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Roots of Electronica: ESG

In many ways, ESG are like The Ramones of proto-electronica. Upon first listen their music seems intensely, almost humorously simple, repetitive to the point of near-parody. But still undeniably “fun”, in an essential, flesh-less way that couldn’t easily be replicated. Even if anybody could play it.

ESG was formed in the late 70’s by four sisters, Renee, Valerie, Deborah, and Marie Scroggins, along with their friend Tito Libran. The band’s genesis has an interesting, much-retold origin story. Apparently in an effort to keep the Scroggins girls off the dangerous streets of the South Bronx, their mother bought them all instruments and instructed them to play. Inspired by the local sounds of Latin conga music and the spare break-beats of James Brown, the Scroggins girls began performing a skeletal, almost totally a-melodic form of dance music. It quickly attracted the attention of major figures like the legendary Tony Wilson, owner of Factory Records. He offered the girls a record deal.

Under the purview of producer Martin Hannett (best known for his work with Joy Division), ESG cut a slew of now legendary tracks. This includes the iconic “UFO”. A track which has since gone on to become one of the most sampled songs in music history.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BsS-QQ99aQ

ESG’s 80’s output has the perfect kind of “everything and nothing” feel that all great minimalist music exudes. All their songs rely on essentially the exact same drum beat: a bare, danceable hypno-rhythm that drives forth a subtle dressing of guitar blips and playground chants. It’s hardly surprising that tracks like “UFO” have become sample-fodder. Not only does the simplicity of ESG’s music lend itself well to reuse, but the basic, natural beats the Scroggins sisters crafted have an irresistible pull. It’s a pull that drives listeners to dance and to notice. Most interestingly, to hear strains of their own variations in the negative space that the tracks leave wide open.

The starkness of ESG’s music was partially a product of the group’s amateurism. Yet, it was also an intentional embrace of the power of proudly unpretentious rhythm. In an interview with The Quietus, Renee Scroggins described the impetus of the band’s bare-bones approach:

“Well, when James Brown took it to the bridge he cut all the horns, it was just that giant bass and the drums and letting it rip for that instant. Maybe he’d still have the keyboards, but it would just have that funk and that drive. So I said, man, if you could just take a song and make it just the bridge, wouldn’t that be hot!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCGdZnPzX8E

It’s not hard to draw a line between the “take it to the bridge” approach that ESG perfected and the structure of modern dance and electronic music. Most obviously, ESG’s actual music is modern music. In the sense that it’s been sampled so frequently by artists from J Dilla to Q Tip and Elle Varner. It becomes nearly impossible to not have heard the strains of an ESG beat. Even if you’ve never actually heard the band.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j35s_55mZhc

But beyond this, the ethic and style of ESG’s brand of dance is incredibly similar to today’s trance and EDM. Melodically simple, highly repetitive music built around a powerful nucleic beat. Devoid of unnecessary frills in the service of a divinely linear physical liberation. Artists from LCD Soundsystem to DJ Koze have clearly taken up ESG’s torch and run with it. All helping shape a futuristic landscape of stripped down anti-disco that plays proudly at the altar of simplicity. Modern music no longer favors the basic, pounding beat out of pointed amateurism, but it certainly shares an affinity with ESG and their ilk for the eternal reality of dance-able rhythm. Music makes you move best when it makes you overthink least.

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Written by Michael Coe

Michael Coe

Michael Coe is a regular contributor for OneEdm’s “Roots of Electronica” series. He lives in Los Angeles, California and is a writer and performer for the multimedia collective Count the Clock. Interests include music, writing, music writing, and everything in between