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Seasoned Performers

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.

Afterward, the act's momentum slowed--a situation Denton chalks up to behind-the-scenes problems. "Very Necessary was distributed by Polygram, but then we met Al Teller, who at the time was at MCA, and we thought he was great. So he bought us out of Polygram and we went to MCA. But he got fired as soon as we got there, and we started having problems with MCA, and we wanted off. And to the rescue comes Al Teller, who's now with this company called Red Ant, which was part of Polygram. But then Al Teller stepped down again and Polygram got bought out by Universal, which used to be MCA. So it's just been the most bizarre thing."

As a result of this corporate game of musical chairs, Salt-N-Pepa managed to put out only a handful of soundtrack items over the course of three years. Worse, 1997's Brand New stumbled sales-wise, despite some decent notices, a Rolling Stone cover story and guest appearances by Queen Latifah, Mad Lion, Sheryl Crow and gospel superstar Kirk Franklin. "We saw the future in that album," Denton says about the CD, the first made without the assistance of Azor. "We thought it was great, and we were happy. But the timing was wrong because of everything that was happening with the record company. A lot of people didn't even know it was out--they'd come up to me and say, 'I'm waiting for something new. When's it coming?' And we'd be like, 'It's already here.' Salt took that stuff really hard, because she put a lot into that album, and a lot of people never heard it."

Things may get worse before they get better. Salt-N-Pepa have all but completed a greatest-hits disc, and the musicians are itching to get back into the studio (with, among others, Azor), but they've decided to wait until they figure out who's in charge of their destiny. "A lot of people who were committed to us aren't there anymore. So we need to make sure about what's going on, because otherwise, it'll be the same thing all over again. Outside people don't see it that deep; they just think, 'Salt-N-Pepa's failing, Salt-N-Pepa's finished.' But they don't realize everything that goes into it."

In the meantime, the women are branching out. They made a proposed TV pilot for Disney that sounds pretty typical: According to Denton, "Salt and I were roommates--she was a lawyer, and I forget what I was--and we both had daughters, and my daughter wanted to be like her, and her daughter wanted to be like me." However, the program wasn't picked up by a network--"and I can understand why not," Denton says. "We just weren't feeling it. Besides, they didn't have any other familiar actors in it. For a show like that, it helps so that the weight isn't all on you, the newcomer." More recently, Denton and Naughty by Nature rapper Treach (the father of her six-month-old daughter) appeared in First-Time Felon, an HBO effort, and other possibilities lurk on the horizon. "Roseanne reached out to us the other day," Denton reveals. "She's always wanted to build a show around us."

Despite such side projects, Denton and company haven't given up on rap. They're currently on a wide-ranging but small-scale tour intended to remind the public that they still exist, and they remain in demand for high-profile gigs such as a recent command performance before a Middle Eastern sultan. "I can't tell you which one," Denton says, "but it was really amazing. His daughter really loved us, so they brought us over there and we played on a yacht in front of, like, eight people. It was just the immediate family, and they just sat there watching--they never broke their cool. So finally I was like, 'Let's get the servants and everybody out here. Let's fill this room up.' So they brought out all the cooks and the servants, and they were really nervous; they never come out to things like that. But they did it, and everybody had a good time."

The thrill of rapping live--even before an audience as odd as the one on the yacht--keeps Salt-N-Pepa going, but Denton concedes that there are drawbacks to life on the road. "I have this phobia when we're driving at night on the bus," she says. "I'm always waking up every hour and running up to the driver to make sure he's okay, that he's not sleeping, because I have this fear that we're going to go over a cliff or something.

"That's why I'm thinking about going into acting," she points out, chuckling. "And I wouldn't mind doing another game show. I've been practicing on Pictionary."

Salt-N-Pepa. 8 p.m. Monday, April 5, Music Hall at Lodo, 1902 Blake, $16.50-$18, 303-298-7994.


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