Slip In And Out Of Phenomenon: the Music of Liquid Liquid

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Here’s a couple jams by the New York post-punk act Liquid Liquid which a friend got me back into recently. Their track “Cavern”, from the Optimo EP, recorded by Don Hunerberg was sampled (actually played by the Sugar Hill house band) on Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”. The original records were pressed in very limited quantities on the 99 label (pronounced “nine-nine” – more on 99 here), and, ironically, this is what effectively killed that record label (read below). Though the pressings were small the impact the music has made is lasting and far reaching.

The first three EPs, plus live material, were reissued in 1997 by Grand Royal (US) and Mo’ Wax (UK). After the collapse of both these labels, Domino Records released the music from all three original 12”s plus extra tracks and early live recordings as Slip In And Out Of Phenomenon in 2008.

Liquid Liquid “Cavern”

Liquid Liquid “Optimo”

Liquid Liquid “Optimo (Optimo remix)”

Liquid Liquid “Optimo (GTA IV Electro-Choc remix)”

About Liquid Liquid:

  • Scott Hartley, Richard McGuire, Salvatore Principato and Dennis Young were the band members.
  • Dennis Young is still active and producing music, and has been remixed by Hot Chip and Tussle. Visit Young’s website here.
  • Richard McGuire is well-established graphic designer with frequent contributions to both The New Yorker magazine, and The New York Times Book Review. Visit McGuire’s website here.
  • Salvatore Principato is active in various electronic music recording projects, as well as DJ’ing professionally around the world. Visit Principato’s website here.

The release of the Optimo EP and death of 99 Records:


This record is what ultimately destroyed 99 Records. This EP was Liquid Liquid’s most accomplished recording so far and ‘Optimo’ and ‘Cavern’ became big club hits. ‘Cavern’ became a huge hit in the newly developing hip hop scene and the 99 shop was inundated with people looking for the record with THAT bassline. It would go on to sell almost 30,000 copies. At this point in time, sampling was a very new phenomenon and no one was really sure what the legal situation was with regards to sampling other people’s records. ‘Cavern’ was such a big hit around New York that summer that it wasn’t long before Sugarhill Records, the first label to commercially exploit hip hop, appropriated the bassline for the backing to Grand Master Flash’s ‘White Lines’. As they were fans, initially Liquid Liquid were delighted that Flash had used ‘Cavern’ but when it became a global hit their attitude changed somewhat. Ed in particular was outraged and contacted Sugarhill to try and get payment. Sugarhill hadn’t actually sampled ‘Cavern’ but had got The Sugarhill Band (who would ironically later become Tackhead, the biggest band on his friend Adrian Sherwood’s On U Sound label) to replay the bassline and also appropriated other elements of the song, right down to Sal’s words (Sal’s “slip in and out out of phenomena” was changed to “something like a phenomenon”). This was when the nightmare began.

Sugarhill were renowned for shady business practices. The raps on their first hit release ‘Rappers Delight’ were stolen from other rappers and they weren’t known for paying out to anyone. Various stories have been told that indicate Ed was threatened and there are tales of Bahlman being ‘taken for a ride in a car’, Sugarhill people intimidating employees and customers at the 99 store and vague mentions of Mafia involvement. Nevertheless, despite intimidation, Bahlman pursued this through legal channels and eventually it came to court. In a case that would set precedents with regard to sampling law, the judge ruled in favour of 99 and Sugarhill were ordered to pay out. Unfortunately, partly due to their shady business practices, Sugarhill didn’t have the money to pay and filed for bankruptcy. This was the final straw for Ed who had put all his energy and money into the case and by all accounts was now a broken man. He decided to get out of the music business and urged all the artists on 99 to do the same. Unfortunately, when Ed left the music business he also left ESG and Liquid Liquid somewhat in the lurch as they had no contracts with him and the rights to their records would remain in limbo for years. As Liquid Liquid were on the verge of imploding anyway, this wasn’t too much of a problem for them but it would cause huge problems for ESG in the years that followed. To this day Ed still fiercely guards the master tapes to all the 99 releases that he regards as his.

The story doesn’t quite end there. Some years later a DJ friend of Richard McGuire’s informed him that Duran Duran had covered ‘White Lines’ so McGuire hired a lawyer and went after them. An out of court settlement was agreed upon with Duran’s lawyers and the Liquids finally got their payment. By this time Ed was long gone and it’s not even known whether he is even aware that justice was finally served. ‘Cavern’ has gone on to become a bona fide hip hop classic and has been used in several films. That bassline is possibly one of the most famous and instantly recognisable in the history of music. For someone who never really considered himself that much of a musician, this is a fact that to this day amazes McGuire.

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