Dance to the Best of ESG

According to countless cultural recapitulations, New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s was one big musical melting pot. Supposedly, the punk and no wave scene downtown was mingling with the hip-hop emerging uptown and in the South Bronx, while acts like Blondie wound up somewhere in the middle and at discos like Studio 54. As much as this might seem like a romanticized version of the past, the music that was created and preserved indicates that this was indeed the case. Particularly emblematic of this hybridization is ESG, a group of four teenage sisters from the Bronx who wound up on bridging the gap between several different genres at once (completely unintentionally) and ended up on one of England’s most preeminent labels.

ESG (short for “Emerald, Saphire, Gold”) was begun in 1974 when Helen Scroggins gave her daughters—Renee, Valerie, Marie and Deborah—musical instruments in the hopes that making music would keep them off the South Bronx streets and safe from trouble. Five years later, Ed Bahlman, who ran 99 Records (label home to Liquid Liquid and the Bush Tetras, among others), discovered the group at a talent show and took up up the role of manager. He soon had the sisters opening up for bands like PIL and Gang of Four. Fortune smiled upon the band again when Factory Records honcho Tony Wilson caught ESG playing with A Certain Ratio. Just a few months later they were in a studio with Martin Hannett recording their debut three-song EP, You’re No Good.

Those three songs—“Your’re No Good,” “Moody” and “UFO”—might have been enough to cement ESG’s seminal status, but their subsequent full-length, Come Away with ESG, recorded with Bahlman and a couple engineers in a studio above Radio City Music Hall, further extrapolated on their lean mix of drum and bass. Indeed, however improbable it may seem, this group of inner-city kids, in their limited musical prowess, had stumbled upon the missing link between the post-punk dub of groups like PIL and the Slits and the hip-hop grooves emerging almost concurrently. (Indeed, ESG would be sampled countless times by such acts as Public Enemy, LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane.) The wiry minimal funk created by these girls boiled down the many cultural currencies crisscrossing through New York’s underground like the R train. When they played between Grandmaster Flash and The Clash at the latter’s infamous multi-night stand at Bonds in 1981, one could easily see the metaphorical significance of their slot between the two.

The rest of group’s history is cloaked in vagueness. In the ’80s, Deborah left the band due to drug problems and ESG released a few EPs, but only emerged for a full-length when it seemed like the world was in need of one. Their second self-titled album didn't come until 1991, and a third didn’t appear until 2002 with Step Off. For 2006’s Keep On Moving, Renee’s daughter Nicole and Valerie’s daughter Chistelle joined the group. Remarkably, across three decades and two generations, the ESG sound endures unblemished, with neither trend, acumen or studio trickery impeding their vibe.

This is readily apparent on Dance to the Best of ESG, a new two-disc compilation that cuts across the entirety of the band’s output. On the first disc, one notice’s little dramatic difference between “Chistelle” from the 1983 debut, “Talk It” from Step Off and “Erase You” from the self-titled album when they are placed one after another. It’s a testament not only to Fire’s sequencing, but also to how unspoiled the ESG sound has remained. Indeed, there’s not a lemon amongst the 32 cuts collected here.

While previously A South Bronx Story Volumes 1 and 2 were probably all the ESG one needed, this comp does them one better in one compendium that includes four more songs than those two combined. The liner notes aren’t anything spectacular, so this package is really about the music. All three of the Martin Hannett tracks are included, as well as alternate versions of “You’re No Good” and “Erase You.” There’s not an ounce of fat, and there’s not one kilobyte wasted.

It is hard to say whether ESG is indeed the influence one might think, though. While it’s easy to hear their fundamental elements in the DNA of bands the world over, I’m inclined to think ESG simply presaged the direction a good segment of modern music would swing, their miraculous sound coming together in immaculate conception in their humble South Bronx environment. Unlike the Velvet Underground, who reportedly inspired all within earshot to start a band, it is more likely with ESG that those who actually heard their music back in the day didn’t even know what they were hearing, as it was mashed into hip-hop tracks or spun out of context at clubs downtown like Danceteria and the Paradise Garage. Now, though, there’s no reason not to revel in the sanctity of ESG, and Dance to the Best provides the perfect means for doing so.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Dance to the Beat of Moody”