Bill Laswell

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Bill Laswell at the Moers Festival 2006

Bill Laswell (born February 12, 1955 in Salem , Illinois ) is an American bassist , composer , arranger and producer . He runs multiple record labels and has been the producer of several Grammy- winning albums.

The discography ( see web links ) of the albums published under his name or the name of one of the bands with which he plays and those that he produced for other musicians already comprises well over 200 entries by the middle of the first decade of the 21st century . Since the 1990s, around a dozen releases per year with him as a musician or producer - often both - have been the rule rather than the exception.

His role in the development of electronic music and the ambient in particular makes Bill Laswell one of the most influential musicians and producers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.


Bill Laswell began his musical career as a bassist in funk bands. After moving to New York, he was soon involved as a producer with artists such as Brian Eno and David Byrne in the development of the ambient and with Herbie Hancock in the connection of jazz with hip-hop and electronic music . He founded the free jazz band Last Exit with Sonny Sharrock , Peter Brötzmann and Ronald Shannon Jackson and developed his own form of world music , which is strongly influenced by Indian music , with Zakir Hussain , who is now considered the most prominent tabla player, to be more musical for decades Was a companion. His bass playing is mainly characterized by dub and funk.


A clear stylistic assignment of Laswell's productions - those published under his name, the recordings with various bands and his contributions to other artists - is not possible. Nevertheless, there are a number of connecting elements that enable characterization.


About his approach, e.g. B. to combine classical Indian with western electronic music, he says: “I do not come from any tradition, neither classical nor another […] I have no culture, I have no tradition, and I have no school that taught me how has to be something. I just mutate and destroy things and create a mess and people like it or not. My culture is on the other side, has not even started. ” Regardless of whether he records a dub, an ambient , a world music or a jazz album, there are always elements of other musical styles on it. The difference is in the weighting.


An essential characteristic of Bill Laswell's music is the rhythmic foundation of funk or hip-hop , dub and - especially Indian-influenced - percussion . His bass playing moves between funk and dub and as a producer he mostly works with bassists like Bootsy Collins , Robbie Shakespeare or Jah Wobble , who have a comparable approach. The groove , the interplay of bass and drums / percussion, is the core of Laswell's music, which can certainly cast a spell over listeners who are ready to get involved (cf. psychedelic music ).


What all productions have in common is the complexity of the arrangements, which gives the music a "depth" that distinguishes it from most world music productions and from commercially oriented pop . The stylistic means that Laswell uses are as diverse as the musical styles with which he works: from the meditative mood of Indian-influenced rhythms and harmonies ( see also harmonics ) (e.g. the albums of the Asana series) to hypnotic ones Dub productions (e.g. the Dub Chamber series) up to the intensity of the albums influenced by funk and rock (e.g. with the band project Praxis ).



Magic and spirituality

Laswell's music has a magical - spiritual quality. He is not tied to any specific religion or esoteric school, but makes use of traditions from all over the world - as is the case with music. There are elements from the Indian- Hindu - Buddhist area to western esoteric traditions.

This can be heard, for example, in his often hypnotic dub bass (see also trance ), the elements from Indian music (the tablas Zakir Hussains, the violin L. Shankars ), the saxophone Pharoah Sanders or the recordings of the Gnawa musicians Morocco (see also Sufism ).

This aspect of his music is most obviously expressed in the naming of bands, albums and individual recordings. Some examples:

  • Asana (title of a series of meditative albums), Asanas are the physical exercises of yoga .
  • Arcana (band around Laswell and Tony Williams), generally describes secret knowledge , known as a term in tarot .
  • Divination (another series of ambient albums), with titles such as Akasha ( Sanskrit : space , in Hinduism and later in European esoteric traditions the so-called “fifth element”, ether or the spirit) or Sacrifice (religious sacrifice).
  • Funkcronomicon (1995, Axiom Funk), an allusion to the fictional mythical book Necronomicon from HP Lovecraft's novels.
  • Hashisheen (1998, The End of Law) tells the story of the medieval sect of the assassins of Hassan-i Sabbah .
  • Nagual Site (1998, Bill Laswell with Sacred System ), our world is determined by cause and effect, Nagual is the other side - unknown, unpredictable and uncontrollable (cf. Carlos Castaneda ).
  • Seven Centers (1998, Chakra , Bill Laswell: Bass and Production), the seven tracks on the album are dedicated to the seven energy centers of the human body, called chakras according to the Indian tradition .

