Bill Laswell

Bill Laswell

Infobox musical artist
Name = Bill Laswell

Img_capt = Bill Laswell at Moers Festival 2006, Germany
Img_size =
Landscape =
Background = non_vocal_instrumentalist
Birth_name =
Alias =
Born = Birth date and age|1955|2|12|mf=y Salem, Illinois, U.S.
Died =
Instrument = Bass
Genre = Avant-garde Art-rock Ambient Dub Electronic Experimental Punk jazz Industrial hip-hop
Occupation = Musician Producer Arranger
Years_active =
Label =
Associated_acts = The Golden Palominos Praxis Massacre Material Buckethead Painkiller Divination Sacred System Ashes
Notable_instruments =

Bill Laswell (born February 12, 1955 in Salem, Illinois and raised in Albion, Michigan) is an American bassist, producer and record label owner. He is married to Ethiopian singer Gigi.

Laswell ranks among the most prolific of musicians, being involved in hundreds of recordings with many musicians 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, like 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 around 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 chaffed against Laswell's distinctive recording and production style — most noticeably some of his for hire production gigs like Motörhead, Swans and White Zombie — many other collaborations, such as with pianist Herbie Hancock and singer Iggy Pop have been lengthier and recurring.



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, Michigan as well as Ann Arbor. 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 ‘80s), 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-'70s, 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 1970’s 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 the Cheaters 7” called "Scoring Power" in 1978, Laswell and Material became the backing bank 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 seminal 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".

Celluloid Records

Within a few years of moving to New York, Laswell soon 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 ‘80s. During this fruitful time in the early to mid 80s, Laswell was able to record some of his Material excusions (which ran the gambit 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’, and forays into world music. Recordings with The Golden Palominos and production on albums by Shango, Toure Kunda and Fela Kuti all appeard on the label. Celluloid also released a slew of 12” devoted to Hip-Hip, becoming a pre-cursor to the popularity the form enjoyed starting in the mid 80s. 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 DMC/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 guitarists 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.

Post-Celluloid '80s

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 80’s saw Laswell produce albums for people like Sly & Robbie (who Laswell continues to work with) Mick Jagger, PiL, The 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. 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, some of the musicians included drummer Tony Williams, bassists Jonas Hellborg, 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 [ [ musso music discography ] ] reports an unreleased Davis recording session from 1986.

1986 saw the formation of Last Exit. Laswell and 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 was at their first show.

The later part of the ‘80s also saw Laswell completely sever ties with the Celluloid label, which has since been sold several times: the catalog’s various releases seem to be in constant reissue on one label or another. Many of the labels are known for poor practice in securing rights to recordings and are often rumored to not be paying royalties to anyone other than whomever is licensing the material to them.

Greenpoint Studios, Axiom Records and the '90s

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 (the famed 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 & 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 main-stay Nicky Skopelitis, Last Poet 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 M.A. Wahab. Gambian virtuoso Foday Musa Suso recorded an album of futuristic dance music featuring his electric Kora and Turkish saz master Talip Ozkan 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, ‘Transmutations (Mutadis Mutandis)’ 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 racous blend of funk grooves and metal rifs, 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 supplimented by others.

1994/1995 saw a bit of a slow-down in Axiom’s output, but a number of genre-shattering 2CD compilation sets were released. Axiom Funk’s ‘Funkronomicon’ 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 & 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", subtely blending seemingly disparate tracks from the catalog into a seemless 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". [ [ Bill Laswell Axiom Discography] ] [ [ Review and track listing of Laswell's "Sample Material" CD] ]

The ‘90s also saw a number of other labels owned by or thoroughly associated with Laswell, come and go. The most prolific of these was Subharmonic. 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 from Automaton) came housed in a solid black jewel case with the name of the project and album title printed on the front.

Three other very short-lived labels were also created around the time of the demise of the Subharmonic deal. Meta, which was intended to be a spoken word label, and SubMeta. Submeta managed four releases before folding. Meta (co-created by Janet Rienstra) released only one album - 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 it’s own entity as a spiritual/yogic label run by Janet Rienstra, though Laswell still heavily figures in Meta’s output. Black Arc was also 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.

