The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

"It's Music That Makes You Dance" - ESG Interviewed
Melissa Rakshana Steiner , September 7th, 2015 10:50

Melissa Steiner talks to Renee Scroggins of seminal South Bronx, New York City punk funk outfit, ESG

It's telling that when I ask Renee Scroggins, vocalist and one of the founding members of early 80s New York band ESG if there are any final things she'd like to add to the end of our interview, she wants to clear the air about yet another artist playing off her band's legacy. “If you're looking for new ESG music, make sure you look up ESG the band, not E.S.G. the rapper” she explains. Despite the rapper's management agreeing to drop the name which Scroggins trademarked, it has never happened. Fearing an expensive legal battle, and having seen their former label 99 Records destroyed after going through similar negotiations in the past, it is yet another infringement that the band must sit with.

Because if you are of a certain age, the first time you heard ESG probably wasn't when you were listening to ESG. The band have been heavily sampled over the 30 plus years they have been in existence, with their cold, eerie and atmospheric classic 'UFO' probably being one of the most sampled songs of all time. I mean seriously, look it up, everyone from Public Enemy to Nas to Miles Davis to Nine Inch Nails has used this track. More often than not, this was without the permission of the band, or the band seeing any of the money the other artists made off it. ESG's 1992 EP Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills was a wry attempt to address this, and in recent years the band has employed a company to track down the offending record companies to make them pay up.

But ESG's legacy is far more than unlawful samples. Officially forming as ESG (Emerald Sapphire and Gold) in 1978, sisters Renee, Valerie, Deborah and Marie Scroggins had been playing music together in the South Bronx since they were in their early teens. After meeting Ed Bahlman who ran the Greenwich Village record store 99 Records at a talent contest, they signed to his label which included a roster of bands now considered seminal to the post punk and no wave genres such as Liquid Liquid, the Bush Tetras and Y Pants.

ESG's bass heavy, minimalist, Latin-inspired dance funk was unusual for the time, stripped back to the essence of the beat, with Renee's light and playful vocal style setting off the sometimes menacing bass and tripping polyrhythms of her sisters. ESG's cross genre appeal led to them playing in a variety of different venues to many kinds of audiences: underground punk clubs, legendary nightclub the Paradise Garage (hugely important to the 80s New York LGBT and house and disco scene) as well as Manchester's Hacienda to name a few. They recorded a self-titled EP with Factory Records in 1981, and followed this up with their acclaimed first album Come Away With ESG on 99 Records in 1983, with subsequent records released over their career including A South Bronx Story, the compilation album on Soul Jazz.

Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux describes being influenced by ESG, saying “it’s not just any one thing… it’s its own thing”, and this is confirmed when you see ESG play live. Their shows are energetic and life-affirming events; each time I saw them play in the UK last year the venues were packed with people dancing, with the band seeming to have as much fun as the audience. I had the opportunity to chat to Renee Scroggins about ESG's upcoming tour of the UK, and she was as vivacious and engaged as you might expect from her live performance.

ESG has had a huge impact on a wide range of musicians, including young bands such as London's Shopping who are opening for you later this month. To still be so influential more than 30 years on must feel like an achievement – but did you ever have a sense of the extent of your own influence?

Renee Scroggins: Well, we didn't think about it, you know, we just went out there trying to create a new sound and do our own thing. The thing that I am always appreciating is that we helped to open it up for other women to get in the business. I mean, I appreciate starting out in 1979 and still being here at 2015, because I know how hard it was, as a woman. I been through a lot of crap, but to be able to ride the bumps and still do your thing and still be respected in this industry... that's a lot.

Female-driven bands are generally less likely to get the recognition they deserve, for example, as having a foundational influence on genres of music like ESG obviously did, and seems like it took a while for people to put you in your rightful place in history. Do you feel that this is the case, or if that's changed at all?

RS: Well you know, I think we were always accepted as a band. But it was the kind of sound we were playing - especially when we first started – with our minimalist songs. We were coming into a world where it was all heavy rock guitar. But we decided just to 'take it to the bridge' as James Brown said. That funky drive, that's really what ESG's about; making funky dance music. But the longer we stayed in the music industry, I realised with some songs – and you know, I always try and keep it light, and keep it fun - but we were able to make some kind of point with the lyrics, like 'Erase You', a lot of women say they see it as an anthem, like a girl power type of thing.

