Salt-N-Pepa Biopic and The Duos’ Impact on Hip Hop Culture

Salt-N-Pepa with DJ Spinderella

My mic sound nice, check one
My mic sound nice, check two
My mic sound nice, check three

ifetime TV aired the biopic of one of rap’s most famous groups, Salt-N-Pepa on Saturday, January 23rd. According to Variety, the film was executive produced by Robert Teitel along with Queen Latifah, Cheryl “Salt” James, Sandra “Pepa” Denton, and Shakim Compere. The film was co-executive produced by James “Jimmy” Maynes and Hurby Azor. The film’s director was Mario Van Peebles with screenplay written by Abdul Williams.

Blond and two-toned, asymmetrical bobs, gold doorknocker earrings, kente patterned hats, spandex body suits, and bright colored leather jackets with their names on them, were the hip hop duos’ brand image. Energetic on stage with sexy choreography and strong voices that could battle rap any male rapper, Salt-N-Pepa ushered in a new era of hip hop, that showed women could be independent, fierce, and expressive without trying to be carbon copies of men. Salt-N-Pepa paved the way for the expressive, confident women in hip hop and R&B like Adina Howard, TLC, Lil Kim, and Foxy Brown. Salt-N-Pepa rapped about sex amidst the rise of HIV/AIDS and calls for greater sexual responsibility. The film shows a clip of NBA legend, Magic Johnson at a press conference telling the world that he was HIV positive. I like that the film placed this kind of message within it to show how much Salt-N-Pepa were ahead of their time in spreading awareness.

Salt-N-Pepa’s album covers are classics. They are remnants of hip hop’s fantastic past. The fun, braggadocios aspects of hip hop where freestyling in a battle was respected, when hip hop was free of violence, free of drugs, free of exaggerated materialism — an era that is long gone. Salt-N-Pepa emerged at a time when rappers were socially conscious and motivated to exhibit much of the five elements of hip hop — the dj, emceeing, art (graffiti), b-boying/b-girling, knowledge (culture and overstanding), in ways that are not always evident now. Some hip hop historians include fashion styling as a part of the culture element (think Dapper Dan from Harlem), which Salt-N-Pepa definitely represented well.

Just an aside, as a hip hop head, I want to talk about Salt-N-Pepa’s lyricism. Salt-N-Pepa’s voices were meant for hip hop music. Pepa had a raspy, deep voice and Salt had more of a cutting, higher pitched voice. But together, they were complimentary and raw with their lyrics. My favorite songs are not really the commercial ones. Obviously “Push It” ranks because of its mainstream popularity, but there are others that show their emcee skills were nothing to play with. Some of my favorite Salt-N-Pepa songs are: “My Mic Sounds Nice,” “A Salt with a Deadly Pepa,” “Get Up Everybody (Get Up),” “Solo Power,” “Expression,” and “Tramp.”

Getting back to the film, I had hoped and expected to see the inspiration behind many of their albums and hit songs. There was a scene where Pepa and Salt are inspired to write their own lyrics, rather than be told what to say by Hurby Azor. I also wanted to know more about their beginnings because we’ve never seen that on the big screen. Being a female writer of the hip hop generation, I’ve always closely followed women in hip hop. I admired Salt-N-Pepa not just for their sassy rhymes, but also their fashions, their social consciousness, their ability to seem like sisters even though they weren’t blood related, and their inclusion of a female DJ. There were few known female hip hop DJs in the 80s and 90s (comment below if you know several of that era). I can think of a few, like DJ Jazzy Joyce and later Monie Love and Yo Yo. Salt-N-Pepa was a crew. The male rappers had their crew complete with a DJ: The Cold Crush Brothers, Eric B. and Rakim, Public Enemy and so many others. So it was fitting that Salt-N-Pepa had a DJ and her name is Deidra “DJ Spinderella” Roper.

In the film the addition of Spinderella was Hurby’s idea but I wonder how Salt and Pepa felt about that? In the film, it didn’t seem to go over too well with Salt. Spinderella did perform in many shows with them including touring. Everyone believed they were a natural trio. How can you have an emcee without a DJ? That’s like peanut butter with no jelly.

