WITH FOX just months away from its kickoff NFL season, this might be the last go-round for the original version of Salt-n-Pepa's "Whatta Man," a celebration of strong men who stay home and care for kids. The song's lyrics will be customized at the beginning of every game (a la Hank Williams Jr.'s "Monday Night Football" theme). Fans at the group's two concerts Sunday at DAR Constitution Hall will also be hearing their other Top 5 single, "Shoo," and "No One Does It Better."
That last song could serve as Salt-n-Pepa's own theme: With all four of their albums at platinum, they are the only female rappers to reach that level. What's more remarkable is that Salt (Cheryl James), Pepa (Sandra Denton) and DJ/rapper Spinderella (Dee Dee Roper) all had babies in the last three years before returning to prime time with the double platinum album, "Very Necessary."
Off the scene for three years, Pepa says she wasn't worried about losing momentum in the ever-shifting hip-hop world.
"It was perfect timing because when we put out a record, it always lasts two years and since 'Black's Magic' was still on the charts, we were still in the limelight. I never stopped to wonder if we'd be accepted when we made a new album."
Salt-n-Pepa's strong, sassy approach is evident in both song and video, somewhat controversially in the slyly sensual "Shoop," which flips the script by showing a bunch of women ogling a bunch of men. Some feminists have criticized it as sexist and degrading to men, but Pepa shrugs that off.
"The nerve! Men do that all the time in their videos and songs and the one time girls come up and take control, there's a little talk about it?"
Sisterhood is marketable, says Pepa. "I want to reach everyone but I have a dedication to women. Being that I'm a woman myself and with the things that I've gone through, I've dealt with a lot of women that are in the dark and blind about relationships, who depend on men for their happiness, emotionally and financially.
"And women are my biggest audience: The guys love us, they think we're sexy, but the girls take us seriously . . . I've always said that when I was a teenager growing up, I wish I had girls like Salt-n-Pepa to look up to. If I'd had someone I could relate to, a lot of things would probably be different."
They were, of course, among the first women rappers when they made their debut in 1986 with "Hot, Cool & Vicious." They've had plenty of company since, and "there's room for everybody," Pepa adds. "But seeing that it's still such a male-dominated field, I would like to see more women because that would mean more women's point of view."
That view is found in such Salt-n-Pepa songs of consciousness and empowerment as "Let's Talk About Sex" (later a popular PSA, "Let's Talk About AIDS"), "Independent," "Do You Really Want Me" and "Express Yourself."
But even now, women rappers don't evince much solidarity, Pepa complains. "It's not unity like I would like it to be. I look at the guy rappers and they're always hooking up and doing songs together, always on each other's bills, or jamming. I wish there was more of that but I don't really see that too much with girls. We tend to just do our own thing."
For Salt-n-Pepa, that means doing some new things. For instance, they recently shot the pilot for a Walt Disney Television sitcom titled "On Our Own." Following in the footsteps of the Fresh Prince and Queen Latifah, it will feature Salt-n-Pepa "playing ourselves as Sandy and Sheryl, single mothers trying to be career women, trying to make it having kids -- which is just how we are."
They won't be playing rappers, but employees of a department store. In fact, Salt and Pepa met working at a Sears in their native New York City, brought together in the studio by fellow high school student Hurby "Love Bug" Azor to fullfill a class project. He got an A, they got a contract.
Besides television, Salt-n-Pepa will also put out an exercise video in the fall, part of the public reaction to the newly toned bodies unveiled in the "Shoop" and "Whatta Man" videos: They somehow looked much better after they had babies and "a lot of women wanted to know how we did it."
Here's a hint while waiting for the video: "Crunches, a lot of sit ups in the morning and at night, no eating after 10," advises Pepa. "For girls who want to get their waistline down a little bit and don't have any weights in the house, they can actually use a broom and put it behind their necks, lap over it and twist and squat. I do all of that if I don't go to the gym."
You can also burn calories chasing a kid, as Pepa does with her 3 1/2-year-old, Tyran. "He's curious and fast. My son has energy!" Still, Tyran will probably never get a birthday party quite like the one Salt-n-Pepa played for the children of the Sultan of Brunei at his palatial fiefdom. Apparently, the Sultan's 15-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son especially wanted Salt-n-Pepa for their joint birthday celebration.
"They all have their own mansions and housekeeping help, even the youngest, Prince Bahar," Pepa recalls. "The stage was set up and I'll tell you one thing: The sound and the lighting were the best we've ever had, even though we were performing in front of 20 people. I've never seen anything like that in my life. Too rich for me."
SALT-N-PEPA -- Appearing at 7:30 and 11:30 Sunday with R. Kelly at DAR Constitution Hall. Call 202/432-7328.
To hear a free Sound Bite from "Very Necessary," call 202/334-9000 and press 8101.