Sunday, June 26, 2011

Melody Maker, 26TH March 1988

by Simon Reynolds

Salt N' Pepa are on their way up. They're poised on the cusp between cult and mega. They come from a subculture characterised by an unusual (even by pop's standards) swiftness of turnover, rapid obsolescence, where the backrop to the boasts of uniqueness and omnipotence is the reality of anonymity and obscurity to which most rappers return after a brief spell of celebrity.

So Salt 'N' Pepa are determined that they are here to stay. They're working now on turning the initial furore of their arrival into a managed, planned career with the emphasis on longevity as much as impact. Their new LP is called Career Girls.

"You can never be complacent in this business. You have to build on any success to make it last. So on our new LP we're gonna have something for everybody – some rock 'n' roll, some radio pop, some hardcore rap for the street crowd. Something that appeals to every market, so that you don't get pigeonholed as the one thing that appeals to only one kind of person."

Eclecticism as maximum market penetration, straddling radio formats, diversifying your assets. Salt 'N' Pepa have been given sound advice.

But this isn't the story of co-option, of street energy being tamed and exploited by the industry. At every level of hip hop, from the precinct hoodlum, through the cottage industry small labels, right on up to the corporate empires of Def Jam and Cold Chillin', rappers are on the make, eyes on the main chance, looking to be promoted to the next tier of capitalism.

These days, even at the earliest, most amateur, semi-spontaneous level of activity, rappers have the rough details of their ascent worked out in advance. They know the rungs, the pitfalls. They're righteous about gettin' paid. To me, a socialist of sorts, hip hop is a political revelation: its pathological individualism exposes the psychosis at the heart of our free market system, capitalism's war of all against all.

"We always wanted to be in showbiz, but never thought it would really happen. So although it was kind of an accident, we weren't overwhelmed, we'd thought about it, and had prepared for it, in a way. And we know about the work you have to put into sustaining it. You're gonna be hearing about Salt 'N' Pepa for a long long time."

This is America, of course, the land where positive thinking and "self-realisation" seep from every pore of the media, where getting on in the world and getting on with people are both seen as boiling down to the same life skill: selling yourself to others.

Hip hop is a Black subculture, for sure, but it's also an American one – a fact the full significance of which still hasn't percolated through to some quarters here. Hip hop swallows the American caboodle of initiative, ambition, enterprise, "anyone can make it if they work hard", whole.

So Run DMC publicly announce their support for Joey Brown, the notorious black high school principal for New Jersey, whose "talk tough" policy towards pupils has caused much controversy in the States, because of its emphasis on discipline, rectitude, not to mention Brown's bent for patrolling the playground with a loudhailer in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.

And that closeknit family The Skinny Boys namecheck Bill Cosby as a major role model – Cosby the patrician, whose increasingly moralistic show always sees the parents putting their errant kids back on the rails of life with an appropriate homily and a firm hand, Cosby the massive shareholder who is believed to have engineered the dismissal of liberal David Puttnam from his influential Hollywood job.

Like Run DMC, Salt 'N' Pepa are uncomfortably poised between the monomaniac assertion ("here I am, I am Somebody") of the subculture they come from, and the vague feelings of responsibility (to be a "positive role model") engendered by massive success. Like Run DMC, like Whodini, Salt 'N' Pepa, I'm sure, will shift from the tyranny of their local struggles towards something more regal, magnanimous, publicly concerned. The apoplexy of 'It's Alright', with its dub-cavern of spectral scratch and its visionary cruelty ("burn you and leave your ashes smokin"'), the exuberant vindictiveness of 'I'll Take Your Man', the predatorial 'I Desire'...all this disproportion is already being evened out to fit the pop format. But there's still pleasure. 'Push It', the new single and a Top 20 smash in the States, abandons the grit of sampled R&B for the hygiene and precision of electro, its robotic lubriciousness strangely reminiscent of Devo.

On the B side, 'I'm Down' is an insanely itchy piece of digital raunch. But a lot of the uncouthness has gone, as the big time beckons, perhaps ceded to a new Hurby Azor creation, Antoinette, who raps with the meanest, cold-hearted voice I think I've heard in rap – like she has vinegar for blood.

Some people read Salt 'N' Pepa as a proto-feminist upsurge in the phallocentric world of hip hop. But to me, there was always too much competitiveness going down for Salt 'N' Pepa to fit comfortably into the scheme of sisterhood and mutual support against the phallocrats.

Salt 'N' Pepa fit more into the old soul tradition of female sass, of women being demanding within the terms of conventional gender roles: like Shirley Murdock duetting with Roger Troutman, (or Carla Thomas with Otis Redding, for that matter), where the women lambasts the man for dereliction of his obligations. The fundamental ideals of sexual apartheid aren't tampered with.

"What do I think are the ideal qualities in a man? He's got to be...sensitive...but masculine, y'know. Rugged. Lots of money. Well, not so much the money, as he's got to have the drive to make money. I love money, ha ha ha! But looks come second to personality every time.

"The War Of The Sexes? Yeah, well, it's always gonna be like that. Always has been, always will be."

Salt 'N' Pepa deal me a bunch of glibly-delivered stock answers this afternoon, the freshness and charm having become rather starched thanks to the massive itinerary of TV appearances and magazine interviews they've had to undertake as 'Push It' takes off. Are their stage/vinyl characters anything like the real people (Cheryl James and Sandra Denton) behind Salt 'N' Pepa?

"Oh no, it's a character. I ain't like that. On stage I'm wild, I spin on my knees, I'm rude, I order people about. In person we're much more considerate. But people like the way we are onstage, they want to be controlled, cos then they know you're giving your all, really putting out onstage."

It's a spectacle of control, of course, as with Janet Jackson, where the spectacle of self-determination is masterminded by various backroom writers and sonic architects. Salt 'N' Pepa now write a bigger share of their own material, choreography, routines, but it was Hurby Azor who more or less created the concept of Salt 'N' Pepa, having first divined a potential in the raw material of their boisterousness.

It was Hurby who gave them a unique sound, one that has had a major influence on last year's shift in rap away from the bludgeoning dead end of total blackout and rhythmic seizure that seemed the logical destination for hip hop, towards a more sensual, loose-limbed sound.

Using first a technique called "poublaison" (a kind of tape loop) [2011 NOTE:ACTUALLY PUBLISON, A MACHINE THAT COMBINES SAMPLING AND EFFECTS) and now straightforward sampling with an Akai 900, Azar takes raw material (a Meters guitar lick, an ancient R&B drum sound, a string of call-and-response) and assembles a kind of Frankenstein dance monster out of funk-limbs that don't belong together. Check out the Hurby's Machine sampler of his creations. The different grooves almost, but don't quite fit – hence the friction, the rub, that makes the music so sensual, in comparison with the sado-masochistic jackhammer rhythms of previous hip hop.

Another effect is more eerie, the this-ness and then-ness of specific studio vibes, placed in uncanny adjacence with one another. There's a kind of crooked grooviness about the sound, something zombie: music that appears to be living and breathing, the result of the human touch, but is in fact only a simulacrum of life, "hyped up by Hurby".

AUTHOR'S NOTE: a disastrous interview this, stilted in itself on account of culture gap, but then as i was doing it i was aware of a strange whining electronic noise, only to discover at the conclusion of the interview that the tape recorder had malfunctioned and not a word had been recorded In a panic I asked the group if i could do the interview again - to which Salt replied, acidly, "Those questions?". So I bolted the building and rushed across the street to the nearest fast food joint and sat down scribbling whatever dregs I could dredge up from my short-term memory of the interview. Hence the rather low ratio of band quotes to SR pontification in this piece.