The Late '90s

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 ‘70s 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.

The late ‘90s saw two other major changes. As noted before, Chris Blackwell (who had sold Island to Polygram some years before, but retained an active role running the label) 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, efforts to obtain master recordings and new distribution has been unsuccessful. The other change came in the form of studio space. Laswell, seeing that Greenpoint had turned into a sort of hangout, living space and catch all for hanger-ons moved his studio to a new space in West Orange, New Jersey, now calling it Orange Music or alternately, Orange Music Sound Studios.

Into the 21st Century

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. Tabla Beat Science is 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 Kahn 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 artists Petulia Mattioli and others.

At the request of Chris Blackwell, 2001 also had Laswell overseeing Ethiopian singer Gigi’s debut release 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 also became romantically involved and were later married. She has figured in a number of his releases and concerts over the years, and he has produced further outings by Gigi such as her Abyssinia Infinite grouping and her second solo release for Palm, "Gold & Wax".

1999 also saw the first release (Eraldo Bernocchi and Toshinori Kondo’s "Charged" project) on Laswell’s new label, called Innerythmic. After a brief inactive period, the label re-started again in earnest in 2001, releaseing over the next few years releases a slew of innovative albums from the likes Nicky Skopelitis/Raoul Bjorkenheim, James Blood Ulmer, Shine and Gonervill among others. Innerhythmic also released a live Praxis recording and re-issued some of the Black Arc releases from the ‘90s including Zillatron, The Last Poets "Holy Terror" and Buddy Miles’ "Hell & Back". The label is not officially defunct but has gone through a period of recent inactivity.

Though touching on the realm of drum n bass in the ‘90s with his "Oscillations" releases and the compilation Submerged: Tetragramaton, the last few years have seen Laswell step up his work in this area. Starting with "Brutal Calling", a hard drum n bass release with OHM Resistance label owner Submerged, a series of releases and live dates have cropped up. Laswell’s new project in this vein is Method of Defiance. The first release focused on the core of Laswell and Submerged once again (with contributions from Toshinori Kondo and Guy Licata) but the recent "Inamorata" stretched the concept out, pairing Laswell’s bass with a different combination of respected jazz and world musicians and drum n bass producers on each track. Artists like Herbie Hancock, John Zorn, Pharoah Sanders, Nils Petter Molvaer, Toshinori Kondo and Buckethead were paired with producers Amit, Paradox, Submerged, Fanu and Corrupt Souls. He’s also released a collaboration with Finnish drum n bass maestro Fanu on OHM Resistance (US) and Karl Records (Europe), entitled "Lodge", which includes contributions from Molvaer and Bernie Worrell amongst others.

Along with frequent live dates around the world with Method of Defiance (generally featuring Bernie Worrell, Dr. Israel and live drums by Guy Licata), Material, Painkiller and the reformed in the late ‘90s Massacre (with This Heat’s Charles Hayward now in the drummchair) 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.

Frequent collaborators

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 rite) 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 mainstay being James Dellatacoma.

Over the years, Laswell has also been an in demand remixer and purveyor of what is usually noted as ‘mix translation’. Remixes (released and unreleased) have been done for the likes of Sting, Nine Inch Nails, Almamegretta, Scorn, Ozzy Osbourne, Tori Amos and a ton more. 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 and Catfish Collins and many others participated. Though Laswell mixed the show in 5.1, 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 Media Software] on a box set Loop Library: [ The Bill Laswell Collection] . A link of all Bill's work with Sony Media software is available [ here] .


See also


External links

* [ Last.FM: Bill Laswell pages]
* [ discography at]
* [ discography at]
* [ Sacred Dub] fan site/community site, includes podcasts
* [] (current record label)
* [ Innerviews interview]
* [ Bill Laswell Interview by The Wire Magazine. December, 1994]
* [ Part 1 of Interview with Directors of Destroy All Rational Thought DVD - which celebrates the work of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. Contains music/text by Bill Laswell]
* [ Part 2 of Interview with Directors of Destroy All Rational Thought DVD - which celebrates the work of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. Contains music/text by Bill Laswell]

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