The female rap trio Salt-N-Pepa long has preached empowerment to its fans, a message passed along during the making of its current album.

Although the trio used other writers in some cases, Salt-N-Pepa penned many of the album's songs and shared in its production. The declaration of creative independence paid off. "Very Necessary" (Next Plateau/London), the group's fourth album, peaked at No. 4 and has remained on the albums chart for the past 27 weeks."We want to inspire women to become stronger and get out of abusive relationships," said Cheryl "Salt" James. "The girls understand where we're coming from. And we practice what we preach."

Salt-N-Pepa - James, Sandy "Pepa" Denton and De De "Spin-der-ella" Roper - are today's hottest-selling female rap act, the only female rap stars to go platinum by selling more than 1 million copies. They surfaced seven years ago with the suggestive, Grammy-nominated "Push It," and hit again in 1991 with "Let's Talk About Sex," which reached the 1 million mark.

(Salt-N-Pepa will perform on Monday, May 9, at the Delta Center, with Xscape and R. Kelly. Tickets are available at the Delta Center box office and the usual concert ticket outlets.)

Today, the trio has enough clout to hire rival r&b vocal group En Vogue to sing backup on the catchy single "Whatta Man," and had the foursome appear in the video, an MTV staple.

"For a long time, we were treated as a fluke," James said in a telephone interview. "With this album, people sat up and took notice. The music business isn't any different than any other world for females. We have to be more aggressive than men, and when we are, we get called names for it."

It wasn't always that way. Denton and James met in high school and were working at Sears in Queens, N.Y., when they ran into fellow Sears employee and budding rap producer Hurby Azor.

With Azor at the controls, the duo, using the moniker Super-nature, recorded the single "Showstopper," which attracted the attention of Next Plateau, a New York label. The label backed an album from the duo, now using the name Salt-N-Pepa, and "Push It" emerged as a popular club hit.

Meanwhile, disc jockey Roper - Spinderella - was hired to spin the turntable that still is an important element in the sound of East Coast rap. When the group appears on stage, four female singers, four male singers, dancers and a second disc jockey are part of the package.

"There are lots of people up there, but one thing we've always set out to do is entertain," James said. "It's very important to us to put on a good show. We've never felt confined by the rules of rap."

Although James, Denton and Roper (who won't divulge exact ages but admit they are in their late 20s) don't see themselves as role models, they do try to reach a segment of their audience.

"We're not out to bash men," James said. "We do it from a position of trying to show women what type of men are out there, how to deal with them and how to be independent and strong. Guys may like us for our looks, but our female fans take us seriously. We've had fans tell us we've encouraged them to get out of bad situations."

Still, she admitted, "It's hard to think about who you're writing for because that will cut off the creative flow. It's stifling to be an artist and expected to be a role model at the same time."

During the past 31/2 years, James, Denton and Roper, who live in the New York-New Jersey area, each had a child. None are married.

"Our careers are important, but our kids come first," said James, who still is together with the father of her child. "It breaks my heart to be away from my daughter. Women like to be home, not living out of suitcases."

Salt-N-Pepa's current album closes with "I've Got AIDS," a public service announcement performed by three teens from a Boston outreach program. The addition of the track was a result of the trio's new-found creative sway.

"You have to use your own experiences and environment in the songs," James said. "That's where the personal expression comes in. Sometimes, we put a message in the music, like making women stronger, so our female audience can learn from our experiences."