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SALT-N-PEPA (Buy CDs by this artist)
Hot, Cool & Vicious (Next Plateau) 1986
A Salt With a Deadly Pepa (Next Plateau) 1988
Blacks' Magic (Next Plateau) 1990
A Blitz of Salt-n-Pepa Hits: The Hits Remixed (Next Plateau) 1991
Very Necessary (Next Plateau/London) 1993
Brand New (Red Ant/London) 1997

Who'd have thought Salt-n-Pepa — the groundbreaking female Queens-based hip-hop group responsible for 1988's sassy club hit "Push It" — would become one of the biggest rap acts of the '90s? The group entered the decade taking their frank banter about male-female power struggles into the Top 20 with "Let's Talk About Sex"; by 1995, they'd rerecorded the single as "Let's Talk About AIDS," produced several button-pushing videos (including one for a compilation single, "Ain't Nuthin but a She Thing") and had three platinum albums under their belts. Though rarely credited for it among more rockist musical circles, Salt-n-Pepa are the original riot grrrls of rap.

After a powerful debut produced by manager Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor and a slight sophomore slump, Salt-n-Pepa hit their stride at the turn of the decade with Blacks' Magic, a sort-of concept album held together by its recurring theme of self-empowerment-sexual, racial and otherwise. On it, Salt (Cheryl James), Pepa (Sandy Denton) and Spinderella (Deidre Roper) spice up the minimalism of such late-'80s singles as "Push It" and "Tramp" (from Hot, Cool & Vicious) with a slicker, more commercial sound, delicious pop hooks, sung refrains and brighter dynamics. The added sweetness appealed to a larger audience without sacrificing the edge of Salt's sassy lead raps, Pepa's husky responses and the group's confrontational lyrics. The women also got more involved in the technical aspects of their music. DJ Roper (the group's second Spinderella) co-produced the title track, and James produced three other songs, including the Top 40 hit "Expression." On the album cover, the three women are surrounded by ghost-like images of such late, great African-American musicians as Jimi Hendrix and Billie Holiday. Blacks' Magic glides from uplifting raps focusing on self-respect ("Expression," "Independent") to black- and feminist-themed songs ("Negro Wit' an Ego," the title track) and invocations to open discussion ("Let's Talk About Sex"). Although some complained that the group had sold out with the newer, slicker sound, such fans had apparently been paying more attention to chart positions than the artful subtlety in the grooves.

A Blitz of Hits is a collection of mostly unfortunate remixes. Why, for example, UK producer Shuv'd felt a need to clutter up such a powerful song as "Push It" with unnecessary techno blips and horn-like sounds — replacing the original version's simple, brutal percussion, synth bass and keyboard lines with an aimlessly wavering imitation — is a mystery. Moreover, Blacksmith's ill-conceived update of "Expression" adds nothing to Salt's own stripped-down original. Only DJ Mark the 45 King works an improvement, pulling away a few layers to create a funky update of the first album's "My Mic Sounds Nice." Beyond that, Azor's re-edit of "Shake Your Thang" (the band's collaboration with go-go kings E.U.) is not different enough from his own original production of it on A Salt With a Deadly Pepa to even include.

In 1993, after moving to a major record label, Salt-n-Pepa hit new commercial and artistic peaks with the fun and sassy Very Necessary, a stunning album that is the most confident and consistent of the band's career. Adding pinches of dancehall and smooth R&B, tighter rhymes, tougher and more self-assured vocals (plus collaborations with such crooners as vocal group En Vogue), Salt-n-Pepa deliver the funky "Shoop," the proudly feminist "None of Your Business" and the eminently hummable "Whatta Man."

[Mark Kemp]