Bill Laswell

Trying to summarize the musical career of Bill Laswell in under 300 pages is a daunting task. A formidable bass player and prolific, genre-hopping producer, he has participated in literally thousands of recordings and singlehandedly changed the landscape of popular music. 

Laswell was born in Illinois, but when he was six years old his family settled in the small Michigan town of Albion. By the time he reached adolescence he was regularly venturing far from home in pursuit of musical experience, and before long he was playing bass in funk and R&B bands on the midwestern club circuit. While in his twenties he relocated to New York City, and soon established himself as a mainstay of the downtown avant-garde scene that flourished in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With keyboardist Michael Beinhorn and drummer Fred Maher he formed an initial version of Material, an avant-funk band that would eventually become a constantly-changing musical project that swirled around Laswell as the only constant member. (In the early 1990s he would found the more rockish Praxis on similar terms, though that band’s membership revolved around guitarist Brian “Buckethead” Carroll and drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia in addition to Laswell.) 

From the late 1970s through the 1990s Laswell served as a member of such disparate ensembles as avant-rock power trio Massacre, free-jazz skronk terrorists Last Exit, South Asian fusioneers Tabla Beat Science, leftwing pop ensemble the Golden Palominos, and the underrated Afro-industrial outfit Deadline, among others. During the 1990s and into the 2000s he also teamed up with artists across a wide variety of genres to make dozens of duo albums – notable among them his Outland and Psychonavigation series with ambient synthesist Pete Namlook and many collaborations with avant-garde musicians from Japan, including Yasuhiro Yoshigaki, Hoppy Kamiyama, and the great trumpeter Toshinori Kondo. With his wife, the singer Ejigayehu Shibabaw (a.k.a. Gigi), Laswell has also produced several albums of electro-influenced Ethiopian pop music. During this period Laswell founded several record labels, including Axiom, Subharmonic, Meta/Submeta, Black Arc, and Innerhythmic. 

While fans of New York’s No Wave and avant-garde scenes have always held Laswell in high regard as a bassist, the wider world has experienced his work more often through his role as a producer – and the casual observer could be forgiven for wondering if any albums released between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s were actually produced by anyone other than Laswell. Though credited coyly as “Material,” Laswell was the coproducer of Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock album, which yielded the monster MTV hit “Rockit.” (He also coproduced Hancock’s follow-up albums Sound System and Perfect Machine.) He produced Public Image Ltd’s Album and Mick Jagger’s She’s the Boss, as well as Motörhead’s Orgasmatron and Maceo Parker’s For All the King’s Men. Bands and artists as disparate as Blind Idiot God, Ronald Shannon Jackson, the Ramones, Swans, Simon Shaheen, Mephiskapheles, and Icehouse have all called on his skills as a producer and/or mixer over the years. 

Health and financial problems slowed his output somewhat in the late 2010s and early 2020s, but Laswell continues to exert a deep influence on the world of forward-thinking beat-based music and has had a significant impact on several generations of similarly inclined musical adventurers.

Jahbulon cover

Reggae and dub have been a steady stylistic subtext of bassist/producer Bill Laswell’s playing and production throughout his career; sometimes it has come explicitly to the forefront, but more often it lurked below the surface, informing much of what he did even when the structure of his music had little obviously in common with reggae. With the band Method of Defiance, he brought his heavyweight production style and hard-rocking sound to bear on straight-up modern roots and dancehall reggae, featuring heavy roots-and-culture lyrics delivered by Hawk and Brooklyn roots junglist Dr. Israel. Every track is a killer.

Hear No Evil cover

Though this album generally gets billed as “ambient music,” the reality is much more complicated. Leading a musical team that includes Indian violinist L. Shankar, Latin percussionist Daniel Ponce, guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, and African percussionist Aiyb Deng (among others), Laswell takes us on a mysterious journey that veers between quiet but eerie soundscapes (“Lost Roads”) and sonically spacious but still beat-heavy grooves (“Assassin”). Hear No Evil sounds unlike any of his other solo work, but like no one other than Bill Laswell.

Seven Souls cover

Material’s fourth album took the band off in yet another new direction: this one a fusion of Western avant-funk and musical traditions from various areas of the Middle East and global south, including Gambia (singer Foday Musa Suso), Palestine (Fahiem Dandan, Simon Shaheen), and Senegal (Aiyb Dieng). Beat writer William Burroughs is here as well, reading selections from his novel The Western Lands. It all adds up to a funky, strange, and pancultural collage of beats and sounds and one of the most interesting of Material’s albums.

Baselines cover

Bill Laswell’s first solo album is like a darkly joyful celebration of all the music he had been making up until this point in his (still early) career. It opens with “Activate,” a tune that blends Ronald Shannon’s aggro drumming with weird but tightly-arranged horn parts and Laswell’s odd-sounding bass, and then segues directly into the aptly titled “Work Song,” an avant-funk workout that features R&B horns and cut-up vocal samples. Other tracks feature readings from the Old Testament and abrasive No Wave improvisation. Totally unique and altogether brilliant.

