," she says with a burst of enthusiasm that belies the storm-filled twenty-hour bus ride she completed less than an hour earlier. "I never thought I'd be on a game show, but Whoopi [Goldberg] is a good friend of ours, and she asked us to do it, and we told her, 'Sure, no problem--anytime.' And it was fun. We were sitting next to Garth Brooks and Caroline [Rhea] from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, who is really cool--and so professional, too. I was like, 'Girl, how many times you been on this show?' 'Cause, damn, she was so comfortable.
"The only thing that was weird was the whole thing about the answers," she goes on, rapid-fire. "They don't give you the real answers, so if you know them, you can either just say them or bluff them out. But they do give you the joke answers, and with some of them, we were like, 'I'm not going to say this. This isn't going to come across. This doesn't read right at all.'"
That Pepa and her partners, Cheryl "Salt" James and Dee Dee Roper (aka DJ Spinderella), left several of these alleged guffaw-inducers undelivered speaks to their hip-hop background: They're accustomed to freestyling. Nevertheless, their presence on a program dedicated to bringing back the halcyon days of Paul Lynde is yet another indication of the thoroughness with which the mainstream is moving to incorporate what was once the most underground of musical movements. As anyone who's glanced at the Top 40 lately understands, rap and soul have largely replaced rock and roll as the popular sound of the late Nineties, and while the young are driving its march to sales supremacy, they're hardly the only ones listening. As Denton explains, "A lot of teenagers come up to me, and they don't say, 'Girl, I love you.' They're like, 'Pepa, my mother loves you.' I'm not lying. I sign autographs for their mothers all the time." After unleashing a peal of laughter, she notes, "We always kid each other, saying things like, 'We're going to Vegas. We're going to Broadway.' But who knows? If we changed things up a little and formatted it in a different way, it could happen. We might end up on Broadway someday after all."
Denton was born in a place far from the Great White Way--Kingston, Jamaica--but her family subsequently relocated to New York City, moving first to the Bronx before settling in Queens. She was attending Queensborough Community College when she met James, a fellow student who, like Denton, was putting herself through school by working a telephone job at a Sears store. As it turned out, the outlet was positively loaded with future stars: Other employees included comedian Martin Lawrence, the members of Kid n' Play (best remembered for their House Party movies) and Hurby "Luvbug" Azor, the man who developed much of this talent. At the time, Azor was taking a class at the Center for Media Arts that required him to produce a record; to fulfill the assignment, he composed "The Showstopper," an answer song directed at a couple of then-hot Doug E. Fresh throw-downs, "The Show" and "La-di-da-di." He recruited James and Denton to rap out his rhymes, and while the ditty wasn't anyone's idea of slick, it landed Salt-N-Pepa, a handle conceived and copyrighted by Azor, a contract with an indie label, Pop Art Records. This debut did well enough to earn the team (supplemented by Latoya Hanson, the original DJ Spinderella) a contract with Next Plateau Records, a somewhat larger imprint with a considerably bigger idea--to issue the first Salt-N-Pepa long-player.
Today, 1986's Hot, Cool & Vicious doesn't sound revolutionary: To put it mildly, Azor's ultra-accessible songwriting and production bears little resemblance to the work of the Bomb Squad. But old-schoolers found "I'll Take Your Man," "Beauty and the Beat" and the Otis Redding takeoff "Tramp" to be saucy and commercial in equal measure, and the lascivious (by the standards of the day) "Push It" became one of the biggest hip-hop hits of the era, ultimately helping the full-length move over a million units--a first for a female-led act. But just as important was the respect the platter earned. Havelock Nelson and Michael A. Gonzales, authors of the hip-hop primer Bring the Noise, write that with Hot, Cool & Vicious, "Salt-N-Pepa became the first girl group to be taken seriously in the hip-hop arena."
Two years later, after Hanson's departure (and Roper's arrival), the act returned with the cleverly dubbed A Salt With a Deadly Pepa, and even though it managed to go gold, it spawned no smashes. By contrast, 1990's Blacks' Magic was lifted by "Expression," and Salt-N-Pepa followed it with "Do You Want Me" and "Let's Talk About Sex," a pair of tunes in which the women made it clear that sultriness, strength and self-determination can co-exist. (A second version of "Let's Talk About Sex," rewritten to include lyrics about AIDS, was put out in 1992, with proceeds earmarked for the T.J. Martell Foundation.) Such themes were equally prevalent on 1993's Very Necessary, another production overseen by Azor, who used the disc's arrival as an excuse to change the spelling of his first name from "Hurby" to "Herby." The first single, "Shoop," was huge, its followup, "Whatta Man" (also featuring En Vogue) was larger still, and "None of Your Business" earned a Grammy. The next year, the crossover became official: Salt-N-Pepa played Woodstock.