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It certainly wasn't by design that the South Bronx-based group ESG affected post-punk, no wave, hip-hop, and house music. They opened for Public Image Ltd. and A Certain Ratio, they released records on the same label as Liquid Liquid, they had their music sampled countless times, and they became a playlist staple at '70s dance clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Music Box. The group's only aspiration was to play their music — simplistic in structure and heavy on rhythm — and sell lots of records.
The four Scroggins sisters — Deborah (bass, vocals), Marie (congas, vocals), Renee (vocals, guitar), and Valerie (drums) — formed a group with the support of their mother, who bought instruments to keep her daughters busy and away from trouble; at the time, each sibling was teenaged. Basing their sound on a mutual love for James Brown, 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; and as for "G," well, neither Deborah nor Marie had a birthstone beginning with that letter, but they did want their records to go gold. After permanently adding non-relative Tito Libran to the lineup as a conga player (some male members came and went prior to this), ESG was officially born.
The group began by learning and playing songs by the likes of Rufus and the Rolling Stones; they also learned from watching music programs like Don Kirschner's Rock Concert and Soul. The Scroggins' mother had barely scraped up enough cash to buy those instruments, so she didn't have enough left to get them music lessons. The group entered talent contests and even won a few of them. After performing at one particular New York show that they did not win, a judge named Ed Bahlman, the owner of 99 Records (a record shop and a label that included Y Pants, Liquid Liquid, Bush Tetras, and Konk on its roster), was impressed enough to take them under his wing as a manager and producer. At this point, ESG had a few of their own songs. Figuring people would know when they screwed up a cover, the group decided to write their own songs in order to sidestep audience knowledge of when mistakes were being made.
Bahlman booked ESG at punk clubs. The group's sparse, heavily rhythmic, and unpolished sound fit right into the New York scene in which Bahlman's label was a significant factor. They debuted in 1979 at a place called the Mechanical Hall. A four-song repertoire was all they had to work with, and after those songs were over, the crowd asked for more. The same four songs were played over again. At another early gig, ESG opened for the Factory label's A Certain Ratio. ESG didn't know A Certain Ratio from A Tramp Shining, but Factory head Tony Wilson asked the openers if they'd like to record something 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. These three songs are among the best to have come from New York's no wave scene, a scene that ESG had little business being part of. ESG wasn't self-consciously arty and they didn't come from a punk background; they simply wrote and played their music without conceptualization. None of this matched with the no wave bands, but the sound the group made certainly did.
The three songs from the Moody 7" were issued in the States on 99 with three live songs from a Hurrah's appearance added. 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 Hannett that the group had their own sound down and didn't need any outside influence or manipulation. A good debut LP, Come Away with ESG, came in 1983 and continued in the vein of the previous releases. After that, the group went dormant for several years. One major factor was Bahlman's decision to shut down 99. A legal battle with Sugarhill over Grandmaster Flash's sampling of Liquid Liquid's "Optimo" caused him financial and mental stress, with Sugarhill's fall into receivership — and inability to award 99 their due settlement — acting as the final straw.
ESG would soon become victims of uncleared samples as well. In fact, there was a period during the early '90s when rap singles using the siren sound from "UFO" seemed more common than ones that sampled James Brown. ESG resurfaced for a number of small-label releases during this period, and a 1993 release was pointedly titled "Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills." Throughout the '90s, ESG's stature as an influential group began to rise, with groups like the Beastie Boys and Luscious Jackson citing them as a profound discovery. The value of the group's rare early releases responded in kind, which was remedied somewhat by the U.K.'s Soul Jazz label. A South Bronx Story, a compilation that included all the group's best material, was released in 2000. The renewed interest helped lead to another resurfacing that culminated in a 2002 album, Step Off, for Soul Jazz. With a revamped lineup that included Renee Scroggins' daughters, Nicole and Chistelle, Step Off was met with the consensus that the group had picked up exactly where it left off. A reissue of Come Away with ESG followed in 2006.
1978 in New York, NY [The Bronx]