I was surprised that the biopic did not give more room for Spinderella’s contribution. Like where did she come from? How did she talk? Did she rap or write? So many questions! She seemed to be an afterthought, an extra on stage, just another girl with an asymmetrical cut and a colorful jacket in the film. I wanted to know more about her and what her interaction was within the group, off stage.

Could it be that due to some distance among the trio in real life, that Spinderella wasn’t more prominent in the film? I don’t know. These decisions are made by executive producers. Perhaps they thought it best to not hone in on her as a primary element due to the length of the film. According to People magazine, Spinderella says she was wrongfully excluded from the biopic.

It was interesting to see how the ladies evolved. They were both community college students in Queens. Pepa, the sassy, fun, and spontaneous one. Salt, the careful, soft spoken, calm one. How would these ladies be able to manage being in a group together within an industry known for beefs, scandals, and break ups? Salt says to Pepa at one point during the film, that she has always catered to Pepa, made sure Pepa was good and put her friends’ needs before her own. You can tell that Salt had a strong nurturing side, because she worried about Pepa and kept her own personal problems to herself.

The film depicts them working at a telemarketing job at Sears along with future stars Martin Lawrence and Kid ‘n Play. I would have to go back and watch it again, but it seemed like Hurby Azor, Salt’s boyfriend was also managing Kid ‘n Play’s hip hop act at the time. Hurby had an ever expanding hip hop music business. So much so that when Salt-N-Pepa performed an early show at a club, Hurby was approached by an unsavory “pimp” like character “Sweet Tooth” who wanted in on managing Salt-N-Pepa, played by director/actor Mario Van Peebles son, Mandela Van Peebles. I’ve seen Mandela in photos and could not believe this was him playing this gangster “Sweet Tooth” character. Like boy was he believable — gold tooth and all! I really believe that Mandela Van Peebles was the breakout star of this biopic along with the actresses who played Salt-N-Pepa: G.G. Towson and Laila Odom. I didn’t see a whole lot of the actress who played Spinderella, Monique Paul, but of course that’s not her fault. So I cannot comment on her performance.

There is a scene in the film when two Salt-N-Pepa look-alikes try to perform as Salt-N-Pepa in a club. They are outed by Hurby Azor when he announces to the crowd that they are imposters. The “pimp” gangster “Sweet Tooth” played by Mandela Van Peebles hired the female imposters so that he could make money from their show. Turns out the two young women, who looked just like Salt-N-Pepa, were Salt’s daughter Corin, and Pepa’s daughter Egypt. Pepa’s daughter auditioned for the role to play her mother in the film but didn’t get it, according to Yahoo Entertainment.

Salt was depicted in the film as being very shy and dependent on Hurby Azor, and not as outspoken or bold as Pepa. That’s probably an understatement. It wasn’t until a friend of Pepa told her that she and Salt were getting a bum deal in terms of the money they received from their management and record company, that the duo began to look at their worth as being greater than how they were treated. Although Salt-N- Pepa was initially the vision of Hurby Azor, the ladies wised up and started to take their careers into their own hands. They renegotiated their record contract and management deal.

The artists, Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandra “Pepa” Denton could not have been more opposite, according to the film. Salt seemed to hold all of her stress inwards. She battled a terrible eating disorder, bulimia. She also felt a heavy spiritual conflict with being close to Pepa and continuing to rap after turning her life over to Christ. Pepa was the free spirit who threw mansion parties and loved the high life. Salt and Pepa argue and dismiss each other throughout the film. It seemed they had a close bond that could be toxic and intense at times. Salt was the more sensitive one who took everything to heart. Her eating disorder, bouts of depression, and inner turmoil was shown during scenes when she often cried and threw up in the bathroom. All of the fame and money cannot take away emotional pain and the effects of toxic relationships.