I have read lots of interviews where you cite James Brown as an influence, particularly the whole "take it to the bridge" thing; what was that essence that you were trying to capture with that?

RS: Well, when James Brown took it to the bridge he cut all the horns, it was just that giant bass and the drums and letting it rip for that instant. Maybe he'd still have the keyboards, but it would just have that funk and that drive. So I said, man, if you could just take a song and make it just the bridge, wouldn't that be hot!

I have to say, seeing ESG play live last year was hypnotic, because you really keep up that intensity the whole way through the show.

RG: The thing is, I have to have knee surgery in November, I have a rod in my knee right now, so for me to be up there dancing and bouncing, it's a little painful, but once the music starts playing I forget the pain and I'm going at it. But after November I'm going to be out for a year, then I don't anticipate playing live any more. Because if it's this painful now I can imagine what it will be like after the surgery. I hurt myself last year in Leeds, I fell off a van and I banged up my knee pretty bad. I actually had to perform that night, and because I grew up with the spirit of “the show must go on”, I wrapped up the knee and we got out there and we performed and the fans never knew the difference.

I'd like to hear a bit about how you grew up, because the ESG “origin story” usually begins with your mum giving you and your sisters instruments to keep you off the streets of the South Bronx when you were kids. It strikes me that she must have been a pretty special woman to be using that approach, was she a musician herself?

RS: Well, my mother, she did church choir and things, but I just think that she was really concerned about what was going on in our neighbourhood and the projects where we was.

What was it like?

RS: It was bad, you know, the things that were going on with the drugs and what have you. My older siblings actually got hooked on heroin, and all respect to them they were able to clean up their act, they got off the drugs. But my mother said, no, no, no, she was going to save the younger ones. She didn't want us out there. The streets were not going to swallow up the rest of her children. So she did everything possible to make sure we'd do something positive and not get swallowed up by the drugs, and the teen pregnancies, things that were going on in the projects.

And she initially got you involved in talent contests and things like that didn't she?

RS: We were seeing shows on TV like Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, and I was telling my mom, “We can do that! we can do that!” and when she could see we were really watching the show, she said, “I'm gonna get you the instruments you say you need and then I wanna see you do that, I wanna see you on that stage." So she gave us the instruments but she couldn't afford the lessons and we had to teach ourselves to play.

And I guess despite some of the negatives you've described, the South Bronx has historically been been a hub of musical innovation, particularly with Puerto Rican music and later hip hop - did that influence you creatively?

RS: What I remember growing up in the projects is opening our windows on a summer night and hearing the Latin music. They'd be playing congas and timbales in the park... I mean there are some beats I have memorised in my head to this day. It was a good thing and it influenced the Latin style of our music.

Could you describe your song writing process? How do you begin?

RS: A particular beat or sound gets in my head. I remember how I wrote the song called 'Standing In Line'. I was actually standing in line in New York in a place called Motor Vehicles where you get your driver's licence. And that line was so long, it just felt like the line never ended and it just kept growing and growing. And then all of a sudden as I'm looking at the people and the things that are going around me, the beat hit me and I was like, oh my god! It was a good thing we had a rehearsal that night. I went straight from the Motor Vehicles to the rehearsal and I told everybody, "Hold on, this is how it goes."

As a band ESG has gone through many different incarnations but you've always been a family band and now you are performing with your daughter and your niece too, is that right?

RS: Yes and even my son, he's out there now too. It's cool. And when my sisters feel like it, they come back and put on a performance. But I mean, you gotta remember the original members, we're mature in age, so sometimes it's not as easy as it was when we were 16 and 19!

You live in Atlanta now and I think it's interesting because the South Bronx is thought of as the birthplace of hip hop, but Atlanta also has strong hip hop legacy. What's your relationship with hip hop, if at all?

RS: Well no particular relationship, if I am invited to a show then I'll go, but the only thing about hip hop that really affects me directly is the sampling of ESG songs which I do not like.

It must be incredibly frustrating. I remember reading an interview where you'd said one of the things that bothered you most was when your music was used in songs you felt were misogynist?

RS: Right, and I still feel that way. I'm still saying to myself, don't these guys realise that women wrote this music? And yet you're calling every woman a bitch and a whore and treating them like garbage. And they're using my music to write their beats. That's what I don't like. Because I do not support what they're saying. We don't find out about it until after the fact, and then they want to fight you about your music, and it's like, ok, you've already insulted me once and now you're insulting me again. I don't appreciate it.

