Open main menu

Bill Laswell (born February 12, 1955) is an American bassist, record producer, and record label owner.

Bill Laswell
Bill Laswell performing at the Moers Festival in 2006
Background information
Born (1955-02-12) February 12, 1955 (age 63)
Salem, Illinois, U.S.
GenresAvant-garde, electronic, jazz, pop, rap, reggae, rock[1]
Occupation(s)Musician, record producer, label owner
InstrumentsBass guitar, guitar, keyboards
Associated actsMethod of Defiance, The Golden Palominos, Praxis, Massacre, Material, Buckethead, Painkiller, Ashes, Tabla Beat Science, Iggy Pop, Herbie Hancock, Public Image Ltd

Laswell has been 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."[2] 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 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 longer.


Early careerEdit

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, MC5, and Funkadelic. 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, influenced 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 influenced him.

New York and MaterialEdit

In the late 1970s Laswell moved to New York City,[1] immersing himself in the thriving New York scene. He moved into producer Giorgio Gomelsky's loft and became part of a group of musicians that would become the first version of Material. Material became the backing band for Daevid Allen[1] and New York Gong, appearing on recordings and embarking on a small tour. The band consisted of Laswell, keyboardist Michael Beinhorn, and drummer Fred Maher. They were usually supplemented by guitarists, either Cliff Cultreri and Robert Quine.

Living in the East Village put Laswell at the center of a group of musicians such as John Zorn, 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 On Land. 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 and met Jean Karakos, owner of Celluloid Records. Under the Material name Laswell became the de facto house producer for Celluloid until the label was sold in the 1980s. He recorded music that was experimental, combining jazz, funk, pop, and R&B, by musicians such as pop star Whitney Houston, avant-garde figures Sonny Sharrock, Archie Shepp, and Henry Threadgill, and the band Massacre with Fred Frith and Fred Maher.

His association with Celluloid allowed his first forays into "collision music", a term coined by British writer Chris May of Black Music & Jazz Review. Recordings with the Golden Palominos and production on albums by Shango, Toure Kunda, and Fela Kuti appeared on the label. Celluloid was an early advocate of hip hop, producing albums by Fab 5 Freddy, GrandMixer D.ST, Phase II, and Afrika Bambaataa. The album World Destruction paired John Lydon with Afrika Bambaataa years before Aerosmith and Run–D.M.C. collaborated on their rock/hip hop version of "Walk This Way".

In 1982, Laswell released Baselines, his solo debut album.[1] He coaxed Ginger Baker out of semi-retirement, giving the drummer's career a boost. He brought Sonny Sharrock out of semi-retirement and produced the solo album Guitar.

In 1983, Laswell had an artistic and commercial breakthrough with the "Rockit", a song he co-wrote and produced for Herbie Hancock's album Future Shock.[1] He played bass and cowrote other songs on the album, leading to collaborations on Hancock's albums and Hancock's appearances on Laswell's productions through the 2000s. He won a Grammy Award for producing Sound-System.[1]

Laswell produced albums for Sly and Robbie, 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 hired him to produce their 1985 album Language Barrier and 1987 album Rhythm Killers.[3]

Laswell has stated in interviews that he met with Miles Davis a number of times and discussed working together, but busy schedules kept them from arranging such a recording before Davis' death.[4]

He became a member of the band Last Exit in 1986 with Peter Brötzmann, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Sonny Sharrock.[1] Aside from one album that Laswell cobbled together in the studio, the band was primarily a live one, showing up at gigs with no rehearsal. The first time the four members played together was on stage at their first show.

Axiom and other labelsEdit

Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, gave him the opportunity to begin a label with the backing of Island, and thus Axiom Records was started in 1990. In addition to albums by Material that included Sly and Robbie, William S. Burroughs, Bootsy Collins, Wayne Shorter, and Bernie Worrell, he produced and released albums by Ginger Baker, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Sonny Sharrock, Nicky Skopelitis, and Umar Bin Hassan.

