The Cast of the Salt-N-Pepa Biopic on How Friendship Shaped Such an Iconic Music Duo
As a little Black girl growing up in the Deep South, there are certain ways of thinking that young women are taught and rules that we are expected to follow.
You are not to sit with your legs too far apart; it’s unladylike. Girls wear skirts; pants are for boys. Never leave the house with your hair uncombed; you’ll look unkept. Legs aren’t meant to be bare; that’s what stockings are made for. Tight clothing will attract the wrong type of attention; cover yourself up so you won’t look too “experienced.” Marriage then baby; no shacking up allowed. She’s quite “developed” for her age; she must be having intercourse already. Don’t you dare ask about the birds and the bees; sex is grown folks’ talk.
So, when I first heard Salt-N-Pepa blaring through the speakers of my Bible-belt-born mother’s car radio, as she bobbed her head and mouthed the self-expressive lyrics to “Push It” and “Whatta Man,” I was utterly intrigued… to say the least. I felt a sense of liberation from her that my adolescent self had never before. To me, she had always been Mom, but at that moment, she reminded me that she was a woman first.
That was the effect that Salt-N-Pepa had on all women. They didn’t follow the rules; they made their own, even if that meant breaking a few. Their music, what they stood for, how they carried themselves–it inspired you to pull yourself out of your comfort zone and embrace your femininity unapologetically. They made speaking up and standing out look cool. They made the display of sexuality and sensuality in your ladyhood okay. Their girl-to-woman, we-said-what-we-said approach to the Hip-Hop game sparked a whole movement for the genre’s female takeover. They talked about the untalked-of in a manner that influenced and captivated all generations, and decades later, their catalog remains timeless.
However, for Cheryl James and Sandra Denton, when they first hit the scene in 1985, they had no idea that pushing limits where others had set boundaries would catapult their career to legendary status. What started out as a New York City-bred dream rapidly became a global reality. Their single “Push It” laid the foundation for their iconic musical run, along with other hits like “I’ll Take Your Man,” “Let’s Talk About Sex,” and “Shoop,” among others.
With their unparalleled flow and lyricism and nothing-less-than-dope DJ, Deidra “Spinderella” Roper, adding even more of that raw, risqué appeal on the turntables, Salt-N-Pepa mastered the art of attracting a crowd and their listenership skyrocketed. They became the IT all-girl group of the eighties and nineties and created trends that still live on to this day. Millions of records sold, number-one albums, stadiums of screaming supporters, and walls of plaques and awards, Salt-N-Pepa’s impact is forever solidified.
But where there is glitter, there isn’t always gold. The icons have suffered through their share of struggles, and although what lies between the pages of their story is dynamic in a lot of ways, they aren’t afraid to “tell it like it is.” The good chapters and the bad chapters.
A little over a year after the news of the duo’s biopic being in production, the film’s premiere is finally here. On Saturday, January 23rd, the authorized life history of Salt-N-Pepa makes its way to Lifetime.
Titled Salt-N-Pepa, the awaited project stars G.G. Townson (Bounce TV’s In the Cut) as Cheryl “Salt” James, Laila Odom (The Bobby DeBarge Story) as Sandra “Pepa” Denton, Monique Paul as “DJ Spinderella,” Cleveland Berto (Terminator: Dark Fate) as music producer “Hurby Azor,” and Jermel Howard (Deadly Dispatch) as Pepa’s ex-husband and Naughty by Nature member “Treach.”
The Abdul Williams-written script chronicles Salt-N-Pepa’s illustrious rise to Hip-Hop royalty and the many trials and tribulations that have tested their throne throughout the act’s thirty-plus-year career.
Having gotten the chance to view the private showing of the film, immediately, it was clearly seen that they couldn’t have chosen a better cast. From the way that Laila Odom walked with her head held high and shoulders pulled back, alike to the fierce-yet-feisty Pepa we all love, even down to Salt’s sweet-yet-spunky personality that G.G. Townson embodied so perfectly, it was literally a match made in heaven.
