Cara S. Greene
As a genre, “no wave” is best characterized by what it isn’t, neither affirmative of music’s status quo—mainstream punk, disco and new wave—nor fixed in its method of defiance. Though no wave is a negative categorization, its constituents have some similarities: their music is stripped down, repetitive, clever, and skeptical—in a word, cool. Some no wave is rough and distorted. No New York, the Brian Eno-produced compilation featuring bands James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and D.N.A. is arguably the genre’s defining album. Other no wave music is more ambient, or centers around jazz-inspired improvisation, like the music of Rhys Chatham or La Monte Young. A possible third camp emphasizes danceability and rhythm, à la Konk, Liquid Liquid, Bush Tetras, and Lizzy Mercier Descloux. These stylistic motifs rarely occur at the same time—no wave’s cynicism comes through its simplicity.
No wave is also associated with a particular moment in New York’s artistic history, in which a jaded, post-Vietnam underground fostered a cadre of writers, performers, and artists like Laurie Anderson, Bill T. Jones, The Wooster Group, Keith Haring, and Mabou Mines Theater Company, among others. There has been a resurgence of interest in the genre, with young musicians releasing rhythm-driven noise music to audiences of their peers. For a genre that emerged from the secret basement discos, lawless performance art venues, and greasy dives of the '70s and '80s however, no wave’s contemporary offspring are more culturally and aesthetically homogenous than its variegated musical ancestors. Accordingly, my impression of the genre’s aesthetic scope was fairly limited. Then I heard Emerald, Sapphire and Gold, better known as ESG—a post-disco band led by black women.
At first, the band consisted of the four teenage Scroggins sisters and friend Tito Libran, with Reneé on guitar and vocals, Valerie on drums, Deborah on bass, and Marie and Tito on other percussion. The Scroggins family grew up in the projects of the South Bronx, where they taught themselves how to play their instruments and wrote music inspired by the polyrhythmic and percussion-heavy hip-hop and Latin music coming out of their neighborhood. Ed Bahlman, co-creator of short-lived downtown NYC label 99 Records (Liquid Liquid, Glenn Branca), discovered the band at a local talent show he was judging. Immediately recognizing their originality and potential, Bahlman became the band’s manager.
After a Wednesday gig at Hurrah nightclub in 1980, Tony Wilson of the UK’s Factory Records (Joy Division, New Order) approached ESG and asked if they wanted to make a record. The first two songs on the EP, “Moody" and “You’re No Good,” were finished in one take. With the three remaining minutes on the master tape, Renée suggested they fill the time with their tune “UFO,” a bizarre number that would eventually become one of the most prevalent samples in hip-hop. These songs, along with a three-track live recording from a Hurrah gig, made up the 7" EP ESG (1981), released through 99 Records, followed by a 7” of “You’re No Good,” the EP ESG Says Dance to the Beat of Moody (1982), and their first LP, Come Away with ESG (1983), released by Factory in the UK.
The 1981 EP’s opening track, “Moody,” consists simply of percussion, bass and vocals, and lasts a brusque two-and-a-half minutes. A danceable, 130bpm breakbeat is consistent throughout the song—a 16th note hi-hat groove with accented hits, some sparse kick drum, and a snare with slap-back delay. The bass pattern is constant, too. A syncopated single note, vacillating from the root to the third, breaking only for the pre-chorus congas and the occasional octave slide. Candid and nonchalant, Renée sings, "I was feelin’ very mellow / Walkin’ down the street / See, I’m goin’ to see my baby / And it makes me feel moody / Like this / We can go to see my baby / He can make you feel moody / He can make you feel high, feel low / Feeling, feel like / Like this.” In spite of its heavy repetition and compositional modesty, the song is big, and the bassline thumps deep below the energetic snare and hi-hat. These two conduits drive the song forward, but the vocals lift the entire composition slightly off the ground; "Moody" is as agile as it is focused.
When I attempt to categorize ESG’s sound, I tend to fall back on no wave because it situates their music in the experimental milieu with which they were most closely associated. At the same time, Renée herself puts it best: in an interview with Melissa Steiner from The Quietus, she said, “Another term that I don't particularly care for is “no wave,” what does that mean? You know? I really don't define ESG, but if I really had to put a label on it, we consider it to be music that makes you dance. Not dance music, but music that makes you dance.” While ESG helped the genre take shape, their music stands out from the pack.
ESG’s music is like a high-five between punk and funk that shatters both genres. “Moody” is too listenable to be avant-garde, and too edgy to be commercial. While the familiarity of the song’s components makes it accessible, it’s simplicity is conscientious enough to keep it clever. “Moody” is a lively conversation between contradictions: the coy, cheeky lyrics, the span between treble and bass, the hum of the guitar cut by the textural congas... the song contains its own foil. In a lecture at New York's School of Visual Arts, pioneering sound artist Alan Licht explained that the difference between sound art and popular music is that sound art has no boundaries or conventions. It has broken through the confines of music’s form. While “Moody” is far from ambient or concrete, the song’s layering of juxtaposing musical conventions from punk and funk creates something new.
To encounter this determinate-indeterminate synthesis in ESG’s sound is like spotting a newly illuminated blip on a scatterplot map of the world at night: the quality of the music speaks to its significance in the vast lattice of music history. The band’s legacy has been written about at length over the years, due in no small part to the fact that the music they made—and are still making—is, as Pitchfork reviewer Joe Tangari declared, “near perfect.” In spite of ESG’s esteem amongst a small crowd of music aficionados, beatniks and post-punks, though, the band remains unfamiliar to mainstream audiences in the USA.
And yet, many listeners have indeed heard ESG, without recognizing them by name. According to whosampled.com, their track “UFO”—distinguished by its bizarre looped backtrack (rusty cymbal? alien sex?)—has been sampled by 427 artists over the years, including Notorious B.I.G., Public Enemy, Nas, The Beastie Boys, N.W.A., Miles Davis, Nine Inch Nails, DJ Shadow, Liars, and literally hundreds more., many of whom have yet to pay royalties to ESG for the use of their song. Even though there isn’t necessarily a causal relation between financial compensation and a musical group’s exposure or impact, decision makers in the popular music industry have manufactured and sold a consistently formulaic assemblage of rock bands that ESG—a black female rock-funk band—had a hard time fitting into. In this case, the direct appropriation of artistic material without due diligence capitalized on the novelty of a body of work that hadn’t gotten the credit it deserved in the first place… effectively leaving out a crucial chapter of the story of what no wave is and who made it.