Kristen Palm – “ESG”

May 9, 2011 at 9:22 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Not sure of the exact date of this bio on early-80s mimimal funk band ESG, but it comes from the Musician Guide website (www.musicianguide.com) and must have been written sometime after 2002. A very cool band — check them out…

Originally comprised of four sisters and their neighbor, ESG officially became a band in 1978. Seminal in the British and American no-wave scene, the group’s spare funk grooves are largely regarded as some of the most sampled in all of hip-hop. Introduced to a wider audience through a 2000 compilation CD, A South Bronx Story, the group has enjoyed a resurgence and now includes a second generation of Scroggins women, Renee and Valerie Scroggins’s daughters, Chistelle and Nicole.

While officially formed in 1978, ESG informally gathered as musicians well before that date. Sisters Renee, Marie, Valerie, and Deborah Scroggins all began playing together as young girls in their South Bronx housing project. Their mother purchased instruments for them as a means to keep them out of trouble in their rough neighborhood. The girls, whose mother was a singer and whose father was also a musician, exhibited a proclivity for music even before they had instruments in hand, however. “We were beating on pots and pans and those kid folk guitars and things like that,” Renee recalled in the Chicago-based magazine Venus. “Between the ages of 10 and 14 . . . my mother didn’t want us hanging out on the street ’cause a lot of wild things were going on in the South Bronx at the time…. So instead of my sister [Valerie] beating on the pots and the oatmeal boxes, she got her a set of drums and she bought me a real electric guitar.”

With no money left over for music lessons, the girls taught themselves, using television and radio as guides. Influenced by the television program Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert; soul and rock artists like James Brown, Rufus, and the Rolling Stones; and the disco and Latino rhythms that permeated their neighborhood, the Scroggins sisters began playing surprisingly sophisticated-sounding stripped-down funk. With their mother’s encouragement, they began entering local talent shows, naming themselves ESG after Valerie and Renee’s birthstones, emerald and sapphire, and adding “G” for gold at the end. Neighbor Tito Libran joined the group as a conga player, and they hit the talent show circuit. Although they won some of the competitions, it was during a less successful outing that their fates took a most unusual turn. Ed Bahlman, the owner of 99 Records, an important Greenwich Village record store and label that fostered numerous no-wave bands, spotted the group at a talent show that he was judging. Even though they had not won the competition, Bahlman thought the group’s beat-heavy, no-frills approach would mesh well with groups like Liquid Liquid and Konk, who also appeared on his label. Bahlman signed on as ESG’s manager and producer and began securing them paying gigs. At the time they met Bahlman, ESG had already written a few original tunes. Renee Scroggins explained in Venus: “First we were doing cover songs . . . the Rolling Stones, Rufus, and Chaka Khan . . . and we were like, ‘Hey! If we write our own songs, no one will know we’re messing up!’ Cause if you mess up ‘Satisfaction,’ everyone knows, OK?”

Under Bahlman’s direction, ESG began opening for punk-rock acts and became an audience favorite. At their first official gig in 1979, they opened for a group called Bound and Gagged at Mechanic Hall. At the time, the band had four songs — “UFO,” “You’re No Good,” “Moody,” and “ESG.” The crowd became so enthusiastic over this short set that the band came out and played the same four songs again. Soon, ESG were opening for every big name in no-wave and punk music and playing every New York club important to those scenes. They played such noted places as Hurrah, Rock Lounge, Peppermint Lounge, and Paradise Garage in support of the Clash, Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four, and Joe Jackson, among others. While they enjoyed being a part of this new scene, the members of ESG did not, for the most part, indulge in its notorious excesses. “I always felt that they didn’t understand what the hell they were doing in this scene,” Liquid Liquid’s Richard McGuire recalled in The Secret History of Rock. “We did shows with them, but they were very kind of closed to themselves. We did shows with them, and I remember their mother would come down with them and make sandwiches. It was a real family outing.”

