“A Funky Beat with a Go-Go Swing”

Paying homage to 30 years of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Deadly” second album

Salt-N-Pepa promo photo, 1988

My rap canon began mostly with those turquoise 12″ singles from Sugar Hill Records, which we passed around like the Dead Sea Scrolls so everyone could add them to their mixtapes. There was Rapper’s Delight and The Message, of course, and Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel. But no less than five of the first 20 singles from Sugar Hill featured female rappers, including four by The Sequence and the titanic That’s The Joint by Funky Four + 1, with the “plus one” being Sha Rock, or Sharon Green, one of the first female MC’s. The Funky Four +1 were actually the first rap group to perform on national television, which means it’s not just in my imagination that having women on the mic is at the very foundations of hip hop.

So it should seen as an inevitability rather than a surprise that Cheryl James and Sandra Denton, AKA Salt-N-Pepa, would be one of the biggest rap groups of the 80’s and 90’s. Ably assisted by their producer, Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor, they made their debut in 1985 with “The Show Stoppa,” an “answer record” to Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show” and struck gold, after a few near misses, with the undeniably fun and funky “Push It” in 1986. Originally a b-side for “Tramp,” it was later added to their first album, Hot, Cool & Vicious, helping it go Platinum in short order. That song – and the album – established the Salt-N-Pepa brand: scrappy, danceable and catchy hip hop songs that looked back at the form’s schoolyard roots while pointing forward to its global domination.

Hot, Cool & Vicious was released after LL Cool J’s Radio, which inaugurated hip hop’s album era, and remains a solid listen. The follow-up, A Salt with a Deadly Pepa, which dropped 30 years ago this month, displays minor signs of a sophomore slump as the women and Luv Bug made sometimes scattershot attempts to find a bigger place for hip hop in popular culture. To that end, I Like It Like That has a cheesy “big-80’s” chorus with stacks of keyboards, and “I Gotcha” tries a bit too hard to be the Beat It of rap with bombastic electric guitars that go over the top into parody. “Twist And Shout,” which pulls from both The Beatles and Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” is a naked bid for the charts (hey, it hit #4 in the UK) that is better forgotten.

But when they stick to their brand and deliver party jams with on-point samples and rapid-fire rhyming, ASWADP is as strong as their debut. Their second DJ, Spinderella (Deidre Roper), also makes her first appearance here and does some great cutting, especially on album closer “Hyped On The Mic” and “Spinderella’s Not A Fella (But A Girl DJ).” But it’s on tracks like the “Funky Drummer”-driven “Let The Rhythm Run,” with joyful brags like “We kick another rhyme and claim another victim” and “The speaker smoked when I spoke” where they sound most in the zone. One innovation that works is the collaboration with Experience Unlimited (E.U.), one of Washington D.C.’s finest go-go bands, on “Shake Your Thang (It’s Your Thing).” Go-go was supposed to be the other great African-American music of the 80’s but never quite made it out of the D.C. orbit, so it’s nice to see Salt-N-Pepa giving it a leg up to a national profile – and they were rewarded with a Top Ten R&B hit.

Every hero’s journey – and there’s no question Salt-N-Pepa are heroes – features bumps in the road. It could be said that A Salt with a Deadly Pepa, which sold under a million copies, was a necessary way-station on their journey to independence from Azor and triumph with their third album, the Platinum-selling Blacks’ Magic. That album found them working with other producers for the first time and featured three chart-topping singles including the ubiquitous “Let’s Talk About Sex,” penned by Azor, proving he still had the touch. Almost unbelievably, Salt-N-Pepa had even greater success, artistically and commercially, with their fourth album, Very Necessary (1993), which sold over seven million copies and won them a Grammy, both firsts for female rappers. But it was the strength they showed after the relatively lukewarm reception to A Salt with a Deadly Pepa that paved their way to future heights.

 

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