Salt-N-Pepa - Let's talk about a comeback

Nineties rap megastars Salt-N-Pepa are playing their first UK show in over a decade. Dan Hancox explains why feisty female hip-hop performers from Lauryn Hill to Missy Elliot and Beyoncé are very much in their debt

Ten years is an eternity in pop culture. This is a truth that rings particularly loud in hip-hop – and when it comes to female rappers, the clangs are positively deafening. Next month sees Salt-N-Pepa's first UK performance in 15 years – at the high profile hip-hop festival Bloc Weekend in the unexpected setting of Butlins Minehead – and a new album on its way. The world they left behind could scarcely look more different. Comprising rappers Cheryl "Salt" Wray and Sandy "Pepa" Denton, along with DJ Spindarella (Dee Dee Roper), Salt-N-Pepa rose to prominence in the late 1980s and went on to become the alpha females of 1990s pop: both musically, but also in their self-confident sexual politics, where they established a paradigm for a unique new feminism beating at the heart of pop culture.

After a decade of epochal singles ("Push It", "Let's Talk About Sex", "Shoop", "Whatta Man", "Twist and Shout", "Do You Want Me" – the list is remarkably long), Salt-N-Pepa released their last studio album in 1997, a greatest hits album in 2000, and finally disbanded in 2002. So much of their vernacular is quintessentially old-school: they rap about funky rhymes, rocking the party, jamming, grabbing the mic. Injunctions to "dance, sucker" or "check out the fella with the high-top fade" seem almost quaintly old-fashioned now. The same goes for the sonic minimalism that defined 1980s hip-hop, known as "boom-bap" – the sparse, straightforward, but emphatic onomatopoeia of a hard bass-drum and a snare. BOOM. BAP. When Salt-N-Pepa used samples they were simple, concise snippets of guitar or synthesiser. It's in stark contrast to the melodically complex, lush, multi-layered productions that underscored the great leap forward that was Noughties hip-hop, from Timbaland at the start of the decade to The-Dream at the end. If Salt-N-Pepa's was a simpler time, the music certainly reflected that.

So how do a rap crew so steeped in the old school launch themselves back into 2010's mainstream? The most comfortable route would be to play it safe by fetishising their heyday, revelling in kitsch nostalgia, selling commemorative reunion tour back-packs, and preserving the revered "four pillars of hip-hop" in lucite. Instead Salt-N-Pepa seem to be throwing caution to the wind and engaging with the hyperreal, multi-media trappings of late-Noughties pop culture: they started their comeback with their very own reality TV show.

Fourteen episodes of The Salt-N-Pepa Show have aired on VH1 in America, charting the group's short but seemingly arduous journey through reforming and back into the limelight. The show has been enough of a hit for Let's Talk About Pep to be commissioned, an ensemble show about four female friends and starring Denton. Launching last month in the States to great fanfare, the programme is billed as "Sex and the City for women of color". Crass marketing aside, there is something very poetic about Salt-N-Pepa establishing another pop cultural landmark.

The Salt-N-Pepa Show is less poetic – a great promotional tool for their musical comeback this year, but full of the scarcely-believable "tensions" that guide the narrative arc of reality TV. Oh no, Pepa's late for an important talk-show spot! Let's find a boyfriend for Pepa! It's not exactly their best work. Yet there has been one genuine and significant source of tension in the reformed group: Wray's conversion to devout Christianity. It has led her to reassess some of the group's more risqué subject matter, and their comeback tour will see some (though it's still not clear how many) of the group's famously up-front lyrics changed to reflect Salt's new-found faith.

This hasn't stopped Salt-N-Pepa being rediscovered as the lost voice of mainstream American feminism. The prominent web portal Feministing recently posted a video attacking right-wing American pharmacists who refused women contraception for religious reasons, using "None of Your Business" as its soundtrack. It was an inspired move, which led to a slew of fond reminiscences that rightly place Salt-N-Pepa in the canon of millennial feminist icons: "bless them for composing my personal Pussy Power anthem and bless y'all for recognising its relevance," wrote one contributor. "None of Your Business" makes perfect sense in this context; its chorus, "If I want to take a guy home with me tonight/ It's none of your business" perfectly encapsulates the band's forthright defence of a women's right to sexual agency.

