The Minimalist-Funk Legacy of ESG

Ask a music fan with at least a little more than casual knowledge of the late '70s post-punk scene to describe its sound, and they're likely to emphasize how it rewired avant-garde and underground music into a more rhythmic drive. In other words, it's the moment when bands brought funk to punk, whether via Lower Manhattan stars like Talking Heads and James Chance, or bands out of Northern England like Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd. But one under-appreciated group—at least, under-appreciated in proportion to their influence on a number of different music scenes—was a group of sisters out of the South Bronx who flipped the script and played funk like it was punk rock. They called their band ESG, short for Emerald, Sapphire & Gold. Those first two were birthstones. The third was their prize: an RIAA certification.

ESG formed in 1978, a year after the Bronx's infamous summer of blackout looting, tenement burning, and Reggie Jackson smack-talking inflamed New York's rep as the city everyone outside its limits loved to hate. The Scroggins sisters—Renee (guitar/lead vocals), Deborah (bass/vocals), Valerie (drums/vocals), and Marie (additional percussion/vocals)—were encouraged by their mother Helen to take up playing musical instruments, accurately sussing out that starting a band might help keep them out of trouble. But with the family budget tapped out from buying the gear, the sisters' lessons had to come from playing along to Don Kirshner's Rock Concert on the TV or American Top 40 on the radio instead of actual instructors.

ESG - "Moody"

That self-taught method wasn't too different from what the punks were doing downtown, only ESG were banging out mutant-disco four-on-the-floor beats and monomaniacal basslines in emulation of James Brown's J.B.'s and Motown's Funk Brothers as a starting point, instead of working through a New York Dolls/Velvet Underground/Stooges phase first. And after a rough start as a cover band, their eventual focus on making simple, hooky, danceable, yet raw-powered original dance cuts started playing to their strengths. "I used to love when James Brown would 'take it to the bridge,' and he'd take away the horns and it would just be bass and drums," Renee told the Chicago Tribune in a retrospective 2018 interview. "I thought what if we made a whole song that sounded like that bridge?"

Deborah's minimalist but weighty bass grooves and Renee's sparse but piercing guitar played off Valerie and Marie's percussive drive, which sounded like a youthful hot-rodding of Krautrock motorik drumming. And their lyrics took put old ideas of teenage-dance-craze music at new angles, reducing restless energy to group chants and finding power in terse statements: "You're no good," "Very moody, yeah yeah," "You got to earn it." The Ramones sounded overwrought by comparison.

The timing couldn't have been better. By the early '80s, New York had become a roiling epicenter of pop and underground music's new generation, teeming with dance clubs weathering the after-effects of the '79 major-label disco crash, hip-hop DJs battling for supremacy as their accompanying MCs became rap superstars, and no-wave artists rejecting trad-rock for groove-driven, free-jazz-contorted freakouts. ESG might not have set out to triangulate these scenes, but the fact that they caught on in each of them, from the dance-punk laboratory Mudd Club to the post-disco haven Paradise Garage to the Zulu Nation's cut-and-mix sets, said volumes about what place DIY ethics and self-taught musicianship had beyond just the CBGB's set.

Their path to renown came like it does in the movies: a plucked-from-obscurity discovery, a choice opening gig, and a surprise sensation of an early single. When Ed Bahlman, owner of 99 Records, found himself on the panel of judges for a talent showcase that ESG lost, he made up for his lack of a decisive vote by signing them to his label, putting them in the company of art-scene legends like Glenn Branca, Bush Tetras, and Liquid Liquid. And it wasn't just New York listening. After Bahlman scored ESG a gig with A Certain Ratio, who were in New York to record their first full-length studio album To Each… for Factory Records, Factory foreman Tony Wilson caught ESG's opening set and quickly moved to cut a deal with Balhman to co-produce a 7" three-track debut single.

ESG - "UFO"

Those three cuts quickly became signature songs: the loping shuffle-funk of "You're No Good," the conga-dub shiver of "Moody," and a vertigo-inducing instrumental titled "UFO" that opened with a bizarre, distinctive guitar noise effect meant to evoke some Close Encounters of the Bronx Kind. (The latter track made the single after they decided not to let the last three-minutes' worth of tape go to waste during the recording session.) Recorded in NYC and mixed overseas in Manchester by legendary post-punk producer Martin Hannett (Joy Division, New Order, Magazine, the Durutti Column), the single drew out the strengths of the group's raw, open-spaced simplicity and gave it enough resonant reverb to fill in the margins. With three live cuts tacked on to the US 99 Records release and a follow-up EP in 1982 (ESG Says Dance to the Beat of Moody), they already had a solid repertoire—and an enviable gig playing opening night at Wilson's scene-setting club The Hacienda—by the end of '82.

