MA: »Ladies and Gentlemen of the Red Bull Music Academy, Cape Town 2003, term two, this here is the video for a song you might know or you might have heard referenced at other places. It’s a song called ‘Cavern‘ by a group called Liquid Liquid. I have a core member of Liquid Liquid here on the couch today. So everybody, please welcome Sal Principato. Why don’t you grab that microphone and tell them who did this video?«
Sal Principato: »Alright, this video actually was done in 1927 by an animator called Oskar Fischinger and I don’t know if you know the history of animation. He was the guy behind the concept of ‘Fantasia’. [Walt] Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ and this video is called ‘When The World Got Drunk’. One of the guys from Liquid Liquid went out to L.A., California, to talk to his widow, like his 100 years old widow, to get the permission to use this for ‘Cavern’. She gave us [the permission], so it’s all straight up. And we are streaming it off the web, that’s why the sound and everything is a little twisted.«
RBMA: »Was this video ever released to television or video channels?«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, MTV did it a bunch [of times]. And I forgot who it was, someone wanted to use it for commercial purposes. As I said, we got the permission to use it for promotional purposes, but not commercial purposes. We got stopped from doing that. It’s like, that’s it whenever you create anything, whenever you put anything out there, you better check all your legal stuff to make sure that you not giving all away. Signing all your rights for all your life, only getting limited use. You know, we only got limited use of the video and it’s kind of stopping us from distributing it further out there.«
RBMA: »It’s understandable though, since it is someone else’s video work.«
Sal Principato: »Absolutely. You know, we pay for it, too. We pay for using it. And I mean, if I was his widow, this Oskar’s [Fischinger] widow, I would say: ‘Hey look, a whole new generation could be exposed to his work.’ I mean, it works both ways. Which we can talk about: people using ‘Cavern’, about samples.«
RBMA: »It’s funny that we are talking about that. Particularly with this song. Let’s actually switch the audio to a full res[olution] version. So this song ended up on WBLS?«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, WBLS. All the urban contemporary stations in New York at the time. And also in the heavy duty dance clubs back in the early 80’s in New York: the Paradise Garage, the Fun House, the Roxy, Afrika Bambaataa, Larry Levan, you know, the dance scene there at that time was like very serious. People took their dances in the club scene very seriously. And somehow though we considered ourselves a rock band, it was actually the break dancing scene, the urban dance scene, that really embraced our stuff. And which lead to the sampling and everything else that followed.«
RBMA: »It’s actually kind of funny. When you hear this song, if you don’t know Liquid Liquid, you probably think of a song called ‘White Lines’, which actually takes a line from this song that, I believe is “slipping into another phenomenon” [, a line of Liquid Liquid’s ‘Cavern’], right?«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, right.«
RBMA: »…and turns into “something like a phenomenon”, which is a Hip Hop phrase you have heard years ago again and again. I think it was like two years ago that was a LL Cool J single. But, you know, that’s like the main refrain. But you’re actually listening to ‘White Lines’. It is not even by Grandmaster Flash, it was like Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, or something. You know, it’s getting into a real grey area, nit-picking stuff. It’s not actually sampled in the version that’s on Sugarhill [Records], the Grandmaster version, because they had this band called Tackhead and I think that’s how they thought how they could get around the copyright stuff. You kind of couldn’t mess with Sugarhill, they had some mafia connections, to my knowledge.«
Sal Principato: »Who said that (laughing)?«
RBMA: »Rumors I’ve heard, things I’ve read (both smiling). Anyway, they had their band replaying that and actually you might want to know that band that replayed it. If you are listening to it, it’s definitely a crappier version as far as the production and whatnot. They lifted the tones up and I think they made it a little bit more like a radio version.«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, it’s more accessible, their version. I think it lacks a certain bottom.«
RBMA: »Yes. We should actually go back to the point of: how did this song cross over to this crowd. You know, this is pretty unique. It’s like a band coming from…? So let’s rewind to before there was ‘Liquid Liquid’.«
Sal Principato: »Basically, we come out of the Punk Rock scene of the 70’s. And an aesthetic of the Punk Rock thing was: whatever else you were doing, whether you were chef, whether you were a visual artist, whether you were an athlete, you seemed to form a band. You seemed to get into music. Music seemed to be the thing to express yourself through. It was very much a do-it-yourself aesthetic. You weren’t following any template.
