Bill Laswell, producer, musician and record label manager, has been at the center and outer fringes of shaping contemporary American music over the last three decades. His penchant for taking chances, and doing what has not been done before has carved a uniquely successful, and non-traditional canon of work.
John Zorn, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Rammellzee, Mick Jagger, Material, Praxis, Pharoah Sanders, DJ Cheb i Sabbah, Sonny Sharrock, Fab Five Freddy, Nona Hendrix, Motorhead, Bernie Worrell, Eddie Hazell, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Bootsy Collins, DJ Krush, Afrika Bambaataa, Lou Reed, Maceo Parker, The Ramones, Peter Gabriel and Herbie Hancock are just some of the artists he has worked with or produced.
Rooted in the punk ethos of do-it-yourself, his take on music has started, revived, and illuminated musical careers spanning all corners of sound. From playing with Brian Eno & David Byrne at the beginning of sampling to being enmeshed in the emerging world of hip-hop, when it was not a industry or global entity, Laswell has been digging forward. His association with Fab Five Freddy, Afrika Bambaataa, Futura 2000 and Rammellzee caused him to think about how records would be made in the future. Not by musicians. But DJ’s. He once observed Larry Levan, of Paradise Garage fame, use a sub-harmonic synthesizer to enhance the low end frequencies in his sound system. Laswell’s constant search for avant-garde sounds and ideas would lead him to create the hit “Rockit” with Herbie Hancock and quickly placed him as a sought after producer in the mid 1980’s, a position that financially gave him the ability to curate and front personal projects such as Material, Praxis and Last Exit.
In 1990 he formed the label Axiom where he was able to release techno, ambient, dub, and jazz records. It was during this period that he recorded “Ask The Ages” by Sonny Sharrock. With a stocked line-up of Pharoah Sanders, Elvin Jones and Charnett Moffett, it put Sonny Sharrock back into the conversation of great jazz guitarists before he passed away in 1994. Laswell recently re-released it on his M.O.D. Technologies label.
We were very lucky to have Bill Laswell speak with us about that release and many other topics. We started with Detroit, since that is where he initially cut his musical teeth.
SF Sonic: Is there something distinct about Detroit?Bill Laswell: Well it seemed to be at the time. There was a lot of energy. It came from Ann Arbor. College town. The schools were bringing in bands. It was pretty extreme. You would see and hear the electric Miles Davis Band and then a rock band that was from Michigan like The MC5. There was also a lot of free jazz. Nobody was really booking shows like that with the exception of New York or San Francisco.
SF Sonic: George Clinton said Funkadelic once opened up for The Stooges during that time in or around Detroit.
LASWELL:There were very entrepreneurial hippies back then. You had John Sinclair of The White Panther Party booking Archie Shepp with Michigan rock bands MC5 and The Stooges. But it just wasn’t rock. It was Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders. Miles Davis opening up for Iron Buttterfly. Yusef Lateef opening for John Mayall. Those times had very interesting entrepreneurial bookers. And because of those guys booking that way, that’s how I put it all together myself.
We don’t have anything like that now. Its a different world. Not to say it’s worse, but it’s very different. Bill Graham was a maniac promoter in that vein. They took chances. That’s how I look at things now. And all I take is chances.
SF Sonic: There is just not that type of talent these days
LASWELL:I think the music is always there. Always progressing. It’s just sometimes we are not set up for evolution and maybe we don’t hear it.
SF Sonic: That’s something Sun Ra said or always touched on
LASWELL: That’s right. And nobody really has been ahead of their time. That’s impossible. If you are available and one of the ones standing tall enough a hook comes down and you get into that undertow or overflow and then you are moved into this place where you can navigate. And in that place, you are able to work freely with ideas. It’s all about ideas.
SF Sonic: Connecting the dots in different arenas of music and projects, it seems that nothing was too foreign for you to attempt.
LASWELL: Not so much. I guess it was all sound related. I kind of try not to categorize so much. I always thought just because things had not been put together before does not mean that they can’t happen.
SF Sonic: So you produced “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock?
LASWELL:Well yeah, more than produced it. It was kinda my idea.