How did such big roles fall into their laps, though? Ironically, although every actress’ end goal is to ace their audition, both Townson and Odom still couldn’t believe that they were going to be portraying the rap queens when given confirmation. In fact, Townson didn’t even quite grasp what she was being told on the other end of the phone.
“When I first got my call, my agent was like, ‘Can I speak to Cheryl?’ And I was like, ‘Hello?’ [laughs],” the Los Angeles native told us when describing the day that she received the news. “He was like, ‘Can I speak to Cheryl?’ I said, ‘It’s G.’ Then… it sunk in! It didn’t really hit [at first] because I was like, ‘Wait… I gotta quit my job! When do I do that? Life was happening! But, then, getting to [set] in Toronto, putting on the wigs, and getting into the makeup, that’s when it was really like, ‘Oh, my God! This is happening!’ It took me getting to Toronto for it to really sink in.”
While in agreeance with Townson, Odom also added that she was shocked that she was able to fight back the tears in the beginning.
“It sunk in when we got to the production house. We started to see pictures of us, pictures of [Salt-N-Pepa], and it was like we were morphing into them,” she excitedly revealed during a recent press conference. “Even though I didn’t cry when I found out, I want to cry some days. Like, I want to cry when I find out! I be like, ‘Thank you very much! I appreciate it; have a good day!’ [laughs] I wanted to cry, but all of that came later. It was hard leaving Toronto!”
Although coming into their characters seemed to be fun for the ladies, the preparation for filling those huge shoes required a lot of hard work and dedication to their craft. When asked about her conversations with Salt beforehand, Townson detailed her encounter with the group member and recounted her being very open about her life and the things she wanted Townson to visualize on-screen.
“Honestly, we didn’t have any conversation that was off-limits. We talked about everything!” Townson explained. “We talked about the details that made the movie; we talked about the details that didn’t make the movie. I think that [Cheryl] felt that it was important to get all of her–for me to get all of her–to understand how to navigate through the scenes and know what choices to make.”
Being able to relate to Salt-N-Pepa in some areas of their lives was, too, helpful when it came to channeling and connecting with the ladies’ backgrounds. While studying Pepa, Odom admitted that there were actually some qualities that she found they had in common.
“Both Pep and I lost our fathers. I lost my dad when I was really young; she lost her dad when she was about seventeen,” Odom expressed. “And I didn’t know that. There were certain things about her that [made me realize] that I have the same qualities. I think that she’s a girl who’s misunderstood sometimes, but I think, in the long run, if you watch the entirety of the movie, you’ll see that she evolves, she grows.”
But, though the film does give us the highs and lows, Odom believes that the key message is friendship and how powerful it can be when sisterhood is at the core of it. Thirty-five years of bonding and removing barriers, Salt-N-Pepa’s relationship with each other is just as strong now as it was back then. Because of that, Odom and Townson felt that it was super important for viewers to feel the chemistry through the camera, and it even ignited a real-life friendship between the two of them.
“I knew G.G. prior to this. We’re in a circle of creatives in L.A. who were doing Vines and creating content. We had worked together, and it was [more so of a] ‘I know you, but I don’t completely know you,'” Odom recalled with much joy. “The thing about it, though, is that this project brought us together in a way that wouldn’t have happened in any other kind of way. Like, we had to build a real friendship because you would be able to see through it [if it wasn’t real] at some point. Through this whole process, we supported each other; we loved on each other. Everybody has a good day and a bad day. Sometimes, after a certain scene, I would just go hug G. [laughs] Sometimes, I would go over and be like, ‘It’s okay! We don’t care; it’s okay!’ And I think we needed that!”
