Monday through Thursday, Cheryl James Wray is a mom, a homemaker and occasional Walmart shopper. But on the weekends, she boards a plane as half of the pioneering female rap duo Salt-N-Pepa and travels the world to perform the hits that made her a part of pop culture history.
This weekend her destination is Tampa as one of several acts at Funk Fest, which runs Friday and Saturday at Curtis Hixon Park (click here for details).
James Wray, or Salt as she's more commonly known, marvels at her own career trajectory — from a college freshman writing rhymes to an international star with a daughter preparing to graduate from college this month.
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The rap duo and female DJ Spinderella burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s and captured the world's attention with a B-side remix of a raunchy record called Push It. From there, the women's fame only grew and peaked in 1993 with the multi-platinum album Very Necessary. During the second half of the decade, internal group strife caused the group to disband in 1999.
She talked to tbt* about coming back to Tampa, why Salt-N-Pepa is still touring and what it's like trying to shop at Walmart when you are a pop icon.
How did you guys decide to perform in Funk Fest?
The boring answer is that our managers just book it and tell us where to go. We are all over the place. We just came back from a show in Loveland, Colo. and we're supposed to perform in Norway and Nigeria coming up. We just go where we're told during the weekends. But during the week, it's regular. Your readers will get a kick out of this. Right now, I'm in disguise. I've got my ponytail, Uggs and glasses on and a shopping in Walmart. (laughs)
Is it hard for you to go out and do regular things like that?
Not really. I'm always disguised. With no make-up or anything, I look like a regular Long Island mom. It's kind of corny. Every once and while somebody will recognize me and a I'll stop and sign an autograph or pose for picture. I couldn't stand not being able to go out do shop for myself and buy my own groceries. I want to go to the Walmart and supermarket. I never wanted to a be celebrity so famous that other people had to go out and do my errands. I'm having a good time today by myself going shopping.
What happens if you get caught?
I say hello. If they want to get an autograph or picture, I never deny my fans. There are people that I like, and if I got up the courage to walk up to them and they said no, I would be really hurt for a long time.
So what can fans expect from a Salt-N-Pepa show?
We made happy music and we made music that made people feel happy. We're looking for those big smiles and we want people to enjoy themselves. Their energy gives me energy. I love looking out at the crowd and seeing the 8-Ball jackets and Kente Hats. (snickers)
They still make Kente hats?
Girl, sometimes they have the whole outfits.
Any crazy memories from touring at the height of Salt-N-Pepa fame?
So, I get really ambitious on stage. It was the early '90s and we had a huge show in D.C. It was the Salt-N-Pepa and R. Kelly Tour. So I got an idea to be dumb and try and jump from one speaker to another. It was sold-out crowd and D.C. is hardcore, one of those cities you want to impress. I jumped and fell flat on my back. You could hear the whole audience go, "Oooooooooh!" That rang in my ears for days.
Towards the end of the '90s you guys disbanded. What made you come back to the group and start performing again?
The pressure of being in the industry since I was 18 took a toll on me and took a toll on me and Pep's relationship. We had become... not enemies, but I was tired and overwhelmed. I hadn't had a break since the beginning. If you saw the reality show (VH1's The Salt-N-Pepa Show), I revealed that for a long time I was bulimic. I found it to be interesting that people don't think of that as an issue of for black women. So, I decided to come out and say, yes it is. I went through this healing process with my faith... Short answer: I found some balance; I was able to heal and get feedback from other people. Now, I embrace this legacy — which is so valuable to me and the world.
You've been together with Pepa longer than some married couples. How does that work?
Me and Pep, we are in our 40s and finally good. (Laughs hysterically) We are such different individuals but we love each other. Anybody else you can have problem with. She used to tell me all the time — and I rejected it at first — but she said I can't walk away from her because we're married. She's my industry husband. We've created this thing that's going to last past when we leave this Earth. Salt-N-Pepa is going to last. We just had one huge blowout and decided it's time for us to really, really grow up. In a way, we've always been friends but always been combative friends. Now, we've got communication and understanding. It's acceptance. I just totally accept who Pep is now.
Do you think your time off helped build your legacy?
That's what I tell Pep all the time. She still has a twinge of upsetness. I say that people keep wanting to see us maybe because we stopped. We could have just overdid it. And people would have been like, "Okay. Enough!" Our legacy is Salt-N-Pepa. We leave well enough alone for the most part. We're not making a new album. What we did is never going to happen again (for us).
Do you ever want to give that advice to some of your compatriots who continued recording?
I've said that probably behind their backs. I might need to be a friend and pull them aside. Some people are trying so hard over and over and over. You are chasing a dream that you've already achieved. Your time is passed and what you did is good enough. I never wanted to be the artist chasing my glory. You kind of lose your identity when your identity is wrapped up in what you've done. I am Cheryl James Ray. Salt is something I do. Something I did... More artists will come behind you. If you look at them trying to keep up, you'll feel insecure because you're not in that position any more.
You paved the way, but there don't seem to be many female rappers following in your footsteps. Why not?
I don't know. People ask me that all the time. It baffles me. I know there is a lot of talented women out there. Women like Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliot, with different ideas about music and performance. Now there is none. It's probably harder to succeed. Rap is still very male-dominated, very aggressive. If you don't belong to male camp, you don't get a chance in music, period. It's difficult period because executives are going with a formula that works. It's become more of a business than art form. When it first stared it, rap was an art form. Now, there are a lot of cookie cutter artists using a music formula that works.
When you're tired of performing, what's next?
I'm trying to figure that out. I'm praying to God to help stop me being double-minded. One of my dreams is just to enroll in a seminary and get a degree. But when people look at me as Salt, they can't wrap their mind around that. Ministry full force is my future. If I ever really, really committed to doing it. I really enjoy working with young people and helping them. I'm in a transitional thing right now. Peace is my ultimate goal. I'm not looking for any happiness. Looking for happiness is what lead to me being such and emotional mess in my younger years.
-- Robbyn Mitchell, tbt*