ESG is one of those bands whose name is a passcode shared between cool weirdos. Karen O has said Yeah Yeah Yeahs would never have existed without ESG. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has called them “irreducible.” And those are just the rock kids. The band’s biggest area of cultural prominence may be in hip-hop, where, since forming in the South Bronx in the late ’70s, ESG’s primal beats have been a source of fascination to the point of obsession for DJs and rappers. “UFO,” ESG’s eerie, insistent, creepily beautiful instrumental has been sampled literally hundreds of times by everyone from Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G. to TLC and the Beastie Boys. “ESG were part of this tiny little moment in New York, the greatest of all cities,” says Luke Jenner of the Rapture. “They were able to straddle the early moments of disco, hip-hop, and punk and do something delicious. What they did is just as important as Liquid Liquid or other bands you haven’t heard of who predicted our future.”

Becoming a cult phenomenon is an honor, but it’s also super frustrating—you’ve made this work that has profoundly shaped culture, yet only a handful of people know about it! That is in part why ESG co-founder and frontwoman Renee Scroggins has decided to tell ESG’s story on her own terms via a forthcoming documentary Are You Serious? The ESG Story. “I’ve tried to work with other people,” Scroggins, who directed the film, says of past attempts to capture her band’s story on film. But it always wound up with someone “trying to, in so many words, screw me over,” she recalls, laughing over the phone. (Scroggins has a refreshingly sharp sense of humor about the brutality of the music business.) “I decided I can do it myself—just like everything else in ESG history.”

This true-blue DIY spirit is at the heart of the ESG story. Scroggins’ mother gave Renee and her younger sister Valerie their first musical instruments for Christmas the year Renee turned 12. “Valerie was 9,” Scroggins recalls of her sister, who alongside Renee and their older sister Marie, formed the original ESG lineup. “There were six of us and my older siblings in the projects got hooked on drugs. Basically, she [Scroggins’ mom] saw that we found something positive we wanted to do. She knew if you’re playing and you’re practicing that keeps you inside not outside.”

ESG, which stands for Emerald, Sapphire, and Gold, Valerie and Renee’s birthstones plus a nod to gold records status, first played in the city in 1978. It was “culture shock,” Scroggins remembers. “We go down to punk rock Manhattan with the people with spiked hair and we’re like, ‘Whoa, what the hell!?’ We were like, ‘Are they going to like us or beat us up?!’” She pauses. “They liked us.” They certainly did. ESG played all the most important clubs of the era, from post-punk nerve centers like Hur- rah (where David Bowie filmed his “Fashion” video) to Paradise Garage (aka the “Gay-rage,” a pioneering center of queer dance culture known to some as the anti-Studio 54), and soon linked up with Tony Wilson’s legendary Factory Records in the UK (future home of Joy Division and New Order). “We did the opening night at the Hacienda,” Renee says referring to the label’s notorious Manchester club, memorialized in the film 24 Hour Party People. “People always go, ‘What was it like?!’ And I go, ‘Dusty!’ Because it was so new.”

There’s a “Zelig” quality to the ESG story: They borrowed amps from labelmates and legends of the downtown scene the Bush Tetras, played Danceteria around the same time Madonna was getting her start there, graced the Hacienda stage before any other Factory Records stars, and made the beats that sparked a creative fire in the minds of the most important artists in hip-hop history, but they never really got their flowers. There was only ever one Factory Records 7-inch, ESG’s US label (999 Records) imploded just as the band’s career was taking off, and though they’ve been amply sampled, they’ve never been amply compensated— a fact the band wryly referenced on their 1992 self-released EP Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills. ESG has been a part of so much, yet they have always been on their own. “No,” Scroggins says when I ask her if she ever truly felt part of a creative community. “Being young girls from the projects, doing your own thing, making your own sounds…” she says. “I’ve been in the business 45-plus years and there is so much I’ve seen and done. To survive, you gotta be tough. It takes a lot of work and it definitely takes a lot of work to be respected as a woman. I get my respect today but, man, all the stuff I had to go through to get it.”

This story appears in the pages of V145: now available for purchase!

Photography Eric Johnson

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