Had I not known better, I would’ve sworn that Renee Scroggins, vocalist and unofficial mouthpiece for New York City’s legendary sister act ESG, was still just an ebullient teenager. Over the phone her excitable, chirpy voice reveals absolutely no sense of her age, despite the fact that the Scroggins sisters—Renee, Valerie, Marie, and Deborah, who opted out in the ’90s—have been banging out stripped-down yet supple funk since the early ’80s. In fact, Renee’s son is now 17 himself, while her teen daughter Nicole holds down the bass for the familial quintet. “Listen,” Renee says from her new digs down in Atlanta, as the band preps for some U.S. dates. “It doesn’t matter your age—inside, you’re still young at heart. You know, I still have relationships. I still fall in love, fall out of love and stuff. But you know, no matter, you still have that bliss about it.”
By now the story of the Scroggins clan’s mother buying them instruments to keep the girls away from teen pregnancy, gangs, and drug abuse has ascended to the realm of legend. Obsessed with Soul Brother Number One James Brown, the four teen sisters woodshedded, plying their sound from their 13th floor apartment in the Bronx. Renee describes ESG’s music from the start as “minimalist funk, that gritty get-down bass and drums of it all. It’s something that just grabs you and makes you want to dance.” Emerging in 1981 via 99 Records in New York and Factory Records in the U.K., their austere setup of bass, drums, percussion, and more percussion mirrored the pared-down sound of both early-’70s JB and late-’70s postpunk, and yet had an unadulterated joy—not to mention low end—that made the backside move. Martin Hannett produced the epochal “You’re No Good” single, and the band followed up with their classic 1983 debut, Come Away With ESG. Along the way they opened for Public Image Ltd. and Gang of Four, but ESG also played the last night of Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage and inaugurated Manchester’s Hacienda. Of that notorious club, Renee reminisces, “The thing I remember the most about it was the sawdust. We were just sneezing sneezing sneezing; I had a major allergy attack.”
Entering into their third decade, ESG hasn’t fallen for the distractions and pleasures of their modest fame. “The music world is like the fantasy world,” Renee says. “We never got caught up into that. We lived in reality, we knew. We had to come back home at the end of the day.” From their home in the Moore projects on 149th and Jackson Avenue, their music began to circle the globe, eventually traveling so far that it got all the way back home. “The block parties were happening and stuff, and the DJs were playing (the breaks off of) “Moody” and “UFO,” and they didn’t even know we made it,” Renee says, recalling how they’d hear their music playing outside their own window. “Because of the Factory label, they thought ESG came from London. They playing it downstairs and we living upstairs.” That eerie, gravity-free siren destabilizing the dark groove of “UFO” began to act like its namesake, mysteriously cropping up on early Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and Eric B. & Rakim singles, even sneaking into the 21st century via the Liars’ debut. In pre-sampling days though, the group had little to show for such outright biting; Renee says it’s only recently that ESG have gotten any compensation for soundtracking many of those early rap singles.
Just don’t call their newest album, Keep on Moving, a comeback (that could be saved for 1991’s self-titled release or else 2002’s Step Off). They’re not going away anytime soon, and no matter how intermittently ESG comes back around, their beats remain ageless and, as Renee puts it, “individualistic,” staking out a middle ground among hip-hop, funk, punk, and house music that they alone seem to inhabit. Keep on Moving‘s pliant tracks are still giddy, giggly odes to boys and falling in love, but they’ve grown wise, the piano-laced “Ex” maturely exploring the fallout of a relationship. Solidified by Renee’s daughter Nicole and Valerie’s daughter Chistelle on guitar, ESG have definitely not forgotten the pleasures of youth: based on the loin-vibrating bass, electronic drum thump, and salacious come-on that anchors “Purely Physical” (or the hot-pants admissions of “Insane”), it’s clear the band is more up-front than ever about their sexual needs. I ask Renee if she’s in love right now, but she just responds with a deep laugh: “No . . . and I don’t wanna say I’m in lust, though that’s probably the better word.”
Meanwhile, ESG’s emphasis on wiggly yet sharp funk continues to inform hip-hop: It’s in snap, in hyphy, in ringtone-simple melodies, in the sparse electro-informed productions of the Neptunes and Timbaland. So does Renee still keep up with hip-hop? She demurs, insisting that she focuses on her own music to prep for the band’s upcoming tour. But she does sing her new favorite radio jam over the phone: “Bootybootybootybooty!”
ESG plays the Hook in Red Hook Friday night with Northern State, 10, $25, thehookmusic.com