A longtime linchpin of the New York City underground music scene, Bill Laswell has been among the most prolific artists in contemporary music. As a performer, producer, and label chief, his imprint is on literally hundreds of albums, the majority of them characterized by a signature sound fusing the energy of punk with the bone-rattling rhythms of funk and dub. However, he's also known for immersive ambient explorations, as well as fusions of disparate genres, including traditional Indian music, opera, klezmer, hip-hop, jazz, and seemingly every other genre known to humanity. Laswell has been a staple of the downtown New York music scene since the late '70s, when he founded Material, a rotating ensemble whose output ranged from angular art-funk to more club-friendly, futuristic electro-pop, with 1982's One Down remaining a career highlight. Laswell's commercial breakthrough came when he co-wrote and produced Herbie Hancock's groundbreaking 1983 electro track "Rockit." Throughout the decade, he participated in projects such as Massacre, Deadline, and Last Exit, in addition to releasing the occasional solo effort such as 1983's Baselines. He also produced records for a wildly diverse array of artists, including Mick Jagger, Nona Hendryx, Laurie Anderson, Ramones, and Swans. During the '90s, Laswell ran the Island-affiliated Axiom label and co-founded the Subharmonic imprint, releasing ambient dub as Divination and Automaton and collaborating with electronic producers such as Pete Namlook and Jonah Sharp. Material remained active, venturing in more of an experimental hip-hop direction, while Laswell's avant-funk-metal group Praxis helped introduce the world to the unique stylings of guitarist Buckethead. During the 21st century, he remained eclectic as ever, but particularly explored Indian music (participating in Tabla Beat Science along with musicians like Karsh Kale, Talvin Singh, and Zakir Hussain) and drum'n'bass, co-founding Method of Defiance with Submerged. Throughout the 2010s, he ran M.O.D. Technologies, a genre-defying label in the spirit of the earlier Axiom, and released albums with avant-jazz artists like Milford Graves, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Evan Parker.
Born on February 12, 1955, in Salem, Illinois, he initially played guitar, but soon switched to bass. Raised primarily in the Detroit area, he honed his skills in local funk outfits before relocating to New York in 1978. There Laswell formed Material, an outlet for his experimental approach toward sounds ranging from jazz to hip-hop to worldbeat. Originally the backup unit for Daevid Allen, the group soon began working on its own, issuing its debut EP Temporary Music in 1979. While Material's early work was more esoteric, they soon released more accessible, pop-influenced music, including the club classic "Bustin' Out" (featuring Nona Hendryx) and the full-length One Down, which included one of Whitney Houston's first lead vocal performances.
In addition to fronting Material, Laswell also mounted a solo career, issuing Baselines in 1983 on Celluloid, a label he partly owned and operated. Appearances on key recordings by the likes of David Byrne, John Zorn, Fred Frith, and the Golden Palominos established Laswell as a virtual nexus of the downtown N.Y.C. community, and he broke into the mainstream with his production work on Herbie Hancock's 1983 smash "Rockit," which he also co-wrote; the follow-up LP, Sound-System, won him a Grammy. Throughout the mid-'80s Laswell was everywhere, playing bass on LPs from artists including Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel, Yoko Ono, and Laurie Anderson; he also joined the avant group Curlew, and produced a number of African acts.
In 1986, Laswell joined guitarist Sonny Sharrock, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann in the group Last Exit; a second solo LP, Hear No Evil, appeared two years later, and after a long hiatus he also resurrected Material in 1989 with Seven Souls. Another project, the hip-hop-flavored Praxis, was resumed after almost a decade of inactivity with 1992's Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis). In 1990, Laswell formed another label, Axiom, to explore his interest in the new sounds of ambient and techno; where in the past his work rarely appeared solely under his own name, by the middle of the decade he was issuing several solo records annually in a wide range of styles from dub to jazz. He also remained among the most prolific producers in the business, collaborating with the likes of Dub Syndicate, Pete Namlook, Buckethead, and DJ Spooky.
In 2004, Laswell signed a multi-album label deal with the Sanctuary Records group. The deal spawned his new label, Nagual. He also began to collaborate on a series of drum'n'bass-styled recordings with Submerged (aka Kurt Gluck of the Ohm Resistance imprint), the first of these -- attributed to Bill Laswell vs. Submerged -- was entitled Brutal Calling and issued by Avant in 2004 with contributions from Toshinori Kondo and Guy Licata. Through the Sanctuary label's earlier acquisition of the seminal reggae label Trojan, Laswell now had access to the Jamaican label's sizable back catalog. Picking some of his favorite cuts and remixing them, Laswell issued the Trojan-sourced Dub Massive: Chapter One and Chapter Two in May 2005.
Laswell and Submerged re-teamed under the Method of Defiance moniker for 2006's The Only Way to Go Is Down on Sublight Records. This was followed by 2007's Inamorata, on Ohm Resistance. This date found the pair teaming various drum'n'bass producers -- including Future Prophecies, Evol Intent, and SPL -- with jazz, rock, and avant artists such as Herbie Hancock, Pharoah Sanders, Nils Petter Molvaer, and Buckethead. Laswell also released a collaboration with Finnish producer Fanu on Ohm Resistance titled Lodge, which includes contributions from Molvaer and Bernie Worrell. The notion of a live band created around the Method of Defiance structure was initiated with participation from Laswell, Worrell, Kondo, Licata, and Dr. Israel. The group was documented on Nihon from the RareNoise imprint in 2009.
In 2010, Laswell initiated a new label called M.O.D. Technologies. Said to be centered around the principles of a solidified Method of Defiance lineup, the label released three albums that year: Method of Defiance's Jahbulon (a reggae album featuring Hawk and Dr. Israel), the instrumental dub-centric Incunabula, and a live offering from Laswell's spouse, Gigi, with Material, entitled Mesgana Ethiopia. Laswell also collaborated with Submerged (who had left Method of Defiance) for a new group called the Blood of Heroes, which also included Dr. Israel, Enduser, and Justin Broadrick. The band released a self-titled debut and remix album Remain on Ohm Resistance in 2010.
Laswell collaborated with master reggae and Radical Jewish Culture bassist/composer David Gould on a dub version of the latter's 2009 album Feast of the Passover. The new recording, titled Dub of the Passover, was issued by Tzadik in 2011. Metastation released Aspiration, an electronic album billed to Bill Laswell & Friends (including Alice Coltrane, Carlos Santana, Pharoah Sanders, and Zakir Hussain) -- the tunes were dedicated to the ensemble members' own inspirational figures, including H.H. Dalai Lama XIV, Sonny Sharrock, Rumi, and Pattabhi Jois. The Blood of Heroes' second album, The Waking Nightmare, appeared in 2012. M.O.D. Technologies continued releasing material, including archival releases by Praxis as well as Laswell's collaborations with artists including DJ Krush, Milford Graves, and Wadada Leo Smith. In 2014, Laswell collaborated with several Hawaiian musicians for the album Kauai: The Arch of Heaven, which appeared on Metastation. Laswell and Submerged collaborated once again in 2016, when After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? appeared on Ohm Resistance. Along with Masahiro Shimba, Laswell combined dub and opera on the ESP-Disk release Risurrezione. He also released work with Japanese drummer Hideo Yamaki and avant-rock guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim. In 2018, Laswell collaborated with drummer Simon Barker, guitarist Henry Kaiser, and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa on Mudang Rock, an album inspired by shamanic ritual music of Korea.
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