Emerald Sapphire & Gold: Alive, Well and Working in the South Bronx

Being one of the most widely imitated and innovative live bands of the early ’80s isn’t necessarily a bed of roses.

When the production trends of the last decade turned away from real instrumentation and D.I.Y. hipness into TV. track dates and M.I.D.I., live performers like Liquid Liquid, E.S.G., James White & the Blacks, Defunkt and many others were shoved onto the sidelines of a scene they had pioneered. Today their trademark hits are regularly robbed for samples to be used on less imaginative dance and rap productions. Even some complete songs are bootlegged and sold by 12-inch retailers without a dime of those sales going back to the artists who wrote and played the originals.

In 1990 the song “Moody,” written and produced by the sister-group called E.S.G., can be heard on New York’s black and dance-oriented radio stations almost every day. Seldom will you enter a happening dance club in New York, Miami, L.A., Detroit, or Chicago without hearing that song, or perhaps even a selection from their self-produced ESG II mini-album released at the end of ’86. Big Daddy Kane, Chip E., Precious, Loose Bruce, and Marley Marl, are just a few of the contemporary artists who have lifted copyrighted licks, or loops, or sometimes even vocals from E.S.G. without paying the band. In fact, the guitar loop which is the hook on “Ain’t No Half-Steppin?” by Big Daddy Kane was stolen from one of E.S.G.’s most characteristically unique singles, “U.F.O.” — a track which, ironically, wasn’t particularly accepted by the black audience upon its initial release.

According to Renee Scroggins, E.S.G.’s leader, lead singer, and principal songwriter, experience has been a hard but thorough teacher as to the pitfalls of the recording business. Partially because all the band members were underage at the time, no contracts were ever signed between E.S.G. and their original record company, 99 Records. Ed Bahlman, owner of the label and the record store of the same name, allegedly operated on a similar basis with all the bands on his label; managing, booking, and securing licensing deals for them with no written permission whatsoever.

According to Scroggins, one day Bahlman called his various acts into a meeting where he inexplicably dissolved 99 Records, advising them to get out of the business too, since his own disillusion had prompted him to quit. Left adrift without legal or managerial representation, and with no copies of any of the paperwork which Ed Bahlman had undertaken on their behalf (all of which remains dubious, as Bahlman had no power of attorney over the group), E.S.G. took two and a half years to learn enough about pressing distributing, and publishing their own compositions before ESG II arrived in stores to prove their genius still intact and still very much their own.

Loyal fans like Larry Levan of Pardise Garage, and Billboard columnist Bill Coleman, welcomed the new material as if E.S.G. had never been away. Their mixed audience of black & white & uptown & downtown university trendies and street kids allowed them to play both the closing parties at the Garage, and the bar-band stage of the Pyramid Club with equal success. I was one of the many journalists who assumed by the band’s affection for Latin percussion, South Bronx origins, and mestizo looks that they were Puerto Rican. But a white father and a black mother made E.S.G. (now reduced to a trio of sisters with two male friends recruited for guitar and bass) what stars like Prince and August Darnell only pretended to be . . . legitimate mulattos. As strong willed and idiosyncratic as Prince or Darnell ever were, E.S.G. continues to write and perform music the way they hear it, not necessarily the way it goes on contemporary radio. Renee’s publishing company, Enterprising Scroggins Girls Music, B.M.I., has a catalog of 19 songs-and-growing, as she prepares not one, but two albums’ worth of new material, some of which is being recombined with earlier hits for use by an all-girl rap trio she is developing.

DMR caught up with Renee Scroggins in one of her more pensive moods. Comparisons between the early ’80s and the early ’90s as environments for young, evolving acts were sparked by recent articles in Billboard about the Artist Development crisis, shrinking numbers of small venues, and dysfunctional A&R departments. Below we offer the perspective of someone whose affection for James Brown, blues, heavy metal guitar, “Rock Lobster,” gospel, and anything dancable, helped her create an original fusion of styles which became a prototype for much of what we like on club and radio playlists today.

COOPER: What do you think of contemporary local radio and how some stations are attempting to return more variety to the airwaves? I mean, it’s not as broad an offering as we had in the late ’60s, but, for instance, WBLS was trying to mix things up again at the beginning of the year, as was CD 101.

RENEE: Well, no one in their right mind wants to hear one type of music all the time. You wouldn’t eat hamburger every night, because if you did it would get boring, or worse, your taste buds would get dull and you wouldn’t be able to appreciate anything else. Which is unfortunately what happens to kids stuck listening to individual formats. Fortunately, everybody isn’t as stupid as programmers and record companies would have us believer, and people do turn the dial. I think people do want variety, and are always looking for that little something different.

