Salt-N-Pepa laid out their best music and bravest activism on Very Necessary, an album about love, agency, and take-no-shit femininity from the Queens rap trio.
In 1990, Salt-N-Pepa walked onto the Hollywood set of “The Arsenio Hall Show” ready to spread awareness about HIV and AIDS. The men in the audience were fervently doing the signature Hall bark well beyond the call of the show. The Queens trio—Cheryl “Salt” James, Sandy “Pepa” Denton and Deidra “Spinderella” Roper—were there to promote their spot in a fundraising traveling tour of Heart Strings, a new musical about AIDS and HIV featuring Cher and Magic Johnson, where they would perform their PSA-rework of “Let’s Talk About Sex” titled, “Let’s Talk About AIDS.” Maintaining its message that if you’re having sex, you have to talk about “all the good things, all the bad things,” the alternate version fine-tuned the song so that its focus on sexual health was more explicit.
But it was hard to tell who in the audience was there to hear Salt-N-Pepa and who was just there to look. “We’ve talked about the image of female rappers in the past,” said Hall. “Your image is a lot more lady-like. Do you think that’s the reason for these guys?” A clearly frustrated Salt responded, “We’ve gotten a lot of flack about that.” She looked exasperated. “I’ve heard people say we’ve gotten over on our looks. First of all, I ain’t know I look that good. To get over for six years on your looks? We’ve been around for awhile and if it’s just looks, then that’s messed up.”
If their fan base included dudes who just had crushes, they only made up a sliver. The rest were there because S-N-P were spearheading a movement toward take-no-shit femininity that didn’t require them to dress like B-boys. “We’re not soft, we’re not hard,” Spinderella explained it to Arsenio. Salt lifted her Docs over his coffee table and told him their style was all lipstick and combat boots.
So much of the first decade of Salt-N-Pepa forged a path for women to follow for the next twenty years, both in rap and pop music, as well with social and sexual mores. The whole map of their conquest is laid out on their 1993 album Very Necessary. The confidence of “Push It”—which Pepa has insisted is about dancing, not about sex—and the emotional intelligence of “Let’s Talk About Sex” are present, but the womanly conviction here is far more plentiful than it had been in their music before. It was a palliative to the hyper-misogyny spewing from their male contemporaries. If Snoop Dogg and friends were going to harangue hoes, then in Salt-N-Pepa’s world, words like “hoe” and “hooker” were just as applicable to men. They maintained their themes of sexuality and empowerment—and were in good company with Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” and TLC’s “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”—but it got a new look. Whether in combat boots or pum pum shorts, their message was still clear: women need to have agency over their sexuality and, if she’s safe, she can express it however the hell she wants.
The album’s lead single “Shoop,” in particular, is unintentionally prescient about the contemporary inverted misogyny so many feminists engage in now, in jest or otherwise. In the video, Pepa tells Salt and Spin about her weakness—“men!” they chant in unison—while she scours guys on Coney Island playing dice. It is reverse catcalling, a playful way of leveling the field of objectification.
In a 1995 conversation with Mary Wilson of the Supremes for Interview, Salt conceded that the perception of the group changed once they started talking more frequently about their own sexuality instead forecasting what goes on behind other people’s closed doors. “When we get raw and sexy some people say, ‘Why do you have to go there?’ I feel like, as long as you’re letting the world know that you're intelligent and you're to be respected and you have a mind of your own and you're taking care of business, ain’t nothing wrong with showing off what you got, especially when you work out almost every day to get it. Of course, you have to show it with taste and with class. It’s about having an attitude of your own.”
Part of that attitude was putting men like the ones in the “Arsenio” audience squarely in their place: sometimes women get to do the barking and no one gets to judge them for it. Very Necessary is packed with anthems that are unafraid to look at men with the same ogling eye and do not accept being told it’s unladylike. “None of Your Business,” the album’s third single, denounced slut-shaming before it even had a name and is stridently dedicated to pushing a message that no matter how desperately you want to judge women, it will not matter to them. Spinderella calmly raps, “How many rules am I to break before you understand/That your double standards don't mean shit to me?”
Just as combative, “Somebody’s Gettin’ on My Nerves” is one of the album’s finer (and fiercer) points. Salt-N-Pepa make club records, but this track shows off they fare just as well when the bars are the focal point. Salt raps with a sober precision that only comes with a particularly refined and potent fury (it is not dissimilar to Ice Cube’s bite on N.W.A. diss “No Vaseline”). It is also the perfect playground for knockout punches like Pepa’s “You rolled up on me in your man's Beemer/And I could look at you and tell you was a meat-beatin' daydreamer.”
Some of this ferocity is bolstered by the production handled by Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor. While quips like, “Get off my bra strap, boy/Stop sweatin’ me” are part of S-N-P’s power, the track’s menacing bass is what keeps it ice cold. Azor had been mentoring the group since he put Pepa and Salt together as the duo Super Nature in the early ’80s. He had seen them through their four preceding albums, but after relinquishing production control to Salt for the Coltrane-sampling single “Expression” from their 1990 album Blacks’ Magic and a toxic romance between Salt and Azor ended, the women wanted more say in what went into Very Necessary.
