Born William Laswell, February 14, 1950, in Salem, IL; son of an oil businessman. Addresses: Home--New York, NY. Record company--Axiom/Island Records, 400 Lafayette St., 5th floor, New York, NY 10003.
Bill Laswell once said in Down Beat that "good music is just a product of searching for new things. The priority is really to grow and not kill the idea of self-expression, spontaneity, or experimenting with sound and music." As a bassist and producer, Laswell has pursued "good music" with a pragmatic eye and visionary heart. In ensembles such as Material and Last Exit, his musical philosophy has led him to the extremes of jazz, dance music, and rock experimentation. In production work that has ranged from Marrakeshian Gnawa music to heavy metal band Mot"rhead, Laswell has sought a unique sound to match what he considers the independence of the particular artists with whom he chooses to work.
A successful combination of noise, electronic experimentation, and dance rhythms in the production of Herbie Hancock's 1983 hit "Rockit" attracted artists like Mick Jagger and Yoko Ono to Laswell, who produced their mid-1980s solo records. But popular success has been of less interest to Laswell than the years of "street" credibility he has attained through work with New York City jazz and rap musicians since the late 1970s. The bassist/producer's commitment to unconventional, fiercely collaborative music found industry approval when he landed a 1990 deal with Island Records to manage a label devoted to world music, experimental jazz, and anarchic fusion. A tireless worker with a "jaded hipster" image, Laswell made Island's Axiom and Rykodisc's Black Arc uncompromising places to search for new things--as well as places to rediscover the work of older visionaries like Cream's Ginger Baker and P-Funk's Bootsy Collins.
Born on February 14, 1950, Laswell spent his early years in Salem, Illinois. His father was an oil businessman who died when Laswell was young. In 1958 the family moved to a predominantly black section of Detroit. Music did not play a large role in Laswell's family life. At school, instructors led him to the drums and the baritone sax, but Laswell had other ideas. True to his collaborative philosophy, he chose the bass. He explained to Down Beat's John Diliberto: "I was interested in forming groups at that time, and everyone had guitars and drums. So if you had a bass you were in a group." By age 13, Laswell was performing at local gigs.
During his fifteenth year, Laswell's work in rhythm and blues bands put him on the road, playing black clubs in the South and Midwest. At the same time, Detroit's late 1960s melting pot--as it mixed together the MC5, Motown, Iggy Pop, and Funkadelic--proved influential, if only retrospectively. "I remember concerts of Funkadelic and the MC5 on the same bill," he told Musician's Jerome Reese in 1986. "Which was really interesting to me; because you're there you think that's what's happening. You don't realize that it's not like that anywhere else."
The rare combination of noisy punk and deep funk seemed natural to the young Laswell. He kept his listening horizons broad; he was also interested in the 1960s experimentations of John Coltrane, James Brown, Wayne Shorter, and Jimi Hendrix. By the 1970s, he was attracted to the European progressive sounds of Henry Cow, Gong, and Magma.
In 1977 Laswell relocated to New York City. He reported to Vikki Tobak of Paper in 1994 that his theory of ensemble work had evolved at this point: "When I moved to New York, I had no interest in forming a band or playing with one. I was more interested in interacting with different musicians and playing all different styles rather than being tied down."
Laswell initially took part in the "no wave" scene then forming in downtown New York, performing with such artists as DNA and James Chance. He then met Michael Beinhorn, an electronic musician whose atonal synthesizer work was influenced by avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. The Zu Band was formed in 1978, featuring Laswell, Beinhorn, Cliff Culteri, and Fred Maher; the band would complement the esoteric designs of Gong and Soft Machine contributors David Allen and Giorgio Gomelsky in a 14-hour performance. In 1979 the Zu Band toured the U.S. with Allen's latest version of Gong.
Material--the group that would establish Laswell's reputation-- materialized out of this quartet of Zu musicians. Principally the collaboration of Laswell and Beinhorn from 1979 to 1982, the ensemble recorded Temporary Music, One Down, and Memory Serves during this period. The discs showcased, according to Down Beat's Diliberto, "musique concrete, free improvisation, electronics, and rock ... wrapped around relentless rhythms." Culteri and Maher orbited around these projects, but the collaborative ethic precluded fixing the group permanently. Laswell told Down Beat in 1982, "It's really just an experience of meeting people and influencing them or trying to be influenced by them."
Material cohorts during this period included Fred Frith, Archie Shepp, Henry Threadgill, Nile Rogers, Billy Bang, George Lewis, Sonny Sharrock--and, on 1982's One Down, an unknown named Whitney Houston. Beinhorn's philosophy--"By doing a lot of different things," he told Diliberto, "people can associate the name Material and various projects that happen alongside that name with a language or way of approaching music"--contrasted with Laswell's straightforwardness. Laswell told Musician in 1986, "There has never been an idea behind Material, it's just been a means to work and create with other people, to have a situation where a lot of people can have interplay."