Actually, you would pick up an instrument and start playing. And when you learned that instrument, you would put it down and pick up another one. Because knowing how to play an instrument really well, was not looked at as a good thing. Because it stands for creativity and innovation. So we come out of that aesthetic and then as we hit the 80’s, coming on and a whole new thing started coming into play.«
RBMA: »So the first Liquid Liquid record is actually, what? ‘Liquid Attack’ or something?«
Sal Principato: »No, no, it’s ‘Liquid Liquid’. I mean, I had a few manifestations self-produced like seven inch 45’s and stuff like that. When we were kind of a Punk band, we called ourselves Liquid Idiot and played CBGB’s back in the day and all that. But then we started getting the groove on, we started getting the big beat. Because the big beat was in the air. There was all this kind of innovation going on uptown, downtown. And that’s the other point, too: I mean, there was a convergence, there was a Hip Hop scene and a downtown Dance Rock scene. Back then everything seemed fresher and newer. (…). I don’t know if they were more open, but there was a feeling, that there was time to see what we can learn from each other.
But it wasn’t like this ‘big conscious thing’. People were just doing their thing. We were on the street. I mean, remember too, this was before the video age and that changed everything. Because that illustrated how things were supposed to be. Before then you would go and see a live show to see how things supposed to look. And how they’re supposed to feel. So there was a whole different texture. And it allowed you to be a little more quirky. People were a little more tolerant of your quirkyness. Mistakes weren’t bad. Mistakes were possibly a lot of people’s only spontaneous moments. So they were looked upon as interesting.«
RBMA: »It’s also important to think about it as the time before Hip Hop was really on record. The time of the Liquid Liquid records is just [when] the dawn of Hip Hop [was] coming onto record. You know, it had been maybe in parks, in nightclubs. But it actually hadn’t been solidified yet. It was much more of an open thing. So what was like the first Hip Hop stuff that you saw?«
Sal Principato: »First Hip Hop stuff I heard was Kurtis Blow’s ‘The Breaks’. We were really into that jam.«
Sal Principato: »But the real thing that I loved so much, which really coloured my perception of Grandmaster Flash, eventually, you know, using our tracks, there was this track they had called ‘Supperrappin Nr. 2’. It’s played live. The Sugarhill house band played that, there were no samples in it. This was pre-sampling, too. Another thing: this is all pre-sampling, this is pre-video.
This is ancient history, really. But, they played this wicked, wicked groove. You had the five of them rapping over there. (starts to rap) “…introducing the crew, you got to see to believe, we are one, two, three, four, five MC’s (laughs)”. (…). We were feeling the warmth [of Hip Hop]. There was a warmth in the music, too. In 1982 we tried to do this show. It was…what’s his name? He produced some of the Beastie Boys and Johnny Cash?«
RBMA: »Oh, Rick Rubin.«
Sal Principato: »Ah, Rick Rubin, all right. Rick Rubin was a student at the NYU at the time. And he comes to our manager. We had this underground label called 99 Records on McDougall Street in the village. And we had this guy, Ed Bahlman; he was a producer and everything like that. And he had a record shop. He was the hip underground guy at that time. And Rick Rubin goes to Ed, he says: “I want to put on a show, I want to do something with your acts.” And so we came up with this concept, uptown meets downtown, we had the Treacherous Three, (rapping) “Rock the body body, Rock the body body.” They had that jam at the time.
And we had this Punk hardcore band at this time and we had Liquid Liquid, which was like the groove music. The link, like the connection between hardcore Punk and Hip Hop that was going on. And we rented this hotel in midtown Manhattan, the Diplomat Hotel. Man, I was so psyched about this. It didn’t seem like no one ever did this. No one even thought about this stuff. That Hip Hop and Rock could get together and do something. Well, (laughs) it was a beautiful show, but it wasn’t as well attended, as we wanted it to be. And, at that time I got really discouraged. It was like ‘what the fuck!’, you know?
