Album of the Day: ESG, “Step Off”

In the first few decades following their self-titled 1981 debut EP, Bronx sister act ESG had been hiding in plain sight. The Scroggins’ minimalist funk-punk tracks—like the intergalactically-minded “UFO” and the kiss-off “Moody”—were beloved by intrepid crate-diggers, and were liberally sampled in songs by Notorious B.I.G., Ice Cube, Big Daddy Kane, and almost 500 others. Their low-key ubiquity eventually led to a career-spanning 2000 compilation A South Bronx Story. Arriving just as New York City was in the throes of a post-punk revival, the compilation put them on the map for a new generation of listeners, and eventually led to a proper reunion of the Scroggins family for a string of New York shows.

ESG’s minimalist approach put the band’s grooves front and center while also giving vocalist Renee Scroggins room to simmer; the taut 2002 EP Step Off sticks with that musical idea, and the band’s thrilling vitality remains marvelously intact. On the sprawling “Sensual Intentions,” a deceptively simple bass line—by Nicole Nicholas, Renee Scroggins’s daughter—struts opposite jittery guitars; when the two finally entwine, the song’s mounting tension boils over. “Six Pack” gets its flirtatious feel from Valerie Scroggins’s daughter, guitarist Christelle Polite, whose flinty, abstract riffing darts around Renee’s beckoning vocals; on “Step Off,” Renee tells off a thickheaded pursuer with an insistent bass line by her side. ESG’s combination of the funky and the firm are in fine form throughout the record, which asserts their place in the post-punk canon and, even today, demonstrates the myriad ways that their approach to funk was utterly singular.

Maura Johnston

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