In another early 1990s track, "I Don't Know", the rapper Play from forgotten duo Kid-N-Play is laughingly derided as a "slut" for chasing a lot of women, an impeccable piece of feminist détournement. And, however much Wray's Christian beliefs may seek to sideline this lineage, the sexual forthrightness of the current generation of female rappers owes everything to Salt-N-Pepa's example. It's a grim irony that some of the groups Noughties' successors, rappers such as Nicky Minaj and Pink Dollaz, now have their sexually aggressive music described as "ho-rap". Yet it's doubtful that the likes of Minaj – or the likes of Lil' Kim and Missy Elliot – would accept they are victims of industry misogyny.

One of the strangest parts of the relaunched Salt-N-Pepa empire is Pepa's social networking site, also called Let's Talk About Pep. This seems to be populated mostly by African-Americans in their thirties (of both genders) fondly recalling their – and the group's – halcyon youth. Tellingly, much of the discussion and reminiscences focus on the negative changes since the group went away: "Where have all the female rappers gone?" is one of the most prominent discussion threads, with the likes of Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah equally missed.

It has become received wisdom that a major millennial power-shift saw rap and R'n'B become the most anti-feminist music there is. Beyoncé, in particular, is derided by feminists as the ultimate in male-objectification fantasies – but there is another interpretation, around the idea that black women at the forefront of popular culture continue to – albeit subtly – subvert gender roles. Beyoncé's huge 2008 hit "Single Ladies", ostensibly a re-establishment of modern woman as passive wife, is arguably pure parody – Beyoncé is no longer a mortal woman but a cyborg, as her robot-arm in the video demonstrates. In the words of the superb It's Her Factory blog, "the song isn't an ode to marriage and property and heterosexuality, it's an Afrofuturist feminist critique of heterosexual courtship."

Less controversial is the idea that, while Salt-N-Pepa may be the queens of 1990s rap, they cast a long shadow over everything related to hip-hop, women, and race in the Noughties. For good or ill, their robust feminism predicted and paved the way for much of the female presence in pop culture since 2000. "Independent", one of the less-well-known tracks on their most political album, 1990's Blacks' Magic, begins with: "Try to diss my girl Salt, up goes my guard/ Still feminine? Feminist still? Yes".

In fact "Independent" perfectly pre-empts the masquerade of consumption-as-feminist-statement that has become the hallmark of the sisterhood in Noughties pop culture. The chorus runs "I am independent/ I make my own money so don't tell me how to spend it/ Cos you need me, and I don't need you". Exactly ten years later, in 2000, Destiny's Child's "Independent Women" opened with a near-exact echo of this: "I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings/ Only ring your cell-y when I'm feeling lonely/ When it's all over please get up and leave". "Independent" was given a limited release, reached only 85 in the American R&B charts, and failed to place in the main US chart; a decade later its heir, "Independent Women", topped the US Billboard Hot 100 chart for 11 weeks.

Whether or not you buy the idea of Beyoncé as a satirical feminist cyborg, the role of women in hip-hop and R'n'B in 2010 is definitely more complex than the pessimistic cliché of passive sex objects festooned with bling suggests.

Miami rapper Trina has made little impact in the UK, but her witty ramping up of sexual aggression and compelling lyrical delivery deserves the same mainstream audience she receives in the US; while New Yorker Nicky Minaj's full debut, due in May, looks like being one of the highlights of the year.

Above all it is girl group Electrik Red who exemplify what is still possible. Backed by the sublimely rich production of the late Noughties zeitgeist, their debut album How To Be A Lady, Volume 1 combines sultry come-to-bed love songs, stomping party anthems, and headstrong, hilarious expressions of unabashed feminism. It's a repertoire that seems strangely familiar.

Salt-N-Pepa sold more than 15 million records worldwide, and changed the face of hip-hop and feminism in one decade in the limelight; yet their greatest impact arguably came after they disappeared. Now they're back, who knows what might happen.

Salt-N-Pepa headline the BLOC Weekend at Butlins Minehead, 12-14 March (blocweekend.com)

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