Mention the name Bill Laswell to anyone but the aficionado and you are bound to be greeted by shrugs or blank stares most of the time. That’s because the maverick bassist and producer has spent the majority of a career spanning four decades (and counting) well behind the scenes and off the beaten path, dissolving imaginary boundaries between musical genres, and plumbing the depths of sound itself.
Everyone thought it was suicidal, ‘Why would he do that?’ And I have no answer for that except that I wasn’t going to do the obvious.
Once a fixture on New York’s Downtown scene of the late ’70s, he went on to provide the creative pulse behind Celluloid Records’ eclectic offerings of the ’80s before helming his own Axiom imprint in the ’90s, a venture underwritten by Island Records’ Chris Blackwell. While assiduously ducking the spotlight himself, Laswell has attracted such legendary collaborators as William S. Burroughs, Herbie Hancock, George Clinton, and both Miles Davis and Bob Marley (posthumously), to name but a few. His 1984 Grammy for producing Herbie Hancock’s monster dance hit, “Rockit,” marked the intersection of his creative and commercial success.
But instead of taking the road paved with gold, Laswell’s career followed a very divergent path. “Most people get to that point [of commercial success] and then their goal is to stay put, to sustain what you earned or gathered and protect it and hoard it.” he says from his Manhattan home. “Around ’86 I had reached that. I had a name in music, I was dealing with big name artists, I was dealing with big budgets. I was constantly doing pretty much whatever I wanted to do. And it got to a point where probably the logical thing to do would be, I don’t know, move to LA, set up a studio, and probably never leave LA again; and probably, conceivably make tons of money.” But he adds, “Instead of cashing in on that I went the other way, and I made a band called Last Exit, which was just total noise. And everyone thought it was suicidal, ‘That’s destructive. Why would he do that?’ And I have no answer for that except that I wasn’t going to do the obvious.”
Born February 12, 1955 in Salem, Illinois, Laswell had an itinerant childhood, bouncing around Illinois, Kentucky and Texas, before winding up in Albion, Michigan. Growing up in the shadow of Ann Arbor, Lansing, and Detroit he had his first exposure to the music that inspired him – artists such as Funkadelic, MC5, The Stooges, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman’s band, Archie Shepp, and Pharoah Sanders. Coincidentally, Laswell would work with some of these same artists in the future. “Stuff like that was almost too big,” he says, “It wasn’t even real, it was almost mythical, ‘cause when you’re young it’s hard to connect with it as a reality.” But that initial contact with the cutting edge music of the era was enough to seal his fate. “Around that time, 14, 15, I decided that’s what I was going to do.”
Starting out on guitar, he soon switched to bass, honing his chops in various local funk and R&B bands. Detroit being the home of Motown, Laswell even played a few sessions for the famed production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. When he started touring the country in bands, he soon realized that, “the place to really go in America if you want to test yourself is New York.” So in 1977, Laswell and his buddy Menace, packed up everything they owned, which amounted to a bunch of guitars, amps, and equipment, into a van and drove to Manhattan.
Initially, Laswell supported himself doing session work for other artists. At one of the first sessions he did for a band called Rhinocerous, which included members of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, he had the good fortune to meet Giorgio Gomelsky, a former manager of the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds. Gomelsky was wearing a T-shirt by the French progressive outfit, Magma, of whom Laswell was a fan, and after the session he approached Gomelsky and asked him if he knew the band. “He said, ‘I’m Gomelsky. I made those records.’ Oh. So I just stuck with him. I said, ‘This is the man.’” Laswell recalls.
This chance meeting sparked several key opportunities for the ambitious bassist. For one, he started living at Gomelsky’s building on 24th Street, dubbed the “Zu Space,” which housed a recording studio, rehearsal space, and living quarters – a virtual blueprint for Laswell’s own Greenpoint Studios in the ’90s. Secondly, he started networking with Gomelsky’s connections – bands like Gong, for example, with whom Laswell toured France in 1978. He also came to know one of Gomelsky’s friends, a Parisian by the name of Jean Karakos.
At the time, Karakos ran BYG Actuel, a French label devoted to free jazz. “I remember he came to a gig I was doing with Henry Threadgill and a bunch of people, and it was sort of rhythms and basslines and simple stuff with a lot of playing on top of it, which at the moment, the press were calling ‘punk jazz,’” says Laswell, “It was sort of mixing that energy of rock and ratty stuff with improvisation and jazz.” Sniffing something new, Karakos approached Laswell about starting a label to document this scene.
Meanwhile, another one of New York’s home-grown movements was just breaking the surface. Before the worldwide impact of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and Melle Mel’s “The Message,” rap had been regarded as a passing fad by critics, but Laswell knew otherwise. “So we hooked up with Bambaataa, D. St., Fab 5 Freddy, Phase 2, Futura, and Rammellzee and made five records really quick,” he says. He produced four of the five out of his friend Martin Bisi’s Brooklyn studio, which would later gain fame as the recording home of Sonic Youth. Those seminal 12-inch releases, which put Celluloid Records on the map, also established Laswell as the label’s in-house producer. He went on to produce albums by Shango (one of Afrika Bambaataa’s groups); African acts like Toure Kunde and Manu Dibango; Golden Palominos; and his own revolving Material outfit, which has featured everyone from a young, pre-diva Whitney Houston, to seasoned avant garde axman Sonny Sharrock, to jazz giants like Archie Shepp.