SF Sonic: Really?
LASWELL: It came out of a moment.
There was this club in New York City called The Roxy, and a record label from France called Celluloid. Bernard Zekri was connecting me with a lot of up and coming people. We really didn’t know what to call what they were doing at the time. It turned out what they were doing would later be called hip-hop. It wasn’t even a culture yet. It was just really starting. So by meeting these people, I started to think about how they thought about music. Because my background was about playing music with other musicians. But these were DJs. And you know John Cage said in the future records will be made from records. And that kind of hit me.
So Afrika Bambaataa, GrandMixer D.ST, all those guys, I connected with them at The Roxy. And I would go and listen. And then I went to The Bronx River Armory and I played live bass with Afrika Bambaataa and six other DJs. No drummer. So they would play records that I knew from the past. We would play Jimmy Castor Bunch for two hours with one bass line. And that’s when it hit me. It was like Indian or African music. It’s repetition. So I put that into perspective with the electronic music coming out of Germany at the time and I had this concept. of this kind of electro music. A little bit of it was coming out of Detroit at the time, and then mix that with this Cuban percussionist, Daniel Ponce, and the bass line was a reference to a Pharoah Sanders vocal from his record Tauhid where he strings together all these mumbles. And Herbie’s line was a reference to Manu Dibango and Kraftwerk.
It was all hybrid references, but if you line it all up on paper, you can actually hear it before you even start doing the music…. It was really simple if you had the references. And that was kinda my idea and I just took it to Herbie and we did it. He had no idea what it was. I thought we had just done this totally experimental thing. We thought it was gonna be out there, like Kraftwerk meets Afro-beat. We didn’t even know if it was going to come out to be honest.
SF Sonic: But it was a hit and all over MTV?
LASWELL: It was on Columbia Records and Herbie was in debt to Columbia. They were trying to get their money back. They did the video, and with the exception of Michael Jackson, that was the first time black people were in videos on MTV. But it wasn’t really Herbie. It was these robots made by Godley and Creme. And they(Godley & Creme) made this crazy video. Columbia Records put a lot of money into it because they wanted to get their money back. That’s really why it was so big. Herbie had been doing these records for years that really were not selling.
With Rockit, its success coincided with a couple of things. I did this record with Yellowman, Strong Me Strong, that was a hit. And at the same exact time I did a record with Laurie Anderson (Mister Heartbreak) that was kind of a little hit. You had all these things happening. So every door opened at that exact moment. And then everyone calls you. We had Barbara Streisand, Sammy Davis, Jr, Mick Jagger. Everybody. Cause you are the guy that is trendy at that moment. And honestly, I really did not have this great ambition to be this producer person. I never really wanted to be a producer. And I don’t like that term producer.
I moved to New York City to play with Miles Davis.
SF Sonic: You played on that first Mick Jagger solo record, “She’s The Boss.”
LASWELL:No. That was a production job. Six songs.
SF Sonic: Sorry. So you produced six songs on the Mick Jagger album. How was that?
LASWELL: There were 12 songs on the record. I did six. Nile Rogers did six. I brought people that I like to work with, like Sly & Robbie, Jeff Beck. I tried to bring Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, but he was unavailable for the session. There were three singles that came from the record, and they were all mine. None of them came from Nile.
SF Sonic: And I assume that was decent money?
LASWELL: Oh yeah. It was a lot of money. And I learned a lot. I learned I didn’t want to be the guy that took four years to make a record.
We recorded at Compass Point Studios in The Bahamas. I brought D.ST with me. I remember Bryan Ferry was recording in one studio and Iron Maiden in the other. The guys in Iron Maiden were our neighbors in the complex we were staying at across the street from the studio. And they were funny as shit.
SF Sonic: Ha! So you produced Just Another Night from that record?
SF Sonic: Wow. OK. So I’m a Rolling Stones fan. And within the construct of that group I am more of a Keith Richards dude, than a Mick Jagger dude.
LASWELL: Most people are.
SF Sonic: Right. That first Keith Richards solo record, Talk Is Cheap, is a great record.
