Cheryl "Salt" James was born on March 28, 1966, in New York City. As a college student she teamed up with her friend Sandra Denton to form the hip-hop/rap duo Salt-N-Pepa. Accompanied by DJ Deidra Roper, Salt-N-Pepa was a highly successful, Grammy-winning act in the late 1980s and 1990s, known for crossover hits like "Shoop" and "Whatta Man." James is now a devout Christian and a mother of two.
Early Life and Education
Cheryl "Salt" James was born Cheryl Wray on March 28, 1966, in New York City. James, her older brother and younger sister were raised by their parents in the New York City borough of Queens. Her family life was difficult at times; however, she graduated from high school and went on to study nursing at nearby Queensborough Community College.
Formation of Salt-N-Pepa
While she was a student at Queensborough, James met a fellow nursing student named Sandra Denton. Although the two had very different personalities—James was soft-spoken and private, while Denton was rowdy and extroverted—they became close friends. When James began working part-time at a Sears department store in Queens, she found a job for Denton there, too. While working at Sears, the two young women met aspiring music producer Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor. Azor was currently recording a single called "The Show Stopper," a response to the hit "The Show" by rapper Doug E. Fresh, and he invited James and Denton to lend their voices to the song.
Realizing that they showed potential as a rap duo, James and Denton took the stage name Salt-N-Pepa and decided to continue working together with Azor as their manager. With DJ Pamela Latoya Greene providing backup, they recorded their debut album, Hot, Cool & Vicious (1986). James also became romantically involved with Azor for several years.
Fame and Success
Salt-N-Pepa's first major hit was the song "Push It," which had originally been recorded as a B-side. Remixed and released on its own, it caused a sensation in 1988. Soon afterward, they hired Deidra "Spinderella" Roper (now known as Deidra "Dee Dee" Roper) as their new DJ. Their second and third albums, A Salt with a Deadly Pepa and Blacks' Magic, featured energetic rapping and direct, sometimes provocative language on singles like "Shake Your Thang" and "Let's Talk About Sex."
In 1993, James, Denton and Roper released Very Necessary, the most popular album of their careers. With this album, and its hits "Whatta Man" (recorded with the female R&B act En Vogue) and "Shoop," Salt-N-Pepa proved themselves not only as groundbreaking female figures in rap but also as chart-toppers in the pop music world. Their single "None of Your Business" was awarded a Grammy for Best Rap Performance.
However, Salt-N-Pepa's album Brand New, released in 1997, was less successful. By this time, the group had begun to suffer some internal stresses. Although they still performed together, the three women began to discuss breaking up. James, in particular, wanted to make changes in her life: She was now a devout Christian (she collaborated on a contemporary gospel recording titled "Stomp" with the singer Kirk Franklin in 1997), and she was struggling with depression and bulimia.
Salt-N-Pepa officially disbanded in 2002. After a few years' hiatus, James has reunited occasionally with Denton and Roper for Salt-N-Pepa concerts and special events. The three women also appeared together on the reality television series The Salt-N-Pepa Show in 2007-08.
James and her fellow bandmates are still considered groundbreaking figures in the music world of the late 1980s and early 1990s, both for their role as women in rap and for their unprecedented success on both the hip-hop and pop charts.
James married produced Gavin Wray in 2000. She and Wray have two children, daughter Corin and son Chapele.
(Profile photo of Cheryl 'Salt' James by Tim Roney/Getty Images)
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