ESG: A South Bronx Story
Universal Sound import
ESG WERE FOUR sisters from the Bronx and some guy named Tito on congas who whittled their untutored, emaciated funk down to a vibrant minimalism that, in retrospect, sounds like the Rosetta Stone of all modern rhythm. If that's overstating the case a tad...well, a case that's been understated this long deserves all the hype we can muster. After all, the pizzicato frenzy of ESG's "U.F.O." would become as integral a building block for hip hop's sample-minded middle school as Chic's "Good Times" bassline was to the old. The sisters opened for the Clash and closed down the Paradise Garage with a live performance. And still, their seminal back catalog remains all but unavailable in their home country.
By some fluke of history, three of the group's early demos were shipped off to Manchester, where producer Martin Hannett drenched them in the same stygian echo he'd been using to enshroud Joy Division. But there's nothing sepulchral about the results, which ring with vast urban possibilities, hinting at the all-engrossing mysteries of dub without its cannabis-softened whoosh. Music this spare has never sounded so inviting, and from this side of the millennial dateline the off-kilter club hit "Moody" now sounds as weird and otherworldly and necessary as any of the wheezy folk exhumed on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.
Yet no matter how initially striking the production, the defining quality of these recordings turns out to be ESG's unusually tight female camaraderie. Renee Scroggins is as canny a vocalist as Debbie Harry, but without the pull toward manipulative ironies and with a giddily teasing squeal. And sister Valerie pounds on her kit with a thoughtful deliberation that never undercuts her breaks. Had ESG entered the popular domain they could have changed as many little sisters' lives as the Go-Gos. Know what? They still could. Hate to close with the obligatory Luscious Jackson dis (another set of New York rhythm women banging their own drum), so let's just say that the least the Beasties owe us is to release this compilation stateside on Grand Royal. Until then, you can order it from www.soundsoftheuniverse.com.