Rock: Girl power rules ... but with a little less spice

They have toned down the riskier, raunchier lyrics in their new album but the women of Salt-n-Pepa reckon that when it comes to girl power they can show the young pretenders a thing or two. Phil Johnson meets a group who have grown up hard and fast.

When future anthologists of British children's playground rhymes reach the late-1980s, a distinct change in the content of the verses will have to be noted in a flurry of footnotes. For this was when "The Big Ship Sails Through the Alley-Alley-O" and its like were displaced by kindergarten versions of "Let's Talk About Sex" by rap group Salt-n-Pepa, complete with illustrative dances.

From here onwards, kiddie culture would never be the same again. It was only a short step and then the tots were singing along to "Tease Me" by Chaka Demus and Pliers, and on to the present where pre-teens practise kung-fu kicks in playground re- enactments of Spice Girls' videos.

"Let's Talk About Sex" is still a favourite rhyme, to be sung satirically in sex education lessons whenever the teacher points to the diagram of the rabbit's reproductive organs, and Salt-n-Pepa's subsequent success (their last album went quadruple- platinum in the US) makes perfect sense: they were always the most satisfyingly cartoonish of rappers. But while fellow toon-town stars like The Fat Boys and Kid-n-Play (whose hyphens indicate they came from the same producer's stable as S-n-P), have had their day, disappearing into the fade-to-black of rap obscurity, Salt-n-Pepa are still with us.

Their latest album in an 11-year career is released on Monday, and the original line-up is intact: Salt is still Cheryl James, Pepa is still Sandi Denton, and the third member (you didn't know there was a third member?), DJ Spinderella, is still Dee Dee Roper, who replaced the original Spinderella, Pamela Greene, after the first album.

The new album, Brand New, is not only evidence of rare longevity, it's also the first time that Salt-n-Pepa - who are all single mums - have made a record without their founder and first manager, Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor. It was Azor who thought up the brand-name of the group and who controlled, at least partly, all their previous recordings.

Originally, when James and Azor met at work in a Sears store in Queen's, New York, Azor himself was going to be Pepa, and it was the contrast between his dark skin and James's lighter colour that inspired the group's cruet- set name. When Azor decided that the idea would work better with two girls, Denton - who James had met at college in Queen's - became the new hot stuff.

In trying to ensure the success of their first album in four years, and to hit their target of 15 million sales, Salt-n-Pepa face more than a career without the Luv Bug. New female rappers like L'il Kim and Foxy Brown get far more low down and dirty than S-n-P ever did, talking about sex with a candour that no longer suits the playground. James - who produced Brand New herself, and wrote many of the songs - has also got religion and started to regret the salty lyrics that helped secure their reputation - a move that hasn't gone down well with Denton, who is still partial to the odd innuendo. Accordingly, Brand New treads a sometimes uneasy path between PG and 15 ratings, with mild sauce ("Gitty Up") sharing space with hot gospel ("Hold On"), and the musical menu mixing rap with more mainstream R&B, and even rock, with Sheryl Crow guesting on one track.

What does give the group a contemporary spin, though, is the success of the Spice Girls.

"I respect them," Cheryl James says, when I get to talk to her in a break from rehearsals for a new video at the dance studio in Hollywood. "They know they're pop, but they don't care, and they're making money, they're business women. It makes me proud to see someone sort of looking like me or doing my style."

James also sees Salt-n-Pepa as having a social significance that reaches beyond their cartoon image. "We stand for female empowerment and girls really look up to us because we made it out of situations that a lot of people wouldn't have. The music business is a good old boys club and we're three black women who are still here after all this time.

"I think we're an inspiration to females around the world; we're moms, we keep looking as good as we possibly can and we've always remained true to our look, to our sound, and to who we were."

The new album attempts to offer a more adult perspective than its predecessors, and includes a song about domestic violence inspired by the OJ Simpson case, and another, "Do Right Woman", about what James thinks women want from men - none of them, by the way, have partners

"Being older, I understand what I really want out of a relationship through having had what I didn't want in the past, she says. "Basically, the song is saying that we want to do all of the wonderful things men want us to, and we don't mind getting your slippers, we don't mind cooking for you, but you have to inspire us to do these things."

Brand New is out on Monday on London Records