99 Records Profile

••• SambaPhoto/Paulo Fridman Getty

99 Records - The Basics:

  • What: Independent record label 99 Records
  • Where: New York City, NY, USA
  • Founded by: Ed Bahlman
  • Founded: 1980
  • Closed: 1984

99 Records Early Years:

99 (which is pronounced "nine-nine" - the name comes from the address where the label was based), was started by Ed Bahlman in a corner of his girlfriend's clothing store in Greenwich Village. She allowed him to use some of her store space to set up a small record store, in which Bahlman stocked UK post punk and reggae imports from then new on the scene labels like Rough Trade and Y Pants, as well as other obscure recordings. The shop became a mecca for musicians and music fans, and Bahlman decided to try and recreate what some of his favorite UK labels were doing in London at the time in New York.

99 was born.

Glen Branca and No Wave:

Now legendary discordant musician and frequent 99 record store customer Glen Branca was 99's first release. It was Branca who really convinced Bahlman to start a record label in the first place, and this 12" - Lesson Number 1 for Electric Guitar/Dissonance - put 99 on the map, is still considered to be a landmark recording and has inspired a host of bands, probably most notably Sonic Youth. (In fact, SY's Lee Renaldo played on the record.) This release is also considered to be one of the first releases in the so-called No Wave movement, which also continues to influence generations of musicians.

ESG and Liquid Liquid:

99 Records was less about sticking with a certain genre of music than it was about providing an avenue of release for good music across genre lines. Two of 99's biggest success stories were the decidedly un-No Wave ESG and Liquid Liquid. ESG was discovered by Bahlman at a talent show, and Tony Wilson of Factory Records, who got them in the studio with Martin Hannett, Joy Division's producer, to record what would become a release for Factory in the UK and 99 in the US. ESG has since become one of the most sampled acts of all times.

Liquid Liquid was also sampled by Sugarhill Records - and it would bring down 99.

The Sugarhill Dispute and The End of 99:

99 was operating during a time of big change in the NY music scene. Two things, not unconnected, were happening. One, hip hop was gaining steam, and while still underground, was quickly becoming "the next big thing." The use of samples also started catching on. Although sampling had happened on a small scale for some time, in the early 1980s, it started to really take hold. Because it was a relatively new phenomena, however, it was a legal gray area. No one really knew who, if anyone, needed to be paid when a sample was used.

Enter Sugarhill Records. Sugarhill was at the forefront of the rap explosion - they are credited with releasing the first ever hit rap record, Rapper's Delight by the Sugarhill Gang - and they were responsible for the rise of a lot of great artists (Grandmaster Flash, Mele Mel), but in addition for a reputation for good music, the label also had a bit of a reputation for bad business practices.

99 found this out the hard way. The hit White Lines (Don't Do It) - a song itself shrouded in mystery and rumors - borrowed a bass line from Liquid Liquid's song Optimo. There are also some lyrical similarities. 99 objected and wanted Sugarhill to pay for using the track, but Sugarhill's position was that they had not sampled Liquid Liquid's version - they had gotten a band to recreate the sound. A judge disagreed and ordered Sugarhill to pay, but they filed bankruptcy and escaped the judgement.

This was the end of 99, and the end of the music business for good for Bahlman.

Many thanks to Optimo for background information.