April 18, 1988 12:00 PM

Rap singers consider it part of their ethos to put each other down even while bestowing praise. So when someone recently asked the Fat Boys what they thought of the spicy female duo Salt’n Pepa, you needed to be bilingual to understand the answer. “They’re all right,” rotund rapper Kool Rock-ski replied, smiling slyly. “But they really can’t rap because they’re girls.”

In fact, Kool Rock, they are actually stupid, which means good. Having the top rap record on the pop charts right now, Salt (Cheryl James) and Pepa (Sandy Denton) are staking out major new turf for women on the male-dominated rap circuit. This winter, their sassy single “Push It” suddenly became a surprise hit on dance and pop radio, belatedly sending their 1986 album, Hot, Cool & Vicious, up to its current No. 26 spot on Billboard’s Top Pop chart. “Push It” ‘s lyrics, mostly a whispered refrain of the title, won’t win any prizes, but the music, more melodic and complex than most rap, gives the record an irresistible twist. Stevie Wonder was so impressed that he booked the duo for his April MTV special. Roxanne Shanté, one of the first female rappers, calls their music “shocking”—a high compliment. “We’re feminists,” says Salt. “We’re doing something that only guys are expected to do and doin’ it RIGHT! At our concerts we’ll do one hard-core rap song and then do one where we’ll be real sexy.”

Wearing black spandex body suits under oversize jackets, Salt’n Pepa put on a show that is more sophisticated than the clichéd finger popping and arm waving of their male counterparts. Each song comes with a choreographed dance routine, but the twosome never stray far from the tough tone of hip-hop, a catchall phrase describing the mix of rap, graffiti and break dancing that black city kids have made into an art form. Using street jargon—”ill” equals bad, “dis’ ” means disrepect—Salt ‘n Pepa shout out boasts and put-downs aimed mostly at men. Their song “Tramp” includes the lines, “You ain’t gettin’ paid/ You ain’t knockin’ boots [translation: hands off]/ You ain’t treatin’ me like no prostitute.” Ironically, producer Hurby Luv Bug—Herby Azor, to those who insist on real names—writes all these male-baiting lyrics. He is also a shameless borrower from other records: “Tramp” includes a horn riff from an Otis Redding tune of the same title, and “Push It” has riffs from Devo’s “Whip It” and the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”

Salt ‘n Pepa first got together in 1985 at a Queens branch of Sears, where they were working very conventionally as telephone salespersons. Co-worker Azor convinced them to help create a song for an audio class he was taking, so James and Denton recorded “The Showstopper” as an answer song to Doug E. Fresh’s boastful “The Show.” When a small record company picked up “Showstopper” and sold more than 250,000 copies, the new team got out of the phone business and named themselves Salt’n Pepa after a line from their song. The act also includes a deejay named Spinderella—DeeDee Roper—who produces a rap form of percussion called scratching. As Spinderella spins records back and forth by hand on a turntable, the needle amplifies the noise, creating short bursts of raspy rhythm.

Salt ‘n Pepa, who are in their early 20s, drop some but not all of their rap posturing offstage. James, whose mother is a bank manager and whose father is a transit worker, is in fact rather shy. Denton, one of nine children raised by her mother, a nurse, after her father’s death in 1983, retains more of her stage persona but makes a few fine distinctions. “When I see a cutie in front at a concert, I say, ‘Ohhh, you’re so cute! What’s your name?’ ” she says. “But I wouldn’t do that in real life.” In real life both women are also less antagonistic toward males—even rappers—than some of their best work might imply. For three years Azor has been James’s boyfriend as well as the team’s manager and producer, while Denton was engaged for a time to Prince Markie Dee, Cool Rock’s partner in the Fat Boys. These days, though, James and Denton have more pressing concerns than mere men: Their second album will come out next month, to be followed by a national tour. “We feel we’re setting a trend,” says Denton. “Other girl groups watch our style and see how we rap. And there are some male rappers I feel we’ve overthrown.” That means, well, overthrown.

—By Michael Small, with Andrew Abrahams in New York.

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