When Cheryl “Salt” James of female rap group Salt-N-Pepa was singing the group’s hits such as “Push It,” “Shoop” and “Let’s Talk About Sex” in the late 1980s and 1990s, she says she didn’t think about whether she was making history.
“That wasn’t my goal,” James says. “Making money wasn’t the goal, nor was the goal being extremely famous. The goal was to entertain, to make good music and to have a good time.
“When we started, we were so young — and so happy to not be working at Sears Roebuck as telephone solicitors anymore.”
On Sunday, when the Billboard Music Awards wanted to make a statement about barriers being broken by women in music, it noted that Salt-N-Pepa made history 30 years ago as the first female rap act to hit the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
The group performed its 1994 platinum hit “Whatta Man” with En Vogue, the group with which it recorded it. And by all media acounts, it was a smash.
On Saturday, Salt-N-Pepa headlines the “I Love the ’90s Tour” show that will christen Mount Airy Casino’s new tented outdoor Summer Stage, with fellow hip-hop performers Rob Base, Tone Loc and Young MC.
The reason Salt-N-Pepa is still heralded after three decades is that its music was, indeed, pioneering.
It not only was among the first all-female rap groups, starting in 1985, but also is probably the biggest female rap group ever. It sold 10 million copies of its five studio albums and six compilations, including more than 5 million alone for its 1993 album “Very Necessary” — the most successful rap album by a female act ever.
It also won the 1995 Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group at a time when rap not only still was a male-dominated genre, but was also increasingly mysogenistic, with hits such as Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny.”
In a phone call from South Carolina, where she was taking a break to visit her parents and other family, Salt says she didn’t really think about any of that at the time.
“Back then we didn’t think a lot about what we were doing,” she says. “It was very organic. You know, the outfits that we came up with, the songs, the words, the videos — everything was just, you know, as we went along. … And we were just real, around-the-way chicks, you know, having a good time.”
Salt and partner Sandra “Pepa” Denton were studying nursing in community college and, indeed, working at Sears when a co-worker (and Salt’s boyfriend) — soon-to-be rap producer Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor — asked them to help with a project for his college record production studies.
The resulting single, "The Showstoppa" — an “answer record” to Doug E. Fresh’s hit “The Show” — became a regional hit around New York and got Salt-N-Pepa, who added then-teen-age DJ Spinderella, signed to a record deal.
“I think Salt-N-Pepa, we’re unique in a lot of ways,” Salt says. “Our sound is definitely like no other. Pepa and I were friends before the group started, so we actually have an amazing chemistry. We are the yin and the yang.”
The group also was set apart by its female perspective, Salt says.
“I think we came along at a time when female rappers weren’t really having that much commercial success, and we brought fun, fashion and femininity to hip-hop,” Salt says. “We dressed like girls, we acted like girls. We didn’t feel like we had to be boys or really hard-core, you know?”
That approach won them female fans, who ideintified with the singers, Salt says.
“I think that we just appealed to a broader audience, and especially made an impact on, you know, the lives of women. And they tell us that all the time,” she says.
“Hitting the heart of a female audience and speaking their truth, and stepping out and being as bold as we were with the things that we had to say, the way that we dressed. Being successful in such a male-oriented genre, such a misogynistic genre, I think that women were really hungry for a voice. And, um, we filled the void.”
But Salt-N-Pepa surprisingly also attracted male fans, who were attracted to Salt-N-Pepa’s sexy attire and uninhibited talk about sex.
“We didn’t have a blueprint. I really was very, very make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of situation for us,” Salt says. “And the stars aligned for us at the right time.”
The group’s 1986 debut album, “Hot, Cool & Vicious,” with “Push It,” went platinum, hit the Top 10 on the R&B chart, and even crossed over to Top 30 on Billboard’s overall albums chart — quite a feat for rap music at the time.
Its third album, 1990’s “Black’s Magic,” also went platinum and broke the Top 40 with the platinum hit “Expression” and “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which peaked at No. 13.
But it was “Very Necessary” that made Salt-N-Pepa superstars, with the hits “Shoop” and “Whatta Man.” It broke the Top 5 on the overall albums chart.
Salt-N-Pepa released jusy one more studio album, 1997’s “Brand New,” which also went gold. But by 2000, with Salt-N-Pepa involved in a lawsuit over royalties with Azor, Salt says she was tired of the industry.
“When you’ve been doing this from 18 years old, there’s a lot of things that you go through in the industry,” Salt says. “As we all know, your personal life is not your own, and it doesn’t matter. ‘The show must go on’ is a real statement.
“And with no breaks, it started to become stressful in a lot of ways. There were a lot of lawsuits. … the management that we had at the time, wasn’t necessarily looking out for our best interests. I could go on and on and on.
“The thing for me was that Pep and I weren’t getting along anymore. And like I said, we started out as friends, and we really didn’t understand how to communicate — nor did we understand that all the stresses that we were dealing with in the industry was beginning to affect our relationship. And so it became just unbearable for me personally.”
Salt took a decade away from the music business. “It was a great 10 years for me,” she says. “I was home for my family — I was there for my kids, and it was the best move for me.”
In 2007, she reconnected with Pepa and together they starred in the VH1 reality series “The Salt-N-Pepa Show,” which chronicled them working out their issues and preparing to start performing again.
“It got us to start communicating, which was really difficult, and to start figuring out, for me, whether I wanted to do it again,” Salt says.
But she says, “here’s the thing about our legacy: You can’t run from it, is what I learned. It’s gonna chase you your whole life. … from the fans to Pepa, to all the offers and the things that I had to keep saying no to over the years. I got to a point where I couldn’t say no anymore.”
Salt-N-Pepa did “a random show” with Vanilla Ice, Coolio and others that “came off really well and sold out the place,” and that started the “I Love the ’90s Tour,” Salt says. “And it just kept building and building. I keep looking at the calendar and thinking it’s going to slow down, but it never does.”
Instead, she says, the group is finding new fans in millennials.
“Timeless music is timeless music,” she says. “I look at artists that are still performing that I looked up to, and there was a time that I didn’t get it. But now, it’s like, ‘It’s the music.’ The music draws the people and it’s good music.”
Salt notes that the EDM group Cheat Codes did a cover of “Let’s Talk About Sex” on which Salt-N-Pepa did a verse.
“You know, I never put myself in the ‘timeless music’ category when I was doing it, but obviously, all this time later, that’s what we made: Songs that stand the test of time. Which is what an artist wants to do.
“And 31 years later, to see Beyonce dressed up as Salt-N-Pepa on Halloween, you know, is just, like, ‘Wow.’ That’s not something that I thought would be happening. I really thought that I would be not on the road, probably, in my mid-30s,” says Salt, who is 52.
“I thought, about 35, that’s when you hang up your Pumas. But I’m still out here and it’s just crazy to me. And we appreciate it a lot.”
Salt-N-Pepa, with Spinderella
What: The rap group headlines the 'I Love the '90s Tour,' with Rob Base, Tone Loc and Young MC
When: 6:30 p.m. May 26
Where: Mount Airy Casino Resort, Outdoor Summer Stage, 312 Woodland Road, Mount Pocono
How much: $65-$85, VIP $235
Info: mountairycasino.com, 877-MTAIRY-1