A 1994 New York cover story reveals that Azor found “Shoop” uncompelling and that he wanted the group to take an even softer approach. Despite how much of a hand Azor had in the album production, Salt-N-Pepa's interest in keeping it more "street" endured. Songs like “Nerves” and “None of Your Business,” do have the trappings of the gangster rap that was populating the charts, its toughness mainly comes from the take-no-shit vocality delivered by the group. The album’s textures are as sundry as the city they are from: Opener “Groove Me” is indebted to the outer boroughs’ West Indian populations; “Break of Dawn” lifts the ecstatic sax from the J.B.s’ James Brown-produced “The Grunt” and takes Joe Tex’s funky “Papa Was Too” and pounds them into Queens Boulevard brashness. Public Enemy may have been the first to use “The Grunt” on their 1988 track “Night of the Living Baseheads,” but Salt-N-Pepa were in good company, as Wu-Tang Clan and 2pac both used the same sample in that year.
On top of the beats, it was Salt-N-Pepa’s relentless campaign for social and sexual agency that drove the album. “Sexy Noises Turn Me On” may sound a little bit dated in 2017, but the frankness with which the women express their needs is anything but. It is the precursor to so many Foxy Brown one-liners and songs like Rasheeda’s “My Bubble Gum” and Nicki Minaj’s “Get on Your Knees.” There are calls elsewhere on Very Necessary for reciprocity, like when Salt raps: “You’re under my control/I got your heart and soul/Go down and take your time” on opener “Groove Me” but they were pushing to do even more than just smash the insidious taboo that women can only perform oral sex, not receive it that many of their descendants have rallied for (see: Lil’ Kim’s entire 1996 debut album Hard Core).
This attitude bleeds through to tracks like “Step,” which uses a hefty sample of Hank Crawford’s jazzy “It’s a Funky Thing to Do” and comes off optimally unbothered. “Somma Time Man” is reproachful of male promiscuity (just like their 1986 Otis Redding-interpolating song “Tramp”), but so much of the critique is about infidelity and the lack of safety. Ultimately, Salt-N-Pepa’s mantra when it came to AIDS was, “If you don’t get it, you can’t spread it.” It is their entire ethos: sex is happening everywhere and it cannot be ignored because like all other thrills there are risks—risks you take with your heart and risks you take with health. If you’re doing it right, there’s no shame attached to it. It’s why they wrote “None of Your Business,” but also why they spent many of their television appearances talking about how easy it is to put on a condom.
Pepa and Salt appeared on “Charlie Rose” a year before the album was released to talk about their activism. “Some guys don’t think it’s macho, some girls are insulted if you ask to use a condom,” Salt told Rose. Pepa offered, “It’s not macho to get AIDS… You have to wear condoms like you put on a jacket when it’s cold…” With many fans confiding in them their own diagnoses with HIV and AIDS, they felt it was their responsibility to keep the conversation going. Very Necessary closes with a skit unlike almost any that has ever appeared on a pop album. Titled “I’ve Got AIDS,” the sketch is a harrowing performance from two members of the multicultural peer education group WEATOC from Boston, Massachusetts. The script is bold and stark, featuring a female member, distraught, explaining to her boyfriend that she has just come home from a clinic where she was told she was HIV positive. Her partner then accuses her of being with other men because, even though he is untested, he couldn’t possibly have HIV. To close it with something so dark is to remind your audience to take care of themselves and that committing to your cause means using your platform to disrupt. Their fearless outspokenness has been unrivaled in the mainstream, conscious rappers be damned.
Salt-N-Pepa, however, do not explicitly call themselves activists or even feminists. In the same interview with Mary Wilson from the Supremes, Salt also said: “I think we’re feminists to a certain degree. But I have no problem with the man being the man, as long as the man knows how to be a man.” The biggest song of their career, “Whatta Man,” is a paean to good-looking respectful guys. Peaking at No. 3, the track united the trio with En Vogue, who were still riding high off of their star-making sophomore album Funky Divas, released the year before. Although the song’s ballast may be “good men are hard to find,” the use of Linda Lyndell’s classic “What a Man” and Spinderella referencing Whitney Houston deep cut “My Name is Not Susan” in her verse still keeps it a celebration of womanhood. The video co-starred Naughty By Nature’s Treach, Pep’s IRL man at the time, and remains one of their fluffier offerings. In the context of the album, however, it rounds out the robust portrait of women’s romantic interiors: Not all love is fleeting and when it is good, it is so good.
That lyrical flexibility made Salt-N-Pepa so versatile. Like their contemporaries Queen Latifah and MC Lyte, the group was interested in exploring their own world, from quotidian romances and jealousies to the ever-present threat of AIDS, as well as gang violence and drugs. This panoramic view of not just personhood but womanhood paved the way for someone like Nicki Minaj to be a pop superstar while still sticking to her Smack DVD roots. Whether they were thinking about it at the time, their output has always been about giving women opportunity to express themselves.
In a recent interview on BuzzFeed podcast Another Round, rapper Remy Ma noted that because it is a genre that clings to youth, its legends get brushed aside. The acclaim dwindles and no one graduates to become like the Who or the Rolling Stones. Salt-N-Pepa were celebrated at VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors in 2016, but the event was specifically about female MCs and the celebration was a catch-all including so many artists for whom they were the forebears. They are classic enough to have toured with both the Fat Boys and N.W.A. (who were the women’s openers!) but are now relegated to ’90s nostalgia package tours, top-billed with people like Vanilla Ice. Instead of being canonized for their contributions to the genre, they are playing side-by-side with someone whose one hit song made a mockery of it. But that’s the thing about Salt-N-Pepa: There is so much more there than what you see on the surface.