I admit a bit of trepidation writing about Salt-N-Pepa as a lower-middle class white male. I’m sure anything I say will be scrutinized and codified into stereotype.
That out of the way, Salt and Pepa were hot. DJ Spinderella was hot. Any pubescent boy and hormone crazed youth could not argue. Each woman appealed to a different sexual fantasy and their frankness about the subject often increased the tension. It was crucial to the duo’s success, unafraid to confront sexuality—let alone a woman’s perspective—without worrying about the blowback from mainstream prudes and even those within their own musical community. Though much of their words were crafted from the male mind, their own take on each of those verses was always on display. They empowered those words into action, as lusty or strengthening as received.
A string of hits had placed Cheryl James (Salt), Sandra Denton (Pepa) and Deidra Roper (Spinderella) on any casual fan’s radar, but Very Necessary, released nearly four years after the marginally successful Blacks’ Magic, proved to be the band’s biggest break. Very Necessary successfully parlayed Blacks’ Magic hits “Let’s Talk About Sex” and “Do You Want Me,” as well as 1986 debut smash “Push It,” into pure marketing muscle. Selling 5 million copies in the United States alone, Very Necessary established Salt-N-Pepa as the best-selling female act and the first to have a multi-platinum album.
James’ relationship with hit maker and manager Hurby Azor unleashed itself all over Very Necessary. Where Azor was always a presence, even helping to break the band and secure their debut deal with Hot, Cool and Vicious, his fingerprint guided the threesome to unparalleled heights. Azor had the knowledge of cross-pollinating hip-hop with pop (he was behind the late 80s/early 90s tandem Kid ‘n Play) and with Salt-N-Pepa he had the added luxury of molding three distinct beauties in a blend of bedroom fantasy and street tough reality. The ladies never shied away from this even as Azor’s partnership with James and the trio fell apart.
(Salt-N-Pepa – “Shoop”)
Very Necessary’s raunchy reputation was earned on the back of lead single “Shoop.” It was low on innuendo, getting to the point without mincing words. The accompanying video did little to eschew the lyrical content, showcasing the attributes of all the ladies. The moment Pepa emerges from from the convertible, the video hooks you visually. The girls go glam and crank up the visible sexual content. Through each of the three acts, the girls showcase their chameleon good looks through varied wardrobe changes while equally praising and dominating the men in the video. “Shoop” is assertive and assured. There is no going back and why should there be; suffrage was more than just a movement to obtain opaque equal rights. Women have desires, Salt-N-Pepa unabashed of theirs.
The first two verses do much to define the Salt-N-Pepa ethos at the heart of their biggest hits and Very Necessary. The opening dialogue where Pepa goes straight for the “the bow-legged one” puts her preferences front and center. Unapologetically, the first verse admits Pepa’s weakness for men without a hint of subservience. She takes control (“I asked for the digits”) and immediately sets the record straight (“A ho? No that don’t make me”). She loses her cool (“Then I flipped for a tip, make me wanna do tricks for him/Lick him like a lollipop should be licked/Came to my senses and I chilled for a bit”) before calming down but the tone is set. Much like men have been generalized as aggressively horny, Pepa revels in the same temptations but wisely chooses to play hard(er) to get.
It’s a trope followed throughout the album; sexuality at the tip of everyone’s tongue—Salt and Pepa unafraid to address the issue. It’s fed through varied subject matter but more often than not, the subject matter is treated honestly.
(Salt-n-Pepa – “Whatta Man”)
Second single (and bigger hit) “Whatta Man” put Very Necessary into perspective. Featuring the equally talented and lovely En Vogue, the song was a chance for the six ladies to serenade the men in their lives who fulfill the duality of machismo: the ability to be sexually virile and to be sensitive and caring enough to dote on their women. It was a forthright method to deal with the many facets of the human psyche, to give into pleasurable indulgence while explicitly telling men that to be a REAL man takes more than physical attributes most prized by women.
When Salt-n-Pepa deviate from the frank sex talks, they can’t stray from being too direct. “Somebody’s Getting’ on My Nerves” and “Big Shot” deliver missives to haters who fall into the trio’s crosshairs. Not all men all pleasurable; not all listeners are equal; not all peers show enough respect. It’s a simple diss track but its barebones beat and repetitious call-and-response showcase the band’s ability to turn a schoolyard chant into pop gold, even as nothing more than an album cut.
Every loose end is wrapped up on third single, “None of Your Business.” It’s the soul of Very Necessary, throwing jabs at the gathering crowd of dissidents and challengers. Salt-n-Pepa recognize that their openness about lifestyle is bound to gather detractors, so they deal with it head on with a classic groove and an even keel.
(Salt-n-Pepa – “None of Your Business”)
Retrospectively, Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville has been handed the crown when speaking about women opening up about their sexuality to the wider public. Why Very Necessary, which isn’t as rough around the edges, is left out of the conversation is unknown. Perhaps its commercial appeal and the trio’s lack of visceral lyrics have disqualified it for some, but it is nonetheless honest about a woman’s emerging role at the end of the 20th Century. It was the launching pad for scathing and empowering women rappers such as Lil Kim and Foxy Brown toward the end of the decade, with the family tree now branching to include such disparate acts as Eve, Kitty Pryde and Azealia Banks—all riffing on the same tropes emboldened by Salt-N-Pepa and the overriding success of Very Necessary.
Despite all appearances, there are few cultural hurdles to be cleared to understand and appreciate the honesty of Very Necessary. It’s an album that appeals beyond gender and race roles, which is exactly why music exists. Very Necessary hit at a time when cultural norms were changing and still sounds viable (though slightly dated in its language) as the tide continues to turn again toward gender equality and empowerment. Salt-N-Pepa stood their ground and were justly rewarded by a public looking for a voice; one that has now continued to find itself re-imagined and re-energized by new generations of female hip-hop artists each taking a slice from the varied subject matter of Very Necessary.
It’s time for a generation of emerging female hip-hop voices to give Salt-n-Pepa their due before they find themselves on the wrong end of “Somebody’s Getting’ on My Nerves.” At the very least, it’ll prevent VH1 from shoehorning James and Denton into their line of faux reality programming. The trio deserves something more than a reservation of “The Surreal Life” and a brutally boring showcase of matchmaking and reconciliation. These were three individuals pioneering hip-hop for women during an era where few were given the same voice and opportunity (the list of unappreciated female MCs is lengthy). It may be twenty years late but consider this the first salvo toward the Salt-N-Pepa reclamation project.