Legendary post-punk/no wave group’s 2002 album gets the reissue treatment and continues to sound as timeless as ever.
ESG have always been something of an anomaly. Coming together at the tail end of the first wave of the New York punk scene as it dovetailed into post-punk and no wave, the group found themselves lumped in with both as their somewhat unclassifiable brand of deconstructed funk was neither wholly mainstream or as challenging as some of their downtown peers. Instead, the sound they perfected over a handful of highly influential singles ended up serving as blueprints for both the burgeoning hip-hop movement and, eventually, the hypnotically repetitive beats of house music. In the case of the former, the group’s sparse take on funk still retained a heavy rhythmic feel, perfect for fledgling samplers to supply beats for some of the earliest MCs. The effect on the latter can be heard across nearly every fiber of the music, from their heavily rhythmic tracks to the spare drumming that rudimentarily underscores the already bare-bones arrangements.
To talk solely about the group’s music is to bury the lead somewhat. Unlike their lily-white no wave peers, the Scroggins sisters -- Renee (vocals), Valerie (drums), Deborah (bass) and Marie (congas, vocals) -- were an African-American quartet from the South Bronx. Unlike the Detroit proto-punk trio Death, ESG (Emerald, Sapphire & Gold) managed to transcend race to become a highly influential unit whose sound can be heard across a wide range of largely dance-based genres. In this, they could just as easily be classified as post-racial as they have been tagged post-punk
Of course, when it comes to the music itself, the matter of race is beyond the point and instead only provides something of a unique cultural contextualization for their singular brand of deconstructed funk. By the time they released Step Off in 2002 on the London-based Soul Jazz Records, the group had already been lionized by the then up and coming second generation no wave and post-punk groups, not to mention the countless hip-hop acts to have sampled “UFO” in the years since the group’s debut EP. Just their third album proper, Step Off marked not only a return of the group after 1991’s largely ignored self-titled release on Pow Wow Records but a continuation of the sound on which they’d built their reputation. Indeed, there’s little in the way of stylistic deviation within the ESG catalog and the primary difference aside from the intervening decades is the second generation of Scroggins girls filling in for their relatives on bass and drums.
Fifteen years later, Step Off remains as timeless as ever, existing in that rarified nether region of albums refusing to be date-stamped. If anything, Step Off is an even more stripped down approach to funk, the majority of the tracks consisting of little more than Renee’s vocals and new bassist Nicole’s pulsing groove. “It’s Not Me", at nearly four minutes, is made up almost entirely of stark bass and vocals yet still manages to be an undeniably funky dance track. With her voice having settled into a sultry lower range, Renee’s cooing and purring of the titular phrase come off as seductive despite the lyrics indication to the contrary (see also the appropriately-titled “Sensual Intentions”).
The title track now sounds like Patti Smith front a somewhat less maudlin early version of the xx, all hiccupping vocals, skittering drums and droning bass. So too does “Six Pack", a track built around a single droning bass note and two-chord guitar riff under which the drums once again skitter and sputter along with Renee’s decidedly post-punk indebted delivery as she requests the titular six pack. It’s one of the few blatantly rhythmically propulsive tracks on the album, the drums coming to the fore where elsewhere their driving force is either merely implied or absent altogether.
Perhaps not as revelatory as their earliest recordings, Step Off nonetheless represents a fine continuation of a singular stylistic approach that has managed to transcend genres and influence several generations of performers in wildly disparate styles. Even if you’ve never heard ESG, you’ve heard ESG in the sound of others and will thus find both Step Off and the rest of their indispensable catalog instantly familiar and undeniably danceable. Like the best dance music, ESG’s transcends nearly every identifiable social construct to get to the beating heart of the one thing that moves us all: rhythm.