Straddling genres, roles and responsibilities like a veritable Atlas of the bass, Bill Laswell is an insanely prolific everywhere-at-once figure in modern music, contributing to funk, art-rock, ambient, hip-hop, world music, spoken word, dub, reggae, jazz, noise and rock as a producer, player, composer and multiple-label entrepreneur. If there’s no easy way to join the dots of his career into the audible consensus of an identifiable sound (you find the common ground between the Ramones, Herbie Hancock, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Motörhead, Yellowman and the Last Poets), it’s safe to say that Laswell has facilitated the meeting and greeting of music and musicians as much as anyone. With his enormous grasp and promethean productivity — the majority of it accomplished in his Brooklyn bunker — Laswell continually brings together ideas few others have attempted to integrate.
Of course, giving the man his career props doesn’t mean anyone has to plow through all of his records. His discography is impossibly large and scattered, filled with solid achievements, nice tries and dubious missteps. He presents a sonic department store: there for browsing and selective consumption, not wholesale acquisition. Finally, Laswell’s oeuvre is indicative of an exceptionally broad artist unbound by conventional concerns — of any sort. The only area for which he hasn’t shown any enthusiasm is the sound of his own voice.
The Illinois native’s emergence on the New York scene came in the late ’70s via the group Material, an adaptable experimental rhythm section with drummer Fred Maher and keyboardist Michael Beinhorn. Making an open-ended connection between progressive rock, contemporary funk and modern jazz, Material became both a bedrock and a testing ground, open to collaborative input from guitarists Fred Frith, Robert Quine, Nile Rodgers, Nicky Skopelitis and Sonny Sharrock, saxophonists Archie Shepp, Henry Threadgill and Oliver Lake and vocalists Nona Hendryx and Bernard Fowler. Material faded out as an entity with the departure of Maher and Beinhorn (both for production careers), but Laswell has maintained both the model and the name. His subsequent endeavors are as much matchmaking as musicmaking.
The early ’80s were a boom time for Laswell. With Material underway, he, Maher and Frith consolidated themselves into a side band, Massacre. He began making solo records under his own name, adding a hip-hop EP to the catalogue as Praxis. At the same time, Material became a versatile production/playing unit for hire: the group’s co-production of Herbie Hancock’s genre-crossing “Rockit” (1983) remains one of Laswell’s hallmark achievements. It doesn’t include that track, but the two-CD Deconstruction does anthologize Laswell’s outstanding work from this era. Culling records by Material, Massacre, Time Zone, Fab Five Freddy, Tour‚ Kunda, the Last Poets, Manu Dibango and Fela Kuti — as well as Laswell’s LP collaboration with Last Exit’s Peter Brötzmann (playing bass saxophone here) — the set offers a relatively concise introduction to the early proliferation of Laswell’s tendrils.
As the group’s only steady member, Laswell has invoked the Material name sporadically over the years. Red Tracks is a reissue of the band’s initial EPs, but Seven Souls is all new, a release of energetic world music beat calisthenics with stalwart guitarist Skopelitis, reggae drummer Sly Dunbar, violinists Simon Shaheen and Shankar, and vocals by, most prominently, author William S. Burroughs. The Third Power focuses on the development of African-American music, with contributions from Herbie Hancock, Maceo Parker, the Jungle Brothers, Last Poets and Bootsy Collins. The results are disappointingly dull, but Hallucination Engine attempts to combine the designs (as well as the rosters) of its two predecessors for an international throwdown that shifts among low-key fusion jazz behind saxophonist Wayne Shorter, clubbable Indian violin droning by Shankar and funky philosophizing by Burroughs.
Praxis has also come a long way in Laswell’s thinking since the early days: quite unlike the modest electro-boogie beats and scratches of the 1984 EP (which credits no musicians whatsoever), Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis) involves Laswell only as a supervisor: the group is formulated as a quintet of hyper-speed freak guitarist Buckethead, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, bassist Bootsy Collins, a drummer and a turntable/mix man. The album is insane in the best possible way: a frenetic rollercoaster of stop-on-a-dime rock, soul and hip-hop conniptions tightly wound around a solid funk core. When the frantic instrumental assault needs a breather, Bootsy semi-sings over the jam groove of “Animal Behavior.”
The later Material and the second Praxis albums were all released on the Axiom label, which Laswell launched in 1990, effectively converting his undefined band concept into a full-fledged record company. As well as churning out titles by Skopelitis, Shaheen, Threadgill, Shankar, Mandingo, Ginger Baker and Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets, Laswell has put together a label sampler (Illuminations) and a dub collection (Manifestation). He has also convoked three star-packed repertory extravaganzas devoted to specific genre indulgence. Axiom Ambient’s two-disc Lost in the Translation uses such non-ambient exemplars as Sonny Sharrock, the late Eddie Hazel, Ginger Baker and Pharaoh Sanders to enter that realm. Axiom Funk’s two-disc Funkcronomicon is more straightforward: Laswell assembles P-Funk alumni from George Clinton on down (including some of Hazel’s final guitar mania), Sly Stone, Maceo Parker and other erstwhile JB’s, Sly and Robbie, Buckethead, Anton Fier and others for a fluid and feverishly fresh ride on the Mothership’s orbital module. Be sure to check Bootsy’s cover of Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9,” baby. That track also provides a portion of the basis for the album by the hip-hop-centric Altered Beats: both Prince Paul and DXT (known as Grand Mixer D.ST back in the Celluloid day) have at it in decidedly different remixes. Otherwise, Assassin Knowledges of the Remanipulated — a loosely flowing and tedious album that has more of an old-school sensibility than befits a 1996 production (not to mention an unwound atmosphere more in keeping with ambient music) — features various DJs, from Tokyo’s Krush to San Francisco’s Q-Bert, as well as Jah Wobble, New Kingdom and Chinese vocalist Liu Sola.
In ’94, Laswell added the Black Arc imprint to his portfolio, producing funk and rock LPs by Bootsy, Buddy Miles Express, Slavemaster and assorted P-Funk folk. That same year, launching Meta Records, Laswell began making albums of spoken word (over his music) with Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs and others. Subharmonic (now Sub Meta) concentrates on experimental trance and ambient projects.
Divination is an ambient umbrella; on Akasha, his bandmates are Fier, DXT, Mick Harris (the ex-Napalm Death drummer who records as Scorn and Lull and plays with Laswell in Painkiller) and Japanese bassist/producer Haruomi Hosono (ex-Yellow Magic Orchestra). It’s difficult to envision what role that collective played in producing this uneventful double-disc album of soporific sound effects and wan music by the yard.
Besides his solo career (Chaos Face is a nom de bass, while Sacred System is an ambient/dub exercise made with Fier’s assistance), Laswell has lately been whipping out collaborative albums as quickly as his temporary partners — drawn from the worlds of post-grindcore atmospherics and elsewhere — can get in and out of his Greenpoint studio. Both Harris and his onetime bass-playing bandmate in Scorn, Nicholas James Bullen, have made records with Laswell, although the latter’s Bass Terror — which incorporates jungle and dub stylings — consists of three separate instrumental solo pieces. Keyboardist Tetsu Inoue has recorded with Laswell individually and as part of Automaton, a quartet with Skopelitis and violinist Lili Hayden.
Extending his ambient outreach to more audibly established masters of the field, Laswell has done discs with both Pete Namlook and Jonah Sharp (Spacetime Continuum). Web pairs the bassist with New York experimental ambient DJ/producer Terre Thaemlitz for another minimalist reverie, this one using rattling, scraping, walking and similarly dramatic noises to disturb the dramatic keyboard strains.