Hip-hop duo Salt-N-Pepa tell their story in biopic

Cheryl James (left) and Sandra Denton (right) were one of the few superstar female acts in hip-hop's golden age in the 1980s and 1990s. The film Salt-N-Pepa captures the rush of touring the world and the conflicts that broke them up in 2002.
Cheryl James (left) and Sandra Denton (right) were one of the few superstar female acts in hip-hop's golden age in the 1980s and 1990s. The film Salt-N-Pepa captures the rush of touring the world and the conflicts that broke them up in 2002. PHOTO: NYTIMES

While selling warranties on washing machines from a Sears call centre in Queens, New York, friends Cheryl James and Sandra Denton came together as a hip-hop duo called Super Nature with the staccato 1985 track The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh).

When they first heard it on the radio, they danced together on top of a car.

It was just the beginning. James became Salt and Denton became Pepa. The group changed its name and scored 10 hits on the Hot 100, including the 1980s dance classic Push It and the 1990s sex anthem Shoop, becoming one of the few superstar female acts of hip-hop's male-dominated golden era.

Fixtures on the I Love The '90s tour circuit in recent years, the two tell their story in a new biopic, Salt-N-Pepa, that captures both the rush of touring the world and the conflicts that broke them up in 2002.

The group's longtime DJ, Spinderella, is a character in the film too, but the biopic does not cover her unsuccessful lawsuit against the duo filed in 2019. The film - which they executive-produced along with singer Queen Latifah and others - begins and ends on a note of unity, showing their 2005 reunion for a VH1 event.

"It was something me and Pep had been shopping around," Salt said. "Pep called and was, like, 'Girl, we have to do our movie before someone else does.'"

Latifah, an old friend, attended meetings where they picked the director (Mario Van Peebles) and screenwriter (Abdul Williams of 2018's The Bobby Brown Story). The duo's Laverne & Shirley-style partnership - Salt calm and precise, Pepa loose and boisterous - has endured despite a dispute with the man who helped them get their start, abuse, divorce and plain old Salt-versus-Pepa personality conflicts.

"We get to tell a 36-year lifetime in, like, 21/2 hours," Pepa said in a group Zoom interview. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

For a movie about the journey of two women, your producer and manager Hurby Azor, known as Luv Bug, plays a big role as a crucial creative force, especially at the beginning. How much did you grapple with the decision to emphasise his character? Salt: Well, the truth is the truth. And Hurby was our guy. He started out being my boyfriend. Being an artiste was something that he embodied and transferred over to us.

My mum took me to all the Broadway plays, and I took singing lessons and dance lessons, and I did productions at home with my cousins for my aunties. But I didn't know how to sing. I didn't play an instrument. When hip-hop came along, it was an opportunity to realise something that I was passionate about - and that was through Hurby.

In an early scene, we see Hurby (played by Cleveland Berto) drilling Pepa (played by Laila Odom) to rap without her Jamaican accent, and Salt (played by GG Townson) caught in the middle. How frustrating were those early days? Pepa: Hurby had his vision. He wanted it said, done this kind of way and no other way. I had a difficult time in the beginning, jumping on the beat. Finally, I got it. Salt: Pep always says, "Hurby is our third", and the chemistry between the three of us was explosive on so many levels. Pep and Hurby used to fight like cats and dogs. It was just an explosion of creativity, of passion, of drama that resonated into a sound, a music, a movement.

The opposites-attract part of your personae, as depicted in the movie, is based on reality? Pepa: 100 per cent. Salt: I'm an introvert and a little bit of a recluse. What I love about being an artiste is the creative process. I love taking something from nothing and bringing it to fruition, I love the response from the audience, but I don't necessarily love everything that comes along with it - the attention and the chatter. But Pep loves it all. Pepa: I'm an extra-extra-extrovert. Salt: Someone asked us, when we first met, what intrigued us about one another. What made her interested in me is, she was thinking, "Who is this girl that's not paying me any attention?" Pepa: When we were in college, I was coming in the lunchroom and talking crazy, and I used to see Cheryl in the corner and notice her. It was a chemistry. I was pulled to her.

How much writing did you both do for the script, and did you work separately or together? Pepa: Separately. Salt: It was a lot of rewrites. What I found frustrating - I'm just keeping it real - it was quite a few restrictions when you're making a movie that I was not ready for. Pepa: Keep it real, Salt! Salt: Legal restrictions, infringing on other people's rights that people had to sign off on, budget restrictions. What ended up being important was a story of two women in a male-dominated industry who were friends first, who became business partners, who faced a lot of struggles to be heard, to be taken seriously - from the record company to our producer Hurby. We had struggles in our relationships and picked the wrong men over and over. Pepa: We get to take them back to college, when it all started and we were making US$200 per show. Salt: And splitting it.

How unified is Salt-N-Pepa these days? Salt: Relationships go through different phases. I know one thing: I love Sandy, and I know that Sandy loves me. It's difficult to be friends and business partners, and anybody in that position can relate. Sometimes we will be married and sometimes we will be co-parenting the brand and sometimes I will be sleeping on the couch. Pepa: But communication is the key to all successful relationships.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2021, with the headline 'Hip-hop duo Salt-N-Pepa tell their story in biopic'. Subscribe