Salt 'N' Pepa have an album in the top 10 and two singles that are leaving burn marks on the charts, which can mean only one thing they must be making somebody angry. Again. Rap's most successful women seem to have a knack for rubbing people the wrong way, though this time the charge is new: sexism. Specifically, S'N'P are getting flak from feminists for ''degrading men'' in their ''Shoop'' video, the first single off their fourth album, Very Necessary. Perhaps you've seen them shaking their newly toned bodies in the skimpiest of hot pants, mercilessly teasing bare-chested members of the opposite sex?
''Oh, please,'' snaps Sandra Denton (Pepa). ''If Madonna went and wrapped a chain around a guy's neck, it would be considered cool. We have a few guys without shirts and it's degrading? People seem to be most upset because we show just a bare chest without showing the guy's face. They think it's wrong to show only the bottom half. That happens to women all the time why shouldn't men know how it feels?''
What about their own brief outfits? Aren't they simply objectifying themselves? ''It's not like we're naked. All our private parts are covered,'' she laughs. ''If you feel good about yourself, there's nothing wrong with showing your stuff.''
Denton is equally impatient with critics who feel S'N'P should follow fellow rapper Queen Latifah's lead and politicize their message. ''We've never been political and our fans like us that way. Music is supposed to be fun,'' she says. ''But we do drop a positive message. We've always been for women and for biggin' up their self-esteem. That's why we do songs like 'Independent.' And helping women like themselves and not depend on men what's more political than that?''
Just to set the record straight, it's not like these little controversies are putting a crimp in the careers of Denton, 25; Cheryl James (Salt), 25; and Dee Dee Roper (Spin), 23. Necessary has quickly gone platinum (their third album to do so, an achievement no other female rappers can claim); ''Shoop'' has reached No. 4 on the pop charts, and their second single, ''Whatta Man,'' is currently at No. 3. ''Salt 'N' Pepa are a definitive MTV group core artists along with Nirvana and Aerosmith,'' says Traci Jordan, VP of music and talent at MTV. ''Their videos are some of the most requested. The fact that they flipped the script in 'Shoop' women ogling men instead of vice versa is exactly what makes the video appealing to men and women.''
''Salt 'N' Pepa are sexy, but they're not raunchy,'' says Dean Valentine, an executive VP at Walt Disney Television, which is currently developing an S'N'P sitcom with CBS. ''It's a light sexiness that appeals to a wide audience, much like Fresh Prince.'' Appealing to a wide (non-hip-hop and white) audience was what got them in trouble four years ago, when the release of their third album, Blacks' Magic, and the crossover success of the top 20 single ''Let's Talk About Sex'' made hardcore rap fans slag the trio off as sell-outs. ''In the rap community, it isn't 'in' to cross over,'' says Kierna Mayo-Dawsy, a senior editor at the rap magazine The Source. ''But if I were Salt 'N' Pepa, I wouldn't worry about street credibility. Hip-hop itself is pop, which means the whole genre has sold out.''