Incidents cover

Although it’s credited to them as a duo, on this album Bill Laswell’s contribution is mainly as a bass player; the music and production (and all other instrumental contributions) are credited to Alex Haas. But Laswell’s influence is very strong here: check out the loping dub-reggae undercurrents on “Introspection,” or the steady pedal point of his bassline on “More Worlds.” Laswell and Haas turn out to be something of a dream team on this album, which is simultaneously easy on the ear and deeply musically interesting.

Temporary Music cover

Temporary Music was Material’s debut album, but it was actually a compilation of two four-track EPs previously issued as Temporary Music 1 and 2 (later reissues would include additional tracks from the band’s early days). Interestingly, it’s not a reliable indicator of what would come later from the band: arrangements are fairly minimal, and the musical ideas are not yet as diverse or fully developed as they would soon be on releases like Memory Serves and the much more pop-oriented One Down. But there’s plenty of fun and interesting stuff here and you can certainly hear hints of some of what will come in bassist Bill Laswell’s later projects.

Outland 1 cover

This is the first of five collaborative albums made by bassist/producer Bill Laswell and synthesist/producer Pete Namlook under the title Outland. It consists of one hourlong track titled “From the Earth to the Ceiling,” though the track is subdivided into twelve sections. (The divisions are inaudible unless you buy the album digitally, in which case there will be brief but distracting moments of silence between them.) The mood is dark and haunting; the first few tracks bring to mind an enormous subterranean creature slowly waking up, accompanied by the world’s largest didjeridoo. Later the mood gets a bit lighter, but that initial sense of foreboding never fully lifts.

Ethiopia: African Futurism cover

Described simply as “postmodern Ethiopian pop,” this album is actually something of a mystery. Bassist and producer Bill Laswell is married to an Ethiopian musician, the wonderful singer Ejigayehu Shibabaw (a.k.a. Gigi), and perhaps because of that connection he was apparently sent a bunch of tracks by various Ethiopian artists and asked to do some production work on them. But then whoever sent them to him disappeared, and he was left with some wonderful music but little or no information about where it had come from or even who the musicians were. In fact, only two artists are named: the singer Teddy Afro (whose reggae-inflected “Africaye” is an album highlight) and Gigi herself, who contributed a lovely song called “Bante.” All of this makes the program a bittersweet listening experience: you’d love to hear more from so many of these artists, but since we don’t even know who they are…

One Down cover

Nothing on Material’s first two releases prepares you for One Down, which is a straight-up pop-funk album, complete with vocoder, slap bass, and verse-chorus-verse song structures. Well, maybe “straight-up” is an exaggeration: guest musicians include avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith, edgy jazz saxophonist Oliver Lake, and edgier saxophonist Archie Shepp (whose astonishing solo accompanies a young singer named Whitney Houston on the ballad “Memories”). But still, this is essentially a pop album, even if it has some pretty sharp edges, and that tension between pop and avant-garde makes it a tremendously fun and exciting listen.

Imaginary Cuba cover

On this hauntingly beautiful album, bassist/producer Bill Laswell reworks recordings by a variety of Cuban artists including Los Ibellis, Septeto Nacional, Frank Emilio, and Guillermo Pompa, subjecting them to his unique dubwise production style and creating what are sometimes pretty radical deconstructions of the original tracks — though always with audible love and respect. Highlights include the slightly eerie “Hombre Lobo, No! Hombre Nuevo, Si!” and the downright eerie “Madre No Mi Pida in Dub.”

Means of Deliverance cover

Though bassist and producer Bill Laswell has released many solo albums, this one is a solo album in a deeper sense. It consists entirely of recordings he made by himself, playing only a Warwick Alien fretless acoustic bass guitar. Using subtle looping and effects, Laswell keeps the focus tightly on the rich and unique natural tone of his instrument, and on the eerie and otherworldly melodies he coaxes from it. His wife, the brilliant Ethiopian singer Ejigayehu Shibabaw, makes a cameo appearance as well.

Metatron cover

With Metatron, Praxis compacted itself down to its fundamental essence: an experimental funk power trio featuring bassist Bill Laswell, guitarist Buckethead, and drummer Brain. Though it opens with a deceptively pastoral acoustic-guitar feature, things quickly shift into the typical avant-funk-metal gear that has been this particular ensemble’s stock in trade since the beginning. All three players are incredibly stylistically nimble, and they sound like they’re have a blast showing it off on this, the band’s third album.

