All year, as the music world looks back on hip-hop for its 50th anniversary, we’re going to hear about the contributions from the genre’s most celebrated artists. We’ll hear the classic story about DJ Kool Herc spinning records at a birthday party held at a rec room in the Bronx in 1973, or about the freestyling skills of Coke La Rock, the funky stylings of the Fatback Band and the infectious rhymes of SugarHill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight.” The pioneers of the rebellious genre that upended the music industry and changed it forever are mostly credited as men, but real ones know that women like MC Sha-Rock, Roxane Shanté, MC Lyte, Monie Love, Queen Latifah and, of course, Salt-N-Pepa were right there too, inventing and cementing hip-hop’s place in music history.
The celebrations honoring hip-hop’s 50th anniversary will continue throughout 2023 but they kicked off Sunday with the 65th Annual Grammy Awards and a star-studded performance tracings the roots and trajectory of the genre — all the way from Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC to Missy Elliott, LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa, to GloRilla and Lil Baby, just to name a few. The day before the show, Unbothered caught up with Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandra “Pepa” Denton at Mastercard’s She Runs This panel series spotlighting Black women entrepreneurs and musicians.
“To be able to sit back and know that you were such a huge part of something that's so big that translates into everything from fashion to branding, it's just a good feeling,” Salt told Unbothered, dressed in a white blazer and black trousers, complimenting Pepa’s all-black ensemble. “People say for women, [we were] a turning point in hip-hop and opened some doors for a lot of ladies. So that's just a good feeling to know that we were able to do that.”
Salt-N-Pepa not only opened doors for the women dominating hip-hop today, like Baby Tate, who was also part of Mastercard’s She Runs This panel, but the duo have been trailblazers when it comes to the business side of rap as well. Now, your brand is as important (if not more) than your bars, and talent has to be accompanied by strategy. For women, navigating how to sell yourself and your music is more of a challenge than their male peers.
For us, coming up in hip-hop as female MCs...It was very hard knowing that we were charting so hard and more than the male rappers but still weren’t getting that respect or the acknowledgement that we deserved.
Sandra “Pepa” Denton
“One of the things I deal with as Black women in this industry that men don’t have to deal with as much is colorism and body image,” Baby Tate shared during the panel. “No shade but some of these men be huffing and puffing and can’t breath while they [are] performing. And I have to have a six-pack.” Tate said to laughter and applause from the crowd. “It’s crazy that we as women have to be under such a microscope. We can’t exist as we are. You have to come out looking like the baddest in the world. Why can’t I just say what I want to say?”
Mastercard’s three-day She Runs This: Celebrating Entrepreneurship in Business and Hip-Hop event (in partnership with Femme It Forward), honored hip-hop’s 50th anniversary and highlighted the brand’s impact on helping Black women entrepreneurs thrive. The panelists were encouraged (by moderator Gia Peppers) to speak on building brands in hip-hop, the misogyny they’ve faced in the industry and how they’ve overcome it all to redefine success in their careers.
“For us, coming up in hip-hop as female MCs, it’s a male dominated field. It was very hard knowing that we were charting so hard and more than the male rappers but still wasn’t getting that respect or the acknowledgement that we deserved,” Pepa shared. “We were skipped over when someone was selling [as much as us] so it was frustrating and that hurt. But we kept going.” Salt-N-Pepa is one of the highest-selling hip-hop groups of all time, selling over 15 million records worldwide. Their first single “Push It” made them the first female rap act to go gold or platinum. Their 1993 debut Very Necessary, (you may remember its hits “Shoop” and “Whatta Man”) sold 7 million copies —- more than Run DMC, Public Enemy, and N.W.A.'s original albums.
“We always say that when we started, it wasn't all these branding opportunities. Now we help build the foundation for people to really take advantage of these opportunities to collaborate with other brands. We've done Kia, we've done Geico,” Salt said backstage. Pepa added Victoria’s Secret to the long list of partnerships (from snowboards to beauty collabs) they’ve been able to secure to bolster their business alongside their music. They both credit their authenticity as well as their business savvy for their success. “When we was coming up, we were who we were. The music we were putting out, the rap we were spitting, our attitude, It was just us. It was raw,” Pepa said. “And then at the time you became another number to the record labels. But we stood out.”
Standing out amongst a crowded industry of men is something Salt-N-Pepa have always done. And on Sunday night during the Grammy’s hip-hop 50 tribute, they did the same. The duo shared what it was like to rehearse the iconic segment, curated by The Roots’ Questlove.
“People say for women, [we were] a turning point in hip-hop and opened some doors for a lot of ladies. So that's just a good feeling to know that we were able to do that.”
Cheryl “Salt” James
“It was surreal,” Salt said, smiling. “It's really hard to even describe because it's been so long. 50 years is a really long time. And being in the room with everybody was like a family reunion, 'cause we haven't seen them in forever. And everybody looks really good too.” She shared that their rehearsal included Run DMC, LL Cool J, Rakim, and DJ Jazzy Jeff. It was the first time all of the legends were in the same room together. “We used to say ‘we the female Run DMC.’ Now in our history, we have never ever been on the same stage with Run DMC. That's huge. It was like a block party back in the day,” Pepa said, sharing that she missed her cue in rehearsal because she was looking around in awe. “The audience is going to lose their mind,” Salt added.
And lose their minds, people did. The 13-minute performance kicked off with Black Thought, followed by Grandmaster Flash with Barshon, Mele Mel, Rahiem & Scorpio performing “Flash to the Beat” and “The Message.” LL Cool J, Chuck D and Flava Flav, Method Man, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, Nelly and Big Boi also joined in on the iconic performance. In matching suits, Salt-N-Pepa brought electric energy to the stage belting out “My Mic Sounds Nice.” Repping the rest of the female rap artists, Queen Latifah sang “U.N.I.T.Y.,” Missy Elliot held it down with “Lose Control,” and GloRilla got the crowd on their feet with “F.N.F. (Let’s Go).” The performance was a joyful highlight during a show full of highs and lows for Black artists. Like the Grammys have continuously proved (Salt-N-Pepa have boycotted the show in the past), Black artists — especially women — often have to define success for themselves.
Salt-N-Pepa’s musical impact is undeniable but it’s their business acumen that has kept them relevant and successful for decades. So what advice does the duo have for Black women entrepreneurs – especially artists — who are trying to solidify their own spots in hip-hop history?
“Own your brand, own your trademark,” Salt said. “It's so cliche but read your contracts. They make them convoluted for a reason. Get a lawyer that you trust.”
“Cross the T's and dot the I's,” Pepa added. “There are going to be people telling you you're not worth it. But once you see the numbers and if they're telling you no and no, but you’re sticking around and they're not trying to change you, that means you’re worth something. Like Salt said, when it's time to negotiate your contract, find out your numbers. What am I selling? What am I doing? You can ask real questions.”