ESG, originally Emerald/Sapphire/Gold, is the seminal band formed in the South Bronx in the late 70’s exists in a fantastic and compellingly improbable space between R&B, funk, and no-wave. Contemporary hip-hop and post-punk are equally indebted in both a metaphorical and very material sense to the three sisters Renee, Deborah and Valerie Scroggins (along with friend Tito Libran) that compose ESG. Renee with her playful and stripped down vocal stylings over Deborah’s popping bass lend a clever simplicity to the momentous polyrhythmic drumming of Valerie Scroggins. It is their sound that transports you both to the art-punk scene of the 1970’s New York bands like Talking Heads, as well as the precursors to the rhythms of the boogie down Bronx that would come to make the some of the first beats of golden era hip-hop. If you haven’t heard their 1983 debut full length album Come Away with ESG, I suggest you give it a listen. Valerie Scroggins’ drumming ties the band to genres that are often falsely placed in opposition to one another. Her drumming is as improvisational and dynamic as she is. She plays voraciously and mischievously, with an emphasis on the simple pleasure of music making itself. I had the opportunity to chat with Valerie Scroggins on the importance of drumming to her identity and resilience, her musical influences, and her excitement and optimism about women drumming today.
Full Name: Valerie Scroggins
Hometown: Bronx, NY
Lives In: Pennsylvania
Past Bands: E.S.G.
Current Bands: E.S.G.
Gear Set-Up: 5 piece Yamaha Drum Set with 2 crash cymbals
Fav Food: Chicken with Broccoli
Tom Tom Magazine: Valerie, I have to tell you that I am thrilled to meet you. As a woman of color with a deep love for music made by other women, I was over the moon when I heard about ESG as a teenager and I’ve loved your music ever since.
Valerie Scroggins: [laughs] Well I’m delighted to meet you too! And it’s such an honor to be able to interview with Tom Tom, seriously, you guys are doing some really cool things!
Thanks! The young teenager in me couldn’t be more excited about this moment. [both laugh] First things first. Let’s talk about genre. What kind of music do you see yourself making? How do you describe ESG?
ESG is a bit of everything really. At the end of the day, music is music. It comes from the heart and the mind; it doesn’t matter to me as much. If I had to use one word I’d say we’re pretty funky! [laughs]
How did you and your sisters get started making music?
The way that things started happening was music in the house hold. Growing up in The Bronx what we heard was James Brown, Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin; that sort of thing. My drumming is really influenced by those breakdown parts in James Brown songs. I’d take that part and stretch it out for a whole song. The sound comes from being in the street and being around other kids in the parks and stuff like that. It was just something in me. I started beatin’ on pots and pans and on my thighs and legs at school. It was just something in me.
Did you have musical influences in terms of female drummers growing up?
I didn’t know about other female drummers. We didn’t have the luxury of going out there and getting a magazine and things like that. I have that luxury now, and I’ve seen some of these ladies out there and I respect them. And let me tell you these ladies can play! [Laughs]
Who are the women in music you respect nowadays?
Oh there are so many! But I can think of a few off the top of my head. Cora Coleman, Kimberly Thompson, Shelia E but I guess that dates me! [laughs] and Cindy Blackman.
Shelia E is so important! She’s only dated if you don’t know how good she is. [Both laugh]. I want to talk to you a bit more about your own musical styling. There’s so much joy and energy in your drumming. It’s like you’re drumming with a smile on your face the whole time! [She laughs] Where would you say that comes from?
Well, there was so much crime happening in the streets at that time, and my mom didn’t want us out there and I wanted a drum set. We started doing our own thing. The energy was youthful and excited. We started writing songs in 1976. We just [snap] started making our own music! I think we were trying to make sure we had something to do that wasn’t in those streets. We stick to a tightness and thickness which is all about the drums and the bass line.
What was it like being in New York during that huge explosion of punk and the beginnings of hip-hop? Was it as amazing as I imagine?
Answer: [laughs] It was! And even more than you probably already think! It was so great during that time period. All the punk music was going on and it was so different that what we knew in the South Bronx. It was good for us, I think. We experienced a lot of things we were never exposed to in the South Bronx.
What kind of drums did you use in your first drum kit?
[Big long laugh] There was no name on the drum set! But I was so happy I didn’t care. My mom, she got what she could afford to get.
Moms are real good for that sort of thing, making something outta nothing. [both laugh] What kind of drums do you use now?
Now I like to use Yamaha mostly. When I play electronic drums I use Roland a lot.
What were some obstacles you faced coming up in the industry as a woman of color?
A lot of financial struggles growing up. And in the industry, you’re trying to come up in a place that’s male dominated and sometimes it’s hard to be taken seriously, even if you’re just as good as anybody else. Playing the drums had always been a male dominated field, which is why I’m glad Tom Tom exists.
You talked about finances being a challenge. You all released a really hilariously titled album Sample Credits Don’t Pay the Bills. What do you think about your own musical influence and being compensated for that?
[laughs] Well and the thing is, about that Sample Credits album is that we were seeing all these people love our music and not know it was even us! [laughs even harder]. But it’s still pretty cool. One time in Paris after a show this male drummer walked up to me and told me, “I’m playing the drums because of you.” I couldn’t believe it! He was so serious. I was stunned. It’s times like that that make it alright I guess.
Who did you turn to for support when things got hard?
My mother Helen Scroggins. Always. She was the one who told us to play and got us started up and everything. She’s not with us anymore, she passed in 2001.
I’m sorry to hear that. She must have been a really cool lady to let you guys get weird and experimental together.
She really really was.
Do you have any advice for young women drummers coming up now, especially young women of color?
I say practice, practice, practice and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t play. Start on the high hat and everything else will fall into place. And as far as young women of color, I think drums are drums. It doesn’t matter who’s behind them. The drums come from the soul and the mind and the heart and the spirit. Just go out there and beat the drums. Hey, do you play?
Not really, but I guess I should?
Answer: Yeah girl! If music makes you this happy, you should be making it I think, and that goes for everybody!
By Jade Fair
Photos for Tom Tom Magazine by Bex Wade