Sister Act

ESG gets the grooves going through the decades

ESG (Emerald, Sapphire, and Gold) was formed in the South Bronx in 1978 by teenage sisters Renee, Valerie, Deborah, and Marie Scroggins. Their mother, keen to keep them off the streets and out of trouble, had bought them a drum set, guitar, and bass. From that humble start the band never reached mainstream success, but its uncompromising punk-funk was an appreciated and inspirational addition to several underground scenes, from hedonistic discos to dark, proto-industrial palaces.

With an out-of-print album and little momentum after the early '90s, the group might have faded into total obscurity if it weren't for the efforts of U.K. label Soul Jazz, which built a considerable international reputation by unearthing rare groove artists. In 2000, Soul Jazz compiled early tracks from ESG's 1983 debut Come Away With ESG along with other recordings to release A South Bronx Story — followed up by the new album Step Off two years later. Soul Jazz's interest was astute, earning ESG legions of worldwide fans and kickstarting a new lease on success that would continue to be a family affair.

The current incarnation of the band features Renee, Valerie, and Marie Scroggins, with the additions of Valerie's daughter Christelle Polite on guitar, and Renee's daughter Nicole Nicholas on bass. Previously, bass duties were handled by Leroy Glover, now credited as a "special guest ESG member" as well as a co-songwriter and sound engineer on the group's newest full-length Keep On Moving. Moving is a more polished and fuller-sounding effort than previous releases; everything has a warmer feel, from Renee Scroggins' vocal tones (elevated from the sassy and flirtatious level of youth) to the subtle sub-bass that's a staple throughout. But the group's basic, minimal approach remains intact. "Their devotion to rhythm is unwavering," writes U.K. newspaper The Guardian of Keep On Moving. "Everything else is deemed a distraction."

Moving's "The Road" is a wonderful example of the group's laser focus on the beat, its intricate stick work and metal-clanging beats (similar to poundings on a trash-can lid) assisted by slippery basslines. "Everything Goes" feels like a Parliament-Funkadelic jam without all the cacophony, while "Purely Physical" provides a simulated heartbeat to express its passion. ESG also keeps listeners guessing with left-field cuts like "Ex," which is the closest the group has come to balladry, and album closer "Gimme a Blast," which could soundtrack a demented rave with its greedy vocal loop demanding "gimme a blast!"

Considering their Bronx roots, one might think that the members of ESG would appreciate being sampled by hip-hop artists as a form of tribute. The eerie guitars from "UFO" have been used on dozens of songs, including Public Enemy's "Night of the Living Baseheads," Big Daddy Kane's "Ain't No Half Steppin'," and Beastie Boys' "Sure Shot." But the group is very outspoken against being fodder for someone else's hit, and has aggressively pursued payment from sonic offenders. In 1992, ESG released a commentary in the form of an EP called Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills. And just last month, Renee Scroggins told music mag XLR8R that "ESG is music [made] by women, and rap artists that are using these samples are pretty much calling women bitch, dog, and everything possible! I take great offense to this!" Knowing this, it feels almost criminal to say that Keep On Moving has breaks and beats that would be the envy of any DJ or sample terrorist.

More approved are the artists that only borrow in spirit. To that end, ESG's reach is worldwide. In Brazil, five young ladies — and, like ESG, a token dude — formed CSS (Cansei De Ser Sexy) as an outlet for funky punk expression (albeit in this case one that's also informed by infectious sugar-pop acts like ABBA). CSS joins the bill at ESG's frighteningly rare appearance in San Francisco, promising an event of massively rhythmic proportions.

 
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