ESG - "You're No Good"

1983 should have been their best year yet: their Bahlman-produced full-length debut Come Away With ESG notched some more fun variations on their signature style ("You Make No Sense," "My Love for You," "Tiny Sticks"), and showed off a bit of the musical adventurousness that would follow them through later releases, like the manic surf-spy barrage of instrumental "Chistelle" and the bottom-heavy blues of "About You." But a dust-up involving their labelmates Liquid Liquid proved to be a dispiriting preview of their career's developments throughout the rest of the decade. When the Sugar Hill Records house band interpolated the song "Cavern" for Melle Mel's "White Lines" without permission from 99 Records, Balhman went through a massive legal ordeal trying to get the royalties he was owed. And by the time the suit was settled, a bad distribution deal with MCA Records left Sugar Hill bankrupt and unable to pay. With Balhman too broke from the legal fees to keep 99 Records open, ESG were left without a label, management, or much of a career.

And in a cruel irony, that left ESG without any recourse when one of their own songs became a go-to sample source. That extraterrestrially creaking, screeching guitar figure at the beginning of "UFO"—and, to a lesser extent, the bassline—became inescapable, providing a pervasive hook in everything from Big Daddy Kane's Marley Marl-produced "Ain't No Half Steppin" and Stezo's dance-rap cult-classic "It's My Turn" to Easy Mo Bee's beat for Notorious B.I.G.'s "Party and Bullshit" and one of the dozens of puzzle pieces J Dilla used to make his farewell album Donuts. And none of these sample uses ever resulted in ESG getting residuals—the compensation structure just wasn't there for it.

By the time the Scroggins sisters made their frustrations plain with the title of a 1992 EP, Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills!, they'd dealt with a four-year hiatus, Deborah left the band, and both new families and day-job duties kept the others out of the studio until the self-released 1987 12" "Bam-Bam Jam." A couple sporadic, meagerly distributed indie singles, many of which wound up on 1991's excellent but largely overlooked self-titled sophomore comeback album, could still tide over fans in the NYC club scene, and they were there for another pivotal moment in dance music history when they played the Paradise Garage's closing nights in 1987. (Having a featured performance in the wigged-out 1989 Nicolas Cage cult film Vampire's Kiss didn't hurt, either.) Still, even as their music sharpened up—the production on cuts like "Erase You" and "Bam Bam Jam" gave them a jagged edge that fit in well with late '80s college rock—their profile dropped dramatically. Despite their sampled ubiquity and the best efforts of indie favorites like Unrest, who covered "U.F.O." for their Sub Pop covers single A Factory Record, ESG were, if not forgotten, at least put on the back burner as the '90s wore on.

ESG - "Erase You"

Then the new millennium happened. In 2000, Soul Jazz Records put out a compilation, A South Bronx Story, that made up for the un-obtainability of ESG's out-of-print discography by collecting all the crucial singles and deep cuts from the group's first 10 years. A year later, they were starting to become openly acknowledged as forebearers of New York's resurgent dance-punk scene, as typified by groups like The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem, and Liars—the latter of whom actually rewrote "UFO" as "Tumbling Walls Buried Me In The Debris With ESG."

And with the Soul Jazz-released Step Off, released in 2002, ESG emerged from the studio for the first time in a decade—still a family unit, but now a bi-generational one, as Renee's daughter Nicole (bass) and Valerie's daughter Chistelle (guitar) joined their mothers in the band. Step Off was a short, seven-song, 31-minute album, but it fell in that sweet spot between sounding like they still had all the vibrancy of ESG 20 years previous and stretching out a few more unusual ideas, like downtempo love ballads ("Be Good to Me") and percussion-free dub (the bass-and-voice "It's Not Me"). 2006's Keep On Moving followed suit with even more drastic turns—the early Def Jam-style drum-machine hip-hop of opener "Purely Physical" and the R&B piano ballad "Ex" made for unlikely detours—and this new incarnation of the group remained a regular live-show presence for the remainder of the decade.

By the end of the '00s, ESG's legacy seemed well secured, especially after Renee finally obtained the means to get residuals for sampled usage of the band's work, along with publishing and distribution rights. But even with the band down to Renee as the sole still-participating founding member (with Nicole, Renee's son Nicholas, and cousin Anthony Alieso rounding out the lineup) and a confluence of health scares and road fatigue, even their 2012 effort to put a cap on their their career, the self-released and tellingly-titled Closure, wasn't actually the end; as of 2019 they'd put out another DIY release, What More Can You Take?, and performed a handful of 40th anniversary shows that, farewell undercurrents notwithstanding, continued into their 41st year. Sometimes legacy and longevity just keep moving in sync.


About the author: Nate Patrin's Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop is coming out April 2020.

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