Bill Laswell Biography
The range of Bill Laswell's music has demanded a new openness from musician and listener alike, and through his work points of congruence between genres have become clearer and we now have new hybrid forms to reckon with. Once described as a "radical" influence in music by the UK journal International Musician and Recording World, the often circumspect producer felt obliged to define the term for them: "Radical means hitting people on a real level and trying to lift their awareness up a notch or two, to get them to think beyond the conventionally held beliefs that certain musics only work in certain ways. That's the driving force behind most of what I do, and if it means sacrificing notoriety and acceptance for freedom, creativity and integrity, I'll do it every time."
Bill Laswell was born in Salem, Illinois in 1955. His earliest groups covered songs by the likes of James Brown, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Al Green, The O'Jays and The Meters. These early years were also marked by the attendance of live performances by groups as diverse as The Stooges, The MC5 and Funkadelic. Laswell was deep into Black music but was also absorbing the tenets of protopunk and rock; the rhythmic assurance and aggressiveness that are the cornerstone of virtually all his work have their genesis in this early training. Early exposure to the music of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and Miles Davis also sparked a devoted interest in improvisation and the possibilities of interaction between musicians.
Laswell landed in New York in 1979 and made an immediate impact on local music culture. He became an integral fixture in the growing downtown avant garde (“no wave”) scene and launched a recording career that began with Brian Eno's On Land and continued with the Material collective, co-founded with Michael Beinhorn and Fred Maher, as well as other groups such as Massacre and Gong. By 1984 Laswell had reached the first of many pinnacles in his career by producing two revolutionary electronic albums for Herbie Hancock -- the hip-hop fusion classic Future Shock, which yielded the hit "Rockit," and the Grammy-winning follow-up Sound System
Future Shock was a monumental foray into hip-hop, which in 1983 was a self-contained and even consciously guarded movement. The release of “Rockit” reintroduced the turntable to the world, this time as a genuine musical instrument. Few music fans today are aware that Laswell was one of the main catalysts of a real funk and hip-hop fusion, and that he was executing it on stage before anyone had even conceived of adding a DJ to a live unit.
Laswell quickly became a much sought-after producer, but after a string of high-profile albums including Mick Jagger's She's The Boss, production or mixing work for Yoko Ono, Peter Gabriel, Iggy Pop, Motorhead and many others, he began to move away from the corporate constrictions that come with success in order to explore new musical directions. His work with African musicians for the Celluloid label was one path in evidence here, as was his immersion in reggae rhythms with Sly & and with Yellowman on the breakthrough King Yellowman. For projects like these, critics vilified Laswell as a "cultural bandit" and a "destroyer" of African musical traditions. Years later, computers and drum machines inevitably made their way into numerous African, Jamaican, Middle Eastern and Asian styles like dancehall, soukous, rai and bhangra -- thus answering the "purist" argument.
In 1990, in a partnership with Island Records, Laswell created the Axiom label and opened his Greenpoint Studio in Brooklyn (now relocated to Orange Music Sound Studios in New Jersey). Both the imprint and the studio itself have been a magnet for some of the most innovative artists on the planet, including composer/arranger Henry Threadgill, jazz giants and Coltrane acolytes Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones, beat godfather William S. Burroughs, Miles Davis alumni Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker, and some of the more illustrious emissaries of funk and hip-hop such as George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Buddy Miles, Bernie Worrell, and the Jungle Brothers. Numerous Axiom projects have been realized with musicians from around the world, including the Master Musicians of Jajouka (Morocco), the Mandinka and Fulani drummers of Gambia, and solo artists such as tabla master Zakir Hussain (India), and many more.
Starting in late 1994, Axiom began a series of label-defining releases that represented a new approach to certain "genres" in music. The first was the Axiom Ambient project Lost in the Translation, followed by Axiom Funk's Funkcronomicon (1995) and Altered Beats (1996). Axiom Dub then released the collection Mysteries of Creation (1996).
In 1997 Laswell furthered his reputation for innovation (and alleged controversy) by exploring the tape vaults of two icons of modern music -- Miles Davis and Bob Marley. Emerging with original source material, he has used the recording studio as an instrument of improvisation to construct radically different remixes of Miles Davis' electric work and Bob Marley's studio work with the Wailers. The resulting albums, Panthalassa (Sony/Columbia) and Dreams Of Freedom (Axiom/Island), bring a fresh and futuristic perspective to the music and represent a new way of experiencing it in an ambient and almost sanctified environment. Laswell revisited this concept in 2001 with Divine Light (Sony/Columbia), reinterpretations of Carlos Santana’s work from 1973-1974.
Arcana’s Arc of the Testimony, released in 1997, is a futuristic ambient-jazz-rock fission with a host of legendary musicians, including ex-Miles Davis drummer, Tony Williams. A short hiatus followed and in 1999 Axiom released Material's Intonarumori -- a "mutant hip-hop manifesto" covering a wide spectrum of influences from the breakbeat underground. In 2000, Laswell collaborated with tabla legend Zakir Hussain and UK-based producer and Anokha founder Talvin Singh to create Tabla Beat Science — a fusion of Indian classical rhythms and harmonies with electronic beats focusing on new tracks by Zakir Hussain, with Sultan Khan on sarangi and vocals and Karsh Kale on tabla and drum kit.
Laswell founded a second label imprint in 2001 as a critical proving ground for radically new and revolutionary sound. The Innerhythmic label is an alternative outlet for musicians of many backgrounds who are dedicated to exploring the recombinant possibilities of music. Utilizing a "collage system," entirely new musical forms can emerge almost at will from fusions of the familiar. In the first year of existence, Innerhythmic has released albums by Laswell, organitronic instro hip-hop artists Gonervill, a new incarnation of Praxis, the legendary James Blood Ulmer, jazz great Toshinori Kondo, and guitar virtuosos Nicky Skopelitis and Raoul Bjorkenheim.
Bill Laswell continues to be a powerful and prolific force in the world of underground music. 2001 saw not only the birth of a new label, but also important releases such as the new Herbie Hancock album Future 2 Future, featuring guests Wayne Shorter, Grandmaster DXT, Chaka Khan, and many others; and the self-titled release by Ethiopian vocalist Gigi, also featuring an all-star guest ensemble.
Bill Laswell Bio from Discogs
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.