During the post show discussion with Loni Love, Salt expressed that she took a break from the group and from the limelight for about 10-years. During that time she said she was able to heal her eating disorder and get clear on who she wanted to be. She discussed that the entertainment industry was brutal on women’s public image and the pressure to be thin was immense. That pressure contributed to her eating disorder. She had to learn how to have a healthy relationship with food and herself.

I believe the film depicted that Salt was a member of Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn. I visited the church several times years ago. A scene in the film shows that Salt is emotionally overcome after hearing her pastor’s sermon about releasing toxic people in your life. Salt’s pastor was played by director/actor Mario Van Peebles, who bares a striking resemblance to the actual pastor of Christian Cultural Center, Reverend A.R. Bernard, Sr.

Apart from music and business it seemed there was another constant in the women’s lives: men. Even though the ladies worked hard on their dance choreography, rap songs, and touring schedules, it seemed love and romance was never far from their midst. Salt dated Hurby Azor for years, but the film revealed that his roving eye became a problem. Pepa met a man who seemed really into her but as soon as she announced she was pregnant, he wasn’t happy. The film didn’t show whether they stayed together or not, but it’s assumed that they didn’t because next thing you know she was dating Treach from the hip hop group Naughty By Nature.

Salt stayed with Hurby Azor well past the time when the relationship had run it’s course. Finding out that there was infidelity on Hurby’s part was devastating for Salt, still she stayed for seemingly a few more years until a baby was born and she found out that it was his, with another woman. At that point, Salt is finally fed up and dumps Hurby as a boyfriend. She still keeps him on as the manager and chief producer for the group. Salt soon moves on to a man who has been expressing interest for some time, Gavin. He seemed like a nice, quiet, soft spoken man who was there for Salt whenever she needed him. She became pregnant, and they eventually had one more child. The film doesn’t depict when Gavin and Salt moved in together or when they married. Salt does say during the post show discussion with Loni Love that she went through a divorce after being married for twenty-eight years. Whew, that’s a long time!

Pepa and Treach seemed to be soulmates: two hip hop renegades heading for a passionate crash and burn. They were love and hip hop before the salacious VH-1 reality show “Love and Hip Hop” ever existed. The film depicts rapper Treach as obsessive, controlling, abusive, and jealous of Pepa. I really wish they had shown more about why Pepa actually fell in love with him. It didn’t have to be because he was a famous rapper, because she was also famous. The film didn’t show Treach in the best light at all, but I really can’t say if he was as terrorizing as the film depicted, in real life. The film shows them getting married in a tattoo parlor. Really interesting. I wonder whose idea that was?

I remember years ago reading about their relationship in a magazine. It sounded like Pepa and Treach were just too much alike. Two fiery people who could not yield to one another, and Pepa is a Caribbean woman — hot blooded for sure! The film doesn’t show the end of their marriage but during the post-show chat, Pepa told comedian Loni Love that she had been married “three and a half times” and wasn’t doing it anymore. I suppose she remarried after Treach. She and Treach have a daughter Egypt who has been a cast member on the show “Growing Up Hip Hop”, but I am not sure if Pepa has other children outside of her daughter and son from a previous relationship.

G.G. Townson as Cheryl “Salt” James and Laila Odom as Sandra “Pepa” Denton. Monique Paul as the group’s DJ, Deidra Roper aka DJ Spinderella

Hip hop was clearly a man’s world but Salt-N-Pepa were determined to navigate it and keep their power in the process. The biopic shows the women breaking up but they couldn’t stay away from the legacy they built forever. We see their impact on the culture at the end of the film, when they are honored at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors Awards. I love it when the scene transitions from the actors performing on stage to the real Salt-N-Pepa rapping and dancing like they used to do. It was kind of emotional to see that they’re still doing their thing after all of these years. In their 50s and still fly!

Did you watch the “Salt N Pepa” biopic? What did you think? Should Spinderella have had a larger part in the film? Comment below or tweet me @duewafrazier1! Visit my website at www.duewaworld.com.

Writer, poet, podcaster, children’s/YA/MG author, TEDx “Word is Bond” speaker. Nerd-in-Chief at Nerdacity Podcast. Educator & commentator. www.duewaworld.com

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