Iconic South Bronx band ESG is back with a new documentary and a show in Brooklyn

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By Dan Sears

ESG, the iconic 1970s punk-funk band from the South Bronx, created one of the most sampled records in hip-hop. This Saturday, the band is playing a sold-out show in Brooklyn and screening a self-produced documentary.

Lead singer Renee Scroggins, 65, said in a phone interview that more concerts are coming, and she hopes to get wider distribution for the film, called “Are You Serious? The ESG Story?”

She said it tells the band’s real story for the first time. For now the film will screen at their live shows.

The sold-out show at the East Williamsburg club Elsewhere is a credit to the band’s enduring and unique sound that blends Latin percussion, minimal bass lines and high-pierced guitar riffs that resonate across generations.

“I’m loving coming out and making new fans,” Scroggins said. “I’ve been doing this 46 years, and these fans are younger than my children.”

The original band consisted of Scroggins and her three sisters from the South Bronx. The show on Saturday is still a family affair, and includes her sister Marie, as well as Renee’s son Nicholas and daughter Nicole.

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Scroggins traces the origins of ESG to her mother, a clerk for the city’s health department who pushed her daughters to learn an instrument. She bought them a guitar, bass and drums and made them practice every Friday after school. Scroggins’ father worked on a General Motors assembly line in Tarrytown.

Initially the sisters tried covering the Motown music they loved, but they realized it was harder than they thought. When they started incorporating the Latin percussion sounds of the neighborhood with James Brown-style drum breaks and funky grooves, they knew they were onto something.

“We started playing our own music only because we sound so bad with covers,” Scroggins said.

In the early 1970s, her mother brought the sisters to talent shows around housing projects in the Bronx. Eventually the sisters started winning. They even played a Jerry Lewis Telethon one year.

The group also played downtown New York clubs where a post-punk scene of similarly stripped-down music was played by groups including Liquid Liquid, DNA and Bush Tetras.

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ESG attracted the attention of the British record producer Martin Hannett, who made Joy Division’s records.

“Everybody said he was crazy, like the guy in, (the movie) ’24 Hour Party People,’” Scroggins said. “I was like, no, that wasn’t the guy I met, because he was real cool.”

The connections led to international touring and a chance to open for The Clash in New York during the band’s notorious run of shows at the Bond’s International Casino in 1981.

Martin produced a six-track EP for ESG that included a track called “U.F.O.,” which is recognized as one of the most widely sampled records in hip-hop. The Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and even Miles Davis have sampled it. The site Whosampled cites 578 instances of the track being used by other groups.

Initially, the band did not get paid for the use of the samples.

“I wasn’t that happy when money was not getting paid,” Scroggins said. “I mean, [other groups] were making all this money, and I was still at home in projects with my kids.”

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The band has since taken legal action to recoup some money from the use of their records.

Scroggins said she expects more United States tour dates and screenings of the film are coming this year, but no dates have been announced.

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