There’s no cameras, right?” Salt asked me as I sat down at a table in the dressing room of Studio A. I said no, and the three ladies, Salt (Cheryl James), Pepa (Sandra Denton), and DJ Spinderella (Deidra Roper), let out a sigh of relief as they undid their boots and coats and laughed. We were sitting backstage at Milk Studios, where the legendary hip-hop artists were relaxing before taking the stage as headliners for our Milk Makeup launch party. It felt like a party even in the studio, due in part to the smell of weed, the clusters of people talking, and the glasses of wine on the table—but mainly because of the dynamic chemistry these three women have with each other. “You can see the personalities, right?” DJ Spinderella asked me. “Salt here is like Mama Bear, and Pep is the wild one. It’s like having good and bad on your shoulders,” she laughed.
It’s incredible to see the vibrant relationship between the three of them, which reads more familial than that of just a partnership. This isn’t a surprise, as Salt-N-Pepa emerged 31 years ago and quickly positioned themselves as one of the most influential hip-hop acts in the history of music; this is three decades worth of sisterly friendship. Not only were Salt-N-Pepa and DJ Spinderella some of the first women to conquer the male-dominated hip-hop world, but they were also on a mission to empower the listeners, welcoming conversations about sex and sexuality with timeless hits like “Let’s Talk About Sex” and “Push It.”
Surrounded by the chatter of people backstage, I sat down with the icons to discuss sex, female empowerment, and leading conga lines in Germany—with a brief intermission to discuss the weed smell that was taking over the room.
You were quite the fashion icons in the ’90s, and recently there’s been a resurgence of that movement. What trend that has come back in style do you wish had stayed in the ’90s, and which one would you want to see come back today?
Pepa: When we were doing the photo session, Salt was like, “I have one of those jackets the stylist brought to the photo session!”
Salt: I felt like I was in my closet. I always say, “Ugly ’80s and early ’90s.” Pepa defends the ’80s and the ’90s, though. What I did like is the color. We were so bold about color, and now…we’re from New York and we’re always in black. It’s the most sliming and it’s easiest, but in the ’90s we did not care. We wore ten different colors in one outfit at the same time, so I definitely miss that—it was a lot bolder. I always say Salt-N-Pepa brought fun, fashion, and femininity to hip-hop.
Spinderella: In terms of colors, you had your shirt, which had colors in it, then you had your stonewashed jeans, which had colors in it, and then you had socks. We used to stack socks, whether it was green, white, red, whatever, to match our shirts—that’s how colors were so important. It was coordinated. We would match our socks and our accessories to everything.
Pepa: Down to the sneakers.
“THIS HAPPENED FOR A REASON, WE WERE CHOSEN, AND WE’RE GRATEFUL AND WE’RE SO PROUD THAT WE’RE THE ONES THAT CAN FIGHT FOR EQUALITY IN FAME AND SUCCESS.”
What was it like being some of the only women in hip-hop at the time, and do you think there’s more room for female rappers now?
Pepa: It was an amazing feeling because it was a male-dominated field. It still is, but back then to have proven ourselves and to stay relevant…I mean they doubted us, they thought we were a one-hit wonder and an overnight success that wasn’t gonna last. We made hits after hits, we were the headliners—
Spinderella: And we still headlining!
Pepa: It is an amazing feeling, from back then when we were the thumbs down—they didn’t think we would last, that whole thing.
Salt: Yeah, and we never let it get to us; I mean, we had some hard times. When we first brought Spin on the road, she was 16 years old, and we were headlining a tour and had some mishaps. But you had to be strong and patient to keep it moving.
Spinderella: I feel like it was bigger than Salt-N-Pepa. This happened for a reason, we were chosen, and we’re grateful and we’re so proud that we’re the ones that can fight for equality in fame and success.
“WE’RE A HALLOWEEN COSTUME, WE’RE KARAOKE—YOU KNOW, WE MADE IT!”
Of course. I mean, you’re very important to the history of music in general.