Ironically, it was Laswell’s connection to the avant garde and not hip hop that paved the way for his mega hit, “Rockit.” A young record executive by the name of Tony Meilandt, who was then working for Herbie Hancock’s manager David Rubinstein, was looking to make some moves of his own, and had heard of Laswell through his contributions to Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. He approached Laswell about producing some tracks for Herbie. “So I said, yeah, no problem,” says Laswell, “At that moment I had just done this thing [“Busting Out”] with Nona Hendryx, which was like a disco hit, and I didn’t want to continue that. I was getting kinda tired of the hip hop stuff, too, ‘cause it was so easy to do, so I said, ‘Well, let’s do something with Herbie, and do something weird and experimental.”
Herbie leans over to the engineer and says, “What’s goin’ on? Is this shit really any good?”
The track itself took no time to put together. Using a beat he had originally played with pencils on a drumpad and recorded on cassette, Laswell programmed the Linn drum, an early drum machine, and recorded a quick bassline. He used Daniel Ponce, a Cuban percussionist who had just arrived in America two weeks prior, to add a bataan. Laswell then drafted pioneering hip-hop deejay D. St., whom he knew through Bambaataa, to come through and add the signature scratching for which the track became known, cutting up some Nonesuch world music albums that Laswell gave him. Hancock added his own part at his home in L.A. On leaving the studio in a converted garage behind Hancock’s house, Laswell recalls, “Herbie leans over to the engineer and says, ‘What’s goin’ on? Is this shit really any good?’ So we thought, this is fun, this is cool – it’ll probably never come out.”
But en route to LAX following the mixing session at Eldorado Studios, Laswell and his crew stopped at an audio store to kill some time. Laswell wanted to test out some speakers, and asked the store clerk to play the cassette of “Rockit.” “We put it on really loud and it sounded incredible,” he says. “Started to get this kind of feeling like you get a chill or something. Turned around and there’s like 50 kids, black kids, and they’re like, ‘What the fuck is that!?!’ And when we got back [to New York] we knew. It just blew up from that moment.”
The success of “Rockit” opened the flood gates, bringing Laswell production work from the likes of Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, Sly & Robbie, PiL, The Ramones and Iggy Pop during the latter half of the ’80s. But his heart was more into projects like Last Exit, a punk jazz supergroup featuring himself, guitarist Sonny Sharrock, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, performing loud, aggressive and totally improvisational stage shows.
The end of the ’80s saw Laswell jumping ship from the debt-ridden Celluloid, which had already been sold several times. In a move to consolidate his resources and energy, he approached Island Records boss Chris Blackwell about starting his own label in 1989, and this relationship hatched Axiom Records. Operating under the mantra, “Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted,” a quotation from the 12th century Persian mystic and head of The Order of The Assassins, Hassan I-Sabbah, Axiom allowed Laswell full creative control over projects that were distributed by industry giant Polygram. The spiritual and literal home of Axiom would be the newly founded Greenpoint Studios in Brooklyn, a huge, three-story converted warehouse, where Laswell began churning out some of the most memorable work of his career.
To me, it’s all world music, everything. If we all happen to be from this particular world, we’re all doing world music.
In addition to new music from Material, which had grown to encompass such diverse talents as Sly & Robbie, Wayne Shorter, Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell, Laswell turned his attention globally. Palestinian oud player and violinist Simon Shaheen; Talip Ozkan, a Turkish saz player; and Foday Musa Suso, who played kora, all released Laswell-produced albums on Axiom. Then came the field recordings, the most important of which was by the Master Musicans of Jajouka, who Laswell recorded in their tiny village in the Rif Mountains of Morocco. During this period Laswell also became known for his recombinant experiments in sound, sometimes called “collision music.” His project, Tabla Beat Science, for example, paired master Indian musicians like Zakir Hussain and Sultan Khan with turntablism and electronics. It’s no wonder that Laswell soon gained a reputation for “world music,” a tag he scoffs at saying, “To me, it’s all world music, everything. If we all happen to be from this particular world, we’re all doing world music.”
“Where does all this rhythm come from?” he asks, “Where’s the music come from? So you keep looking and looking further. And that’s what it’s all about. You have to keep looking. So I looked in New York and I looked in Paris and then I started looking in Africa and started looking in India and Japan and China. You keep looking, you’re never done finding new things until you resolve that it’s all connected. It’s not separate. Each time you find something you see how connected it is to something else.”
These days, when Laswell isn’t holed up in the lab at his Orange Music Studios in New Jersey, he tours internationally, most often with his live drum and bass meets jazz fusion outfit Method of Defiance featuring Dr. Israel and Hawkman on vocals; Guy Licata on drums; Bernie Worrell on keyboards; Japan’s DJ Krush on turntable; and Toshinori Kondo on sax. In recent years he has produced new albums for artists like reggae great Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and his own wife Gigi, an acclaimed vocalist from Ethiopia.
Picking through the remains of the music industry, Laswell is also close to a deal to reacquire the rights to the Axiom catalog. But for a forward thinking artist like him, sentimentality for that era is not an option, “because that was then and what you want to happen now should be of the now,” he says. “Anyway,” adds the 55-year-old, “I think your best work is always ahead of you.”
This feature is part of a week of articles guest curated by Levon Vincent.
Says Levon, “Bill Laswell is one of my heroes. I was a big fan of Material when I was a kid. I remember working with a guy at a record store who gave me some mixtapes. One of the things that he gave me aside from Material was this project that Laswell produced called Master Musicians of Joujouka. I must have been 14 or 15, and this is my first experience where someone is telling me, ‘This music is good.’ I guess it’s like when people learn to drink wine: You don’t like it at first, but you begin to appreciate it. That blew the door off a lot of things for me as a musician. Bill Laswell is someone I definitely I look up to.”
To check out more of the features that Levon Vincent picked out, check out his guest curator hub page.