Was there ever a point where all the unauthorised sampling inhibited your creativity?

RS: Yeah, it did bother me at one point. After a while I didn't want to make instrumental songs. It really messed with me for a long time. I remember the first time I ever heard ESG sampled was when we were playing in this club in New York city, called Hurrah. All of a sudden I hear [sings the beginning of 'UFO'] and this guy starts rapping across 'UFO'. I think I must have stood there in shock for over a minute and then I turned to my manager and I said, “What the hell is this?” I went ballistic.

What do you think it is about ESG's music that makes it so – steal-able, for want of a better word?

RS: I had a conversation with a rapper and I was like, “Why you do it? Sometimes you put it in the record and it don't even make any sense with your song." He goes, “'Cause it just fits." And I'm like wow. What a response. Now you get a lot of rap artists when they are just coming out, they want to use it because they feel it gives them hip hop credibility, because everybody else did it back in the day. You know, it really pisses me off. When 'UFO' is used in a song I recognise it immediately. It's the pitch of the notes, the guitar has to be tuned a specific way to make that sound.

People are always trying to pin a genre onto ESG - you've been described as funk, dance, post-punk, proto-hip hop - have you ever tried to define yourself?

RS: I think people always want to put a label on things. I think because we existed at that point in time, that's what they put on you. Another term that I don't particularly care for is “no wave”, what does that mean? You know? I really don't define ESG, but if I really had to put a label on it, we consider it to be music that makes you dance. Not dance music, but music that makes you dance. I challenge you to come to an ESG concert and not dance. You gotta move! I mean some parts of your body are going to be moving or tapping if you don't just let loose and go wild.

Maybe people use no wave to describe a time and place, rather than a genre?

RS: Exactly. I mean, I don't pay attention to it. I'm still here and that's the good thing, you know. Many people have come and gone, but we're still here, and I think we're still making music that's relevant, it still sounds new to the young people that's coming up. It always warms my heart to see that we're still reaching an audience that's younger than my kids. When I go back to listen to some music from that era, it's dated because they've gone for what was going on at the time. With ESG's music, I think just being bass and funk and primal, it has no time.

Even so, I do understand why people have tried to put that post punk label on you, particularly with a song like 'UFO', because it has got that experimental, sci-fi weirdness to it. I wondered if you could talk about how it came about?

RS: During that time period I was into movies like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Star Wars and one day I said, what would it be like if a UFO landed in the middle of the projects, how would people react? And that's how 'UFO' came about. It was instrumental - well I mean when we first did 'UFO' it actually had three words. Now we use that to see how well people know ESG, if we want to give away prizes or something we use it as one of the trivia questions! But when we met Tony Wilson from Factory Records we had already removed the words. It was funny because if it wasn't for the fact that there was only three minutes of tape left, 'UFO' might never have been on that first Factory EP.

So it was initially used as a time-filler?

RS: Yes! After we did 'You're No Good', which really was the one Tony Wilson liked, and 'Moody', Martin Hannett, he came to me and said, “You know, we got three minutes left, do you have a three minute song?” I said, “Yeah 'UFO'!” It's funny because my sisters hated 'UFO' at first, because when we used to first play it, it would start and the audience they would look at us like, “What the hell is that?” But I said, "I love 'UFO', this is my song!"

Had you heard much about Martin Hannett's production style prior to recording with him?

RS: We didn't know who he was, he didn't know who we were. There was no ego it was just people being thrown together to do work. And it's funny what people always say about him but the guy we worked with was very cool, he was a gentleman. When they made 24 Hour Party People - that wasn't the guy I met. He was very respectful and he was mellow. And at that point we were young girls, and you know it was the first time I'd ever seen mixing boards and things like that and he brought me in and he said, “So what do you think of that? Are you happy with that?” That’s how he worked with us.

ESG seems to have a good relationship with the UK, you have toured over here quite a bit. Has that stemmed from that experience recording the Factory EP?

