As the '80s came to a close, Salt-N-Pepa were on a commercial roll. Their first two albums had been successful, but things were changing. Not only was Hip-Hop in the midst of a very topical period, Salt was looking to assert herself creatively. She was ready to push Salt-N-Pepa to a different place.
“After we did the Hot, Cool, & Vicious album and A Salt With a Deadly Pepa, by the time Blacks’ Magic came around, I was already in the studio all the time,” Salt says, recalling the making of their third album. “I don’t think there was a song that I wasn’t there for, from the concepts to the mix down to the master. I’ve always loved that creative process more than anything.”
Salt comments on how the dissolution of her relationship with Azor sparked her creatively: “Our relationship was starting to go left in a really, really tumultuous way. Not only creative independence, I was looking for personal independence from being Hurby’s girlfriend. When there was an opportunity to make another album and start fresh, I was like, ‘I’m gonna try to do something on my own.’ And ‘Expression’ wound up being a platinum single, the first song I did by myself.”
“Expression” was the lead single for the platinum-seller Blacks’ Magic, and it set the stage for what would be an uber-successful 1990s run for Salt-N-Pepa. It also signified that these women weren’t content to just follow Azor’s lead. Going forward, Salt-N-Pepa would take more creative control.
“Initially, I don’t think he took me seriously,” Salt says. “He was like, ‘Yeah, right, g’head, I’d like to see you try.’
“But of course, I respected him a lot. I was finishing up ‘Expression’ and he was impressed and suggested I use [R&B singer] Jacci McGhee on the hook. It was a show-and-prove type of thing, which I wasn’t mad at, because I had never done it on my own before. I felt like he was really impressed and proud.”
“[We were] coming into our own and taking on social issues out there,” Pepa says of the group’s early ’90s evolution. “That was the time of AIDS and trying to raise awareness. ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ [and] one of my favorites ‘You Showed Me’ — songs like that were us coming into our own and [finding] out what we stood for. That was having a voice, different [from] early on. Hurby was involved with the music, of course. But we were still able to express ourselves and who we were.”
Sandy “Pepa” Denton of Salt ‘N Pepa in New York City. / Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archivess
When Salt-N-Pepa reconvened for the follow-up to Blacks’ Magic, they were emboldened by the success of that album. Pepa took a major creative leap forward, writing a catchy song on her own called “Shoop.” Once Salt heard it and they worked on it, Pep pushed for it to be the lead single.
“We went into [1993’s] Very Necessary album with ‘Shoop,’ ” she says of her first big co- credited single. “Because it wasn’t a Hurby single, [the label] was giving me pushback. But it was my song. It was my song that I came up with and I co-produced and everything. [Salt] believed in the song and [pushed] for it to be a single. We couldn’t afford any mistakes in our career and I don’t have a lot of songs, but when I do, I come with ’em! So I fought for it. And ‘Shoop’ did the thing. But from Blacks’ Magic [Azor] was already reluctant.”
“Cheryl was the girlfriend. All hell broke loose when I tried it,” Pepa adds as she rattles off the noteworthy songs she and Salt crafted themselves. “But from ‘Shoop’ to ‘Expression’ to ‘You Showed Me’ to ‘Do You Want Me,’ we were bosses.”
Pepa had to fight Azor and their management and the record label for “Shoop.”
Salt ‘N Pepa performing at Club USA during the video shoot for their song ‘Shoop’, 1993. New York. / Photo by Steve Eichner/ Getty Images
“It was a big huge song for me,” she explains. “That particular song — I’m coming from a different place in this group. Salt was doing songs and everything. I have these Pep-isms like ‘You make me wanna shoop!’ And that’s me, very bold, very in your face. Some people might mistake me being very assertive for me being aggressive. [I] have a big voice! What’s my weakness? Men!”
“How dare Pepa have the first single on the next album?” she says of the politics at the time. “Before you even get to it being a dope song or not, [it was] how is Pepa gonna have the first single and not Hurby?”
“Salt was in the middle at times, with being the girlfriend and the best friend. I called her and said, ‘I got this hot song and I wrote it.’ She came over to my house and wrote hers and we were going back and forth. We wanted to show these men how they talk about us. We can do the same thing! ‘How does it hang?’ ”
“With Salt feeling that, we were unstoppable. We was like, ‘That’s the single.’ ”
“Shoop” would hit the Billboard Top Five in the fall of 1993 and became a platinum-selling smash. It set the stage for Very Necessary, Salt-N-Pepa’s blockbuster fourth album that would go on to dominate radio and video through 1994 into 1995.
* Banner Image: SALT ‘N’ PEPA / Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives