Bill Laswell (born February 12, 1955, Salem, Illinois, and raised in Albion, Michigan) is an American bassist, producer and record label owner.
Laswell ranks among the most prolific of modern musicians, being involved in hundreds of recordings with many collaborators from all over the world. Laswell's music draws upon many different genres, most notably funk, various world music, jazz, dub and ambient styles. He has also played or produced music from the noisier, more aggressive end of the rock spectrum, such as hardcore punk and metal.
According to music critic Chris Brazier, "Laswell's pet concept is 'collision music' which involves bringing together musicians from wildly divergent but complementary spheres and seeing what comes out." The credo of one record label run by Laswell, and which typifies much of his work, is "Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted." Though projects arranged by Laswell may be credited under the same name and often feature the same roster of musicians, the styles and themes explored on different albums can vary dramatically: Material began as a noisy dance music project, but subsequent releases have been centered on hip hop, jazz, or backing spoken word readings by beat generation icon William S. Burroughs. Similarly, most versions of Praxis have featured guitarist Buckethead, but have explored different permutations with each new album.
Though some artists have chafed against Laswell's distinctive recording and production style (most noticeably some of his for-hire production gigs including Motörhead, Swans and White Zombie) many other collaborations, such as with pianist Herbie Hancock and singer Iggy Pop have been lengthier and recurring. He has also worked extensively with his wife, Ethiopian singer Gigi.
Though starting out as a guitar player, he soon switched to bass. Laswell got his earliest professional experience as a bassist with funk groups in and around Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan. He often would see shows in Detroit that put together acts such as Iggy and the Stooges (he would work with Pop throughout his career starting in the mid-1980s), MC5 and Funkadelic (many of whose members are part of his stable of musicians).
Seeing these differing styles of music in his frequent trips to Detroit, as well as being rooted in the African-American music that he grew up immersed in, have clearly had an influence on Laswell's music. His exposure to jazz musicians like John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and particularly Miles Davis' electric experiments of the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, have also clearly had an impact on his thinking. Laswell's refusal to pigeon-hole himself, his music, or even the people he works with is arguably his greatest asset as a musician and producer.
Move to New York:
In the late 1970s Laswell made the move to New York City, immersing himself in the thriving New York scene. He moved into famed producer Giorgio Gomelsky's loft and became part of a group of musicians that would eventually become the first (and only even remotely consistent) incarnation of Material.
Aside from Laswell's first known recording on one side of a Michael Blaise and Cheater 7" called Scoring Power in 1978, Laswell and Material became the backing band for Daevid Allen and New York Gong, appearing on some recordings and embarking on a small tour. Material, primarily consisting of Laswell, keyboardist Michael Beinhorn and drummer Fred Maher, also cut a number of 12" releases for Red Records and others. They were usually supplemented by guitarists, notably either Cliff Cultreri and occasionally Robert Quine. Living in the East Village also put Laswell at the center of a group of musicians both up and coming such as John Zorn and established, such as Fred Frith and Brian Eno. His persistence in asking Eno to work with him paid off in the form of contributions to Eno and David Byrne's album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts as well as Eno's own On Land. Brian Eno also contributed a song to the Material album, One Down.
Within a few years of moving to New York, Laswell founded a recording studio with producer/engineer Martin Bisi (of later indie rock renown) and hooked up with Jean Karakos and his fledgling label Celluloid Records. Under the Material moniker (now also a production unit consisting of Laswell and Beinhorn - Maher being long gone - and by 1984 consisting solely of Laswell) Laswell became the de facto house producer for Celluloid until the sale of the label in the later 1980s. During this fruitful time in the early to mid-1980s, Laswell was able to record some of his Material excursions (which ran the gamut from experimental jazz/funk to pop and R&B, featuring everyone from avant-jazz figures Henry Threadgill and Sonny Sharrock to Archie Shepp and pop star Whitney Houston) as well as projects such as Massacre, with Fred Frith and Fred Maher.
His association with Celluloid allowed some of his first forays into this so-called "collision music" - the term was coined for Laswell by the British writer Chris May, then editor of Black Music & Jazz Review and later a Celluloid staff member - and forays into world music. Recordings with The Golden Palominos and production on albums by Shango, Toure Kunda and Fela Kuti all appeared on the label. Celluloid also released a slew of 12" devoted to Hip-Hop, becoming a precursor to the popularity the form enjoyed starting in the mid-1980s. Fab 5 Freddy, Phase II and Afrika Bambaataa all appeared on the label. Criminally forgotten, Laswell also put together the very successful 12" World Destruction which paired PiL's John Lydon with Afrika Bambaataa - years before the Run-D.M.C./Aerosmith collaboration broke down the rock/hip-hop barrier. 1982 also saw Laswell's solo debut, Baselines.
Also recording a Laswell-helmed solo album for Celluloid was Ginger Baker, whom Laswell coaxed out of semi-retirement, giving the drummer's career a new boost. He likewise brought Sonny Sharrock out of semi-retirement and produced some of the guitarist's most acclaimed recordings, starting with the solo LP Guitar.
Laswell's artistic and commercial breakthrough came via jazz icon Herbie Hancock's Future Shock album (1983); Laswell produced the album, played bass on all the songs, and co-wrote most of the material. Its track "Rockit" has frequently been regarded as a pivotal moment in the influence of hip hop and turntablism (via Grand Mixer D.ST). The track was the first hit song to feature turntable scratching. The collaboration has led to three other albums by Herbie Hancock, as well as numerous Hancock appearances on Laswell productions through the early 2000s.
Concurrent to and post-Celluloid, Laswell became a hot producer in demand, due to the success of Hancock's "Rockit". The often lucrative pay-to-produce nature of some of these projects helped fund much of Laswell's work.
The remainder of the 1980s saw Laswell produce albums for people like Sly and Robbie (whom Laswell continues to work with) Mick Jagger, PiL, Motörhead, Ramones, Iggy Pop and Yoko Ono. Many of these projects afforded Laswell the opportunity to bring in some of his normal working crew to record on more mainstream records. Sly and Robbie enlisted him to produce their 1985 album Language Barrier and 1987 album Rhythm Killers. PiL's 1986 release Album (later CD) has no notes on who performed, but over time, various people have confirmed that no PiL personnel other than singer John Lydon were involved, while some of the musicians included drummers Tony Williams and Ginger Baker, bassists Jonas Hellborg and Laswell himself, guitarist Steve Vai and others. Lydon claims that Miles Davis actually recorded parts for the album which were never used.
Laswell has stated in numerous interviews that he met with Davis a number of times and discussed working together, but busy schedules kept them from arranging such a recording before Davis' death, though Laswell's chief engineer reports an unreleased Davis recording session from 1986.
1986 saw the formation of Last Exit. Laswell and Sonny Sharrock co-founded the metal and hardcore punk-flavored free jazz supergroup along with drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and saxophone player Peter Brötzmann. Aside from one album that Laswell cobbled together in-studio, the band was primarily a live one. The group showed up at gigs and played wild sets with no rehearsal. The first time the four members played together was on stage at their first show.
Greenpoint Studios, Axiom Records and the 1990s:
1990 marked a watershed year in Laswell's control and ability to produce high-quality recordings controlled by himself. In addition to purchasing his own studio (Greenpoint Studio in Brooklyn), Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records and longtime Laswell booster, gave Laswell the opportunity to begin a new label with the backing of Island Records. Thus, Axiom Records was born.
Axiom played the "Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted" credo to its fullest. With a sizable budget and minimal interference from Island executives, Laswell had the means to make arguably some of the most important music of his career. In addition to albums by Material that featured players ranging from Sly and Robbie, William S. Burroughs, Wayne Shorter, Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell, he produced and released albums by drummer and Ornette Coleman acolyte Ronald Shannon Jackson, Sonny Sharrock (featuring Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones), Laswell mainstay Nicky Skopelitis, Last Poets' Umar Bin Hassan, and Ginger Baker.
Axiom also released a slew of well-produced recordings from musicians around the world. Among the studio-based albums, Palestinian oud and violin prodigy Simon Shaheen recorded an album of music by Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Gambian virtuoso Foday Musa Suso recorded an album of futuristic dance music featuring his electric Kora, and Turkish saz master Talip Özkan recorded an album. The real coup was in the series of pristine field recordings that Axiom allowed Laswell the ability to produce. A major-league budget and new, more portable recording technology gave rise to recordings by the Master Musicians of Jajouka (done in their village in the Rif Mountains), Mandinka and Fulani music (recorded at Suso's family compound in the Gambia) and Gnawa music from Morocco.
The most successful project and one of the few still in print on Axiom - where the first release was produced, was Praxis. Originally the moniker that an experimental Celluloid 12" by Laswell was released under in 1984, Praxis now became a full-fledged band, featuring enigmatic guitarist Buckethead. The release, Transmutation featured Buckethead, drummer Brain (whom Laswell worked with previously with the Limbomaniacs), Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins and Af Next Man Flip (Afrika Baby Bam from the Jungle Brothers). The album was a raucous blend of funk grooves and metal riffs, overseen with many tracks co-written by Laswell. The project has spawned other releases, never with the same line-up twice, generally consisting of the core trio of Buckethead, Brain and Laswell supplemented by others.
1994/1995 saw a bit of a slow-down in Axiom's output, but a number of genre-shattering 2-CD compilation sets were released. Axiom Funk's Funkcronomicon saw previously released tracks by Praxis and Nicky Skopelitis paired with a host of tracks mainly featuring various members of the Parliament-Funkadelic crew. George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell and the last recordings of Eddie Hazel are featured prominently. The album also features contributions from Last Poets' Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole as well as Torture (now Sensational) and DXT (formerly D.ST). Axiom Dub was another compilation featuring tracks in a new-skool dub style from Laswell along with The Orb, Jah Wobble, Sly and Robbie, Mad Professor, Techno Animal, the WordSound crew, WE and others. Laswell also remixed the whole of the Axiom catalog into a 2-disc ambient mix called Axiom Ambient, subtly blending seemingly disparate tracks from the catalog into a seamless in-the-mix translation. Laswell released some of the music recorded in those sessions as a sample library for other musicians to use as raw material when making recordings, on a CD he titled Sample Material - International Free Zone.
The 1990s also saw a number of other labels owned by or thoroughly associated with Laswell, come and go. The most prolific of these was Subharmonic, conceived by Laswell and ex-Celluloid A&R Robert Soares. Though not owned by Laswell, the label was essentially a release house for his projects, most of which fell into the ambient or ambient-dub categories. The label also licensed a few releases from European labels for American re-release, notably Psychonavigation (with Pete Namlook) and Cymatic Scan (with Tetsu Inoue) from Pete Namlook's FAX label, and Somnific Flux (with Mick Harris - there as MJ Harris) and Cold Summer (by Lull - a Mick Harris project) from the Sentrax label. Other collaborators included Jonah Sharp and Terre Thaemlitz. The label also released albums from Painkiller, Praxis and Laswell's new project, Divination, an ambient dub project (first appearing almost as a project title, and then an umbrella moniker for releases of ambient compilations). Additionally, a sub-label called Strata was created containing five releases mostly in what could be deemed a more experimental dub/noise/ambient vein. Each of these releases (Death Cube K, Cypher 7, Azonic and two under his alias Automaton) came housed in a solid black jewel case with the name of the project and album title printed on the front.
Three other short-lived labels were also created around the time of the demise of the Subharmonic deal. One was Meta, which was intended to be a spoken word label. The second label, Submeta, managed four releases before folding. Meta (co-created by Janet Rienstra) released only one album, Baptism of Solitude, - of Paul Bowles reading excerpts from his work over soundscapes by Laswell. Meta would appear periodically again, distributed by other labels, over the next few years until it came back in full as its own entity as a spiritual/yogic label run by Janet Rienstra, though Laswell still heavily figures in Meta's output. The third label, Black Arc, was created as an associated label of Rykodisc, focusing on "Black Rock, Cyber Funk and Future Blues", according to a released sampler. The label featured a number of P-Funk alumni on most of the albums, as well as releasing albums by Parliament-Funkadelic members Bootsy Collins (under his Zillatron moniker), Bernie Worrell (Japan-only), Mutiny (Jerome Brailey) and Billy Bass.
Always one to be courting controversy due to his alleged radical treatment of music, Laswell released two albums of remixes from dead artists - Bob Marley's Dreams of Freedom on Axiom and Miles Davis Panthalassa. The first contained airy, ambient dub translations of some of Marley's Island catalog, largely sans Marley's voice. Chris Blackwell, largely the man responsible for bringing Marley to the masses in the 1970s, requested the album as part of a planned series of remix albums by various producers who were rooted in the reggae/dub tradition. Blackwell's departure from Island killed any further albums.
For Panthalassa, Laswell took the tapes from Miles' "electric period" and re-imagined them, the impetus for the project being that the original releases were just mixes made by Teo Macero from long in-studio sessions. Nothing originally released was necessarily exactly what was done in the studio, but rather a cut-up and remix to begin with. Needless to say, critic and fan responses varied wildly, with Laswell and Macero conducting a public feud in the media.
The late 1990s saw two other major changes. As noted before, Chris Blackwell left Island Records. Although he took the Axiom imprint with him to his new Palm Pictures label, the back catalog stayed with Island. Many of the albums are now out of print, and efforts to obtain master recordings and new distribution have been unsuccessful. The other change came in the form of studio space. Laswell, seeing that Greenpoint had turned into a sort of living space for hangers-on, moved his studio to West Orange, New Jersey, calling it Orange Music Sound Studios.
With Palm Pictures slowly moving into film and away from music with the changing landscape of the industry, Laswell lost a major supporter of his more high-concept albums, as well as the Axiom imprint. Under Palm's umbrella, though, four highly regarded albums and a DVD set were released. Of those releases there was a DVD set, a studio release and a live 2-disc set from Tabla Beat Science, a project that revolves somewhat around the tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, son of the late Alla Rakha. The studio release also featured Karsh Kale, Trilok Gurtu, Ustad Sultan Khan and Talvin Singh. This very popular and well-received grouping has become a primarily live project playing everywhere from the US to Beirut to Japan over the years. The core of Laswell, Kale, Kahn and Hussain are usually supplemented by other musicians, which have included at various times Gigi, DJ Disk, Serj Tankian from System of a Down, Sussan Deyhim, visual artist Petulia Mattioli, and others. 2001 saw the release of the album Life Space Death with Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, Laswell on bass, guitar and keyboards and words by the 14th Dalai Lama, interviewed by Kondo.
At the request of Chris Blackwell, 2001 also had Laswell overseeing the debut release of Ethiopian singer Gigi for Palm Pictures. Supplementing Gigi's multilingual, Ethiopian-rooted vocals with a vast array of well-respected musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Laswell himself, they created a strong release that was very well received. Laswell and Gigi became romantically involved and were later married. They have a son, Aman Laswell, who has accompanied his parents with vocals. Gigi has figured in a number of her husband's releases and concerts over the years, and he has produced further outings by her such as her Abyssinia Infinite grouping and her second album, a solo release for Palm, Gold & Wax.
1999 also saw the first release on Laswell's new label, called Innerythmic (Eraldo Bernocchi and Toshinori Kondo's Charged project). After a brief inactive period, the label restarted in earnest in 2001, releasing over the next few years a slew of innovative albums from the likes of Nicky Skopelitis/Raoul Björkenheim, James Blood Ulmer, Shin Terai and Gonervill, among others. Innerhythmic also released a live Praxis recording and re-issued some of the Black Arc releases from the 1990s including Zillatron, The Last Poets' Holy Terror and Buddy Miles' Hell & Back. The label tends to go through extended periods of inactivity but still releases albums here and there, the next planned release being a studio recording featuring Raoul Björkenheim, Bill Laswell and Morgan Ågren anticipated in the summer of 2011 according to Björkenheim's website.
Though touching on the realm of drum and bass in the 1990s with his Oscillations releases and the compilation Tetragramaton: Submerged - conceived along with Soares - the last few years have seen Laswell step up his work in this area with Soares as a collaborator in concept/A&R for drum & bass artist development. Starting with Brutal Calling, a hard drum 'n' bass release with Ohm Resistance label owner Submerged (Kurt Gluck), a series of releases and live dates have cropped up. Laswell's new project in this vein is Method of Defiance (the actual Method of Defiance name and the original idea of a futurist, cyborg drum 'n' bass driven group consisting of laptops breakbeat artists, electric instrumentalists and trumpeter Graham Haynes was conceived by Soares). The first release focused on the core of Laswell and Submerged once again, entitled The only way to go is down, featuring photos of Soares, with contributions from Toshinori Kondo and drummer Guy Licata. The second release under the moniker, though, was more of a compilation-style project, though still focusing on drum 'n' bass. Inamorata stretched the concept out, pairing Laswell's bass with a different combination of respected jazz and world musicians and drum 'n' bass producers linked to Soares on each track. Artists including Herbie Hancock, John Zorn, Pharoah Sanders, Nils Petter Molvaer, Toshinori Kondo and Buckethead were paired with drum 'n' bass producers including AMIT, Paradox, Submerged, Future Prophecies, Karsh Kale, Evol Intent, SPL, Outrage, Fanu, and Corrupt Souls. To that end, Laswell's last collaboration with Soares was a full-on recording with Finnish drum 'n' bass maestro Fanu on Ohm Resistance and Karl Records, entitled Lodge, which includes contributions from Molvaer and Bernie Worrell amongst others. After collaborating with Laswell for 15 years, Soares left the crew in 2008. The concept of the group has once again morphed into a full band concept. In 2009, Rare Noise Records released Live in Nihon, which showcased this new direction/grouping. The group now consisted of Laswell, Guy Licata, Dr. Israel, Toshinori Kondo and Bernie Worrell.
Along with frequent live dates around the world with Method of Defiance, Material, Painkiller and the re-formed in the late 1990s Massacre (with This Heat's Charles Hayward now in the drum chair) Laswell still makes numerous trips to Japan each year for various recordings and live dates, including his ongoing Tokyo Rotation mini-festivals at the Shinjuku Pit-Inn, which is now a yearly occurrence. In addition to Tokyo Rotation being an actual mini-festival, the moniker has been used as a sort of umbrella to include general operations revolving around activities in Japan, as witnessed by the usage of Tokyo Rotation Presents in relation to the website's announcement of other gigs outside the Pit Inn shows as well being noted on Method of Defiance's release Nihon.
In 2013, Laswell was joined by Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer, Chad Smith and jazz musician, Jon Batiste to form a unique group who came together to score a film that had yet to be written and will never be made. The Process is due for release on November 4, 2014.
In 2010, Laswell created his newest label, M.O.D. Technologies, in partnership with Giacomo Bruzzo of Rare Noise. The label is centered on the activities of the principals of the now-solidified Method of Defiance lineup, and is intended to be one of Laswell's main creative vehicles moving forward, being seen as the successor to his Axiom label.
