How we made Salt-N-Pepa's Push It

‘An aquarium told us that when they put the song on, the sharks started mating’

Cheryl James (‘Salt’)

We weren’t the first female rappers – Angie Stone’s group, the Sequence, came before us – but we were the first to go platinum around the world. Pep and I were in college together. We were big time screw-ups. We never went to class. We’d just hang around in the lunch room playing cards, and we formed this amazing friendship.

Because we were polar opposites, we fascinated each other. We formed the group when we were part-time telephone operators along with my boyfriend, Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor. At first we called ourselves Supernature, but when we sang, “We go together like salt and pepper”, the name felt perfect for us.

We had a song called Tramp but needed a B-side, so we came up with Push It on the fly at Fresh Gordon’s home studio in Brooklyn. Fresh came up with the riff, Hurby went, “Play that again!” and he wrote some lyrics. The vocal booth was in Fresh’s bathroom. Pep and I were in there trying to go, “Ooh baby baby”, thinking it was so corny. The song didn’t make a lot of sense to us, then when we were on tour a DJ in San Francisco called Cameron Paul flipped Tramp over and started playing Push It. All the stations followed suit and it just took off. It’s a very popular song in maternity wards. An aquarium once told us that when they played Push It, the sharks started mating.

People always ask “How did you break through in such a male-dominated, misogynistic culture as hip-hop?” Russell Simmons at Def Jam gave us the thumbs down and said we’d never last, but then later tried to sign us. I was always the little kid putting on the Broadway shows for my aunties at home, but I was told that showbusiness was not a realistic career option. So when I got the opportunity to get on the mic, it was do or die. This was going to save my life.

Sandra Denton (‘Pepa’)

I was a loudmouth rock star when I was still in college. Purple hair this week, green hair next week, blond hair the week after. I was doing that fashion before it was really cool. But then we took that into Salt-N-Pepa. Our trademark asymmetrical hairstyle came about by accident. My sister was trying to get her beautician’s licence and I was her guinea pig. She permed my hair and didn’t wash out one of the sides properly, so the whole right side of my hair was eaten out. After she washed it, I was half bald. I’m like: “What the hell?” I was crying, and we had shows to do, but Cheryl said: “OK, let’s just shave it all, put some lines in it but leave the other side long.” It looked great, so Salt did her hair the same.

For 30 years, we have been telling people that Push It isn’t about sex, but no one ever believes us. Honestly, for us, as young girls, it was about dancing. At one show they tried to censor us and the police were called to stand at the side of the stage, waiting for us to say something inappropriate. When we were singing Push It, they thought we were singing: “Pussy real good.” I ended up hollering at this policeman: “It’s Push It! It’s about pushing it on the dancefloor.” We protested so much that eventually they let us go, and we didn’t get arrested.

At the time, all the other rappers were men, but we dressed like women and brought fun, fashion and femininity to hip-hop. Our distinctive jackets came about when a local designer friend of ours took some dirt cheap “eight ball” [varsity-type] jackets and made them our own, in different colours. When we added door-knocker earrings suddenly we had a look that set a trend.

The scene was very underground, and we weren’t considered real hip-hop because we wanted to be on Top of the Pops. We kept pushing it until they had to start respecting us. We opened the door for women rappers. When Beyoncé and her family dressed like us for Halloween last year, it was her way of acknowledging what we did.

• Salt-N-Pepa perform on the I Love the 90s tour, which starts on 29 September at Wembley Arena, London.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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