In 1981 the band met Tony Wilson, proprietor of the Manchester, England-based Factory Records and a seminal fixture in the no-wave scene. Wilson introduced the members of ESG to producer Martin Hannet, who was preparing to record the famous post-punk group Joy Division. When Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide, Hannet brought ESG into the studio instead, and the group recorded its debut UK single, “Moody”/”UFO.” The tunes, along with a follow-up remix of “Moody,” became unqualified hits in New York and London’s dance clubs and were released in the U.S. in 1981 on a six-song EP — the two singles and the remix, plus three tunes recorded live at Hurrah’s — titled simply ESG. A three-song EP, ESG Says Dance to the Beat of Moody, followed in 1982, and the group released its first full-length recording, Come Away with ESG, in 1983. Sister Marie joined the band at the time the LP was recorded, and soon after neighborhood friends Leroy Glover and David Miles took on guitar and bass duties while the sisters all concentrated on percussion and vocals.

In subsequent years, both 99 Records and Factory Records encountered severe legal and financial problems. With their careers so closely tied to these two entities, ESG suffered the consequences. Bahlman spent years tied up in a legal battle with Sugarhill Records over Grandmaster Flash’s unauthorized sampling of Liquid Liquid’s “Optimo” on the famous funk hit “White Lines.” When Sugarhill fell into receivership, Bahlman was unable to collect his settlement and he shut down his label. Factory Records, too, went under.

Renee formed her own label, Emerald, Sapphire & Gold, and released the group’s sophomore effort, ESG, in 1991. The album produced a dance hit, “Standing in Line,” but the group suffered its own internal problems, including Deborah’s departure from the group after a battle with drugs, and released only a few small-label recordings after this album.

ESG soon became embroiled in their own set of disputes over sampling, as well. Some critics estimate that ESG is the most sampled group in history, with snippets of their tunes — the siren sound from “UFO,” in particular — appearing on tracks by Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Tupac Shakur, TLC, P.M. Dawn, Unrest, and Miles Davis, among a diverse host of others. While some musicians extended the courtesy of obtaining permission to use the samples and then forwarding the attendant royalties, many others did not. Unauthorized sampling of ESG’s material became so widespread that Renee set up a company solely to track illicit samples and initiate legal action for monies due. Expressing their frustration the best way they knew how, the group released a 1993 EP featuring the single “Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills.” Renee explained her antagonism toward unlicensed samplers in an article in the United Kingdom’s Independent: “To the people who clear it with us — thank you! To the people who don’t, you’re a pain in the a** and I’m gonna come after you! You’re taking food out of my kids’ mouths. Sometimes, also, I don’t like the way they use it. Really negative, woman-beating type of songs. I’ve been in situations with domestic violence, so I don’t appreciate any song glorifying domestic violence using my music. Go get your own damn music!”

By the new millennium, ESG were enjoying a resurgence, based largely on well-publicized compliments paid them by such popular groups as the Beastie Boys and Luscious Jackson. A compilation CD, A South Bronx Story, further expanded their listenership. With a revamped lineup that includes Renee’s daughter Chistelle on guitar and Valerie’s daughter Nicole on bass, ESG have begun to tour again, appearing at such heavily attended events as Chicago’s Ladyfest and the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. A 2002 release, Step Off, received critical acclaim and bolstered interest in the group. Betty Clarke wrote in London’s Guardian, “ESG’s fusion of sweet soul and punk attitude with an intuitive understanding of dance music remains, and Step Off is proof that their eclecticism hasn’t diminished.”

Renee told the Independent that ESG’s new label, Soul Jazz, which released Step Off, ESG’s first new full-length album in ten years, brings back memories of the camaraderie present during the band’s early days. “Soul Jazz reminds me of when we first started out — someone being willing to put their faith in you,” she reflected. In the same interview, she took a moment to ponder the group’s profound effect on numerous musicians and musical genres. “We didn’t notice the breadth of our influence at the time,” she said. “But you sit back and you reflect and realize that our mother’s dream of us doing something positive came true. We made our mark on musical history. It wasn’t intentional, but I guess people who do things never do ’em intentionally.”

Kristen Palm

http://www.musicianguide.com/biographies/1608003861/ESG.html

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