Laswell's innovations during this period were not only conceptual. As a jazz bassist, Laswell struck Down Beat's Diliberto as "[reconciling] the virtuosic development of the electric bass in the mid 70s with its original role as an anchoring instrument." Musician's Jerome Reese wrote that Laswell's bass playing "sounded ominous, brooding, and yet elastic, right in the pocket." As an instrumentalist, Laswell played on Brian Eno and
By 1983 these various projects had caught Herbie Hancock's ear. A premier keyboardist in the 1960s and 1970s jazz scenes, Hancock had Laswell concoct "Rockit," the single that sold one and a half million copies. A staple of early MTV, the single's mix of synthesizer, DJ scratching, and drum machine dance beats helped introduce the hip-hop sound to a wider public. Cowritten and produced by Laswell, the album Future Shock garnered Herbie Hancock a Grammy Award for best rhythm and blues instrumental performance.
The success of "Rockit" led to a streak of high-profile work. Laswell produced portions of Mick Jagger's She's the Boss, Yoko Ono's Starpeace, Laurie Anderson's Mr. Heartbreak, and Public Image Ltd.'s Album. As this varied list attests, the Hancock record did not create a formula--indeed, Laswell told Down Beat's Bill Milkowski in 1986 that its success was "totally based on the fact that we used a Bronx DJ to scratch a record particularly at the correct time."
Laswell's mid-1980s production work was sometimes controversial. Occasional Nigerian political prisoner and international pop star Fela Kuti was incensed by Laswell's treatment of his record Army Arrangement. Laswell chose to drop Fela's principal saxophone solos from the disc, substituting instead Bernie Worrell's organ playing. With typical bluntness, Laswell explained to Milkowski: "The fact is, Fela can't play the sax. His solos were awful.... Prison or not, politics or not, he can't play saxophone. So we just erased everything."
In addition, Laswell refused to reveal the names of the musicians on the Public Image Ltd. record (which fit with the aesthetic of the "generic" packaging that adorns Album). Tagged a drum machine specialist, Laswell wanted critics to judge his music, not the names (or machines) attached to the music. Ginger Baker and Tony Williams are the rumored drummers on the album.
Laswell also maintained his ties to experimental music and independent labels. The mid-1980s found him in a number of improvisatory bands--not only Material, Massacre, and the Golden Palominos, but also two more outfits: Curlew, with Tom Cora, Nicky Skopelitis, and George Cartwright, and, in 1986, Last Exit, with Sonny Sharrock, Peter Brotzmann, and Ronald Shannon Jackson.
Originally named the Sex Beatles, Last Exit was an incendiary quartet that returned Sharrock's guitar work to public notice. Loved in jazz circles overseas, the band recorded three discs through 1989. In 1984 Laswell paired Bambaataa and John Lydon on an apocalyptic rap called "World Destruction," and in 1987 he worked with James Blood Ulmer for Blue Note Records.
Laswell's most creatively significant production efforts during the period were perhaps his "world music" forays on Celluloid Records. Synthesizing African and Middle Eastern music with digital technology and city sounds, Laswell produced music by Manu Dibango, Toure Kunda, and Mandingo. "Back then it was the beginning of rap and hip hop," he told Billboard's Ed Christman in 1993. "I incorporated that and other musical elements such as drum machines with [non-Western music], and at that time I received a lot of criticism. It turned out that many others have since blended different music in the same manner."
As Laswell's relationship with Celluloid concluded in 1989, he looked for other opportunities to pursue his vision. Having met Island Records president Chris Blackwell after working with reggae rhythm section Sly and Robbie in the early 1980s, Laswell approached the industry executive. Blackwell agreed to back a project whereby Laswell would manage a subsidiary label, produce records, and maintain complete creative control. Thus Axiom Records was born. With an average of five Axiom releases per year from 1990 to 1994, Laswell was able to explore spontaneous collaboration on a much grander scale than had been the case in the early days of Material.
Nicky Skopelitis, longtime Laswell partner and mainstay of the label, reported to Billboard in 1993 that Axiom was "the only existing catalog of recordings that defies genre, formula, and obsolescence." Laswell detested explaining Axiom's product; he told Vikki Tobak of Paper that writers "demand too many descriptions for things that should be felt rather than described." The label's exploratory function was both figurative and literal for the bassist/producer. Releases ranged from world music (Arabic music by Simon Shaheen and Gambian music by the Mandinka and Fulani), to cutting-edge jazz (Henry Threadgill and Ronald Shannon Jackson), to ruthlessly eclectic mutations (Ginger Baker, Mandingo, and Skopelitis). Tracking down these artists was a global affair. Laswell ventured to Italy's olive farms to coax Baker out of retirement; he toured Gambia and Morrocco with a 12-track recorder to capture the sounds of the Mandinka and Fulani and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, respectively. As he proclaimed in Musician, "People that know about music are people who are well-traveled."
But in the early 1990s Laswell was also rooted to his first New York conceptual ensemble, to the city itself, and to the black popular music he grew up on. He continued Material (though not with Beinhorn) and released two albums on Axiom: 1991's Third Power, with contributions from Shabba Ranks, the Jungle Brothers, Sly and Robbie, and Fred Wesley, and 1994's Hallucination Engine, featuring Indian instrumentalist Ravi Shankar, Beat writer William Burroughs, organist Worrell, and Chinese singer Liu Sola.
