Drugs and violence were rampant. Teenage pregnancy was common. Opportunity was scarce. An office clerk named Helen Scroggins, who lived in a housing project with her four school-age daughters in New York City’s South Bronx in the mid-1970s, was anxious.
“We were hanging out, and she didn’t want us hanging out,” says one of those daughters, Renee, from her home in Atlanta, Georgia. “But we had shown an interest in music. And she’d say, ‘OK, let’s see,’ and [she] went out and bought us instruments.” It was one way to keep them off the streets.
None of the sisters had any musical training. “It took a bit of time,” recalls Renee, who was the group’s guitarist and lead vocalist. “We were attempting James Brown, The Rolling Stones, and ['70s Chaka Khan-fronted funk band] Rufus. It didn’t come out so well. That’s when we decided we could come up with our own sound.”
The sound was as simple as you could get, but the time was ripe for simple things. By the late ’70s, punk had started to transform pop by stripping away the filigree that had built up during the first decade of arena rock. Musicians with artistic ambitions would eventually take this pared-down aesthetic and apply it to dance music, but the Scroggins sisters, who had named their band ESG (for Emerald, Sapphire and Gold), got there first.
“Our first paying gig was at a place called Mechanics Hall,” says Renee. “We got a whopping 25 bucks. I still have the receipt. It was a punk club, and we weren’t sure what the reaction would be, but . . . they screamed and screamed, and at that time we only had three songs, so we just kept playing them: ‘You’re No Good,’ ‘UFO,’ and ‘Moody.’ “
These songs were basically drums and percussion fortifying a simple, funky bass line, with Renee chanting soulful fillips in the middle distance. It wasn’t necessarily original, but there was nothing like it; or, at least, not until hip-hop started making its way out of the same neighborhood the Scroggins sisters came from.
“In our section of the Bronx there was this big park,” explains Renee. “And at night in the summer the Spanish guys hung out and played percussion. We didn’t have air conditioning, just screens in the window, so besides James Brown we were inspired by the percussion coming from the park. When hip-hop began, the kids just made music with their mouth and stuff, but then the block parties started and you had the DJs. By then we’d already made a record, so they’d be playing it at the block parties, and we’d hear it through the window. It was funny, ’cause they didn’t know we were from the neighborhood.”
The record was a 7-inch recorded by late English producer Martin Hannett and released on Factory Records, which had made underground stars of Joy Division and A Certain Ratio. The Scroggins were suddenly part of a scene they knew nothing about. They were flown to Britain to play the opening-night party for Factory’s Hacienda club in Manchester, and when The Clash, Public Image Ltd. and Gang of Four came to New York, ESG opened for them.
“When we played [with those groups] it was always the first time I heard them,” Renee says. “They were pretty cool. Especially The Clash. They had a bit of funk to some of their numbers, but it was different.”
ESG’s music was released in New York by 99 Records, an independent label that helped launch the No Wave movement with Liquid Liquid. However, it was the nascent hip-hop scene that brought ESG’s sound to prominence, though not ESG itself. “Moody” and “UFO” especially, with its siren-like sound effects, were sampled by every major rap act, from Doug E. Fresh to Public Enemy.
The fact that ESG was fueling the latest thing without benefiting from it bothered Renee. She would turn on the radio and hear bits of her songs. “It took 15 years to see any money,” she says. “There were no sampling laws until the late ’80s. Because I own the copyright to these things the law [eventually] helped me, but it didn’t hurt the rappers until they started sampling the big artists. Then the big record companies got upset.”
Though ESG also figured prominently in the development of house music — they performed at the closing party for New York’s dance club Paradise Garage in 1987 — they remained below the average music lover’s radar.
Then, around the turn of the millennium, writer and dance music impresario Carol Cooper helped ESG cut a deal with London’s Soul Jazz Records, which released a compilation of the group’s 1980s output. Suddenly, the Scroggins were recognized as the pioneers they were, not only by hip-hoppers like The Beastie Boys but by the new generation of dance rock bands like The Rapture. They’ve since recorded two new albums, including “Keep on Moving,” out this month.
The music is still as spare and funky as it was when the sisters played for Hannett. One of the reasons may be that, in accordance with their mother’s initial purpose, they’ve kept it in the family. “The lineup on stage now is myself, my sister Valerie on drums, my sister Marie on percussion, my daughter Nicole on bass and my niece Chistelle on guitar,” says Renee. “If you love music, it’s in your blood for life.”