Axiom released recordings from musicians around the world. Among the studio-based albums, Palestinian oud and violinist Simon Shaheen recorded an album of music by Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Gambian virtuoso Foday Musa Suso recorded an album of dance music with his electric Kora, and Turkish saz master Talip Oezkan recorded an album. Master Musicians of Jajouka recorded an album in their village in the Rif Mountains. There were albums by Mandinka and Fulani recorded at Suso's family compound in Gambia and Gnawa music from Morocco.

Praxis featured guitarist Buckethead on Transmutation with Bootsy Collins, Bryan Mantia, Bernie Worrell, and Afrika Baby Bam from the Jungle Brothers. The album blended funk grooves and heavy metal riffs with many tracks co-written by Laswell. The project spawned other releases, never with the same line-up, though consisting of the core trio of Laswell, Buckethead, and Mantia.

Funkcronomicon included previously released tracks by Praxis and Skopelitis and tracks with members of Parliament-Funkadelic. George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, and the last recordings of Eddie Hazel are featured prominently. The album includes DXT, Umar Bin Hassan, Abiodun Oyewole and Torture.[5] Laswell remixed the Axiom catalog for Axiom Ambient, blending seemingly disparate tracks, releasing some of the music for Sample Material – International Free Zone, a sample library for other musicians to use as material.[6][7]

Subharmonic, conceived by Laswell and ex-Celluloid A&R Robert Soares, though not owned by Laswell, was essentially a vehicle for his projects, most in the ambient or ambient-dub categories. The label 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; Somnific Flux with Mick Harris and Cold Summer by Lull from the Sentrax label. Other collaborators included Jonah Sharp and Terre Thaemlitz. The label also released albums by Painkiller, Praxis, and Divination, an ambient dub project by Laswell. A sub-label called Strata was created with five releases in a more experimental dub/noise/ambient vein. Each of these releases (Death Cube K, Cypher 7, Azonic, and two under his alias Automaton) came in a black jewel case with the name of the project and album title printed on the front.

Three other short-lived labels were created after 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, formed with Janet Rienstra, released only one album, Baptism of Solitude with Paul Bowles reading excerpts from his work over soundscapes by Laswell. Meta would appear periodically, distributed by other labels, over the next few years until it returned as a spiritual/yogic label run by Rienstra. The third label, Black Arc, was an associated label of Rykodisc focusing on "Black Rock, Cyber Funk, and Future Blues", according to a sampler. The label featured members of P-Funk on most of the albums and released albums by Bootsy Collins (under the name "Zillatron"), Bernie Worrell (Japan-only), Mutiny (Jerome Brailey), and Billy Bass.

Laswell released two albums of remixes from dead musicians - Bob Marley's Dreams of Freedom on Axiom and Miles Davis's 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 producers from the reggae/dub tradition. Blackwell's departure from Island eliminated further albums. For Panthalassa, Laswell took the tapes from Davis's electric period and re-imagined them. The impetus for the project was that the original releases were mixes made by producer Teo Macero from long studio sessions. Critic and fan responses varied, with Laswell and Macero conducting a public feud in the media.

Although Blackwell took the Axiom imprint with him to Palm Pictures, the back catalog remained with Island. Seeing that Greenpoint had turned into a sort of living space for hangers-on, Laswell moved his studio to West Orange, New Jersey and called it Orange Music Sound Studios.

With Palm Pictures moving into film and away from music, Laswell lost a supporter for his more ambitious albums, as well as the Axiom imprint. Under Palm's umbrella, though, four albums and a DVD set were released, including a studio album and a live 2-disc set from Tabla Beat Science, centered on tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, son of Alla Rakha. The album included Karsh Kale, Trilok Gurtu, Ustad Sultan Khan, and Talvin Singh. This group has performed in the US, Lebanon, and Japan. Laswell, Kale, Kahn, and Hussain are usually supplemented by other musicians, which have included Gigi, DJ Disk, Serj Tankian from System of a Down, Sussan Deyhim, and artist Petulia Mattioli. In 2001 Life Space Death was released with Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, Laswell on bass, guitar, and keyboards, and words by the 14th Dalai Lama[8] interviewed by Kondo.[9]

At the request of Blackwell, Laswell oversaw the debut album by Ethiopian singer Gigi for Palm Pictures with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Laswell. He also produced Abyssinia Infinite and Gold & Wax.