Hearing the both of them gush about working together was refreshing. It further proved the point that women have the ability to do major things when all on the same accord. In an era where competition amongst Black women is at an all-time high, the Salt-N-Pepa biopic’s women’s empowerment theme was much needed and will undoubtedly bring girlfriends even closer and free up more seats at a table that everyone can eat at.
“I feel like the friendship and the power [that it has] is the backbone of the making of this movie. If Laila and I didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have done this story justice. Where our friendship was when we first got [the role]–like Laila said, we weren’t the best of friends, but we were figuring it out–that’s where [Salt-N-Pepa] started. They weren’t the best of friends, but they were figuring it out, too,” Townson spoke candidly. “Because we were [filming] in Toronto, we were completely pulled out of our element. We were our own little pod, our own little family, so we were all we had. Through the cold nights in Toronto, the dancing on the beach in practically nothing, and the rigorous fourteen, fifteen-hour days, I don’t think I could’ve done this with anyone but Laila. To have her there as a support and someone to tell me that it’s going to be okay when I’m on the verge of crying because I’m frustrated. So, I feel like, not only are we paying homage to their story and their sisterhood, you’re really seeing our story, too, as friends, by way of this film.”
Odom and Townson’s depiction of Salt-N-Pepa’s bond alone was commendable. So much so that the legends themselves were in awe of how closely they portrayed them and their closeness. For Odom, her main objective was to show that women don’t have to always be at odds, even if the odds are sometimes against them.
“This is about women’s empowerment. So many times, on reality shows–and I’m not trying to bash anyone or anything–we see that the first thing is two women fighting over something,” Odom truthfully stated. “We’re not doing that. You know? We respect these women, and we respect what they’ve done. Yeah, you’re going to see us disagree and it’s ‘funny,’ it’s fun, and it’s real, but the level of respect that we had for each other, and for who we’re playing, by all means, that’s the heart of the movie.”
However, with sisterhood being the meat of the film, the right to have a voice as a woman is also something that it highly represents.
When asked about Salt-N-Pepa’s no-holds-barred feminism in their music, Odom and Townson applauded the ladies on how tastefully they were at conveying their thoughts in their songs, the statements that they made, and the part that they played in female freedom.
“We’re in a time and a culture where you can say whatever you want to say. Like, honestly,” Odom said. “But I think that it’s the empowerment that we have to really, really lean on. Women being able to be comfortable enough to say what they want to say. ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ was a very important song. It wasn’t just ‘let me show you what I can do in the bedroom.'”
It’s no secret that Salt-N-Pepa had a way with the mic like no other. They could make sticky situations come off so smoothly in your ears. They could make touchy topics not seem so significant. They brought together communities, connected bridges, and tapped into audiences that one could’ve never imagined would be tapped into, by women, especially.
It’s safe to say, the biopic mirrored that and more and even holds a number of lessons that all watchers could appreciate.
“One lesson that I would want women to take from this is to stand in your integrity and do what serves you,” said Townson. “Don’t do what other people want you to do. If something is not serving you, do the work that you need to do to make it right. You can’t pour into anyone’s cup if yours is empty.”
As the two exchanged smiles, Odom added to that by saying, “When it comes to this, I want young women to really look within. Sometimes, we look for validation from men, and we do things–especially now–like changing our bodies [and stuff], but sis, you already got it! These girls, Salt-N-Pepa, were going to be nurses, and look at what they ended up doing. So, it’s in all of us already. We just have to tap into it, and I hope that that’s the message that this movie kind of brings home.”
Directed by Mario Van Peebles, Salt-N-Pepa is produced by Sony Pictures Television. Robert Teitel from Slate Street Prods., Shakim Compere, Queen Latifah, Cheryl James, and Sandra Denton serve as executive producers. James “Jimmy” Maynes and Hurby Azor are also credited as co-executive producers.
The film is scheduled to debut tonight on Lifetime at 8/7c! Their official documentary, Let’s Talk About Salt-N-Pepa will follow at 11/10c.
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