Feeling spooky, yeah yeah

Pub date October 24, 2006

› johnny@sfbg.com
This Halloween’s colors aren’t orange and black — they’re emerald, sapphire, and gold, because ESG is coming to town for the first time. One night after what people in the English village of Hinton St. George call Punkie Night, San Francisco will celebrate Funky Night, as sisters Renee, Marie, and Valerie Scroggins (and Renee’s daughter, Nicole Nicholas, and Valerie’s daughter, Christelle Polite) get everyone feeling moody, amped to tell off no-good lovers, and ready to keep it moving.
Rip it up and start again? That old Orange Juice lyric and new Simon Reynolds book title would have to be twisted to apply to ESG. It’s more like start again after being ripped off in the case of the Scroggins sisters. Sample credits don’t pay their bills, but they’re doing quite fine, thank you, due in part to Soul Jazz, the awesome crate-digging UK label. While Soul Jazz is best known for its archival work, in ESG’s case it’s proven to be just as interested in the group’s current music as in their influential early recordings, such as the oft-sampled instrumental “UFO.” On the eve of ESG’s local visit, I got on the digital horn with Renee, who lives in Georgia these days but still carries her Bronx accent and pride with her wherever she goes.
SFBG: This is our Halloween issue, so I have to ask you about ESG’s cameo appearance in the movie Vampire’s Kiss. What was that whole experience like?
RENEE SCROGGINS: Oh my god, it was fun. I was always a big fan of Nicolas Cage. He had lunch with me. He treated us so well.
SFBG: Is your family into Halloween?
RS: My daughter enjoys going out to costume parties. The best thing about Halloween is putting on a crazy costume and letting loose some inhibitions.
SFBG: Speaking of crazy costumes: ESG played the Paradise Garage. What was that like?
RS: We played there several times, but people always note that we played the closing party. That was a very sad time in ESG’s life, because the Paradise Garage was always very supportive.
SFBG: Did you have many interactions with [Paradise Garage DJ and legend] Larry Levan?
RS: He loved our music, and we loved the fact that he loved our music! When we brought in something new, he would check it out, and if he liked it, he’d give it a spin.
SFBG: Back then, there may have been women in bands, but there weren’t a lot of all-female groups. I’m wondering if it felt like you were confronting barriers or whether it just felt natural because you’re a family band.
RS: We never really thought of ourselves as a female band — we just thought of ourselves as a group of sisters. If I had younger brothers, it would have been a band with them. My mom always taught us, y’know, that we could do anything we want to do. When we wanted instruments, my mom didn’t say, “No, that’s not for girls.” She said, “You want a drum set? Here you go.”
SFBG: Did you ever encounter Klymaxx and Bernadette Cooper or like their records? It seems like they were trying to do a similar thing to ESG in a way, but on the West Coast.
RS: You mean “The Men All Pause”? Two days ago my daughter and I were playing on the radio and we talked about them. I always thought they were trying to say some important things, especially about women and dating.
SFBG: When did you first start to play music?
RS: Oh boy — at eight or nine years old. That was many moons ago [laughs].
SFBG: Do you remember what music you most loved as a kid?
RS: Sure, James Brown! The principle style that ESG writes in is the James Brown school of funk. James Brown would take it to the bridge. When he took it to the bridge, you’d lose your mind — you just wanted to dance, and you never wanted it to end.
I was a big Queen fan, still am, and so are my kids. The B-52’s, Etta James …
SFBG: She’s got family playing with her too — her sons are in her band.
RS: I know. That’s so cool. It’s good to bring the family into something you love so much. I know my daughters and nieces enjoy it.
SFBG: It makes sense that you mention James Brown as an all-time fave, because ESG is sampled almost as much as James Brown in hip-hop.
RS: I read that in a book; it said the most sampled artists were James Brown, George Clinton, and ESG. I was laughing. It wasn’t funny — for real — but it was interesting.
SFBG: Yeah, we have to discuss sampling. A track like Junior Mafia’s “Realms of Junior Mafia” on their Conspiracy album practically samples all of “UFO.” Did Puffy and Biggie pay you for that?
RS: We were paid. Junior Mafia did come to us correct. If you come correct and we’re able to negotiate, I’m happy. But if you take [ESG’s music] and I have to chase you down, and then you argue, I have issues with you.
I’m having this problem less and less, because we have a company and we went after all the people who weren’t paying us.
SFBG: Ultimately, though, you’re not really into sampling as a practice.
RS: I’m not into it all. We write original music — what comes from my heart, what comes from the inside. That’s a good feeling at the end of the day. One of the reasons why I’d stopped writing is that if people weren’t sampling one song by ESG, they were sampling another. I was scared to even put out an instrumental — I’d think, “I don’t want to leave too much loop space because they could snatch it.”
SFBG: I have to ask about “Moody,” because it’s one of my all-time favorite dance tracks. What was it like recording with [producer] Martin Hannett?
RS: I had a lot respect for him. He may have added a little reverb, but he really kept our natural sound. When we go and perform the song, we sound like the record. He didn’t molest or twist the songs or make them sound crazy.
SFBG: Having had so much experience playing live over the years, did you want to go back to that direct approach when recording [2004’s] Step Off and [this year’s] Keep on Moving?
RS: Absolutely. Every time we’re recording we want to be able present the same thing live.
SFBG: You’ve been writing songs at a fast pace these last few years.
RS: I have a lot going on in my life. When my sister Valerie [Scroggins] and I write, we write about things going around us, and I see so much since I’ve moved down to Atlanta. Atlanta reminds me of living in New York. That big-city thing has got me busy again.
I guess I like busyness, being a native New Yorker. Places like Pennsylvania and Virginia were just too quiet for me.
SFBG: What are you liking musically these days?
RS: Right now I’m working on production with some new artists. I listen to hip-hop. I listen to Mary J. Blige — Mary’s another woman who is always getting down and talking about real issues. About five minutes ago I was listening to Ice Cube. I listen to the Killers and Fall Out Boy. My heart is always going to be with whatever’s funky. SFBG
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Fri/27, 9 p.m.
444 Jessie, SF
(415) 625-8880