Block by block, borough by borough, New York in the late 1970s and early ’80s was a fertile music mecca. Virtually every strain of modern music took root in the city’s mean streets, shaping the hearts and minds of America’s youth. From punk to disco, hip hop to no wave, everyone from Television to the Ramones, Grandmaster Flash, Philip Glass and James Chance laid the groundwork for an amorphous scene in the city that never sleeps.
In the midst of it all was ESG, a group of four sisters from the South Bronx projects—leader and vocalist Renee, drummer Valerie, bass player Deborah and singer and percussionist Marie Scroggins, along with singer and percussionist Tito Libran—who crafted murky and minimal funk that, over time, proved to be some of the most sampled music ever created. The band’s name stood for Valerie and Renee’s birthstones—emerald and sapphire. The G was a nod to the gold record they hoped to one day reel in.
With the group’s 1981 debut EP for 99 Records, produced by Martin Hannett (Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays), a singularly lumbering gait of lo-fi bass and slow staccato drum beats became ESG’s signature sound. Songs such as “You’re No Good” and “Moody,” plus the eerie sci-fi tempo of “UFO,” proved a vital influence in the secret history of post-punk and dance music.
ESG’s music was more celebratory than the nihilistic tendencies of the no-wave scene with which the group is often associated. For Renee Scroggins, who turns 58 in September, ESG’s music was all about embracing the diversity of its surroundings.
“Playing festivals now reminds me of what New York was like growing up and playing music in the late ’70s,” Scroggins says over the phone from her current home in McDonough. “There were so many different kinds of music going on at all times, just by virtue of it being New York. It didn’t matter what your race was, your religion or your sexuality. Music brought us all together, and we all sat back and listened.”
Sisters Valerie and Marie make occasional appearances with ESG, if their health and schedules allow for it. Younger sister Deborah filed a 2016 lawsuit for writing credits and royalty disputes over the song “UFO,” which has been sampled by everyone from J Dilla to the Notorious B.I.G. “That song was just me seeing one too many Star Wars and Close Encounters kind of movies,” Scroggins says. “I thought, ‘What would it sound like if a UFO landed in the middle of the club?’ That’s how that song came about.”
Still, Scroggins keeps the band a family affair. Her daughter Nicole Nicholas plays bass, son Nicholas plays percussion, and nephew Charlie Moore plays drums. “Each person brings their own personality, feeling and rhythm to the drums, and it keeps it a living, breathing band,” she says.
New ESG material is in the works through the group’s self-run ESG Records and CD Baby. The band is still waiting for that gold record to come its way, but its live show is where the action is. “People just need to be ready to dance when we play,” Scroggins says. “That’s what ESG was always about. We bring energy to the stage, so be ready for it.”
ATHENS POPFEST Featuring Superbody (7:30 p.m.), Lingua Franca (8:15 p.m.), Noon:30 (9 p.m.), Pylon Reenactment Society (10 p.m.), Tunabunny (11 p.m.) and ESG (12 a.m.). See story on p. 16.