Charged (1999) by Eraldo Bernocchi and Toshinori Kondo was released by Laswell label Innerythmic. After a brief inactive period, the label restarted in 2001, releasing over the next few years a albums by Nicky Skopelitis, Raoul Björkenheim, James Blood Ulmer, Shin Terai, and Gonervill. Innerhythmic also released a live recording by Praxis and reissued Black Arc albums from the 1990, including Zillatron, The Last Poets' Holy Terror and Buddy Miles' Hell & Back.[10]

New century, new labelsEdit

He signed a contract with Sanctuary Records that led to the creation of his label Nagual. He worked in the drum and bass genre, starting with Brutal Calling credited to Bill Laswell vs. Submerged that was released by Avant in 2004. He and Submerged worked together again on The Only Way to Go is Down (2006) under the name Method of Defiance. After this album, they assembled producers in drum and bass to collaborate with musicians from jazz. Evol Intent, Future Prophecies, and SPL recorded with Buckethead, Herbie Hancock, and Pharoah Sanders.[1]

In 2010, Laswell created the label M.O.D. Technologies. Its first releases were the albums Jahbulon and Incunabula by Method of Defiance and Mesgana Ethiopia by Material with Laswell's wife Gigi.[1]

Along with live dates around the world with Massacre, Material, Method of Defiance, and Painkiller, Laswell travels to Japan every year for recordings and live dates, including with Tokyo Rotation[11]

In November 2018, he performed in Dave Douglas Uplift band at the London Jazz Festival.[12]

Frequent collaboratorsEdit

Laswell works with a small group of collaborators. These 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, and musicians from P-Funk. He has relied on a small number of engineer. Robert Musso has been chief engineer for close to 25 years. Oz Fritz has occasionally filled the role. Fritz is usually Laswell's live engineer of choice, known for live mixing technique. Remixes have been done for Sting, Nine Inch Nails, Almamegretta, Scorn, Ozzy Osbourne, and Tori Amos. He has done much work for John Zorn's Tzadik Records.

In 2005, Laswell was invited to appear on the PBS series Soundstage. The show featured musicians he has played with over the years, including members of Praxis and Tabla Beat Science, Pharoah Sanders, Foday Musa Suso, Bootsy Collins, and Catfish Collins.

Laswell worked with Sony Creative Software on a box set loop library called The Bill Laswell Collection.[13]


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ankeny, Jason. "Bill Laswell". AllMusic. Retrieved 6 December 2018.
  2. ^ "The Bill Laswell Pages". March 22, 2012. Retrieved 2012-04-03.
  3. ^ Greene, Jo-Ann. "Sly & Robbie". AllMusic. Retrieved 2012-08-11.
  4. ^ MussoMusic. "musso music discography". Archived from the original on July 14, 2011. Retrieved July 10, 2011.
  5. ^ Axiom Dub: Mysteries of Creation, Hyperreal Archive
  6. ^ "Bill Laswell Axiom Discography". Retrieved 2011-07-15.
  7. ^ "Bill Laswell Discography". Retrieved March 30, 2018.
  8. ^ Life Space Death at AllMusic
  9. ^ Life Space Death, album sleeve notes
  10. ^ "Raoul Björkenheim's website". Archived from the original on July 15, 2011. Retrieved 2011-07-15.
  11. ^ "Tokyo Rotation Website". May 17, 2011. Archived from the original on July 17, 2011. Retrieved 2011-07-15.
  12. ^ "Jazz Now, Dave Douglas". BBC Radio 3. 19 November 2018. Retrieved 20 November 2018.
  13. ^ "Sound Series – Loops & Samples". Sony Creative Software. Retrieved 2012-06-02.

External linksEdit