Salt-N-Pepa isn't the only rap group gunning for Run-D.M.C.'s crown--but it's just about the only one with the distinction of being female.
"I don't like the fact that there are so few women in rap," says Cheryl James (Salt). "Rap is hardcore street music but there are women out there who can hang with the best male rappers. What holds us back is that girls tend to rap in these high, squeaky voices. It's irritating. You've gotta rap from the diaphragm. "
If there's anything James and her rap partner Sandy Denton (Pepa) have learned since entering the record business, it's the concept of competition. Denton was formerly engaged to Mark (Markey Dee) Morales of the Fat Boys, with whom Salt-N-Pepa toured last summer. She says they broke off their engagement in large part due to competition.
"I'd get 'Hey, our album just went platinum,' " said Denton during a phone interview this week. "And I'm like, 'So what? Our next album is gonna go platinum.' "
Salt-N-Pepa--who are on the bill with U.T.F.O. and other rappers tonight at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim and Saturday at the Hollywood Palladium--initially won favor with rap fans with the underground success of the hit singles "The Showstopper" and "I'll Take Your Man."
More recently, a remix of "Tramp" from the group's debut album, "Hot Cool & Vicious," rose to the Top 20 on the black charts, and the hit's salacious B-side, "Push It" (not on the album), has crossed over to the pop charts.
Salt-N-Pepa mixes mildly salty language, a hot, peppery dance beat and a heavy dose of attitude in a sound that sets the group miles ahead of any female competitors in the rap field--and many of their male counterparts.
James and Denton, who've been friends since they were both studying nursing at Queensborough Community College and working part-time as telephone solicitors for Sears, formed a group at the insistence of James' boyfriend, a record producer who goes by the name of Hurby (Luv Bug) Azor.
Azor had to come up with a school project for a music class he was taking, and the result was a style-laden, smart-alecky record called "The Showstopper," which was inspired by Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick's hit, "The Show." The track led to a one-record deal with an independent label called Pop Art Records, and made a Top 20 showing on Billboard's black chart.
Despite those early gains, James says Azor (who also writes and produces for other rap artists, including Dana Dane, was turned down "by every label in town" before signing the group to its current label, Next Plateau. Salt-N-Pepa recently added a third member, deejay Deirdre (Spinderella) Roper, although the group is still mainly regarded as a rap duo.
"For a long time, we got no respect," Denton said. "People thought we just got lucky. They said we were a one-record wonder. But we're one of the guys now." She laughed, adding, "We're not outcasts anymore."
Of the eight tracks on "Hot, Cool & Vicious," James, 21, counts the blatantly confrontational "I'll Take Your Man" as her favorite. "That wasn't our biggest hit, but I like it because it's controversial."
When the single was first released, she said, many radio stations in New York refused to play it. "It was too aggressive for them. It's that old double standard. If it had been recorded by a guy and titled 'I'll Take Your Girl,' there would have been no problem."
The latest single from the album is a rap update of the Pointer Sisters' hit "Chick on the Side" (B-side, "I'm Down"). For the group's upcoming second album, "Career Girls," Azor had planned to have Salt-N-Pepa do another rap version of a non-rap hit, Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll."
The plan was to include an appearance by Jett on the track, but according to James, Jett has expressed second thoughts about allowing any tampering with her biggest hit. "So we've come up with a rap song called 'Sit on It . . . ,' that she might do with us," James said with a giggle. "I think that would be interesting."
The group is hoping that a pairing with Jett would do for Salt-N-Pepa what "Walk This Way" did for Run-D.M.C. when it re-recorded the old hit with Aerosmith. "Our attitude is that we want to cross over," James admitted. "You can't go on making records just for your own hometown."
Only a few years ago neither James or Denton could have pictured herself in the music business. But, Denton observed, "Our families didn't really support us at first. My mom said, 'You're quitting nursing for this? ' Now, she's almost become our agent."
Even more satisfying was a newspaper interview in which a member of Run-D.M.C. observed, as Denton recalls, "that Salt-N-Pepa reminded them of them in their early days, and that one day we're going to be like them in status. Hey, I tell you, we cherish that statement."