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Hip-Hop Duo Salt-N-Pepa tell all about their trailblazing journey from working at Sears to the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Sandra “Pepa” Denton and Cheryl “Salt” James Pic credit: Lifetime

Salt-N-Pepa broke down the barriers for so many artists that followed and helped change the world of rap and hip hop to include female artists. Would there be a Nicki Minaj or a Cardi B without Salt-n-Pepa? Now, watch their story unfold as Lifetime presents Salt-N-Pepa, which tells the story of two women in the music industry, their ups and downs, and the challenges that they overcame as females in a male-dominated field of music.

“This is a story of success, of pushing through,” Cheryl “Salt” James said in a press junket for the biopic. “It takes commitment; it takes originality. We brought something different to the table. We were unique and had our own sound. That’s what it takes to be able to last in this business.”

Salt-N-Pepa, starring GG Townson as James and Laila Odom as Sandra “Pepa” Denton, follows the story of nursing students James and Denton as they enter the world of rap and hip hop after making a recording for a friend’s school project.

Originally named Super Nature on their first single, The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh), it was the lyrics of that song — “Cause we, the Salt and Pepa MCs” — that had fans asking for the “salt and pepper” song, so they made the name change, and opened the door to their destiny.

“I think symbolically it represents two women that are polar opposites but are best friends,” James said. “I think there’s a salt and pepper in every friendship, so I think the audience was able to relate, too, in a way, that is very personal and so it represented us in our personalities in an amazing way. I don’t think we would have been anything near what we are without that name.”

In the conversation with James and Denton, they also talked about their rough start, revisiting difficult moments in their lives – bulimia and cutting, when they felt empowered as female artists, getting help from Queen Latifah to get the movie made, and more.

Monsters & Critics: When you set out to do this biopic, what was the discussion? Was it, “We’ve got to say everything,” or was it, “There are areas where we’re not going?”

Cheryl “Salt” James: There were definitely a lot of legal limitations. It’s hard to put 35 years into a 2-½ hour film. There were so many things that we wanted to say that we weren’t able to. For me and Pep, I don’t think there was anything we didn’t want to say. I feel like we have more to say, but we definitely had a lot of anxiety doing it because it opens up old wounds and questions that you have about things that you experienced. I definitely had a hard time pushing through it.

Sandra “Pepa” Denton: The truth met the honesty of the movie. Here are two friends that had ups and downs and went through a lot.

M&C: In the movie, the group is depicted recording music in makeshift spaces like basements or bathrooms. Is that where Salt-N-Pepa actually recorded their music?

Cheryl “Salt” James: We started recording in Hurby Azor, our producer’s, attic and then he turned his mom’s garage into a studio. So, a lot of the greatest Salt-N-Pepa songs like “Whatta Man” and “Shoop” were actually recorded in Hurby’s garage. All of those things were what actually happened. The most interesting studio story is we did record “Push It” in a bathroom at this producer’s house and it was small like you will see it in the movie. It was hot. We were sweating and we were up in each other’s face. That iconic song was recorded in a bathroom.

M&C: Talk about your journey. How does it feel to go from the early days in Queens, working at Sears, to actually becoming artists in a position to have a biopic?

Sandra “Pepa” Denton: It’s just amazing to have a biopic of your life story, especially for us with our journey and being in such a male-dominated field with so many barriers that we broke down. We trailblazed. It was a long journey with some ups and downs.

I remember watching Tina Turner. I was like, “Man, if I ever do a movie, I want it to be just like that. I want it to celebrate my work and my legacy,” and now I’m seeing it come to pass. I’m living it. It’s just amazing. I’m very humbled by it and I couldn’t have done it without the fans.

Cheryl “Salt” James: For me, Salt-N-Pepa was just destiny for us, the way our story unfolded from the beginning until now to be here 36 years later, to be celebrated not only with the biopic but with the Walk of Fame. We got our star on the Walk of Fame. We’re getting the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. It’s the career that people dream about having from beginning to end. Who would’ve thought? I always knew we were going to make it as artists, but I never in my wildest dreams thought that at this particular time in my life that I would still be doing press junkets and tours.

