Writing about musicians means you occasionally get to fulfill completely random fantasies — e.g., a casual phone conversation with Cheryl James, aka Salt of Salt-N-Pepa. (Read Gambit's story on the group's Essence Festival reunion here.) I was all of 8 when "Push It" swept across the country in 1986, and one of my most vivid childhood music memories is watching that video for the first time, loving the synthesizer hook ("It sounds like a naughtier 'Axel F'!") and thinking, Jesus, one day I hope I understand what these lyrics are all about. Had James called me then, it's the first thing I would've asked her.

How’s the live show coming along? Do you have a set program for Essence Fest?

We just started performing again. It’s been incredible, the turnouts. I’m surprised that people still want Salt-N-Pepa the way that they do. I’m so flattered and so excited about performing again. We did a show in Hawaii in an arena, and we sold it out. We’re going to Toronto. We’re just getting back into it. We’ve structured a really great show full of all of our hits — or as many as we can get in there. When I started putting the show back together, I was like, “Wow, we had a lot of hit songs!” I had forgotten. So we’re just hitting you with those hits, back to back to back. We have Spinderella with us, and she does a hot set. I think we’re going to do about 45 minutes. I’m excited, because I didn’t really realize how huge this Essence Festival was. I’ve heard about it from year to year. On the show, we had the cameras follow us to New Orleans to do some disaster relief for Hurricane Katrina. We made a lot of friends, so I’m sure they’ll be giving us some love.

You came down for the Jena 6 rallies too, right? How did you get on that?

I got an e-blast about the situation. You know how some things just hit your heart. My heart really just went out to those kids. I identified with their moms on a really deep level for some reason. I decided I was going to go out there. We were filming the show, and I didn’t really expect them to come because, you know, it’s VH1. I didn’t think they’d be interested. But I was going anyway. That would’ve put a break in the shooting schedule, so they followed us. I talked to Pep, and she came along. We went and we met with the families, and we let them tell us what was going on. But the point of bringing the cameras was to bring awareness to the situation. We took our kids. It was really a powerful, meaningful journey, because our children learned a lot about injustice and what can happen. For that reason I was really glad that we did it. And it was a powerful episode.

Honestly, now: How much of the TV show was contrived for cameras?

Our show was unusually real, compared to reality. The drama between me and Pep was all true. We had many unresolved issues. We even had an episode where (life coach) Iyanla (Vanzant) came in, which was incredible. Her announcement to the crew and the producers was, “I’m not here to do reality (TV). I’m here to heal these girls’ relationships.” [Therapy?] It really was. And the thing is that you only get 23 minutes of things that take days, you know, and you have to crunch it down. It’s really difficult, as one of the people on the show, to see them crunch it down to what they want it to be. But for the most part our show was very, very real. Then, there’s times where you know, OK, we’re going here and doing this and we need to film it. Part of it that’s set up, that goes without saying.

Was it hard to watch it edited down?

Very hard for me. That was one of the most trying experiences for me. Even the first episode, when we were hashing out our drama, that was a two-hour conversation. And it was, I think, a minute and a half. (Laughs) “We’re just gonna take when Salt starts crying and when Pepa starts yelling. That’s the drama.” It took a long time to escalate to that point. There was a lot of very coherent discussion, you know? It took some getting used to for me. But the show’s not coming back. But it’s a singles dating show. I’m stepping back into the producer lane. [Had enough?] Oh my God, yes. (Laughs) If I do, it has to be something like I’m a judge on a show, something like that.

How has your spirituality affected your artistic endeavors?

What I did love about the reality show is it helped me sift through all those fears that I had of disappointing God, disappointing the church. The conclusion that I came to was, one, the way that I left Pep was very damaging to her, and I apologized and I repented for that. God showed me how much I hurt her; He showed me her pain, which was very helpful to me. Two, that the music that we did was, in comparison to what’s going on right now, very, very bubblegum. (Laughs) But back then, it was like, oh my God, you know? Our intention for “Push It” was always, it was about dancing. And people were like, “Yeah, right.” (Laughs) But it’s so true! We were so naïve back then. That wasn’t Hurby (Azor)’s intention; he wrote that song. Three, opening up my heart to the possibilities of how we can structure a show and new music in a way that is balanced and that is still uplifting and something that I can claim and be proud of.

And what about with Sandy? Are you at peace?

I opened up to that process, and we came up with a show. And Sandy allowed me to. Because there was a fight there, a struggle there for a while, and eventually she allowed me to do that, and she decided that she’s going to respect where I am. The show is amazing. It’s full of ministry, full of fun. They allow me to close out the show with “Stomp,” and the crowd goes crazy. We end up our show with the whole place praising God, and we get to talk in the middle about our journey and forgiveness. The way that I resolve “Push It” is, we changed the meaning of “push it.” Now we’re pushing it for all of these different reasons: for our single moms who are struggling, for our soldiers to come home. We’re pushing it for change in America with Barack Obama. And they love it. That satisfies me, and we still get to do our hits. God worked it out for me.

You’re working on a new album? How far along?

Yeah, we are. We have some incredible music. It’s really Salt-N-Pepa-ry kind of stuff. Nothing too crazy or too deep or anything. It’s what we do, you know? Dance music. We came to a nice common ground, and it was like, OK, let’s keep it positive, let’s keep it light, let’s keep it fun, let’s keep it dancing. I think people will love this record that we’re working on. We’re also working on the plan to put it out, because the record industry is nothing like what we’re used to. So we’re still developing a plan on how we’re going to market it and promote it, and where you can get it. It’ll probably mostly be through the Internet. We have about 13 songs. Songs are still coming. We didn’t think of a name yet. But we’re in the process of wrapping it up. This particular album, I did most of it. I’ve been working with Rock Wiler and these two producers from Atlantic City, Chris and Teeb. Drop Zone is the name of their production. And a couple of other young guys that are up-and-coming that have some hits under their belt. But for the most part, I’m putting together the album.

Did you miss performing while you were away?

I really didn’t, I didn’t at all. I was exhausted. I just needed some normalcy in my life. And I got that for a really long time. I never longed for [fame]; I resisted it a lot. Over the years I turned down huge checks. Also, I was resenting the fact that I had to be responsible for Pepa and Spin’s finances. But then, in maturing, God showed me that in a way I am. This is what we do to make our living. So I have to figure out how to do what I was blessed with to make a living for myself, my family and the girls.

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