One thing that really bothers me is that even the clubs have become formatted like radio in many cases. When we first started out, not only were there still lots of places to play live, but the deejays playing in track-only clubs would mix the music up too. You might hear James Brown, The Clash, The Emotions, and the B-52s all in one night. Now if a place is a “house club” or a “Latin freestyle club,” you’ll hear nothing but records in that one style all night. It’s boring and it makes it almost impossible for original new artists to be broken in such environments. D.J.s and radio programmers cop out when they say their audiences prefer all one thing. The deejay is the one in control. They are the only ones in the position to expose people to something new, and it is their responsibility to play new things.

It’s like deejays and programmers don’t trust their own taste, right? Like they’re afraid that the world will decide that they have no ears if they play something that everyone else isn’t already playing?

Yeah. The fact is that kids assume something is hip most times just because they hear it on the radio. And clubs will book an act and pay top dollar merely because their song is on the radio. That’s why it’s much harder to survive on the underground live circuit now than eight to ten years ago. Clubs used to be full of unknown and unrecorded bands, because it was hip for clubs to offer things that radio didn’t. And there used to be more of a difference between the “uptown” and “downtown” scenes, with downtown being willing open up to uptown influences and to take certain chances. But now there seems to be this standard procedure all the most popular places go through which squeezes unknown bands, or acts with no new recordings, out of the ability to get exposed, play live, and make a little money.

In other words, we are becoming a dull, predictably-programmed society because those few people who have free choice abdicate that freedom and responsibility to intelligently present the diversity that is available? Sure. And it doesn’t have to be forced down people’s throats in an obvious, obnoxious way. Look at all the animated cartoons on TV that used classical music over the years. You don’t see toddlers or adults complaining that Bugs Bunny is making them laugh to the sound of Beethoven and not the sound of Marshall Jefferson of Don Henley!

Listeners have to let radio know they want the airwaves opened up more. Let them know if they continue to bore you, you’ll turn them off! They can’t survive or get advertisers without listeners, presumably the way people consume portable and car cassette players, a lot of listeners have already turned radio off. And it’s the young adults that have to initiate change, because kids below a certain age pretty much accept what they are exposed to because they have no idea things can be any different. That’s why our so called adolescent-rebellion period is so important. It gives people a chance to check out how society is going and decide if they like it or not while they still have the youth and energy left to do something about it.

Get more specific about what’s good and what’s bad about how music has changed locally from the ’80s to the ’90s. Do you feel there’s another backlash on the way, like the one that made punk, rap, and new wave sounds eclipse overproduced art-rock and disco?

TR3, the Mudd Club, the Peppermint Lounge, Hurrah, the Rock Lounge, Privates, the Underground, and Irving Plaza, were just a few of the places we played regularly during the early days, and because there was a large live circuit, a lot of excitement could be generated by a new band in a relatively short period of time.

Also, all you media people were aware of and out on the same circuit too. So between word-of-mouth, and coverage by publications like the Soho Weekly News, N.Y. Rocker, East Village Eye, and the European press that were all over New York in the early ’80s, it was relatively easy to develop a local audience and a reputation for your work. But little by little all these things started to disappear. Of the clubs I mentioned, only the Underground is still even a regular venue! And for a long time in the mid-’80s, only Danceteria and the Roxy were still offering live dance-funk now and then.

Yeah, and I think Kamakazi, which is now Kilamanjaro/Tracks. Shortly afterwards Danceteria and Roxy closed too. The downtown newspapers that covered a lot of live music also started closing down, and by the late ’80s the European press was more interested in covering major label acts or hyping homegrown talent.

And I remember that the Village Voice never had very much space specifically for covering live alternative bands. There might be one or two “Licks” in the section each week to handle signed and unsigned live acts alike. And I think the “Lick” section is now completely gone from the Voice.

So the remaining clubs, including those that closed and reopened with different names and formats, always claimed that it was too expensive to set up their club for live players now that most everyone did t.v. tracks. I mean we knew how to do a lip-sync performance, and out of desperation to play have occasionally done them. But we hate it, and think it hurts our show. It also cheats the audience out of part of what we think they are paying to see. We think it really makes a difference that we actually know how to play our instruments, and that when people come to see us they can actually hear us make the sounds they hear on our records . . . and see that I sing my own vocals!

I’ll say right now that if anyone comes out to see us and we are singing to backing tapes, it is only because we would not be allowed to perform any other way. We go to a club prepared to give a 30-minute live set, often with new arrangements and other special additions for the same amount of money we charge for a track date. But many club owners simply insist they don’t want it, or that their crowds would rather see us pretend to play the only two songs they’ve heard before, and leave. I think it’s sad. Because there’s nothing more fun than to get a chance to prove yourself live in front of an audience . . . to get them into the fact that yeah, that’s Marie banging those congas, that’s Valerie’s over there on the drum kit, or that yeah, David improvises a slightly different solo every time we play. What kind of rapport can you build with your audience doing canned music? That’s why you see all these girls that can’t sing jumping on stage with nothing to offer but skimpy outfits. That’s what entertainment has been reduced to for the ’90s.

