At the risk of sounding condescending, ESG have carved out their unique place in music history by dint of being an anomaly. They come of age in a time and place when anomalies held center-stage in a rapidly expanding international music scene, and they have remained a potent force in the critical memory by dint of their skill, but at root there is something irreducibly unique in the band’s appeal.
Of course, most bands would kill for this kind of tear-sheet blurb: a batch of sisters from the south Bronx (three or four depending on when you count) got together to make sui generis disco-funk records back in the early ’80s, right at the height of the New York post-punk explosion. The music the Scroggins sisters created was a bit odd but nonetheless riveting, becoming some of the most often-sampled tracks in the history of hip-hop (you may have heard “Moody”, the rhythmic basis for Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines”, among many others). They fade from view in the ’80s but return to the spotlight in the early ’90s, in an attempt to get their props from a generation of musicians who either overtly or covertly owed their sounds to the combo. They’ve been around ever since, recording occasionally for the Soul Jazz label through to the present day. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine about half of the dance music or hip-hop that exists today ever having been created without the influence of the Scroggins sisters. (There was also a bizarre workers’ compensation lawsuit at some point, but we won’t get into that.)
The early ’80s was simply a remarkable time to be alive if you loved music, and the Scroggins sisters are a great example of just why this was the case. At what other time was their enough spill-over between the world of punk, hip-hop and dance music to create something as genuinely, sincerely holistic as this? The distinct strains that went into making this music would soon separate, and forever after these kind of catholic gestures would take a great deal more effort in terms of conscious boundary-crossing. But back when these ladies started, there were no boundaries to cross. It made perfect sense for the Talking Heads and New Order and Afrikaa Bambaataa and the Peech Boys to all be represented equally. It made sense for three black women (and a dude, bassist Leroy Glover) from the Bronx to have their debut EP produced by the same guy who produced Joy Division (Martin Hannett).
As you might have gathered from the title, South Bronx Story 2 is the sequel to ESG’s first compilation, South Bronx Story, released back in 2000 and still pretty darn essential. However, Volume 2 carries the “Rarities” subtitle, so it is a slightly more dicey proposition than its predecessor. Even the best bands have hard time pulling off rarities compilations, and ESG is no exception to this rule.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s some great stuff here. At their worst, ESG are still one of the best funk bands in history, and even the tracks that sound like the B-sides they are are still pretty fun. But it’s telling that the album also contains two alternate versions of “Moody” — “Dance to the Beat of Moody” and “Moody (A New Mood)”. It’s never a good sign if a band records their hit multiple times, even if it’s a great track like “Moody”. Of course, this is the same band that titled an EP Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills, so I can understand their desire in this instance.
“Bam Bam Jam” is a great encapsulation of ESG’s appeal: deceptively simple but actually quite intricate rhythm section, snarling vocals by Renee Scroggins, and enough in the form of extraneous noise to keep things from getting boring (in this instance, congas). “Erase You”, from the first volume, is represented again with “Erase You (Puppy at Your Side)”, a very similar variation that seems slightly repetitive in that context (although the song is still delightful). “In the Streets” shows off a rare guitar solo from Renee — she’s good, a lot better than the sparse rhythm playing on many ESG songs actually indicates. “There Was a Time” is a louche James Brown tribute that stretches toward the eight-minute mark, and seems to look forward to the eventual white-boy hypno-funk of LCD Soundsystem. “Standing In Line” was one of Larry Levan’s favorites at the old Paradise Garage, and it still sounds great.
Tracks like “Earn It” and “Like This”, while fun, seem less fully conceived than the rest of the album, and it’s hard not to see why they were left off inclusion from the first volume. There’s a lot here for anyone who loves ESG — and really, if you don’t you should — but on it’s own terms it’s essentially an annex. It would have been a great disc two for the first South Bronx Story, but on its own it seems a bit patchy.