Music industry and independence

Bill Laswell is a sharp critic of the music industry in which profit the highest maxim was and integrity , vision and artistic expression - essential elements of creativity - would bothersome. The business model of the music industry is based on recognizing trends and offering coordinated products that can be marketed in controllable genres . A concept that is diametrically opposed to Laswell's approach of constantly transgressing stylistic and cultural boundaries.

As a consequence, he founded the labels Axiom and innerhythmic as platforms within which he can work independently and without artistic restrictions. Laswell has also released some of his songs on the adventurous New York record label WordSound . B. together with Dr. Israel (as “Dubadelic”) or with Mick Harris from Napalm Death (as “Equations Of Eternity / EOE”).


While Laswell's strengths lie in his abilities as a musician - as a bassist - and as a distinguished producer, his tendency to get lost in technical studio details in individual productions is sometimes criticized as his greatest weakness. Some also criticize that his productions are sometimes too top-heavy and intellectual. And last but not least, “purists” of different styles often find little pleasure in the radicalism with which he uses different directions from the repertoire and thus creates his form of fusion or world music.

Biography and musical development

Bill Laswell's father repaired oil wells and the family moved frequently following work. The frequent changes in the environment, the people and their music made a strong impression on the young Bill Laswell. He understood, as he himself told years later in New York, that there are no different “types of music”. The shape may be different, the core is the same.

In the late 1960s he lived in Detroit and attended his first concerts there: Jimi Hendrix , The Stooges , Archie Shepp , Pharoah Sanders and Funkadelic , musicians whom the teenager perceived as almost unreal and mystical.

After listening to funk, rock and the psychedelic music that was current at the time , at the age of 14 he experienced what he once called his initiation in an interview . He had received a ticket to a concert with sitar player Ravi Shankar at Ann Arbor University . On the way to the concert he consumed an acidic drink for the first time in his life and consequently experienced his first concert with Indian music as the "greatest psychedelic music" he had ever heard.

Laswell learned the guitar as his first instrument . But he soon switched to bass and eventually played in various funk bands in and around Detroit . He never did any other job.

In 1977/78 he moved to New York City , where he quickly established himself as a studio musician and at live gigs in the underground music scene. Shortly afterwards he founded the band Material with keyboardist Michael Beinhorn and drummer Fred Maher . Originally created as a backing band for guitarist Daevid Allen , the group soon began producing their own recordings. In terms of style, material was located in the area of ​​tension between industrial, electro funk, funk and jazz.

In 1979 the first material EP , Temporary Music 1, was released .

The 1980s

In addition to his work at Material, Bill Laswell also began solo projects and in 1982 released the first record under his own name, Baselines , on the Celluloid label , of which he was co-owner and co-operator. His status as one of the key figures on the New York music scene secured him his participation in recordings of Brian Eno , David Byrnes , John Zorns , Fred Friths and the Golden Palominos .

A milestone in 1983 was the success of Rockit , which he produced and co-composed for Herbie Hancock ( Future Shock ) , where he can also be heard on bass. As a result, Bill Laswell became a sought-after studio musician and producer, well beyond the New York underground. He played bass with Laurie Anderson ( Mr. Heartbreak , 1984), Gil Scott-Heron ( Re-Ron , 1984) and Peter Gabriel ( So , 1986) , among others . He also produced albums for Mick Jagger ( She's the Boss , 1985, Jagger's first solo album), Yoko Ono ( Starpeace , 1985), Public Image (1986 album) Motörhead ( Orgasmatron , 1986), Iggy Pop ( Instinct , 1988), for the Ramones ( Brain Drain , 1989) and for many others.

At the same time he continued the material band project and collaborated with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Afrika Bambaataa , Fela Anikulapo Kuti , Manu Dibango and Nona Hendryx . In 1985 Michael Beinhorn left the group.

