It wasn't by design that, with their lean and lively style of funk, South Bronx band ESG affected post-punk, no wave, rap, and house music. They opened for Public Image Ltd. and A Certain Ratio, released records on the same label as Liquid Liquid, and became favorites of DJs who spun at groundbreaking dance clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Music Box. ESG simply aspired to play their music, straightforward in structure and yet utterly unique in character, and sell lots of records. They never approached commercial saturation, but copies of their 1981 debut reached the hands of rap producers who have sampled "UFO" several hundred times over. Even without the samples, ESG would remain a lasting inspiration to bands ranging from Luscious Jackson to the Dirtbombs, and they kept going -- performing and recording -- into the late 2010s.
Bassist Deborah, percussionist Marie, guitarist Renee, and drummer Valerie, known to their South Bronx neighbors as the Scroggins sisters, formed a band with the support of their mother, who bought instruments to keep her daughters away from trouble. At the time, each sibling was teenaged. Basing their sound on a mutual love for the funk of James Brown, the pop-soul of Motown, and Latin music, the sisters went through a number of name changes before finally settling on ESG. "E" stood for emerald, Valerie's birthstone; "S" stood for sapphire, Renee's birthstone; the birthstone of neither Deborah nor Marie was garnet, but they did want their records to go gold. After they added percussionist Tito Libran to the lineup (other members came and went prior to this), ESG were officially born.
The Scroggins began by learning songs by the likes of Rufus & Chaka Khan and the Rolling Stones, and took cues from watching music programs like Soul! and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. Confidence was built with the winning of a few talent contests. After performing at one particular New York contest they lost, a judge named Ed Bahlman, the owner of 99 Records, was impressed enough to take them under his wing as manager and producer. At this point, ESG had written a few originals, figuring listeners would know when they screwed up a cover. Booked at New York punk clubs, ESG's sparse, unpolished rhythms fit right into the scene in which Bahlman's label was a significant factor. They debuted in 1979 at the Mechanical Hall with a four-song repertoire. After those songs were over, the crowd asked for more, and it got the same four songs a second time.
At another early gig, ESG opened for the Factory label's A Certain Ratio. The Scroggins sisters didn't know A Certain Ratio from A Tramp Shining, but Factory head Tony Wilson asked them if they'd like to record for his label. This resulted in You're No Good, a three-song single produced by Martin Hannett. The songs -- "You're No Good," "UFO," and "Moody" -- remain the group's best-known material, and are among the most thrilling songs to be associated with no wave, a New York scene with a deconstructive intent that contrasted sharply with that of ESG. The three songs were issued in the States on 99 with three live songs from a Hurrah's appearance. A year later, 99 issued another three-song single in the form of ESG Says Dance to the Beat of Moody. This proved to people too dear to Factory and the heavy hand of Hannett that the group had their own sound down. A debut album, Come Away with ESG, came in 1983 and continued in the vein of the previous releases.
ESG then went dormant for several years. One major factor was Bahlman's decision to shut down 99 due to mental and financial stress. Throughout the ensuing years, ESG were victimized by uncleared samples of their material. There was a point during the early '90s when rap tracks using the siren-like sound of "UFO" seemed more common than ones that lifted James Brown breakbeats. During this period, ESG resurfaced for a number of small-label releases. An EP issued in 1992 was pointedly titled Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills! Throughout the '90s, ESG's stature began to rise, with groups like the Beastie Boys and Luscious Jackson citing them as a profound discovery.
The value of the early releases continued to shoot upward, remedied in 2000 by the U.K.'s Soul Jazz label, who released the anthology A South Bronx Story. The renewed interest helped lead to another reactivation that led to a 2002 album, Step Off, also released on Soul Jazz. Featuring a revamped lineup that included Renee Scroggins' daughters, Nicole and Christelle, Step Off was met with the consensus that the group had picked up exactly where it left off. Another new recording for Soul Jazz, Keep On Moving, arrived in 2006, followed in 2013 by the self-released Closure. All the while, ESG continued to perform and continued to have their back catalog recirculated by the Fire label. ~ Andy Kellman