In 1993 Laswell started working out of a Brooklyn studio called Greenpoint, a relaxed if rudimentary facility he owned and ran. Here Laswell recorded and mixed not only a variety of Axiom projects, but also, in 1994, a new series of "black rock, cyberfunk, and future blues" on the Rykodisc-sponsored, Laswell-managed label Black Arc. In seeking out and working with Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles, bassist Bootsy Collins, P-Funk guitarist Michael Hampton, and classic rapper Melle Mel, among others, Laswell helped mitigate the underrecognition of funk pioneers.
Laswell elaborated to Vibe's Tom Moon: "You've got all these rappers out there building off of what guys like [these] did, while the originators can't get any attention. It's not right. I just wanted to create an outlet so that these guys could work more." And here, too, he mixed and matched performers, intuitively seeking a singular combination of sounds.
Summarizing his rigorously eclectic career, Laswell told Tobak that he has been "fortunate to work with such a variety of musicians from different backgrounds and cultures. But to me there's nothing strange about bringing them together. It's no stranger than putting a guitar with a bass; it all boils down to how far you want to go with the music."
by Matthew Brown
Bill Laswell's Career
Learned bass and played in local Detroit bands, 1963-64; toured rhythm and blues clubs in the South and Midwest, 1965; performed periodically in Detroit, c. 1966-76; moved to New York City, 1977; formed band Material and recorded three discs with group, 1979-82; earned acclaim with production of Herbie Hancock hit "Rockit," 1983; producer with major labels and Celluloid Records, 1983-89; continued performing with Material, 1983--; founded Axiom Records, 1989; founded Greenpoint Studio, Brooklyn, NY, with first Axiom productions released, 1990; manager and producer for Axiom, 1990--; created Black Arc label, 1994.
- Selective Works
- Solo recordings Baselines, Elektra/Musician, 1983.
- Praxis, Celluloid, 1984.
- Hear No Evil, Virgin, 1988.
- Deconstruction: The Celluloid Recordings, Metrotone, 1993.
- With Material Temporary Music, Celluloid, 1981.
- Memory Serves, Elektra/Musician, 1982.
- One Down, Elektra, 1982.
- Seven Souls, Virgin, 1989.
- Third Power, Axiom, 1991.
- Hallucination Engine, Axiom, 1994.
- With Massacre Killing Time, Celluloid, 1982.
- With the Golden Palominos The Golden Palominos, Celluloid, 1983.
- Visions of Excess, Celluloid, 1985.
- A Dead Horse, Celluloid, 1989.
- With Last Exit Last Exit, Celluloid, 1986.
- The Noise of Trouble, Celluloid, 1987.
- Cassette Recordings '87, Celluloid, 1988.
- As Producer Herbie Hancock, Future Shock, Columbia, 1983.
- Nona Hendryx, Nona, RCA, 1983.
- Laurie Anderson, Mr. Heartbreak, Warner Bros., 1984.
- Herbie Hancock, Sound-System, Columbia, 1984.
- Nona Hendryx, The Art of Defense, RCA, 1984.
- Time Zone (John Lydon and Afrika Bambaataa), "World Destruction," Celluloid, 1984.
- Fela Kuti, Army Arrangement, Celluloid, 1985.
- Mick Jagger, She's the Boss, Columbia, 1985.
- Yoko Ono, Starpeace, Polydor, 1985.
- Toure Kunda, Natalia, Celluloid, 1985.
- Afrika Bambaataa, Beware (The Funk Is Everywhere), Tommy Boy, 1986.
- Motorhead, Orgasmatron, Profile, 1986.
- Public Image Ltd., Album, Elektra, 1986.
- James Blood Ulmer, America--Do You Remember the Love?, Blue Note, 1987.
- Iggy Pop, Instinct, A&M, 1988.
- Ronald Shannon Jackson, Red Warrior, Axiom, 1990.
- Ginger Baker, Middle Passage, Axiom, 1991.
- Jonas Hellborg, The Word, Axiom, 1991.
- Mandingo, New World Power, Axiom, 1991.
- Sonny Sharrock, Ask the Ages, Axiom, 1991.
- Master Musicians of Jajouka, Apocalypse Across the Sky, Axiom, 1992.
- Henry Threadgill, Too Much Sugar for a Dime, Axiom, 1993.
- Buddy Miles Express, Hell and Back, Black Arc Records, c. 1994.
- Hardware, Third Eye Open, Black Arc Records, c. 1994.
- The Slavemasters, Under the Six, Black Arc Records, c. 1994.
- Zillatron, Lords of the Harvest, Black Arc Records, c. 1994.
- O. G. Funk, Out of the Dark, Black Arc Records, c. 1994.
- Billboard, June 12, 1993; May 21, 1994; August 20, 1994.
- Down Beat, July 1982; August 1986; November 1994.
- Musician, February 1986.
- New Art Examiner, June 1994.
- New York Times, July 6, 1994.
- Paper, 1994.
- Vibe, August 1994.