In 1986 Laswell founded the “punk jazz” band Last Exit with the guitarist Sonny Sharrock and the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson . Another band project that he led during the 1980s is Praxis , a loose association of musicians from hip-hop and funk with Laswell as bassist and producer.

In the late 1980s, recordings were made in which Laswell's intensive engagement with Arabic and Indian music became clear. Individual elements, above all “oriental” percussion and the associated rhythm , had already left their mark on individual productions. The 1988 Laswell album Hear No Evil was finally the trend-setting production. Laswell (composer, producer and bass) gathered musicians around him who would continue to contribute significantly to the sound of many of his productions in the following decades: L. Shankar ( violin ), Nicky Skopelitis ( guitar and sitar ), Zakir Hussain ( tabla ), Aiyb Dieng and Daniel Ponce ( percussion ). The result was an album that opened up new musical territory in its way of combining non-European or non-American music with a western ambience and even electro funk .

The following year, an album was released under the name Material - now much more a band project with an open line-up than a band - that pursues this concept: Seven Souls (1989). In addition to Laswell (4-, 6- and 8-string bass, acoustic guitar, tapes, percussion), the cast list includes Aiyb Dieng, Shankar and Nicky Skopelitis as well as Simon Shaheen (violin), Jeff Bova (keyboards) and Sly Dunbar ( Drums). Also noteworthy is the participation of the writer William S. Burroughs , who speaks excerpts from his book The Western Lands .

The 1990s

Nothing is true - everything is permitted (the axiom of the axiom record label )

In 1990 Bill Laswell founded the label Axiom ( see web links ), where a large number of albums were soon produced, often strongly influenced by his interest in electronic music styles , from (Detroit) techno to ambient, but also jazz and dub.

In 1991 he produced the CD Slow up with the Belgian group X-Legged Sally .

In 1992, Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis) from Praxis appeared , which could be classified somewhere between P-Funk and Industrial. There followed collaborations with artists and bands as diverse as: Brian Eno, Dub Syndicate , Pharoah Sanders , Pete Namlook , FFF , DJ Spooky , George Clinton , Tony Williams , Nicky Skopelitis , DJ Krush , Jonah Sharp , Sly Dunbar , Manu Dibango , Jah Wobble , the writer William S. Burroughs, and many others.

The 1990s were an extraordinarily productive time for Bill Laswell. Year after year a multitude of albums appeared under his own name or with his participation.

The remix projects of the late 1990s are also noteworthy . In 1997, Bob Marley - Dreams of Freedom (Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub) was released. In 1998, Panthalassa (the music of miles davis 1969 - 1974) followed with sometimes very dark and meditative " reconstructions " of Miles Davis ' recordings from his fusion and jazz-rock phases. The third remix project dealt with Carlos Santana . For Divine Light - Music from Illuminations & Love Devotion Surrender (2001), Laswell deconstructed Santana's collaborations with jazz musicians John McLaughlin (1972) and Alice Coltrane (1974) and reconstructed them in a mixture of dub and ambient.

His collaboration with Frenchman Jean Touitou, founder of the fashion label APC, resulted in some interesting dub-reggae fusion albums. The double album "Havannah Mood" with the musicians of the Septeto Nacional and Tata Güines should be emphasized.

The 2000s

In 2000 the first album of the new project Tabla Beat Science called Tala Matrix was released ; another powerful reinterpretation of Indian music in the mirror of modern western styles, combining classical Indian instrumentation with contemporary electronic music, with master percussionists like Zakir Hussain and Trilok Gurtu . 2001 followed the very calm and meditative Life Space Death with the Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondō and voice recordings of the Dalai Lama . In the same year there was also another collaboration with Jah Wobble in the Solaris project .

Radioaxiom - A Dub Transmission (2001) was created as a collaboration between Laswell and Jah Wobble. Laswell describes this album as an "alien broadcast" in search of "traces of a lost future". With his contributions to remix albums by musicians such as Mari Boine ( Remixed , 2001, Maid aiggot muinna eallin - Bill Laswell Mix ) and Nils Petter Molvaer, this description can also be considered a characterization of his music at the beginning of the 21st century ( Recolored , 2001, Merciful / Ligotage - Incunabula Mix by Bill Laswell ).