Killing Time cover

As we all know, “important” albums aren’t necessarily any fun to listen to. This one is both. Massacre was (and still is, technically) a downtown power trio consisting of guitarist Fred Frith, bassist Bill Laswell, and drummer Fred Maher (replaced in later incarnations of the group by Charles Hayward). The band name and album title might lead you to expect hellacious noise, and while there is of course a bit of that, the album features lots of arranged music: herky-jerk and abrasive music, to be sure, but also humorous, upbeat and approachable music. Chalk it up mostly to Frith, who has always taken a joyful and inviting approach to avant grade guitar playing... and to the creation of hellacious noise. Chalk the grooves up to Laswell (always a monster groove maker) and Maher. (If you’re going to pick this one up, make sure you go for the Tzadik reissue, which corrects tape speed problems on the Celluloid original.)

Dub Arcanum Arcandum cover

Dub Arcanum Arcandum is a remix album that draws on tracks from Method of Defiance’s first two albums, Jahbulon and Incunabula. Guest producers include Subcode, Prefuse 73, Mad Professor, and even the legendary Scientist — and there are mixes by bandleader Bill Laswell and vocalist Dr. Israel as well. Despite the title, much of this doesn’t sound like traditional dubwise reggae; the different mixers all have distinct musical visions, making this collection a highly colorful kaleidoscope of styles and sounds.

Oscillations cover

When the jungle juggernaut began gathering steam in London’s underground dance clubs in the early 1990s, bassist and producer Bill Laswell was paying attention. And by the time jungle started shedding its explicit reggae influences and turning into a sleeker and harder instrumental subgenre called drum’n’bass, Laswell was fully on board. He produced Oscillations in 1996, working with artists Ninj and Transoniq to create a uniquely dark vision of the doublespeed-breakbeat concept — one that would continue to influence his later work as a solo artist and producer.

Dub Chamber 1: Book of Entrance cover

Like many bassists, Bill Laswell has always had a particular interest in reggae music, and even more particularly in the remix subgenre known as dub. Most of the time, dub versions are precisely that: versions of vocal tunes with the voice and various instruments dropped in and out of the mix. But on Dub Chamber 1: Book of Entrance Laswell creates original instrumental music in a dubwise style, playing bass and keyboards and programming his own drum tracks, and then subjecting them to dub production techniques. Laswell is a master of the melodic bassline, so the results are both mystical and deeply grounded.

Tala Matrix cover

Tala Matrix was the name bassist and producer Bill Laswell gave to his collaboration with percussionists Karsh Kale and Zakir Hussain. On the group’s debut album they’re joined by several other luminaries of the Indian subcontinent, including the legendary sarangi player Ustad Sultan Khan and Anglo-Indian percussionist Talvin Singh. Laswell provides bass, jungle breakbeats, and heavy dubwise production, and the resulting album floats and dives and echoes and rumbles and dances. I promise it’s like nothing else you’ve ever heard.

Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis) cover

Praxis’ first album, from 1992, remains one of its best — maybe its best ever. The opening track lays out what amounts to a musical manifesto: opening with a blast of virtuosic metal guitar (courtesy of charter member Buckethead) and hardcore drumming (courtesy of Brain), it suddenly melts into a slow rockers reggae beat and blossoms into spacey instrumental dub. Things continue in that vein for the rest of the program: funk and metal and dub and hip hop all jostle against each other, mostly in sequence but sometimes simultaneously. This is an exhausting but thrilling album.

Túwaqachi (The Fourth World) cover

The 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance was famous in part for its score, written by celebrated minimalist composer Phillip Glass. Tuwaqachi is bassist and producer Bill Laswell’s proposed alternative to the Glass score, and one can only assume that watching the film with Laswell’s musical accompaniment would make it a radically different viewing experience. Laswell’s music is dark and haunting, and at times frankly a bit scary. His bass is at the center of the sound, but there are lots of strange and otherworldly elements swirling around at any given moment. The music is brilliant, but maybe not the best thing to listen to if you’re at home alone late at night.

Memory Serves cover

Material’s second album marked a huge step forward in conception from the band’s already-impressive debut. Marked by a more sharply defined and aggressive sound and by carefully composed structures, Memory Serves also had a definite No Wave edge to it: George Lewis’s trombone threatens to head off into harmolodic territory at any moment, Fred Frith and Sonny Sharrock trade deeply weird guitar licks, and on “Metal Test” we start to hear the ideas that Frith, bassist Bill Laswell, and drummer Fred Maher will shortly begin fully developing with their Massacre power trio project.

Psychonavigation cover

If your idea of ambient music is something along the lines of pleasant New Age fare, then you’ll want to steer clear of the series of five albums produced by Bill Laswell and Pete Namlook under the title Psychonavigation (numbered 1 through 5). The first volume opens with a half-hour-long composition that floats and grumbles eerily for a while before juddering into motion as a sort of outer-space house groove; “Angel Tech,” the second track, is ten minutes of spooky atonal ambience spiked with spoken-word found sound; “Black Dawn” takes us back to the house beats in a (very) slightly more cheerful mode. It’s not easy listening, but it’s worthwhile listening.

Shfl