‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: The Sacred and the Profane of Salt-N-Pepa
Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 final episodes (and a brand-new book!) to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 92 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re covering Salt-N-Pepa and “Shoop.” Below is an excerpt of this episode’s transcript.
“Push It” came out in 1986. This song is not about sex, and Salt-N-Pepa know that you don’t believe that.
In 2017, Sandra Denton, a.k.a. Pepa, told The Guardian, “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.” Cheryl James, a.k.a. Salt, says, “It’s a very popular song in maternity wards. An aquarium once told us that when they played ‘Push It,’ the sharks started mating.” Give me a second to process that information about the sharks. Let’s put a pin in that. As a teenager, as a pre-teenager, as straight-up just a kid, I used to drive around with my mom with the radio on, listening to “Push It” all the time, and it never once felt weird or embarrassing to either of us. “Push It” is somehow both incomprehensibly lewd and shockingly wholesome. It’s like Cinemax at 2 a.m. colliding with Nickelodeon at 10 a.m. Very few pop songs of any era by anybody achieve this hallowed lewd-not-lewd duality. “Push It” is innuendo for the whole family. “Push It” is Twister—the party game with the dots—simultaneously the way a 5-year-old understands it and the way a 15-year-old understands it.
So now I’m 13 again, and we’re back on the junior high after-school gymnasium dance set, and I’m watching all the cute girls boisterously line-dancing to “Push It” and I am physically backing away until my back is pressed right up against the bleachers folded into the walls of the gym. I haven’t even bloomed enough to qualify as a wallflower. Who taught all these people this dance? To this day, when I hear this song or even think about this song, my vague confounded irate excluded sense of the “Push It” dance is a tangible component of “Push It” the song. I can hear everyone going hoooooooo as they do the “Wheels on the Bus”-like spinning-hands motion, and then—I don’t know the exact moves—they put their hands on their butts, and take a couple steps forward and then clap and then they’re all facing in a different direction. I don’t know the dance. If I could describe the dance to you, I’d have done the dance back then and right now I’d be one of those dudes on YouTube with eight Lamborghinis in his garage. There is a palpable, exquisite sadness to “Push It” for me. It’s a fantastic song. And it’s also a velvet rope between me and the dance floor. It’s the storefront window glass my forehead is pressed against. I love it all the more now for how much I used to hate it.
Salt-N-Pepa didn’t much like it, either. I take some solace in that. They’ve talked a lot about making “Push It.” So they’re in a tiny studio in Brooklyn, with a producer named Fresh Gordon. Excellent producer name. You got Salt, you got Pepa, and you got Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor: Salt-N-Pepa’s manager, impresario, frequent songwriter and producer, and for a time, Salt’s boyfriend. So they’re throwing together a B-side. Nobody’s taking this song very seriously. Salt, talking to Rolling Stone, says, “We needed a B-side. Hurby, the genius that he is, got us in the studio and we just really started kind of playing around. And Fresh Gordon, to his credit, that he’s never officially gotten on the record … started playing that famous synthesizer line. And the song really built from there.” End quote. The loneliness of this famous synthesizer line, for me—and maybe only for me—it’s the sound of the dance floor receding, and the cute girls on the dance floor receding … or maybe I’m the one receding. I’ll stop talking about this if you don’t make me go to my son’s new school ever again.
And Salt says, “Fresh Gordon’s vocal room was a bathroom, a little tiny bathroom with a microphone. It was very hot and sweaty in there. Pep and I were in there together, and Hurby started dictating some of the lyrics to us. It was very unusual, because when you listen to ‘Push It’ there aren’t that many lyrics. It’s mostly music-driven, so it was something different than what we were familiar with. So we just went along and trusted him, as we do, but we didn’t really care for it. We were like, I don’t get it. We were like, Ew, but you know, it’s only a B-side, whatever. Me and Pep, I think we’re the only two people on the planet that ‘Push It’ is not our favorite Salt-N-Pepa song.” End quote.
She’s exaggerating of course, but Salt-N-Pepa’s whole catalog is animated by—is improved by—this conflict between Salt-N-Pepa and everyone around Salt-N-Pepa; between your favorite songs of theirs and their favorite songs of theirs; between righteous empowerment and We were like, “‘I don’t get it.’ We were like, ‘Ew.’” “Push It” is not quite where their story starts, but it’s an early peak. This song is not quite where their story ends, but it’s the peak:
This week we are discussing “Shoop,” by the Queens rap trio Salt-N-Pepa, from their 1993 album Very Necessary. Cheryl and Sandra first met in the lunchroom at Queensborough Community College, playing cards, playing spades. New York magazine in 1994 did a big Salt-N-Pepa cover story with the headline “Straight Outta Queens: How Salt-N-Pepa Turned Rap on Its Head,” and talking about Cheryl, it says, “At Queensborough Community College, she studied psychology ‘or something stupid like that.’” That’s funny. Cheryl disparaging psychology is very funny to me. No offense to psychology.
Cheryl and Sandra bond instantly; they bond as polar opposites. In their 1997 Rolling Stone cover story, it says, “Denton had bleached-blond hair, safety pins in her ears and the attention of everyone on campus. James was an introvert, a self-confessedly somber, almost depressed person.” They bond for life. They start cutting class to spend more time together in the lunchroom. Soon they are also working together at the Sears in College Point in Queens. Also working at Sears: Kid ‘N Play. These guys:
Yes, “I’ll Take Your Man.” The camaraderie between Salt and Pepa is just instantly extraordinary, right? Just the two best friends you ever even heard of. Perfect chemistry. And that initial Queensborough Community College dichotomy that drew them together—Salt, Cheryl, is the introvert; and Sandra, Pepa, is the extrovert with everyone’s attention—that dissolves, almost, on-record, where they’re both so boisterous and warm and confrontational and charismatic as individuals but also, more importantly, together. They take your man but do it with a smile. And you, perhaps against your will, are smiling, also, as Pepa takes your man.
I love the Yes, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” sample there—bweep, doo doo doo doo doo, brwnt—just a real treat for all the young Dad Rockers in training out in the world in 1986. The grit in Salt’s voice on the word promise, here? That’s a real treat as well.
From me to you / Your sex life’s through / If you get another lover, I’ll take him too. Amazing. Pepa, talking about this song to Rolling Stone in 2017, says, “That was Hurby, definitely. He was a great writer. He wrote well for girls.” And then she laughs. Hot, Cool & Vicious is rad, man. There’s a healthy tension, a respectfully combative camaraderie between rap and pop on this record. Here in 1986 we’re gonna spend the next five, 10, 15 years arguing and litigating and agonizing over where rap music stops and pop begins, and how much pop sensibility “real” rap is allowed to have, and Salt-N-Pepa deftly navigate all of that, in addition to navigating the gender-power-dynamic divide between Hurby the writer writing “I’ll Take Your Man”-type raps for Salt and Pepa the rappers.
So the most recent Grammys, in February 2023: Questlove from the Roots curates this awesome sprawling generational ode to 50 years of hip-hop, and throws literally everybody on stage, and it starts out with Grandmaster Flash, then Run-DMC, then LL Cool J, and then, hit the deck.
Salt-N-Pepa hit the stage. “My Mic Sounds Nice” is another Hot, Cool & Vicious highlight, and there ain’t necessarily no junior high gymnasium after-school dance line to this one (at least not in Ohio), but this is a rappity-rap song for a super high-profile celebration of rappity-rap stars who also became pop stars without giving up their status as rappity-rap stars. Not everybody earns that dual citizenship, rap and pop, but Salt-N-Pepa belong. They belong to both. They belong everywhere.