By Isabel Corp
The song “UFO” by South Bronx funk rock trio ESG is universally recognizable. The minute listeners hear the hair-raising siren call of frontwoman Renee Scroggins distorted, whirring guitar feedback, it feels like whiplash. Everybody acquainted with hip hop is familiar with that guitar loop, as it has been sampled over five-hundred times. The Notorious B.I.G., MF Doom, Wu Tang Clan, Big Daddy Kane, and J Dilla are just a fraction of notable names who have sampled the iconic instrumental.
ESG — an acronym for Emerald, Sapphire, and Gold — are a familiar name in the ‘80s post punk realm alongside groups like Liquid Liquid, DNA, and Bush Tetras. Known for their simplistic skeletal funk incorporating nothing more than bass, drums, vocals, and guitar, their defining quality was minimalism. In September of 1980 when they opened for A Certain Ratio at the New York City dance club Hurrah, Richard Mcguire from Liquid Liquid described their set as “mind-blowing," saying, "Their songs were held together by nothing — a couple of clacking sticks and a simple bassline.”
ESG originated with Renee Scroggins and her three younger sisters Marie, Valerie, and Deborah. Raised in South Bronx, their mother barely managed to eke out a living working as a chef, and their older siblings struggled with substance abuse and run-ins with the law. As a way to ensure that Scroggins and her three younger sisters would not venture down the same path, their mother bought them instruments to keep them occupied and off the streets. They were presented with a guitar, a bass, a tambourine, and a set of drums. Scroggins took it upon herself to learn them all.
“It was like my mission, and I learned by doing,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “We were making a sound on instruments that we could afford. All the percussion we had, the claves, congas, cowbells, tambourines made it easy to incorporate a Latin feel into the funk because it wasn’t expensive…We first attempted to play cover songs, and that was horrible. I realized that if I wrote my own songs nobody would know if we messed up.”
Soon after releasing their debut EP on 99 Records in 1981, the group became a mainstay at legendary New York dance venues like The Mudd Club, Danceteria, and The Paradise Garage. They also played the opening of the Hacienda in Manchester. The self-titled EP showcased the Scroggins sisters’ strong aptitude for writing, arranging, and playing effortless shoulder-shuffling dance punk, from the jungle bass groove on “Moody,” to the sassy chittering guitars on “Earn It.”
“UFO” was originally recorded to fill the remaining three minutes on the master tape of the EP. The several-hundred subsequent samples of the song ended up leading to over a decade of litigation for ESG. They also named their 1992 EP Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills.
Scroggins’ relationship to hip hop has only soured more over the years. “It has actually got[ten] worse. Now, people who are sampling us just have a new line of crap, they say they recreated it on a computer,” she told Vice in 2013. “I ain’t got no respect for them. I ain’t trying to rip them off but they steal our music like it is okay.”
It’s shameful that the band is only recognized in mainstream culture for one song that is hardly representative of their output at all, because their entire catalogue still holds up as some of the most innovative and exciting dance music I have ever heard. For example, their 1983 album Come Away with ESG is packed to the brim with irresistible dance grooves, tribal drums, and whooping vocals. Every song oozes confidence and ease. “Now I'm taking all the liberties I was too scared to before/I've accepted that we're just chemicals/Now bend over and touch the floor,” Scroggins careens with abandon on “About You.”
What’s even more satisfying is the undeniable musical synergy between the Scroggins sisters. On “It’s Alright,” each of their voices are on equal footing. Marie, Valerie, and Deborah do not sound like their elder sister’s backing band. It’s apparent that the energy between them was positive when they went into the studio together. The magic of the band was not dispelled by lineup changes nor the passage of time. Even their newer full length albums, Closure and What More Can You Take, sound just as fresh as Come Away with ESG and Step Off.
The band has been noted as highly influential to house music and modern dance music, including James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, who called their work “almost impossible to copy. They’re irreducible." They’ve received praise from the Clash, the Beastie Boys, Robert Palmer, Bikini Kill, and countless others. Regardless of how widely recognized the band is, that type of legacy can’t be bought.