A South Bronx Tale: An Interview With ESG’s Renee Scroggins

In the projects of the South Bronx in 1978, teenage sisters Renee, Valerie, Deborah and Marie Scroggins formed ESG, short for Emerald, Sapphire and Gold.

Originally intending to keep her kids off the streets, Ma Scroggins purchased instruments and made them perform for her every week. Their unique sound was a raw fusion of bass-heavy Funk, Punk, Disco and Latin sounds and was crucial to spawning what became modern dance music. They are hailed as seminal members of New York’s underground music scene of the 70s and 80s, specifically the genres of Post-Punk and No-Wave, along with bands like Liquid Liquid, Bush Tetras, D.N.A. and James Chance and The Contortions.

Martin Hannett of Factory Records fame recorded their first EP in 1981, giving rise to performing at Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage, the epicenter of New York’s LGBT and Disco scene of the 70s and 80s, as well as Manchester’s Hacienda and Bonds, sharing a bill with Grandmaster Flash and The Clash. Their most recognizable song, “UFO” was originally recorded to fill up the remaining 3 minutes of the master tape but has become one of the most sampled songs in history – sampled by Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, N.W.A., The Notorious B.I.G., Big Daddy Kane, J Dilla, Pete Rock, De La Soul, Mobb Deep and Ice Cube to name a few. They are celebrating their 40th Anniversary this year and we caught up with band leader Renee Scroggins ahead of their LA performance at The Echoplex on March 23rd.

CC: You famously named one of your albums ‘Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills’. Are you getting paid now for your samples and do you find that artists are more respectful when they approach you to use your material?
RS: Well yes and no. Now you get artists who will say they didn’t sample the material but they just re-played it, and you know it’s straight up sampling but you go “oh my God, really?” so it’s a yes and no situation. It’s up in the air but it’s better.

CC: Has your relationship to hip hop improved? I know for a while you had been soured to how your music was being used.
RS: Well I still have some issues because a lot of the time rappers want to use it in a negative connotation and say horrible things against women yet the song is written by a woman, so I still totally find it offensive and that hasn’t changed. I mean it’s very rare that I ever hear it used in a positive party type of way. It’s being put in there as a backdrop to something nasty and I do not appreciate that as a women. We wrote a song about aliens and UFOs! That’s not what that song was meant for.

CC: What’s it like playing with your kids? Is there a big generational gap? Who’s in the current line-up?
RS: Playing with my children is wonderful and when the siblings are ok and get a chance to play, it’s always family and it’s always fun. You know one of the things I tell my kids and that’s why I’m enjoying them actually being on the road with me is showing them what it’s really like, road work not American Idol. I mean American Idol is cute and all but they don’t really show the realities and the hardship of this business. It is a business and that is what people need to understand. You can be artistic but the business side will kill you. Currently the line-up is my daughter Nicole Nicholas, my son Nicholas Nicholas and we’re playing with a young man named Anthony Alicio on drums. It mixes up.

CC: You’ve played with all of these icons and were part of The Factory Record and Paradise Garage scenes. What do your kids think about your experiences? Do they idolize you or are you just mom?
RS: No, I’m just mom! But my kids understand the business and my son Nicholas did the production on my last album, “What More Can You Take”. He engineered it and he’s learning the other aspects more than just playing percussion and entertaining. He’s learning in depth the music business and I really like that because you would hope that you didn’t work hard for all these years for nobody not to understand it.

CC: I wanted to ask you about the scene in the 1988 Nicolas Cage movie “Vampire’s Kiss”. Can you talk about how that came about?
RS: That was fun! Someone there was an ESG fan and the production company contacted us so we got to do the opening scene and that was so fun and I got to meet Nicolas Cage and he was very polite and wonderful to us so we had a great time on that! You know what was interesting about that? That scene was like a minute long. Did you know it took us 12 hours to shoot that? We actually got into the union because of that, The Screen Actors Guild, so that was cool. And I still get residuals from that to this day.

CC: Have you been approached by many people wanting to make films about ESG?
RS: Well you know we get approached all the time. For example, I was talking to woman and she says “Well you know we might take a few liberties” and I say “What do you mean by liberties. This is the real story!” And she says “Don’t you feel like it would be better if you were walking down the street with a boombox, and you decided to breakdance?” And I’m like “Yeah ok, but ESG don’t breakdance.” So yeah it’s interesting. If they’re not going to be true to the story then I’m not ever going to bother. It would be nice to tell the real story of ESG from when we started in 1978 to now, but if it happens it happens, if not – I know and my kids know and my family knows what we accomplished – actually living my mother’s dream and bringing ourselves out of the projects.

CC: You experienced a lot of racism and sexism in your years in the industry. Did that ever hinder your abilities as an artist?
RS: Well you see coming from where we came from, growing up in the projects of the South Bronx in the early 70s, my mom always told us, there is nothing in this life that you can’t do. There’s nothing in this life you can’t achieve. My mother was a STRONG woman who was really a strong female role model and I believed my mom. So I was never afraid. I went in as a business woman very assertive because that’s how my mom raised me. One of the things I always suggest to new artists is that they study a little contract law because it really helps them in the long run. It has changed but I still notice in certain ways they really try to bully you if you’re a female and the good thing is I have 40 years behind me, I have a lawyer, I know how to read contracts. I had a lot of female mentors in the business who gave me a lot of knowledge and I appreciate that. Most of the people who were very helpful to us in our career were women. Don’t get me wrong, there were some men who were decent, but the majority of the people who helped us were female. I hope that women are given more opportunities at higher levels of the music and film industry.

CC: Would you like to comment on the ‘Me Too’ movement?
RS: The ‘Me Too’ movement is good, because it’s helping women get things that we should have had for years. I have respect for that and that it’s helping women stand up for themselves, and not be bullied or pushed in the corner so I do have great respect for that.

CC: What artists inspire you today? Any favorites?
RS: I’m still old school. James Brown was an inspiration to me because it was funky and the whole idea of taking it to the bridge. That’s how my style of writing came about. A lot of the music I’m hearing now is based on old school funk and I’m feeling that because I was brought up on that sound. I’m always gonna be listening to classic artists, Michael Jackson, James Brown – throw on some Cameo. These are classic artists that even when you play it now it’s just as fresh as it was yesterday.

CC: Well thank you so much for taking the time and we will see you at the Echoplex on March 23rd with French Vanilla.

photo by: courtesy of the artist