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Salt-N-Pepa

New York native Cheryl Wray claims of her 1986, 17-year-old self, she knew instinctively Salt-N-Pepa were going to be huge. A "young woman's brimming self-confidence" or, as the lady herself believes, "it may have been a spiritual thing?" Whichever force was at play, the now legendary group's success was anyone's guess in the male-dominated hip hop scene. Even Wray's bravado is in sharp contrast to "the very depressed teenager with no direction" she was, but the sassy global-hit maker she would become as "Salt" in Salt-N-Pepa, happened only once she began rapping when, "something awakened in me and I felt so alive." Just as well, as there was "no Plan B", she states. Many international stars had already emerged out of New York's rap scene in the '80s, but prior to Salt-N-Pepa, rap was a chick-free zone (bar Deborah Harry's absurd jive about 'men from Mars' in Blondie's hit, Rapture). As for what made Salt-N-Pepa boldly go where no ladies had gone before, Cheryl surmises, "A group like us was needed - there was a gap in the market for some strong female performers who could sell records on the level of the bigger, more established rap groups…and that's exactly what we did." 

Wray, along with high-school friends Sandra "Pepa" Denton and Deidra "Spinderella" Roper, were regular visitors to open mic venues around New York in the mid-'80s, where up-and-coming stars like Martin Lawrence would perform comedy routines to notoriously rough crowds. Lawrence, as with every other performer, would either "make it or break it", Cheryl says, as judged entirely on the audience's reaction. "We were really scared, but when we decided it was time for us to perform in front of a crowd, we rocked it." She smiles, "We did our song, The Show Stopper - which we wrote in response to Freddy Fresh's The Show - a massive street level hit at the time - and that ended up becoming our first single out here in America." Salt-N-Pepa had gained that all-important acceptance among their peers as hot live performers - the greatest level of respect a rap group could be awarded at the time - fuelling their already burning motivation for stardom.

 

"I don't remember it being that hard for us because we were so driven," Cheryl recalls, "The harder the challenge, the harder we worked to get around it and we never felt like we were failing." Moving from open mic nights to cutting records, the girls' next challenge was getting their music heard. Their Show Stopper had worked as a live introduction to the group, and its follow-up single, Tramp was taking off in the clubs, but it was only when DJs started flipping the record and dropping its b-side, Push It, that Salt-N-Pepa became overnight stars. However, the song, a kind of throw-away dance/rap number, suggested the group were more sugar than spice, a fact that became a bone of contention, particularly for Cheryl, as Salt-N-Pepa continued to grow in popularity. "There were times when I felt like we were just doing what was expected of us when we should have been expressing ourselves," she acknowledges.

 

For Cheryl, a far greater victory for Salt-N-Pepa was using their profile to address issues rap artists had chosen ignore. In the wake of that infamous HIV/AIDS ad campaign, in which a bowling grim reaper had Australia in fear of all things sex and sexuality, Salt-N-Pepa stepped in with a perfectly timed, realistic suggestion: Let's Talk About Sex. "That song made us unofficial spokespeople for AIDS awareness." Cheryl recalls. It was the right track at the right time, but from a group far removed from any reaper-based fear campaigns, yet Australia identified and agreed - intimacy wasn't dead. Indeed Let's Talk About Sex went to number one at a time when there were practically no hip hop acts charting locally, and AIDS was crashing into suburban living rooms on a nightly basis, forcing many an awkward dinner conversation.

 

"Let's Talk About Sex was not an irresponsible song, as some people tried to claim," Cheryl points out, "but you know, as a celebrity, especially in the US, people are always calling you to account over things you say because you're a public figure. I mean when we were younger, we just wanted to get our songs played and go on tour and that was about it, but I think that we felt a kind of social responsibility as we got a bit older because our profile was getting a lot bigger and nobody was really saying what we thought needed to be said." Cheryl adds, "As an artist, you wanna express what's on your mind, and with the whole AIDS thing we never saw it as shameful but as something that urgently needed to be discussed properly. The information going around about it at the time was really that it was a thing of shame or fear, but in our song we talk about taking responsibility for your actions and knowing the risks." Salt-N-Pepa's frankness and big issue-raising is a detail that is often overlooked in place of the "Most Successful Female Rap Act of All-Time" tagline publicists like to use. Perhaps though, not unlike the statistic-obsessed media, Salt-N-Pepa's own families even had difficulty knowing what to make of a girl rap group being taken seriously.

 

"Because hip hop was still such a new thing when we started, and no females were having success doing hip hop while we were having massive hits, my family and friends were just confused," Cheryl laughs, "My mum and dad were in shock for a really long time. Whenever we had a platinum selling single, or won and MTV award or whatever, they would just look at me, like 'who are you?'".

 

She adds, "My dad was really supportive, but mum was always more concerned that I was gonna start acting like a super star, and she would say like, 'Don't come up in here acting like no diva. When you come home to your father and me, you're just Cheryl, okay!' That really kept me grounded the whole time." In 2001, following a bankruptcy claim from their label, Cheryl and Sandra found themselves grounded indefinitely as Salt-N-Pepa. The two then parted ways as Cheryl shockingly revealed that she had been sick for a long time and her friendship with Pepa well and truly was over.

 

"Pep and I were not good for a long time before then. We were young when we started and basically we were no longer communicating at all, and we felt underappreciated by one another, so getting back to performing as Salt-N-Pepa again, I had to put right a lot of stuff in my mind that had bothered me up to that point and learn to accept our legacy." The 1994 single, None Of Your Business, finally earned Salt-N-Pepa the first Grammy award of their career, but Cheryl who later "disowned that song for its sexually salacious content", was at that stage so unwell, that the win was merely a "hollow triumph".

 

"It was exciting on one level, but all I remember of that time was, I was severely bulimic and caught up in the whole 'skinny is beautiful' thing, and I felt so empty when I should have been elated, I suppose."

 

"My career was peaking at the same time my personal life was at an all time low. You always think when you're young that success is measured in these certain terms, but the reality is a Grammy's never gonna fill the void I felt when I was bulimic." Cheryl had successfully beaten her illness by the mid-2000s, and today is a spokesperson for bulimia awareness in American schools. Then in 2007, Pep and Wray finally burned a few old bridges. "We just needed to grow up away from each other for a time", and Cheryl took the equally important step to rejoining Salt-N-Pepa; she stopped fighting with her conscience over the songs, and learned to love both the sugar and the spice.

 

"In hindsight, I felt like I was out of my comfort zone promoting songs that I didn't believe in, but I didn't say anything at the time, and that's one of the issues that lead to me leaving, but I've made my peace with our legacy now." Accepting what people love about Salt-N-Pepa was one of Wray's biggest challenges, but Cheryl, who spent years distancing herself from what she perceived as the tacky side of Salt-N-Pepa, now exhibits a softened, almost sentimental approach to past "errors of judgment".

 

"Pep and I were actually talking about bringing out the old chunky leather jackets for fun - you know from the Push It video?" she laughs, "Just the other day my daughter was going through all my old stage clothes and her and her friend decided to dress up as me and Pep as we were in the '80s for Halloween! They had the spandex body suits on and everything, and I thought to myself, 'That's when you know you've made it - when you're a damned Halloween costume!'"

Salt-N-Pepa [USA] play The Palais Theatre on Saturday December 3.