Cheryl James has a confession to make.
“I really don’t listen to popular music that much, and I don’t really know what’s going on (with it) unless my kids tell me,” says the 48-year-old Long Island mother of two, speaking to the Observer by phone this week.
For children of the 1980s and ’90s, those who know James better as “Salt” – of Salt-N-Pepa, the trend-setting hip-hop group that opens this weekend’s Funk Fest – hearing that statement may come as a bit of a shock. But just wait.
“Corin!” she yells to her daughter, 23. “Who’s interesting in hip-hop?”
“Childish Gambino,” her daughter replies.
“Childish Gambino,” James says. Then, to Corin: “Who else?”
“Kendrick Lamar,” Corin says.
“Kendrick Lamar!” James says. “I like him, yeah. Corin, she showed me a couple of his freestyles that he did up at a radio station on YouTube and I was crazy impressed, and now my son (Chapelle, 15) is starting to play him in the car.”
Yet while she may seem out of touch around the kids, Mom continues to get together with old friends Sandra Denton (aka “Pepa”) and Deidra Roper (aka “DJ Spinderella”) to perform some of the more memorable hip-hop hits of yesteryear.
In just the past few weeks, Salt-N-Pepa has done gigs in Los Angeles, Knoxville and Richmond. And on Friday at Metrolina Expo Fairgrounds, the women open the two-day Funk Fest, which also will feature LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Outkast, Doug E. Fresh, hometown girl Fantasia and others.
Some of the Funk Fest acts may trot out new music, but you can expect Salt-N-Pepa to keep things strictly old-school with cuts like “Whatta Man” (originally done with En Vogue), “Shoop,” “Let’s Talk About Sex,” “Push It” and “Do You Want Me” – its biggest chart-toppers from 1987 to 1994.
“We’ve gone in the studio and experimented a couple of times, and put some songs out on iTunes, but we’ve had our time,” James says. “Your pinnacle of your career is what it is, and it’s a little bit intimidating to even really try seriously to put out any new music.
“But our music stands the test of time; it’s been used in movies, in television, in commercials, in video games. That’s the Salt-N-Pepa legacy, for me, that will never be matched.”
In their prime, James and her groupmates stood out in a male-dominated hip-hop culture in much the way Nicki Minaj does today, heralded for pushing a different kind of feminism in a fun and fashion-forward way.
Yet in the more than two decades since “Shoop” turned Salt-N-Pepa into megastars, James says the female rap genre has largely been stagnant.
“I feel like when we were doing it, there were so many more female rappers to choose from, so many more voices represented and styles,” she says. “It was Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott and Salt-N-Pepa and (The Lady of) Rage and Lauryn Hill. I didn’t think there were a lot of female rappers then, but we still had way more than we do now – and I don’t really get why.”
James is optimistic, though.
“For a minute, it was just Nicki, and now Iggy (Azalea) is doing her thing, and I’m like, ‘OK, girls, come on!’ Because we need more representation, other voices to identify with and cling to.”