Salt: We’re a Halloween costume, we’re karaoke—you know, we made it! [Laughs]
Pepa: You know what I love about this whole ’90s resurgence is that right now the youth get to understand and recognize where it all started. They got so many male rappers, but then they had Salt-N-Pepa, they had MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Trina, Queen Latifah, The Lady of Rage…so many of us, and I love that the youth today get introduced to where it started. If there wasn’t this whole resurgence they wouldn’t necessarily know, and they can’t shy away from the history—what started it, what did—hmm, it smells like weed. [We all laugh]
Salt: Is it weed?
Pepa: You know, she can’t smell well, she can’t tell. And I bug out when we’re backstage, I’m like, “They’re smoking weed; I don’t wanna fall offstage!” [Laughs]
Salt: To me it’s all the same, it’s all just smoke. But ok back to your question! [Laughs] We love Pepa because she just entertains us all day. But as far as women in hip-hop today, we feel just as confused as everybody else…where are all the ladies at?! Like Pep was saying, Missy, Latifah, Lauryn Hill—I mean, we were representing fun, fashion, and femininity. Lauryn Hill was kicking knowledge. Latifah was saying, “We’re the queens!” Lyte was just raw. I don’t know where the ladies are now.
Pepa: But one thing about us, when that was going on, everyone embraced it. We were all like, “Ok Trina, ok Latifah, alright Lil’ Kim. Let’s keep it going, like the men!” No one was feeling threatened—we looked at it as growth. And once again, we say it—we want them. It’s not a threat! You know, hats off to Nicki Minaj, Iggy did her thing, and whoever. I looked at it like, “Ok, let’s keep doing it.”
Salt: But nobody came after that.
Spinderella: The thing is that they’re there, they’re just not getting the recognition. There are a lot of females in the inner cities that are dope, but they’re not coming out. That’s the problem of why we’re not hearing them. What we had back then, thankfully, is that we all came out—but it’s not like that right now, and we’re asking why? One of my favorites that are out is this girl from Raleigh; her name is Rapsody and she reminds me of Lauryn Hill. They’re there, but they just don’t get past that level.
Salt: Pepa always says we have to bring out the next ones.
Pepa: It’s the next project. I’ve always been saying that it’s the only way.
What’s the craziest thing you ever saw while on tour?
Salt: Craziest thing we’ve ever seen? Hmph [points to Pepa, who takes a sip of wine], it had to have something to do with Pepa. [Laughs] We were in Germany, and this one here loves to party. There’s a time where Spin is like, “I’m out,” and there’s a time where I’m out. But she’ll get on the plane all night long. So, I’m in my room in Germany. I leave her downstairs with people who don’t even speak English, but she hangs out downstairs with them. Then, I wake up some time at like five in the morning and I hear, “Tun-tun-tuntun-tun-TUN.” She’s leading a conga line through the hallways to the rooms, and they don’t even speak English!
Pepa: I knocked to both Salt and Spin and they both slammed the door, they didn’t wanna join the conga line!
So, let’s talk about sex. What’s one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you were younger?
Spinderella: That it’s liberating! That it’s not a bad thing. I used to think that it was such a bad thing. The thing with Salt-N-Pepa and “Let’s Talk About Sex” was to teach people that it’s not a bad thing and that it’s ok to talk about it. And what if “Let’s Talk About Sex” didn’t exist? Maybe it would still be super taboo.
Salt: Communication is important. A lot of people are having bad sex and nobody is saying anything. Saying what you want and what you don’t want
Pepa: When you were younger, that’s one of the things—not being vocal about what makes you feel good when you’re having sex.
Do you have a sex playlist? What’s on it?
Pepa: Oh, Marvin Gaye. (Everyone starts singing Let’s Get It On). And Sexual Healing. I remember hearing that for the first time and thinking, “What is this song?!”
Spinderella: Yeah, that song was so liberating—it was sexual healing!
Photography by Andrew Boyle.