But it was the start of something. It was like the opening salve of that cross connection. But ultimately it wasn’t us who initiated it. Like I said. It was amazing. It was the DJ’s. It was Afrika Bambaataa, you know Afrika Islam, Larry Levan and a host of others. Some I know, some I don’t know. But our jam started appearing in master mixes and WBLS. And also our manager, too, going up to the offices of BLS net. That was the days of PLO [the Palestinian Liberation Front] was still in effect and stuff. But things started happening. It started appearing in very unlikely places.«
RBMA: »But let’s talk about coming right out of the Punk scene. What was it like when you first heard ‘Second Edition’?«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. Well, first see, that thing was in the air. It was not only that ‘Second Edition’; it was [P.I.L.] ‘Flowers Of Romance’, too. Let me first refer to ‘Flowers of Romance’. Because, at the time Liquid Liquid had songs, that were just drums. You know, drums, or drums and bells, drums and sticks. I always kind of looked at it [as if] we were just playing sticks and stones, basically. So anyway, we had this very minimalist percussive thing.
And then, I heard Public Image, doing like ‘flowers’ over that song. And then Adam Ant, all these people using the ‘Burundi’ beat from Africa and stuff like that. And it was like ‘damn!’ Right now we are with an underground New York label. These people had access. Same thing with David Byrne. He was doing all these experimentations. And it was all good. But it was like, how come these guys could get it out that fast? We’ve been working on this for three or four years and no one’s heard our shit. And these guys probably thought about it last week and they were already out there with that.’ And it was like ‘Aaaahhh!’ (laughs).«
RBMA: »Yeah, so the first Liquid Liquid record, it’s a…«
Sal Principato: »1980, that was. And that was before ‘Second Edition’.«
Sal Principato: »Yes, it was.«
Participant: »You were saying that you consider yourselves a Rock band. And then you tracks attend on all the mixes and, you know? You had support from the breakers and stuff. Did you pen any songs after that at all for that scene or become influenced and start changing your stuff for that?«
Sal Principato: »No, no no. That’s against the rules, you know? You just do what you do from your heart. And when you are doing ‘heart’ music (points to his heart), you can’t be… Well, let me put it this way: the inspiration for a song or for any piece of art should solely come from within you, for you. Or just speaking to someone you love. But, when you go into the production stage of it, then you have to target your audience. That’s when you think of, you know: ‘who is it that is gonna possibly care about this and how should I present it to them?’
But the original spark of inspiration, your groove or your melody or your catchy vocal line, it’s just got to be for you or the one you love (points to his heart). There are no other considerations. Anything else is just commercialism, which is crap. In a certain respect, in an artistic sense. I don’t know, everybody is trying to make a living. If you are just trying to put [out] your product, fine. You could do it, the way you want. If you are trying to make art, it’s got to come from here (points to his heart again).«
RBMA: »Let’s check out some of the stuff.«
(music: Liquid Liquid ‘unknown title’)
Sal Principato: »Now, just by the way, this is recorded live in 1980 at this club called ‘Harass’. And that’s another interesting movement that started happening. Before that there was only, for a downtown Rock band, there was only CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City to play at. And then, all of a sudden, these so-called Rock disco’s opened up. They were more based on like the Disco era.
With the mirror balls (waving his hand in circles) but they were playing edgy Rock music. A Certain Ratio or The Slits from England or all the New York bands. And this was recorded live in 1980 at that club Harass. We are now presently doing a studio version of this with the label DFA in New York. So we going to do a club mix of this now. But this one is just done on a little type one cassette, basically. All bells, all drums.«
RBMA: »What kind of percussion were you guys using? This is a group of four people?«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, that was four guys, making that noise. We were, in that song, it was a home made go-go bell. (singing) ‘Ding ding dong da ding ding dong’. There was an alarm bell. Like an alarm bell on a stand being tracked with a stick. And then there was Dennis playing a marimba. As you heard, like the ‘dancing skeleton’ sound and then there was just a trap drum.
