When I was a young man, it infuriated me when reviews of a band I liked made passing reference to other artists I’d never heard or heard of — and wasn’t likely to any time soon, being stuck out in the boondocks. Every time a writer mentioned Scott Walker in connection to the oeuvre of Marc Almond, David Bowie or Bryan Ferry, I wanted to scream. Who was this Walker dude? I couldn’t find his albums at my suburban Virginia record store. In fact, I wouldn’t own my first disc by the idiosyncratic British baritone until after I moved to New York in the 90’s.
Happily, most folks don’t have to wrestle with this type of situation any more. Ridiculously esoteric questions can be easily answered with a couple taps on the iPhone. As a consequence, I have lapsed into that exact same habit that infuriated teenage me, especially when I’m blogging. Only now, when I want to reference a fringe artist, instead of just blithely acting like everyone should know what I’m blathering on about, I can link to a Wikipedia entry or MySpace page and feel like I’ve made the reader’s life a little easier… without actually exerting any real journalistic effort on my end.
But ESG deserve better than that. They merit more than the promise of a click-through. For thirty years, this band has been insinuating its way into the DNA of pop music. Their percussive, original songs provided a goldmine for hip-hop artists like Big Daddy Kane, Gang Starr and Beastie Boys — just a few of the acts who sampled their beats over the years — but that kind of exposure doesn’t exactly raise a band’s profile; no wonder they titled a 1992 EP Sample Clearances Don’t Pay Our Bills.
My introduction to the members of the Scroggins family, who have formed the core of ESG through myriad incarnations, came via Peter L. Noble’s 1983 book Future Pop, which paired photographs of over 70 disparate “new music” acts with a quote or two apiece, and an appendix of tiny bios and discographies. There were plenty of bands in there I’d never heard of — KaS Product, Pulsallama, The Passage* — but amidst all the garish haircuts and exaggerated opinions about changing the shape of music forever, this simple quote from ESG singer-guitarist Renee Scroggins really leaped out at me:
“There’s an emptiness in the Bronx, but there’s also a lot of fullness, in the people I mean. Sometimes Manhattan can be very cold. I like the Bronx for the vibrations I get from it. It really helps us with our music. There’s so much stuff happening in the Bronx. There’s good and there’s bad. Maybe that’s why we tend to keep the music so simple. The Bronx is rough. It really is. Because it’s so rough it made us wanna do somethin’ positive with our lives. There were a lot of rotten things going on where we live. Instead of us hanging out and getting into this stuff, my mother bought us instruments and we did somethin’ creative instead of hangin’ out on the streets.”
Alas, like Scott Walker, I would have to wait until I moved to New York before I finally got to hear ESG. I know that in the post-Pitchfork world, we all like to pretend that 99 Records releases were as commonplace at those “as seen on TV” K-tel compilations, but the truth is, it took the 1991 hodgepodge CD ESG, which paired “classics” (i.e. the tracks that crate diggers were already sampling) like “Moody” and “U.F.O.” with newer material including the killer “Erase You,” before I actually got to hear what the Scroggins siblings sounded like. I was not disappointed. To my ears, they remain the epitome of “punk-funk,” not in the Rick James, let’s-get-freaky sense, but rather by bringing a naïve, DIY sensibility to their version of danceable, rhythmically-driven pop.
I reckon the reason more folks don’t actually know as much about ESG as they should is the band’s back catalog is a mess of releases, mostly EPs and singles, on short-lived independent labels. In recent years, the fine folks at Soul Jazz Records in the UK began issuing various ESG collections, including a pair of anthologies entitled A South Bronx Story and a reissue of the group’s 1983 full-length Come Away With ESG, as well as contemporary material by the band’s 21st century lineup. But in the grand scheme of things, it was still a hassle to find these records. Since they’re imports, they weren’t available on iTunes in the US, and physical copies carried a higher sticker price.
Finally, justice has been served. The just-released domestic double-CD, Dance to the Beat of ESG (on Fire Records) features 32 tracks surveying the band’s entire career, from early sides produced by Factory Records mainstay Martin Hannett, right up to choice cuts from recent discs Step Off (2002) and Keep On Moving (2006). This is the best, easiest introduction to this influential act that I can imagine, and I recommend it highly. If you need more encouragement to go out and procure this wholly worthwhile album, download the cut “Dance to the Beat of Moody” and sample — no pun intended — the wares of ESG before you buy. Hell, even if you don’t like what you hear, at least you’ll have a better idea of what I’m talking about next time I name-drop them in one of these columns.
* Look, I’m doing it right now! Lazy, lazy, lazy!
DJ El Toro hosts the variety mix show on Wednesday nights from 9 PM to 1 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His weekly rant, Weird At My School, appears infrequently on the KEXP Blog. Please follow DJ El Toro (aka Kurt B. Reighley) on Twitter and/or Tumblr!