It was the mid-1980s and Hip-Hop was surging. Artists like Run-D.M.C., LL COOL J and Whodini were enjoying big commercial success worldwide and the scene in New York City was booming. But Sandy Denton had hopes of becoming a psychiatrist. She'd started taking courses at Queensborough Community College with a plan to transfer to four-year Queens College to pursue a degree. The self-proclaimed punk rocker had just lost her father and, in her grief, was focused on academics. Sandy was pursuing a career that would have made him proud.
“I could’ve gone to Queens College,” Denton explains. “I was an honor student. I said ‘I just want to go here and then I’ll go there.’ ”
But fate had other plans. Denton met Cheryl James one day in the college lunchroom. “The magic happens in the lunchroom because that’s where we always met everybody,” says Denton. “I’d come into the lunchroom and wanna play spades. When you’re first out of high school, you realize, ‘Oh, I can make my own hours?’ My first class started at 10 a.m., so when I get to the lunchroom I like to play spades and I’m loud. I’m punk rock at that time.”
Denton recalls how she first met James: “One day, she was walking around with these applications from Sears [call center]. She was getting a dollar or something for every application she could score. I needed a job. [My car] had a hole in the passenger seat.”
Taking a job at a Sears call center connected Denton to James, as the girls ended up working next to each other. It also introduced Denton to Hurby Azor, James’ musically inclined boyfriend, who also worked at the center. “We were working and going to school, and he was going to music and art school,” says Denton. “He used to rap. I would go see him and Kid ’n Play when they were a group.”
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“Me and Hurby were together before there was a Salt-N-Pepa. Me and Pepa were friends before there was Salt-N-Pepa,” says Cheryl “Salt” James of those early days. “I always had that insider bird’s-eye view when it came to Hurby. He was in a group called the Super Lovers back in the day, and then he started dibbling and dabbling in production.”
“Pep always called Hurby our third member,” James says. “He played such an intricate part in Salt-N-Pepa, so we always give him respect.”
Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick had scored a major hit with their classic single “The Show,” and Azor, hoping to hop on the answer record trend à la Roxanne Shanté, penned “The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh),” for a girl group that he wanted to put together. He tapped James, and they set about finding her a partner for the group he would initially call Super Nature.
Azor and James tried a few prospective partners, but it was teaming her with Denton that made the most sense. “When he got to me, I did my thing” says Denton. Together, the girls recorded “The Show Stoppa” under the moniker Super Nature, and Azor convinced Marley Marl to play the track on the radio. From that point on, everything changed.
Azor rechristened the group Salt-N-Pepa, and Denton turned out to be the perfect Pepa to James’ Salt.
“There has never been another Pepa!” Denton says. “There was another Spinderella, but there has only been one Pepa. He brought me Pepa, but I brought [Pepa] to life.”
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Even with the formation of Salt-N-Pepa in the works, they were all still working at Sears and bonding with fellow coworkers with similarly lofty ambitions: a young comic named Martin Lawrence and Azor’s rap friends Kid ’n Play.
“[Martin] worked at Sears, too,” Pepa explains. “Salt never thought he was that funny but I thought he was funny! We were telephone solicitors; Martin would get up and do his jokes. Hurby was like, ‘Whoever gets their break first, put us on.’ We got our break first and we kept our word. When we got booked for the Inferno, Martin opened for us. We did so well, the manager booked two more nights. And he opened all three nights.
“He also worked at the gas station next door to Sears. He had that white uniform with the green on, grinding at Sears, Roebuck with Kid ’n Play!”
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“The Show Stoppa” put Salt-N-Pepa on the NYC Hip-Hop map. They were two unknowns, taking on the big names of Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, with a brash producer out of Elmhurst, Queens pushing them forward. Even after recording their first single, Salt-N-Pepa didn’t realize that their world was about to change. Pepa’s mind was firmly focused on a career in psychiatry.
“I was still in school,” she says. Then the bookings began.
“Our first club was the Inferno, [then] we stepped up to [Disco Fever],” explains Pep. “And I see my name inside the club. You’d see ‘Salt-N-Pepa Oct. 20th’ and I’d think ‘Omigod!’ Cheryl had to tell me, ‘Pep, you can quit school.’ I’m Jamaican. We don’t quit! When I saw it at the Fever, that’s when I saw that part of my life.”
“They say if you can make it in the Fever, you can make it anywhere. That was a hard Hip-Hop club in the Bronx. We were queens from Queens. [And legendary Hip-Hop club] The Latin Quarter — [we were] killing it and leaving our imprint. Those moments were like, ‘Wow.’ Going to the roller-skating rink and I’m skating to my song ‘The Show Stoppa.’”
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“When we made the Hot, Cool, & Vicious album, we basically lived in the studio because we had to make that album super-fast,” Salt says. “We promised the record label that we could do it for some crazy amount of money. So I was kind of in school, [and] being around [Azor.]” Working so quickly and constantly watching how Azor handled production was having an effect on Salt that she wouldn’t fully appreciate as of yet. But she was definitely paying attention.
“It always interested me, production and coming up with songs,” she says. “And watching him go through the process and being a part of it.”
The group’s original DJ Spinderella, Latoya Hanson, was let go and just before a show at the Westchester Music Festival, Azor introduced 16-year-old Dee Dee Roper as Hanson’s replacement. In early 1987, Salt-N-Pepa would drop the hit single “Tramp.” It’s B side, a synth-driven dance track called “Push It,” would become an in-demand radio hit.
By the end of the year, it hit the Billboard Top 40.
* Banner Image: Salt n Pepa / Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images