Funksters ESG Write Another Chapter in their South Bronx Story
Published Jan 01, 2006I've long adored the music of the Scroggins sisters, together known as ESG. I fell for them in the '80s, along with other bass-heavy, women-led bands like the Slits, Bush Tetras, and Au Pairs. Not only is the history of ESG charming with a mother who bought her four teenage girls instruments and entered them in talent contests to keep them off the Bronx streets but the impact of their music is enduring. Now, more than two decades into their career, ESG have re-emerged with the release of the retrospective A South Bronx Story and the brand new Step Off.
People have been getting down to ESG's funk, punk, polyrhythmic sounds since early '80s live shows landed them a seven-inch release on the UK's infamous Factory label. The then teenage sisters guitar-playing vocalist Renee, drummer Valerie, bassist Deborah and percussionist Marie were approached by Factory founder Tony Wilson at a gig. Though they'd never heard of bands like Wire or Gang of Four, ESG's sparse, urgent sounds aligned them heavily with the Brits.
"This was a Wednesday," recalls Renee. "Saturday we were in the studio with [Joy Division/New Order producer] Martin Hannett. We had no idea who he was; all we knew was that we were making a record. We did Moody' and You're No Good' in one take, then Martin said to me, I have three minutes left on the master tape. Do you have a three minute song?' I said, Yeah, we've got "UFO."' He said, Go ahead, knock yourself out.' It's funny because if there wasn't three minutes on that tape, we may have never done UFO.'"
The distinctive, off the scale sounds of "UFO" single-handedly plunked ESG into pop culture consciousness it's been sampled dozens of times by artists including Miles Davis, the Beastie Boys and Unrest. The next 20 years saw the women balance gigs and songwriting with day jobs and families, releasing only one album and a handful of poorly promoted EPs. Band line-ups fluctuated, with Deborah leaving in '84; the band fully gelled again five years ago when Renee and Valerie's daughters Nicole and Chistelle joined to play bass and guitar.
Anticipating a swell of interest in the rhythmic no-wave sounds of the early to mid-'80s, Britain's Soul Jazz Records invited ESG to record. 2000 finally saw the band's history and songs gathered; A South Bronx Story provides facts alongside previously hard to find tunes. Meanwhile, ESG was burning to share their new material.
"We always have a new album in the can or are working on one," Renee says. "People are always interested in the older stuff, but where do you get the guts to try the new? To their credit, Soul Jazz did have the guts to put out the new music too."
With the interest of long-time fans rekindled and scads of new ones packing sold-out shows, ESG are connecting with younger audiences raised on hip-hop and dance music who appreciate their edgy rhythms, live instruments and cool, retro factor. Unfortunately though, Step Off finds the Scroggins family treading tired turf, offering up a tried and true sound that though historically significant ultimately holds them back. All the heady nostalgia and charming anecdotes can't camouflage a disheartening lack of vision.
When asked if ESG aim to travel new directions, Renee says, "We do all kinds of
different things," referring to the "honky-tonk" injections in "Six Pack" and the jungle influence in the live rendition of "My Street." Tellingly, she pauses, laughs and refers to past meeting present.
"It's funny when we play UFO' now and see people's faces, like, Wait a minute. Isn't that ?' And it's like, Yes it is. It's everything you've ever heard, but it's ours."