I say this was destiny for us. We’ve been well celebrated for our whole career. We even took a 10-year hiatus and came back. We never skipped a beat. For this generation to know who we are and our music is incredible. We’re not just artists; we are a brand. We made a statement that left its imprint not only on people’s minds but their hearts. They have so much love for us and as we do for the fans and people who are our supporters as well.

M&C: The film shows how you each went through difficult situations. What was it like actually reliving some of these moments?  

Cheryl “Salt” James: It was definitely a challenge. The whole process was a challenge for me because I am an emotional human being. I remember particularly on the set when GG was throwing up, I got really emotional. She got really emotional. We ended up hugging and crying, trying to pull it together because I felt like that was such a vulnerable position for her to be in as an actress, but also for me, too, to watch it and relive going through being severely bulimic.

I know a lot of people don’t understand eating disorders. It’s an addiction and a psychological issue.  And so, I appreciated that GG got it. She felt the emotion that comes behind doing something like that and not being able to control it.

Sandra “Pepa” Denton: Personally, for me, the cutting scene was huge. That’s not something that I’ve discussed personally with my family. Yes, it was mentioned in my book, but to actually see that again because of how hard it was when my father died. I was devastated. All he wanted was for me to be on honor roles. I accomplished that, and he wanted me to achieve my goals. I’m Jamaican, as everyone knows, there’s no room for failure on top of that. So, I had to become somebody.

And Salt-N-Pepa was my answer, my path, my destiny. It was put in front of me and there was nothing that was going to stop me from achieving that. And showing the cutting, identifying with the pain in those moments that you see in the movies — with my father, when Cheryl left me, or [now ex-husband] Treach — those were moments I never really spoke about that.

GG Townson and Laila Odom Pic credit: Lifetime

M&C: When did you truly feel empowered as female artists?

Sandra “Pepa” Denton: I felt like it headlining my first tour because of busting down all the barriers and really going through it as a pop artist. Salt-N-Pepa crossed over, we were getting hits overseas and in the States. We weren’t getting the respect, but we were making the numbers: platinum records. When it came down to headlining tours, everybody who challenged us, they saw us sell out tours. The numbers didn’t lie. It was all coming together, hit after hit when they thought we would be a one-hit-wonder, but we turned out to be a force to be reckoned with. It was just a proud moment to keep going and showing that.

Cheryl “Salt” James: For me it definitely started out with Hurby as my boyfriend, and along the way, fame came into the picture and so Hurby began to stray away from me. I went through a long period of making up and breaking up. And finally, when I broke off the relationship, I also became more independent creatively. It put a spark under me to know that.

Being around him, the genius that he is, I gleaned so much from him being in the studio, and so, when I started producing for me personally, that’s when I felt really liberated and empowered. At least, I got something out of that relationship besides heartache and pain. I also got my kids from my ex-husband.  He taught me how to write, how to produce, and how to be an artist.

Also, the Grammys was a very powerful moment for Salt-N-Pepa as well. We boycotted the Grammys because it was at a time when they were not showing the hip hop category. With Will Smith, Public Enemy and Kid ‘n’ Play, we all said, “We’re going to boycott.” People still remember to this day, so being a part of it, being an activist and using our voice to make a difference in the industry was powerful for us, as well. And now we’re receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, the greatest Grammy you can get.

M&C: You had a little bit of help from Queen Latifah, who is an executive producer on this project. How so?

Sandra “Pepa” Denton: Latifah is a good friend of ours and she goes way back, and Salt-N-Pepa has been on this journey with our legacy for some time now. Latifah is a part of the Lifetime Family, so when this project was brought to that family, everybody was like, “This is amazing. This is great.” As you see, there’s a part that she has in the movie when we are at the Hip Hop Honors, and she’s part of hip hop, so it is only right for her to share our story with us and bring it to light with us.

Salt-N-Pepa premieres Saturday, Jan 22 at 8 p.m. ET on Lifetime

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