The label kicked off with the release of three albums toward the end of 2010: two from Method of Defiance - Jahbulon (a reggae/dancehall/vocal affair featuring Hawk and Dr. Israel) and the instrumental album Incunabula, which features Herbie Hancock on one track and DJ Krush throughout. The third release was a new live album from Gigi w/Material entitled Mesgana Ethiopia. In 2011, the label released an album by Praxis (a US/European version of the Profanation album, with bonus tracks), as well as a new collaboration with Lee "Scratch" Perry featuring Gigi, Dr. Israel, Hawk, Sly Dunbar, Bernie Worrell, TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and more, in May in the US. A remix album focusing on Method of Defiance tracks from Jahbulon and Incunabula, with new mixes by Mad Professor, Laswell, Scientist and more, came out in October. 2012 saw a further movement of many of Laswell's projects to the M.O.D. Technologies umbrella. In addition to Garrison Hawk's album Survive released on April 17, 2012 will see the first in an intended batch of releases that focus on Ethiopian music and artists. The first project was Jano, a young rock band that was the first band recorded in Addis Ababa at the new studio that Laswell built. More is promised soon, including a compilation of Ethiopian music paired with a movie shot by Skiz Fernando. After a slight re-tooling of the label structure, Producer Yoko Yamabe came aboard to help oversee the label. 2013 brought new releases from Laswell himself ("Tuwaqachi" - a digital only re-imagining of the soundtrack for the seminal film "Koyaanisqatsi" approved by the director), a new Method of Defiance release ("Nahariama" under the expanded 4th Column grouping) and legendary keyboard master Bernie Worrell's first ever solo acoustic piano release ("Elevation: The Upper Air").
In April 2014 in conjunction with the label, Laswell curated a week of shows at John Zorn's club, The Stone, in lower Manhattan. Amongst the shows were duets with Wadada Leo Smith and Milford Graves as well as performances by Method of Defiance featuring the legendary kora player Foday Musa Suso. Following these shows, it was announced through MOD Technologies Facebook and Twitter pages that an offshoot label would be commencing in the summer of 2014 called MOD Technologies Digital: The Incunabula Series. Focusing on "Documents as far back as the early '80s up to the present time. Moments seldom heard or experienced by anyone." The first releases will be the two aforementioned duet shows from The Stone.
Even though many Laswell-produced albums have featured dozens of musicians, he tends to work with a small group of collaborators who appear on most of his recordings. Such musicians include bassists Jah Wobble, Jonas Hellborg and Bootsy Collins; guitarists Buckethead and Nicky Skopelitis; keyboardists Jeff Bova and Bernie Worrell; and percussionists Aïyb Dieng and Karsh Kale. Laswell has also frequently worked with musicians from the sprawling P-Funk camp.
In addition, Laswell has relied on the expertise of a small number of engineers over the years. Robert Musso (a producer, musician and label-owner in his own right) has been Laswell's chief engineer for close to 25 years. Oz Fritz has occasionally filled the role as well over almost the same time period, though (particularly in the last few years after a move to the West Coast) Fritz is usually Laswell's live engineer of choice, known for his stellar live mixing technique. In addition, a small core of assistants have come through over time, the most recent (and longest serving) being James Dellatacoma since 2000.
Over the years, Laswell has been an in-demand remixer and purveyor of what is usually noted as "mix translation". Remixes (released and unreleased) have been done for artists including Sting, Nine Inch Nails, Almamegretta, Scorn, Ozzy Osbourne, and Tori Amos. In addition, he is often hired for his skills at the board doing straight mixes of albums. In recent years he has done much work in this area for various projects on John Zorn's Tzadik record label.
In 2005, Laswell was invited to appear on the PBS series Soundstage. The show featured a host of the musicians he has played with over the years including incarnations of his Praxis and Tabla Beat Science projects. In addition to some of the core performers from these projects, Pharoah Sanders, Foday Musa Suso, Bootsy Collins, Catfish Collins and many others participated. Though Laswell mixed the show in 5.1 surround sound, to date no DVD or official recording has been released. The hour-long aired version (part of a much longer show) has popped up on file-sharing sites.
Laswell has also participated on a collaboration with Sony Creative Software on a box set Loop Library called The Bill Laswell Collection.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license