In 2003 son Anman William , the first child of Laswell and his wife, the Ethiopian singer Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw , was born. The wedding was shortly after the completion of the album GiGi (2001) that he produced.

Bands, projects and pseudonyms

In the mid-1990s , a band project developed around Bill Laswell (bass) and drummer Tony Williams . By the time Tony Williams passed away in 1997, only two albums had been released: The Last Wave (1996) and Arc of Testimony (1997), Williams' last studio recording. Arcana (Eng .: Arkana ) is a term from esotericism and is used there in various contexts for secret knowledge . The best known meaning relates to the cards of the tarot .
A series of meditative albums with a strong Indian influence. The name was taken from the names for the physical exercises in yoga (see also Asanas ).
A series of ambient- oriented productions. In addition to Bill Laswell ( electric bass , production and sound design), there are also key figures from the ambient environment such as Jah Wobble and Jeff Bova .
Last exit
1986 founded "punk jazz" band; Instrumentation: Bill Laswell (electric bass), Sonny Sharrock ( electric guitar ), Peter Brötzmann ( saxophone ), Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums); Guest musicians: Herbie Hancock ( piano ), Akira Sakata (saxophone).
he founded in the early 1980s with Fred Frith and Fred Maher. The music moves in the border area between jazz , no wave and punk . Since the late 1990s they came together several times (now with Charles Hayward on drums) for new recordings.
Founded in 1978/79 with keyboardist Michael Beinhorn (left the band in 1985) and drummer Fred Maher as a band for guitarist Daevid Allen . The first material production, Temporary Music , appeared as early as 1979 , with which material established itself as an independent unit outside of the New York underground club scene, where the band played concerts regularly. Since then, material has developed from a band with a permanent cast to an open project with a large number of participating musicians and a wide musical spectrum (especially dub, funk and ambient). On individual albums, material consists only of Bill Laswell himself, so it can also be viewed as a pseudonym.
like Psychonavigation is also a project by Bill Laswell together with Pete Namlook . The five albums Outland 1 to 5 have been created under the FAX + 49-69 / 450464 sub-label Ambient World since 1994 .
was a project that Bill Laswell ran from 1991, among others, with John Zorn on saxophone and Mick Harris on drums.
Band project started in the mid-1980s. The recurring musicians who shape the sound, which moves between funk, rock and dub, include Bill Laswell (who is less of a bass player than a producer and sound designer), Buckethead (electric guitar) and Brain (Drums). Guest musicians to date include: Bootsy Collins (electric bass), Bernie Worrell ( synthesizer , clavinet ) and Af Next Man Flip ( turntables ).
like Outland is also a project by Bill Laswell together with Pete Namlook. The five albums Psychonavigation 1 to 5 were created between 1994 and 2002 .
Sacred system
A series of albums where Laswell mixes Indian music with dub.
Tabla Beat Science
Band project founded in the late 1990s. The core element is the tabla in conjunction with Laswell's dub bass and production. Some of the contemporary masters of the tabla are represented at Tabla Beat Science, above all Zakir Hussain , but also Trilok Gurtu and Talvin Singh , as well as the drummer Karsh Kale .
Pseudonym Laswell adopted for the album Altered Beats - Assassin Knowledges of the Remanipulated (1996); actually the title of a novel by Philip K. Dick ( Valis , 1981), which describes an extraterrestrial tool with which errors or faults in the "matrix", an information network for "harmonious communication between the galaxies" , can be repaired. The choice of this pseudonym can certainly be seen as an expression of Laswell's self-image as a music maker.


A brief overview of the instruments played by Bill Laswell:

Samplers , synthesizers , keyboards

In addition, he sometimes uses a whole range of other instruments and sound generators such as E.g .: tape recorders (see also dubbing ), record players (see also turntablism ), acoustic guitar , percussion , pocket trumpet , piano strings , radios ...

Private life

He is married to the singer Gigi (* 1974 in Ethiopia ). In 2003 their son Anman William was born.

