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Cheryl ‘Salt’ James Talks Salt-N-Pepa Nostalgia and That Geico Commercial

Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

If the second act of Salt-N-Pepa’s career is shaping up like a bizarro version of the first, well, that’s just fine with them. Seven years after the trio’s 2007 reformation — they started in 1985 and disbanded in 2002 — the group had their first next-generation national success, albeit in an unexpected form: a Geico commercial featuring them and their 1987 hit “Push It” amid a montage of push-intensive activities. That exposed them to a new audience, one that may embrace another nostalgia-tinged endeavor: Brooklyn’s upcoming ’90s Fest, which they’ll be headlining on September 12 (joining such acts as Lisa Loeb, Coolio, Naughty by Nature, Smash Mouth, and Tonic). We caught up with Salt to talk about how that commercial and ‘90s nostalgia have helped the group’s career.

There’s been a lot of revived interest in ‘90s culture, both ironic and sincere. When did you notice that wave of nostalgia?
We got back together in 2007, after the Salt-N-Pepa reality show came out, and I very reluctantly decided to get back into it because I was enjoying a peaceful life. But then I started having fun. People were really curious and happy and excited that we were performing again, so our shows always did well. They still do. That’s when I realized how important that era was to fans. Women come up to me and Pep, and there are three things we hear over and over and over: One is, “In the high school talent show, I was Salt and my girlfriend was Pepa, and we did ‘Shoop.’” Another is, “For Halloween, me and my girlfriend dressed as Salt-N-Pepa.” You know you made it when you’ve become a Halloween costume. And the other is, “Salt-N-Pepa, you were the soundtrack of my life,” which I love to hear. As an artist, you just do what you do. You might not completely be in touch with how much you’ve affected a person’s life, and when they say it to you, it’s really touching.

Were you ever hesitant to be part of these nostalgia acts? There are always going to be people who see it as cheesy or a money grab.
Nope. Not at all. Everybody has something to say about everything. As a mature woman, those days are over for me. I couldn’t care less what anyone has to say about what I do and who I am as a person. I’m over that. The audience that comes is the audience that we’re playing to, and they love it.

There was also a lot of fanfare about the Geico “Push It” commercial. How much is that ad still affecting your career?
It’s been great. It brought a whole new audience to us. It’s really, really ironic that a freaking commercial brought all this attention to Salt-N-Pepa again. We were already performing, but we started getting a few more gigs and definitely more television from it. I remember when I got the script, I thought maybe it was cheesy. I wasn’t sure, but it made me LOL. So I used my litmus test: my 15-year-old son, who knows what’s up. He read it and was like, “Mom, you gotta do it. It’s great. It’s hilarious.”

So that was my sign-off. When I saw it, I was cracking up. Some people thought it was stupid and cheesy, but most people loved it. I’ve been going to the same church for a really long time, and these two young boys, they might have been about 12 [or] 13 — I know their mom, I’ve seen them grow up — they came up to me and said, “Are you Salt, from Salt-N-Pepa? The lady in the Geico commercial?” And I’m like, Dude, I’ve known you guys your whole life. Y’all never even noticed me, said hello to me, paid me any mind — and now it’s like they’re talking to Jay Z or something.

You’re thinking, You kids know I have a Grammy, right?
Exactly! Now I’m the lady the from the Geico commercial. It’s all good.

As an artist, what was better about the ‘90s?
What was great about that era was the camaraderie, the friendships within the industry. I think it was less competitive and friendlier among artists, and I’m glad there was no Twitter and Instagram. I was way too sensitive to deal with all that stuff. I feel sorry for these young artists. Back then your private life was your private life, and now that doesn’t even exist.

You still wear your signature 8 ball jackets. Looking back at your other ‘90s outfits, do you ever wonder, What were we thinking?
I look back at all of them like that. That’s another difference between now and then: Back then, we were literally making it up as we went along. We didn’t have stylists or makeup artists. Almost every look has a story. Like that asymmetrical haircut — Pep permed her hair and burned one side of it, so she shaved it off and kept the other side. Then I took a razor, put some lines in it, and I was like, “Oh, that’s hot,” and did the same thing. It became this big thing. To this day, girls come up to us and say, “You got me in trouble because I shaved my head on the side!” They’re keeping it long on top but doing that one shaved side, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a throwback to the ‘80s.” Salt-N-Pepa brought fun, fashion, and femininity to hip-hop. That’s a huge part of our legacy.

What’s the story behind the 8 ball jackets?
Play from Kid ‘n’ Play actually designed that 8 ball jacket and made it. He had a leather store in Queens. Underneath we had our spandex. I was very reluctant to wear spandex because I have a big booty, and even when I was really small I just always had a big booty, and for me that was an issue. It’s so funny now, everybody wants a big booty, so I’m back in!

Now that you’ve been back together for a while, have you discussed writing new music?
I’ve always been reluctant because I feel like you can’t touch your legacy. It is what it is. But we got on the bus the other day and started vibing, and I got goose bumps over a few ideas. So I’m starting to get maybe a little creative juice flowing. We’ll see.

Salt-N-Pepa’s Salt on the Perks of Nostalgia