What were some of the more interesting double bills the band has played?

We did Bonds International, opening one of those notorious Clash dates together with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. We did several shows at the Pier for Ron Delsner that were fun too: one with Gang of Four, one with Joe Jackson. We were even supposed to open for Pointer Sisters one night, but they had a big hit out at the time, and told Delsner that they didn’t need or want an opening act. During the closing parties for Paradise Garage we shared the bill with Gwen Guthrie and Liz Torres. And we were the only ones allowed to perform live!

Then of course we performed opposite a lot of rap acts at places like the Roxy, and Ed would try to book all the acts on his label at certain clubs whenever he could. Most of the time we’d play opposite Liquid Liquid, or the Bush Tetras. We did the Underground one night with Konk.

Did you feel fortunate that all of you were seen as kind of a missing link between punk and disco? That part of your popularity at clubs during this period was that the people who thought “disco sucked” liked you, as well as the kids still into R&B or Eurodisco?

In a way. Our philosophy was always that we could play something that would appeal to anybody’s taste. If you listen to our EPs and albums, you’ll hear some stuff that’s more rock oriented, some stuff that is more “pop” and some where the funk and R&B elements are strongest. We like all that different stuff, so it’s easy for us to write or rearrange our material to appeal to different tastes. Sometimes I’d check out the audience before a show, and if there seemed to be more R&B heads there, or more white rockers, I’d adjust the song lineup accordingly. Even the Clash audience, which was very hostile to anybody that wasn’t The Clash, let us finish our set in peace.

What about the disco audiences of the late ’80s, who never see live acts in clubs anymore? Are they hostile to what you have to offer aside from ‘Moody’ which they still hear all the time?

Like I said, even the young, intolerant audiences react better when they see us playing and singing live. They can at least respect the effort involved. But clubs these days that specialize in attracting a homogenous audience make it harder, because bullies and fascists love company. If they can get a crowd behind them, they’ll turn against you just for the fun of it.

These days, mostly because the drinking age was raised to 21, you seldom get older and younger people partying together anymore. So you lose a necessary balance. Furthermore, you have clubs controlling their doors to get a certain racial or cultural mix. In a crowd 18 and below of either all-black or all-white kids who haven’t been exposed to much variety and don’t think they need to be, the reaction to us, or anything they’re not already used to can be pretty vicious.

Yeah, I remember that Paula Abdul did one of Vito Bruno’s nights at the huge Palladium room downtown before she got her first hit, and she was booed by a predominantly black crowd.

But at the Pyramid Club, where we had an age range of 17 to 32, with whites, Asians, Latins, and blacks all tolerant of each others’ musical preferences, the reaction was great. At discos where they still play our records the reaction is cool too. And I guess ‘Moody’ is just one of those songs that will never die, ’cause people can’t get enough of it. That was the song Magellan Films asked us to perform in the Nick Cage movie Vampire’s Kiss recently, and ‘Moody’ was the tune my vocals were sampled from for Precious’s ‘In Motion’ as well as half a dozen other singles. Every year I get calls from various independent labels wanting to remix it, or buy it, or license it. And they always think the band is so desperate that we’ll be stupid enough to release the rights to our work for little or nothing.

They don’t realize that if we’ve waited this long for the right deal to come along, we can wait a little longer, because we still have the same talent we always had. And despite what anyone else may say, my sisters and I are the only ones with any legal right over our original masters and publishing. And there are still some loose ends to be cleared up — for instance, we never gave our permission for ‘U.F.O.’ to be licensed for the Ultimate Breaks and Beats compilation it’s on, nor did we give anyone permission to bootleg ‘Moody’ for the illegal Rated X records version that certain people are still selling.

One of the things I’d like to do for young bands or singers just starting out is hire myself out as a consultant so they can benefit from everything we’ve been through. Because we are determined to stop the more blatant rip-offs of our material and properly protect the new stuff we’re writing. And if anything I’ve learned can save somebody new from making similar mistakes, it’s worth me hanging up a shingle to answer their questions. And believe me, the money I’ll save them is worth whatever they’d have to pay me.

It’s not really necessary for these kids to take their demo tapes around and sell everything, even their publishing, off to some small indie label. They need to know they can get the record into certain stores and start the buzz that might attract a better offer themselves, for just about a thousand dollars. It may not be the right route for everybody, but people have to realize that it’s possible option . . . just like turning the dial on your radio.

Published in: Dance Music Report, September 26, 1990