The South Bronx was a war zone in the late '70s, as ESG's Renee Scroggins will tell you. But it was among its gang-ridden, dilapidated tenement blocks that hip-hop was born. Punk, no wave, electro, and disco were all being spawned in the surrounding boroughs as well, so it was basically the most creative time and place in the history of modern popular music.
And it was here that the teenaged Scroggins sisters — Renee, Marie, Valerie and Deborah — were honing their singular brand of brooding minimal punk-funk. They would go on to be signed by New York's seminal 99 Records, home to fellow post-punk dance pioneers like Liquid Liquid and Bush Tetras. They would also go on to work with legendary Factory Records producer Martin Hannett of Joy Division fame. ESG's "UFO" would become one of the most sampled songs in history, making its way into records by everyone from TLC to the Beastie Boys.
But it's not all nostalgia for the band. ESG is alive and well — they even have a new album coming out this year. And you can catch them doing their thing live at Gramps this Friday alongside the legendary Arthur Baker. Ahead of this rare Miami appearance by a set of greats, we caught up with Renee Scroggins to find out more about ESG and its enduring musical legacy.
New Times: What did you and your sisters grow up listening to? Is there any particular music you would consider a primary influence or inspiration on the sound of ESG?
Renee Scroggins: We listened to James Brown, Motown, gospel, and jazz. James Brown definitely influenced the ESG sound.
Growing up in NYC during the '70s put you right at the epicenter of the birth of hip-hop and other innovative musical movements like punk and no wave. What was it like coming up in that time and place? How did that environment shape ESG artistically?
It was not a pleasant place to be at the time, environmentally. The Bronx looked like a war zone. But it inspired you to fight to better it or get out. Music was a temporary form of escape.
What can you tell us about the development of that unique signature sound?
Again, James Brown was a major influence. When he took the music to the bridge, he would drop out all the instruments and have just bass and drums. That is basically what we do when making our sound. The ESG sound is distinguished by its ultra-minimalist style of funk and soul.
You recorded an EP with legendary Factory Records producer Martin Hannett in 1981. How did that connection come about? What can you tell us about working with Hannett?
We were opening for A Certain Ratio when we met Tony Wilson, owner of Factory. He asked me, 'How would you like to make a record?' I said, 'Sure,' and then we were in the studio. Martin Hannett treated us with respect. Working with him was a great learning experience.
ESG seems to have a conflicted relationship with the artists and music it influenced. You have been sampled by countless artists, yet you expressed a certain resentment with the lack of compensation on your EP Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills. What are your thoughts today on ESG's influence on popular music and the legacy of your sampled work?
It's not resentment. It's theft, plain and simple. If we somehow influenced popular music, great! It surely wasn't intentional. Sampled music has nothing to do with our legacy. I have expressed my thoughts on this subject over and over. I don't appreciate our music being used for it.
So what's next for ESG on the production front? Can we expect new material in the near future?
We are always doing new material. We should have our latest album, What More Can You Take, out by October.
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What can you tell us about the new album and your creative process on it?
The new album has songs like "Watching" and "You Might Be the One," which are already available. Like always, you can it expect it to be funky. The creative process was drums, bass, and then lyrics. Everything else just comes to us as we listen to the music we just composed.
We're excited to see you perform live on September 23. What can we expect? What is the ESG live experience like these days, and how does it compare to the first live shows you were doing in the '80s?
You can expect to dance and have fun. We are more seasoned now and we definitely know how to make sure our audience has a great time.
ESG with Arthur Baker. 10 p.m. Friday, September 23, at Gramps, 176 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-699-2669; gramps.com. Admission is free.