This review of the recent 2-CD compilation of ESG’s influential, singular skeletal art-funk comes from the Pitchfork Media website — written by Joe Tangari, Jan. 31, 2011…
All their mother wanted was to keep them off the streets. The Scroggins sisters came of age in a South Bronx eviscerated by Robert Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway — a neighborhood carved up by projects and abandoned by government. Their mother bought them instruments in the hope that her girls might devote themselves to music and stay out of trouble. And they did. Her deal with them stipulated they had to give her a performance every week, and the band the teenaged sisters formed (with occasional minor assistance from a few neighborhood guys) became ESG. The “E” and “S” stand for emerald and sapphire, the birthstones of Valerie and Renee Scroggins. The “G” is for gold, which is what they wanted their records to be certified.
The gold records never came, but something even more unexpected did: The band developed a sound unlike any other and quite by accident became a major influence on hip-hop, dance music, and dance-punk, fitting right in with New York City’s arty downtown scene and the UK’s vibrant post-punk explosion. Their 1981 debut EP, recorded by Martin Hannett after the band was discovered at a talent show by 99 Records founder Ed Bahlman, is among the most sampled records around — “UFO” alone as been reused several dozen times, by Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, N.W.A., Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, Liars, DJ Qbert, DJ Shadow, Girl Talk, and Nine Inch Nails.
It’s easy to hear why the band’s work is so ripe for sampling. It’s uniquely spartan music, driven by economical drumming, tersely phrased bass, and minimal, sometimes even surf-y guitar parts. Marie and Renee’s vocals and lyrics take a similarly minimal approach — chanting, repeating phrases, taunting, nearly rapping, nearly singing. On “Erase You”, Renee takes center stage, delivering a deliciously snotty, assured put-down. It’s easy to see why the band was embraced in punk circles — that song has a nasty guitar tone and tense rhythm that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Public Image Ltd. album, and their music was brilliantly concise. The sisters quickly realized where they fit.
The band’s debut EP and first album are nearly perfect, and Fire’s Dance to the Best of ESG acknowledges that, including all three studio tracks from the first EP and all but two songs from Come Away With ESG on the first of its two discs. None of it has aged: “UFO” still sounds intense and weird; “Moody”, which is heard in its original version and three other variations, is tough and sleek, a clear house antecedent; and “Chistelle” is a demented surf-punk romp that seems to be a case of convergent evolution with the Fall. “My Love For You” remains fantastically funky, mimicking the “My love for you, baby, is like a rollercoaster” opening line in its gonzo rhythm.
The songs aren’t sequenced chronologically, but most of disc one is devoted to those releases and the band’s self-titled 1991 album, while disc two concentrates on 12″s and later EP tracks. A few songs from the band’s 2002 and 2006 albums for Soul Jazz, with Valerie and Renee’s daughters in the group, pop up in the running order, too, sounding remarkably of a piece with the older material — organizing by chronology becomes less important when a band’s vision is this consistent. The set ends with three songs from the 1992 EP Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills, which is perhaps a subtle way of telling the band’s side of the story of their immense influence. Even today, Renee has a company on retainer to track down payment for uncredited samples, and the band’s bitterness over others achieving success on the back of their music while they toiled in obscurity and kept day jobs is obvious, in both the music and the liner notes to this set.
The need to have a company constantly searching for uncleared samples of their work is also a measure of the band’s impact, of course. They started out as unpretentious amateurs accidentally bridging the gap between dance parties and art scenes, went on to play the opening of the Hacienda and the closing of the Paradise Garage, and can now be satisfied that what they did really meant something. If you’ve never heard ESG, you could be forgiven for approaching them with some skepticism. A lot of obscure bands are lauded as influential and essential by critics and other musicians, only to disappoint when you actually hear them, but ESG are the real deal. The music isn’t just influential and important, it’s exciting too, and very much its own thing. This set is a good place for beginners to get acquainted.