A trumped-up reality show seems like an odd place for long-estranged friends to make genuine peace. Odder still when those friends are Cheryl James and Sandy Denton, the respective namesake duo behind the seminal female rap crew Salt-N-Pepa. Twenty years after their provocative 1986 B-side "Push It" became a nationwide dance-floor phenomenon, the women were baring it all once again, this time for VH1 cameras.
"Our show was unusually real, compared to reality (TV)," says James, now 45. "The drama between me and Pep was all true. We had many unresolved issues."
The Salt-N-Pepa Show wasted little time digging up the dirt. Episode 1, which aired on Oct. 14, 2007, culminated in a teary-eyed, come-to-Jesus moment for the erstwhile collaborators. (The pilot's winking title: "Pushin' It.") Though she insists the scene was sincere, James says it was hard watching a naturally therapeutic process boiled down to 90 seconds of histrionic television.
"That was a two-hour conversation, and it was, I think, a minute-and-a-half," she says, laughing. "'We're just going to take when Salt starts crying and when Pepa starts yelling. That's the drama.' It took a long time to escalate to that point. There was a lot of very coherent discussion, you know?"
Machete editing notwithstanding, the show served its purpose. Salt-N-Pepa reformed in 2007 after a five-year hiatus, this year bringing its hit-laden revival to two high-profile arena shows: a "Ladies of the '80s" revue in Honolulu with Lisa Lisa and SWV; and the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, where James, Denton and DJ Deidre Roper (aka Spinderella) will reteam with En Vogue, R&B backers of Salt-N-Pepa's 1993 single "Whatta Man."
Though the group is currently at work on a new album — "We have about 13 songs," James says, "really Salt-N-Pepa-ry kind of stuff" — the crowd-pleasing program will consist mostly of cuts from decades past, hyper-familiar material off the four albums that propelled James and Denton from an unknown Queens, N.Y., duo dubbed Super Nature in 1985 to groundbreaking recording artists and household-name status eight years later.
Each LP contains at least one era-lodestone single: the 1986 debut Hot, Cool & Vicious, the first female rap album to go gold (it went platinum), held the sticky synth hook of "Push It"; 1988 follow-up A Salt With a Deadly Pepa gave up the Isley Brothers-sampling "Shake Your Thang"; and 1990's Blacks' Magic birthed "Let's Talk About Sex," which spelled out everything suggested in the group's early MTV video gyrations.
By 1993, Salt-N-Pepa was resigned to breaking its own records. On its fourth release Very Necessary, James, Denton and Roper added high-gloss polish to their effusive, envelope-pushing presence, and the result was a multi-platinum smash and decade-defining pop landmark. "Whatta Man," "Shoop" and "None of Your Business" all entered the Top 40 charts, the first two breaching the Top 10. The Grammy-winning album accounts for almost half of Salt-N-Pepa's 15 million records sold worldwide.
Discussing her resume and the sold-out showing at recent gigs, James sounds downright reticent. "When I started putting the show back together, I was like, 'Wow, we had a lot of hit songs!' I had forgotten. ... I'm surprised people still want Salt-N-Pepa the way that they do."
If the bashfulness feels like an intentional foil to her brash, salty on-screen persona, that's because it is. James says five years out of the spotlight refocused her, and a newfound spirituality helped her confront some nagging issues, including her abrupt split with Denton in 2002 and the overt sexuality of Salt-N-Pepa's best-known work.
"The music that we did was, in comparison to what's going on right now, very, very bubblegum," she says. "But back then, it was like, 'Oh my God,' you know? Our intention for 'Push It' was always, it was about dancing. And people were like, 'Yeah, right.' But it's so true! We were so naïve back then."
Of course, "that wasn't (producer) Hurby (Azor)'s intention," James adds with a knowing laugh. "He wrote that song."