RS: Yeah. I mean people always say 99 [Records] put us out and 99 discovered us. Well, Ed [Bahlman of 99] was the one who we met at a talent contest, but as far as records, I mean, we were with Ed for pretty much over a year and I kept asking him, because I knew he had big records on his label like the Bush Tetras, and I was like, “When are we going to do a record?” and he'd go, “One day one day." But then we opened for a Certain Ratio, and after the sound check Tony Wilson comes over to me and he says, “How would you like to do a record?” and I didn't think he was serious. I was like, “Yeah, yeah sure." That was Wednesday. Saturday we were in the studio with Martin Hannett. The first time we came to the UK was in 1982 to open the Hacienda, and it was an experience, it really was. The club wasn't exactly ready, and I remember when we got to soundcheck all the sawdust was affecting my allergies. And actually what I just realised, because it was 1982, I was pregnant with my daughter. So I'm up there, and I'm pregnant, and I'm sneezing.

So you obviously never let being pregnant stop you?

RS: No. I remember we were playing at the Paradise Garage, and I had to have been pretty much 8 months pregnant, and I mean, we were rocking. And the guys were like, “Wow!” And I was like, "Yeah, thank you." My attitude was always that we'd never let being women stop us from doing things. As a matter of fact after I gave birth to my daughter, three days later I was on the stage in Pasadena, California opening for PiL.

Amongst the huge diversity of venues and shows ESG played, do you have any favourite memories?

RS: The Paradise Garage was always our favourite place to perform, the reason being they had the best sound system in the world. In all my years playing, and we've been playing for 38 years, I have never found a sound system that matched that. We got to play the two day weekend closing party and we played both nights. It was packed, you felt like a sardine but in retrospect I was happy and honoured to be able to do it.

I guess this question is of personal interest to me, as a woman of colour who attends punk shows in London. It's my observation that there are usually only a handful of other women of colour in the audience or on stage. I wondered if this was an experience you encountered when you played some of the more underground punk clubs back in the day, and if this mattered to you?

RS: The thing of it is, when we come to perform I don't see races. I see people. And you know, people used to say to us, “When you play, how do you feel to be playing to a predominantly Caucasian crowd?” I said, "I don't think about it." I don't think about whether it's white, black, green, blue. I don't think about it. I said what I think about is, it's people out there dancing. Music is multicultural, multiracial. I think it's the one thing that crosses the colour line.

And are there any ESG plans on the horizon apart from your UK tour?

RS: Well, we'd been going back and forth with this guy in Australia last June, but that kind of fell apart, and that's the whole thing, you gotta work with promoters before you can get things going. Then people don't keep their part of the contract and it's like, I'm going to travel I don't know how many miles across the sea and you're acting funny? So the business part is the unfortunate part, I mean if I could just get out there and perform... when you're dealing with promoters, and they can be really sleazy at times, you don't want to be bothered.

Do you generally deal with the business side of things yourself?

RS: We've had managers over the years. Ed Bahlman was our first manager and hey, I love Ed, Ed was great, but he was also running the 99 label. And what happened was, the 'White Lines' case with Liquid Liquid's 'Cavern' [Sugar Hill Records put out 'White Lines', sampling Liquid Liquid who were on 99 Records without permission] and after that, Ed just became so disenchanted with the business. He went and did the whole case, and he won, and then Sugar Hill went into bankruptcy so he lost all that money. And it was horrible. He also used all the artist's money on the label. Ed and I, we'd kept in touch for a long while after when many other artists didn't know where he was. Ed lives in Brooklyn now and you can't even get him to talk about those years. You could ask him anything, but don't ask him about anything to do with 99.

So you feel sometimes the business gets in the way?

RS: Yeah it does, believe me when I am out on the stage I love performing, I love the audience participation and my attitude is making them feel, making them dance and have a good time. When you leave there filled with some energy and happiness, if you can go home and feel happy about the show, I'm happy.

Well I'm really looking forward to your show, especially if this is going to be your last time, it'll be a real privilege.

RS: September will definitely be my last time in the UK, and there is a mixture of happiness and sadness about that at the same time. I am happy that I'm able to do it, I'm sad that I won't be able to do it again. Because I think if I went out performing again, knowing me, once the music hits me I might throw that thing out again!

Maybe someone could put a chair on the stage for you!

RS: Oh no that wouldn't be fun! I need to move to my music!

Well it was lovely to talk to you, Renee, and I'll look forward to the show.

RS: It was my pleasure to talk to you and I'm definitely looking forward to performing in London and the rest of the UK.

ESG's European tour kicks off in Bristol on September 24. Click here for more details