Salt-N-Pepa ~ Hot, Cool and Vicious (1986)

Posted on October 28, 2012

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Rap music has long been known as a bastion of male dominance. In the early years of rap’s evolvement, male soloists and groups were prevalent in the game, and though female artists like The Sequence and Sparky D broke ground for the fairer sex, women were still largely an afterthought within the artform. The tide began to slowly turn in the mid to late 1980’sm when femcees like Roxanne Shanté, The Real Roxanne, Sweet Tee, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah built reputations for being respected mic wielders and recording artists. But, in 1985, in the New York borough of Queens, a flavorful insurgency was starting to take shape, and a trio of females who’d forever alter the Hip Hop landscape came together. Initially, they called themselves Super Nature, but the world now knows them as Salt-N-Pepa.

From the mid 1980’s through the 1990’s, Salt-N-Pepa blazed an unprecedented trail for women in Hip Hop. They not only showed that the culture wasn’t the sole domain of men, but they proved women in the game could find success in the game without compromising or demeaning themselves. Curiously, though they’d conquer the music world in the years to come, the trio had rather inauspicious beginnings. The group’s place of origin was the cafeteria at Queensborough Community College; where in 1985, Salt (Cheryl James), a psychology student raised in Bushwick, Brooklyn, met Pepa (Sandra Denton), a bubbly Caribbean émigré raised in Jamaica, Queens. The two became inseparable friends, and got tandem customer service jobs at a Sears store in College Point, Queens. Also employed at the College Point Sears store were Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin, two aspiring emcees from East Elmhurst, Queens that called themselves Kid ‘N Play, as well as a Haitian native that worked with Reid and Martin: budding music producer Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor. Azor, who was a student at Manhattan’s Center of Media Arts, had to produce a professional demo for graduation, and called on the girls introduced to him by Kid ‘N Play (James and Denton) to perform “The Showstopper”, a song he’d written in response to the Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew hit “The Show”. Hurby Luv Bug named the girls Super Nature, and after getting an “A” grade for their demo, he passed the tape to Queens DJ-producer Marley Marl, who put “The Showstopper” in rotation on his WBLS-FM radio show. Over time, “The Showstopper” drew the attention of Next Plateau Records founder Eddie O’Loughlin, who was looking for female rappers to record, and who offered Super Nature, who’d changed their name to Salt-N-Pepa, a recording contract in 1986. Latoya Hanson, an acquaintance of Sandy’s and a seasoned turntablist, then joined the fold as DJ Spinderella, and in late ’86, Salt-N-Pepa began a lengthy run of platinum releases, with their dope full-length debut Hot, Cool & Vicious.

At first blush, it’s not hard to see why Hot, Cool & Vicious became such a massive seller. Salt-N-Pepa, along with DJ Spinderella, get the body moving immediately, and don’t let up until the album ends. The album opens with “Push It (Remix)”, a pulsating jam that became the group’s first platinum hit. For four-and-a-half minutes, Cheryl and Sandy bounce across a swirling set of shakers and synthesizers, and create a bomb that may move bodies until the end of time. On the next cut “Beauty And The Beat”, the girls get familiar with their snares, kicks, hi-hats, and bass drums, including DJ Spinderella, who spits a verse and cuts on the wheels, while Hurby Luv Bug incorporates samples of The Meters’ “Handclapping Song” into the mix. “Tramp” is another timeless gem from the Salt-N-Pepa catalog; one in which Cheryl and Sandy read scrubs, philanderers, and lechers like scrolls, over a strutting Hurby Luv Bug track; that samples the Otis Redding classic “Tramp”. The arrogant “I’ll Take Your Man” sounds like something Rick Rubin might produce, with a low bass boom and tribal percussion similar to Rubin’s early Def Jam productions; and Salt and Pepa use this soundscape to steal other girls’ boyfriends with no remorse, and do it with style and flair. And “Chick On The Side (Remix)” finds on the other side of the infidelity fence: spying on and then confronting their cheating men, over a rocky-road track that uses the drum kit from Bobby Byrd’s “Hot Pants (I’m Coming, I’m Coming, I’m Coming)”.

As Hot, Cool & Vicious comes to a close, Salt-N-Pepa adopt a harder demeanor and B-Girl edge. On “I Desire”, Cheryl and Sandy go back and forth brilliantly; finishing one another bars and flowing as though they’re one, over the turbulent drums of The Winstons’ “Amen Brother”, and cascading melody snippets from 7th Wonder’s “Daisy Lady”. “The Showstopper”, the Media Arts banger they made with Hurby Luv Bug, features Cheryl and Sandy sounding like teenagers; parodying the Doug E Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew hits “The Show” and “La Di Da Di”, with a floor-shaking drum line similar to “The Show”, and whimsical synthesizer riffs lifted from the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds. And on the album’s jubilant closer “My Mic Sounds Nice”, Hurby Luv Bug applies a go-go tint to Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Mister Magic”, while Cheryl and Sandy free-wheel, and dip in and out of fly mic routines.

Over the years, Salt-N-Pepa have been likened to rap immortals Run DMC; mostly due to their pioneering achievements for women in Hip Hop. This comparison is accurate, but for more reasons than one. Besides their accomplishments, Cheryl and Sandy also resembled Joe and Darryl musically; with a finesse (Cheryl) and power (Sandy) combo that was similar to Joe and Darryl’s dynamic. But, most notably, Cheryl and Sandy shared a remarkable chemistry, just like the Kings from Queens. Lyrically, Salt and Pepa blended perfectly; finishing each other’s lines regularly with pinpoint precision, just as Run and D frequently did. But, the man behind the curtain deserves his props, too. Hurby Luv Bug wrote and produced the entire album, and does a masterful job. His tracks are intricate and melodic. And Hurby shows inspired writing ability with his lyrics. How he, as a man, could write so well for women is a mystery.

Hot, Cool & Vicious was an unprecedented success when it dropped in 1986. The album sailed past the platinum sales mark easily; an impressive feat for any rap album at the time, but a magnificent one for an album recorded by a female rap act. This album began an extended gold, platinum, and multi-platinum run for Salt-N-Pepa; that ran into the late 1990’s. For the entirety of rap’s Golden Era, it seemed nothing could stop Salt-N-Pepa; not lineup changes (Dee Dee Roper replacing Latoya Hanson in 1988), style changes in Hip Hop (the G-Funk era of the early 90’s), or their separation from mentor Hurby Luv Bug, whom they parted ways with in 1990, as they began to compose their own material. Though the sun set on their prime many years ago, Salt-N-Pepa’s impact on the rap world can still be felt; in the scores of female emcees they influenced and inspired, and the gender barriers they ripped through. Salt-N-Pepa have left a mark on Hip Hop that may never disappear, and it all started right here.

To listen to Hot, Cool & Vicious, click here.

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