Annotated discography (selection)

  • For a largely complete discography: see web links

Some milestones:

(Bill Laswell: Bass).
  • 1982 One Down Material
  • 1983 Future Shock and 1984 Sound System Herbie Hancock
Both albums were co-produced and composed by Bill Laswell, and he can be heard as bassist. Not very well received by many critics, especially from the field of jazz, but both won the Grammy for “Best Instrumental R&B Performance ”. The title Rockit (from Future Shock ) was a great commercial success, made it into the charts, was played on MTV and opened up many contacts for Laswell both as a musician and as a producer outside of the New York underground scene. (Bill Laswell: production, composition, bass).
  • 1986 Last Exit Last Exit
The first release of the “punk jazz” band, influenced by free jazz and jazz rock , with Bill Laswell on bass. Members were: guitarist Sonny Sharrock (already involved in the beginnings of free jazz with Pharoah Sanders and Don Cherry in the 1960s ), drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson (formerly in Ornette Coleman's Prime Time and in the 1970s with Cecil Taylor ) and the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann (known for his provocative Machine Gun , 1968).
  • 1988 Hear No Evil Bill Laswell
The album marked a milestone for Laswell for a number of reasons. Hear No Evil is Laswell's model for his style of world music ; a hypnotic connection of non-western (especially Indian, also Arab and West African) musical traditions with elements of funk, blues and (especially from the 1990s) dub. With this production he established himself as one of the leading producers in the field of ambient and world music.
Until then he had preferred electronic instrumentation and studio technology, but with the help of Zakir Hussain and Aiyb Dieng he created a dense rhythmic atmosphere from percussion for the first time . The participating musicians such as Shankar ( violin ), Nicky Skopelitis ( guitar ), Zakir Hussain ( tabla ) and Aiyb Dieng (percussion) became his musical companions in the following decades. (Bill Laswell: bass, composition, production).
  • 1989 Seven Souls material
The album is characterized by two aspects: the lyrics by William S. Burroughs (from Western Lands ), which the writer recites himself here, and the music driven by dub, funk and percussion rhythms. (Bill Laswell: 4-, 6- and 8-string basses, acoustic guitar, tape recorders, percussion and production).
  • 1991 The Third Power Material
Probably one of Laswell's most musically commercial albums at first glance. A not too experimental mixture of funk, soul , hip-hop and reggae , which impresses above all with the list of participating musicians, including: Bootsy Collins , Herbie Hancock, Bernie Worrell , Jeff Bova , Henry Threadgill , Robbie Shakespeare , Sly Dunbar , Olu Dara , Fred Wesley , Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis . The lyrics, performed by the Jungle Brothers , Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin ( The Last Poets ), Shabba Ranks and Gary Mudbone Cooper , among others , are in the psychedelic and US-critical tradition, as it is also known from P-Funk . (Bill Laswell: Production).
  • 1999 The End of Law Hashisheen
Musically located between ambient, electro funk and Arabic-influenced world music, the album is particularly remarkable for the lyrics recited by William S. Burroughs, Iggy Pop , Sussan Deyhim , Hakim Bey , Jah Wobble , Patti Smith , Anne Clark and others. It tells the story of the assassins of Hassan-i Sabbah . The texts are largely taken from Persian and Ismaili chronicles, stories and volumes of poetry, but also from the books of Marco Polo and William S. Burroughs. (Bill Laswell: Production).
  • 2001 Radioaxiom - A Dub Transmission (Bass: The Final Frontier) Jah Wobble / Bill Laswell
A mix of dub and ambient that was enthusiastically received by critics and listeners alike with echoes from soul jazz of the 1960s to trip-hop of the 1990s. Laswell himself calls it an " alien broadcast " in search of "traces of a lost future". The list of performing musicians includes Laswell's wife Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw , Nils Petter Molvær , Graham Haynes , Amina Claudine Myers , Karsh Kale , Hamid Drake and Sly Dunbar . (Bill Laswell: bass, production, mix-translation).


Web links


  1. John Doran: Bill Laswell Interviewed: Bass. How Low Can You Go? in: The Quietus of July 15, 2009.
  2. ^ Bass - Time - Continuum interviews with Bill Laswell, 2002.
  3. Bill Laswell in Triptikon January 5 of 2019.