Our Tomboy Musicians Series focuses this time on ESG (Emerald, Sapphire and Gold), a tomboy-styled American post-punk band with great dance-punk grooves to funk you all night long. Despite the band becoming one of the most important dance-funk bands to emerge from the 80s, commercial success eluded them throughout their musical career.
If there’s ever a sad lesson to be learnt in the music industry, it’s that really good music and the musicians that make them may not all necessarily be rewarded financially or in popularity. The good ole days of indie bands like Sex Pistols, Human League, U2, Nirvana, B52s and REM crossing over to the mainstream and becoming super bands is over. Well, at least until Taylor Swift and Niki Minaj sign their retirement papers or jump off a cliff, but we can only hide under the covers and shut them out until that really happens.
Our tomboy musicians series this time around focuses on one of those 80s bands that missed the commercial success boat despite being a ‘Godzillian’ influence on hip-hop, rock and rap artistes from the 80s, 90s, 2000s and beyond. That kind of relevance cannot be justified by a couple of #1 summer hits or platinum-certified sales. It can only be a testament to the fact that such a band simply makes music that creates ripple effects in the industry because the sound has broken new ground, especially when one of your tracks has been sampled a record 413 times (and counting) by almost everyone in the industry from Q-Tip, Def Jam, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, TLC and even rock bands like Liars and Nine Inch Nails.
That honour can only belong to ESG, a post-punk band from the South Bronx whose sound was underpinned with traces of Latin, funk, hip-hop, dance and more.
The record is clear. ESG’s “UFO” has been sampled more times by recording artistes of varying genres. Unfortunately, the band wasn’t minting any royalty gold with sample credits on these artiste’s albums as they so publicly divulged back in 1992 with their 12″ EP ‘Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills’.
While that fiasco hasn’t stopped the band from performing all these years (They recently took to the road again in 2015), it still doesn’t explain why the band never gained commercial success, despite their viscerally groovy music. Was their music too raw? Too indie? Or were they just not sexy girl-band material like The Bangles or the Go-Go’s who enjoyed incredible success with their punk-laden hit songs. We’ll just never know. What we do know is that ESG was the musical artiste’s artiste, which explains the band’s huge sampling legacy and sway it has over the music industry.
ESG’s musical journey began in the early 80s when their mother wanted to keep the Scroggins sisters off the streets of South Bronx which they called home. Growing up in the projects, their mother bought them instruments to keep them occupied and out of the streets with its accompanying urban decay problems. Luckily for the Scroggins, it was a plan that worked, especially when Mama Scroggins insisted that they had to give one performance a week.
Renee Scroggins, lead vocalist for ESG, in an interview with Quietus magazine recalls those days clearly. “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.”
The Scroggins sisters took up the challenge of playing great music and sought inspiration in the sounds that were permeating their neighbourhood in the projects. Renee remembers how Latin music used to filter through their open windows on summer nights. Congas and timbales would be playing in the park and Renee made a point of remembering those beats which led to the eventual development of the Latin-styled grooves in ESG’s sound.
The band initially consisted of the Scroggins siblings – Renee (vocals), Valerie (drums), Deborah (bass) and Marie (congas, vocals) plus their friend Tito Libran (congas, vocals). They named themselves ESG, which stood for emerald and sapphire, the birthstones of Valerie and Renee Scroggins while the “G” stood for gold, which is what they wanted their records to be certified.
Of course, as we learnt earlier, the gold records never happened but their sound was so unlike anyone else’s that they became the perfect fit for New York’s arty downtown scene and the UK’s vibrant post-punk explosion. 30 years on, their music is still making an impact on not only the artistes but now thankfully, the audiences who’ve been discovering the band’s mighty sound all over again.
In the Quietus magazine interview, Renee admits, “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.”
When it came to their distinct flavour of sound, ESG didn’t waste time on complex magnum opus-like melodies or movements in the vein of Queen or Pink Floyd but instead relied on steady economical beats, minimalistic guitar and spartan vocals boosted by a firm foundation of bass plucks that even Tina Weymouth would have been proud to be a part of.
According to Pitchfork magazine’s review of their “Dance to the Best of ESG” album, “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. 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.”
By 1982, they released the ‘ESG Says Dance to the Beat of the Moody’ EP that continued in a similar vein, as did their first album, 1983’s ‘Come Away with ESG‘.
The early 80s was also a time when a lot of testosterone-laden rock ‘hair bands’ were dominating the charts and female-led punk bands were finding it hard to be taken seriously without some form of mass media objectification taking place. With ESG, donned in their baseball hats and jerseys, ala tomboy style, they kept the momentum of their musical career going – on their own terms.
“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’, where a lot of women say they see it as an anthem, like a girl power type of thing,” says Renee Scroggins.
Given ESG’s strong female empowerment lyrics and rebellious stance it was incredibly frustrating for Renee and the band when “UFO” and other ESG music were being sampled in rap or hip-hop songs where misogynistic messaging was dominant. In the Quietus interview, Renee states that it’s demeaning and disrespectful to women.
“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.”
To add to that, Renee feels that a lot of the hip-hop artistes today wanting to sample “UFO” are doing it not only to diss women in general but to raise their ‘ghetto cred’ – something that the band does not stand for and which eventually became a negative experience for the band as they found themselves crashing headlong into a creative meltdown due to the oversampling of the song.
“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,” Renee recounts.
In a world where digital has made it so much easier to steal music and sample it across club decks and studio recordings alike, ESG’s musical journey has been filled with a lot of bumps. Thankfully, that is exactly what has kept them real about their music that has never ‘sold itself out’. Today, the sisters (and other members of their family) play to packed venues no matter where they are, even after 38 years, continuing to burn the 80s indie dance-punk flame of an era that continues to appear in the DNA of so many pop songs we’re hearing today.