So that’s an acoustic song. It got some club play back in the day. And back in the day, just like kind of now, there was electronic sequencing, which just started to come into fashion. And there was this kind of electro sound and stuff. So you would hear all these keyboard synthesizers and sequencers and stuff. And then in the distance you’d hear (singing) ‘bing bing bing, bing bing, boom’. And you’d hear our acoustic songs being played in a club. And I’d be amazed, but people just started dancing to it, you know.«
(music: Liquid Liquid ‘unknown title’)
RBMA: »On to the second record. Here is a studio record.«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, but the production of this is so flat (smiling). It’s unbelievable. We were just making it up as we went along, you know.«
RBMA: »How much of an influence was African music?«
Sal Principato: »Well, at that time we were absorbing all kinds of ‘roots’ music. Whenever we heard something rootsy or authentic, we got all excited about it. But I can’t say it was an influence, because rhythm is in all of us and we were just bringing our own rhythm. We weren’t trying to appropriate anybody else’s rhythm. Because, you know there was a little of that being done at that time.
People not digesting their influences and spitting them out. And I feel that at least when we were influenced by something, we totally digested it before we put it out there. So you could say: “Ok, they are pounding on drums, you know, African music, whatever.” But, that’s not an African rhythm.«
RBMA: »No, I hear it actually mostly in the bassline, I think of it kind of like ‘Juju’ at that time.«
Sal Principato: »Really? No, totally unselfconscious.«
RBMA: »This makes me want to jump up.«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, maybe we were listening to Sunny Ade’s ‘Jah Funmi’. (sings ‘Jah, Jah, Jah, Jah Funmi’).«
RBMA: »You were one of the first acts on 99 Records. This label came out of a record store?«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, like I said Ed Bahlman, he had a record store. And that time even his record store was a little bit revolutionary. Because at that time, you couldn’t go into a major record store and listen to what you were buying. You were just buying it and bring it home and see if you liked it or if you heard it before. And he had a thing where he would play records for the people, for the asking. And so for that time it was revolutionary or at least progressive, not revolutionary, progressive.
Let’s put it that way. So his first release was Glenn Branca. And Glenn Branca wrote guitar symphonies. He would have 14 guitarists doing these symphonies. And it was very intense music. And I don’t know why Ed started doing that, but that was his first release. Then there was the Bush Tetras, which was another downtown dance rock beat band, and then ESG, and then us. And then he formed an alliance, with some of the people in England like On-U Records, Adrian Sherwood, the Congos. He did a 12″ with the Congos, the Reggae group.«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, yeah!«
RBMA: »But yeah, this ESG record gets produced by Martin Hannet, giving them the sound that’s and takes this really interesting young group of girls from the South Bronx.«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, they were three sisters, literally sisters from the south Bronx. The drummer, you couldn’t see her over her drumkit. I mean, they were like sixteen years old, between sixteen and nineteen years old. They have this little squeaky sound and stuff. It was sweet. It was really sweet.«
RBMA: »They told me that their mum bought them instruments to keep them off the streets in the south Bronx, to give them something else to do. And they were just listening to James Brown records and try to come up with a cooler rhythm than James Brown. It was their motivation to top James Brown.«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, we used to call it ‘Bubblegum Funk’. We did a show at Knitting Factory in March of this year. And it just went really well. It was really awesome and since then it was all these offers including electronic music festivals.«
RBMA: »And thanks to a crazy lady named Tinku, who had the energy to pull it together, she got Liquid Liquid and ESG at the right time for Detroit to see this. It was probably the most legendary moment of the Movement Festival this year. You had producers [from Detroit], that wouldn’t ever leave their home to go to a club or anything, standing around in the crowd, actually losing it, seeing four guys standing on stage, all hitting different rhythm instruments. Or when you had ESG, who in their current incarnation, had their younger cousins in the group?«
Sal Principato: »Now their children are playing in the group. They’re going to dress in spandex and all that shit.«
RBMA: »It’s a family affair. Have you seen anything that captures the feeling of that time?«
Sal Principato: »Alright. I’ve heard things. It’s interesting enough; there is this whole raft of bands coming up now in New York, like The Rapture and stuff, which take the whole catalogue and the whole vocabulary that we used in the early 80ies. And they’ve updated it and they’ve swallowed it ‘hook, line and sinker’. Like, you’ll hear Pat from The Contortions on guitar, and you’ll hear Liquid Liquid percussion and you’ll hear ESG congas and stuff. But, you know, they evoke that purity, they really do. Just to hear that. ‘Cause, it’s just people doin’ it (smiles), you know, just doin’ it. That’s what reminds me of it.«
Participant: »I’ve been listening a bit to [music from] this era and I just wonder how James Chance and the Contortions kind of fit in. You haven’t talked much about them?«
Sal Principato: »He talked about No Wave. That was definitely with them and DNA, they were part of the No Wave movement. When I came to New York, I arrived in New York in 1979 from California. James Chance at Max’s Kansas City was the first show I ever saw. And he was walking on the tables, because they have big long tables, family style tables at Max’s Kansas City.
