ESG: STEP OUT OF A UFO AND START RAPPING
Bronx band ESG connected James Brown to P.I.L. with instruments their mother bought them to keep them out of trouble, and then found themselves caught in the birth of hip-hop, too–their song ‘UFO’ has been sampled by at least fifty artists, prompting ESG to release their Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills EP in 1992. They famously opened for the Clash and Grandmaster Flash (and less famously for Wilson Pickett and Gwen McRae) and played at the first night of Factory Records’ Hacienda in Manchester. They currently have a brand-new album awaiting release with the new line-up of the original Scroggins sisters and daughters Chistelle and Nicole. Singer Renee Scroggins speaks via phone from New York City.
Is this ESG’s first LA show?
Actually, that was 23 years ago–my daughter had just been born, and we opened for Public Image Limited at the Pasadena Civic Center. I had just given birth three days before.
How did you recover so fast?
You do what you gotta do.
Does your daughter know that story?
Of course. Whenever she starts moaning about aches and pains, I go, ‘Oh yeah? Beat this!’
How does it feel going out with two generations of Scrogginses in ESG?
To me, it’s the best ESG. It’s a bonding experience with our daughters. When we were playing before, we were actually carrying these kids. They shared the stage with us once before because we were pregnant, but now they get to step up there and help earn the money!
Did you bring them up to be musicians?
I was talking to a friend who used to play bass for me, and he said, ‘I remember when the girls were in diapers and they used to come here and dance, and they used to lay up on top of the amps and fall asleep!’
So they were born to play music.
Well, we didn’t have the slightest idea. But we gave ’em a shot–it’s kind of hard to tell your kids no! And it was easier and better this way–you don’t have to go looking for your players.
Were your parents musical?
Our father played saxophone and our mother sang in the church choir–she cracks me up, thinking about how she used to get us together and be like, ‘Come on, girls! Harmonize! Harmonize!’ She was always a supporter–if she hadn’t said, ‘Here, here’s these instruments,’ we never would have done it. Our dad wasn’t as supportive, but he’s proud. I told him, ‘You always thought having sons would put a legacy to your name–I think it’s your daughters who put Scroggins on the map!’
Do you think being family helped ESG do what it did?
Sure did, but sometimes family is the worst! If you’re not related, you don’t have to look at them over the dinner table–come Thanksgiving, you don’t have to look across the turkey, like, ‘You owe me some money!’ When we were younger, we’d be mad at each other for something silly, like someone not getting a call from their boyfriend, and mom would be like, ‘It’s your time–get out there and be professional!’ So we’d be out on stage with big smiles, and then come back backstage and get right back into it!
Are sample credits paying the bills yet?
Yes, they are. People come to you correct–we have a firm that represents us, and they go through lawyers, and it’s generally pretty cool now.
Who is your favorite artist who sampled you?
I consider none of the samples correct. When we started to hear samples, it was like–somebody would be like, ‘I heard somebody singing on ”UFO”!’ And that song was never meant to be anything but an instrumental. It’s about a UFO, my gosh! I don’t think somebody’s gonna step out a UFO and start rapping! At first, it was hard because there were no sampling laws.
Were people nice about it when you talked to them?
No, they always denied doing it! Like you don’t know your own record? But they’d do it all the time–never the artists themselves, always a representative or lawyer.
How was the first night at the Hacienda?
We were kids at the time, excited to be in a new place–out of the Bronx! When people ask me what it was like being the first band to open the club–the place was full of sawdust! They were still building the club! My memory is plenty of sawdust and coffee–wasn’t exactly a pleasant memory. They were still testing the sound system! It was crazy.
How old were you then?
Between 16 and 19. My sister and Tito had to stay out of where they had the alcohol.
Did your mom go with you?
She chaperoned us everywhere we went–she’d go with us to every club until we were 18!
Did she hang out with Martin Hannett and Joe Strummer?
No, but if they came backstage and talked to her, she would talk to them.
How do you think you’ll fit in to music history?
The other day I walked into the bookstore and there was a book on the history of music, and I opened it up and there we were–that’s good! It’s nice to know you can walk into a bookstore and find yourself. I happened to be with my son and I was like, ‘See? Look, your mom’s in there! She’s important!’ To me, that’s an honor–to know that your music made a mark. That’s the most important part of the ESG legacy–we did make a musical mark, which I guess some people try do to, but we didn’t do it intentionally.
How do you think you were able to do it?
I have no idea–we just came out, did our music, and didn’t let people interfere with our style. Major labels commercialize you, and we did have majors hit us up, but then comes the interference. You gotta do what you gotta do and be happy with what you’re doing. If you’re gonna sell out your sound, that’s who you are–your sound and what you write it very personal.
What would have happened if some label made ESG into huge pop stars?
We would have came and went.