And you could walk right off the stage onto the tables. And James Chance walks off the stage and he was just kicking off everybody’s beer (stands up imitating him). ‘Off with those things’, you know. He was very wild, you know? But his thing was based on; he was like the ‘Punk James Brown’. He was trying to do a pretty selfconscious version of James Brown.«
RBMA: »James White and The Blacks!«
Sal Principato: »Yeah, James White and The Blacks. To a certain extent we were a self-contained unit. We weren’t trying to associate ourselves with anybody. And it’s only in retrospect, I think, that it all comes together. At the time it was just everybody doing their thing. And you didn’t really look at yourself as all that related to anybody else. You appreciated what they were doing.
But you said: “Well, that’s Arto Lindsay [guitarist of DNA] doing that and Fab 5 Freddy doing that and we are doing this.” But when you look back on the whole thing, you see a connection. There is a compilation that came out; Soul Jazz Records put out a compilation called ‘New York Noise‘, which has a pretty broad range of all [those styles]. I have it here.«
RBMA: »I would like to go from the times of these early 99 Records and go a little bit further than that to after the Hip Hop thing was stronger in New York. It seems, this record here is really focused, the ‘Optimo’ EP. It’s like a very focused record. There is one song, if you have never heard Liquid Liquid before, that one you just have to hear.«
(music: Liquid Liquid ‘Optimo’)
»That record right there is why I will always cite Liquid Liquid as a major influence.«
Sal Principato: »And just to keep reminding you: that was basically an acoustic song with an electric bass. That was the only electronic thing that had a plug in, in the whole song (smiles).«
RBMA: »It has so much energy and how did you guys, for instance, put together that kind of structure?«
Sal Principato: »Totally organic. I mean probably just sitting around, smoking all afternoon and got the groove going. And then we recorded it the next day and tried to imitate it. This lead to that. And this lead to the other thing. It’s just organic grooves.«
RBMA: »And what about the lyrics, the voice? It seems to me that the voice isn’t trying to tell you a story. It’s just trying to evoke imagery. Quick emotions.«
Sal Principato: »Well, you know the thing, what I consider a great vocalist is to be, is not someone who can sing in twelve octaves. But someone, where you can hear their voice, it opens up a vista. Just a texture of their voice gives you a whole view of life. But not by what they are saying, but just how it feels. And the other thing is, that even back, twenty years ago, it seems life is one big billboard or one big commercial.
Like everybody is trying to dictate your reality, giving you this complete package of how to feel, think, look at yourself, look at others. And so I thought literal meaning should be put in the background and just the pure texture of the voice should be brought out. And not to mention, at the time I was very impressed by Dub Reggae. And not necessarily on that song, but on certain other songs
I was just trying to do dub snippets. I listened to lots of Reggae music at that time and I liked the dub versions more than I liked the regular songs. I felt the vocals in the dub versions said more to me (points to his heart) than (sings) “Ladi da da, da da da.” I would rather hear: “La la la la la. Da da da da da (imitating an echo with his voice)”«
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