LASWELL: And you know when I was producing that first Jagger record, I thought it would be a good idea to involve Keith, but Mick really did not want to do it. Is Bernie (Worrell) on that Keith Richards record?
SF Sonic: Yes he is.
LASWELL: See Bernie knows Keith through me. One time I was in Paris working on African music withBernie and I stopped by the studio late one night to mention to them (The Rolling Stones) that we were not that far away and they should come by. So Charlie Watts, Mick, and Keith would come by and that is when they met Bernie and that is how he got on that Keith Richards record. See a lot of the guys start with Mick and then go to Keith.
SF Sonic: So you have worked with Bernie Worrell quite a bit?
LASWELL:Oh yeah. I met Bernie while working on a record with Nona Hendrix. David Byrne met Bernie around the same time and I stayed in touch with him. Bernie is an intuitive musician. He’s spaced out. He doesn’t really know where he is most of the time, but when he sits down to play, it’s a whole different thing. He’s been like that since I’ve known him.
SF Sonic: Flashlight, by Parliament, is pretty much all Bernie…
LASWELL: Flashlight is that Moog bass thing. Take that out, it’s not Flashlight. I played with Bernie a year ago in Italy with DJ Krush. To me, Krush is similar to Karlheinz Stockhausen. More of a composer than a DJ. We had no drummer on that gig. Krush was the band and we were the musicians.
SF Sonic: I remember at the time of the Jagger solo record Mick and Michael Jackson were both on CBS/Columbia.
LASWELL: They were and they did a song together that I was supposed to remix.
SF Sonic: State of Shock
LASWELL: Yes. That is the first thing Mick played for me and I was supposed to do a remix for it, but it never happened.
SF Sonic: At the time the perception was that Mick wanted to be Michael Jackson in terms of a solo artist outside of The Rolling Stones.
LASWELL: Maybe he wanted to be that and a lot of other people. But he did want to be bigger than the Rolling Stones. In fact, if that record would have really jumped off, it would have been the end of the Stones.
SF Sonic: You played on :My Life in the Bush Ghosts” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, right?
LASWELL: Yes. It’s really influential with producers, you know. It’s an underground record. Kind of like those David Bowie records, “Low,” “Lodger,” “Heroes,” they sold nothing but influenced every British band. Hugely influential but not accepted commercially.
To me that was a kind of breakthrough record because they were sampling and in those days there was no real sampling equipment. It was really influential. I learned a lot of stuff from Eno on that. He really didn’t know what he was doing, to tell you the truth. He would buy five drum machines and immediately throw out the manual and start fooling around with the drum machine.
SF Sonic: In this documentary called “Finding The Funk” by Nelson George, Sly Stone talks about breaking several drum machines while making “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.” Not using the manual, similar to Eno, just searching for the precise sound
LASWELL: That’s the beginning of drum machines. Alesis, Tr 808s came a little later. It’s a very distinct part of that sound from that period. But with that record, I heard they were working on it so long that the tapes started shredding and falling apart from overdubs. So the end result was this really raw sound. And that’s Sly playing bass on a lot of that record.
SF Sonic: Well he said in the interview he played everything on that record but put every ones name on it because that’s his band.
LASWELL: That’s right. He kinda copied Larry Graham on that record, but if you listen close, it’s not the same technique. Like “Family Affair” with that sliding bass line, that is moving all the time, that’s Sly playing.
SF Sonic: Larry Graham is a beast.
LASWELL:Well, that’s real technique, Sly is just rolling with the idea. Its not a technique.
SF Sonic: I just went back and listened to “Ask The Ages” by Sonny Sharrock. I actually forgot that I owned it and definitely forgot that you produced it. And you just released a remastered and enhanced version under the M.O.D. Technologies imprint late last year. I gotta tell ya, it still holds up. What a classic!
LASWELL: That’s kinda been the consensus from the press. Its getting a lot of re-issue of the year things. But I don’t see it as a re-issue. I see it as an offering to a new generation. Everyone knows the name Coltrane, but maybe they don’t know Sonny Sharrock. Here is an opportunity to connect to some of the electric music. Energy music.
SF Sonic: The pairing of Sonny Sharrock and Pharoah Sanders. Its so powerful.
LASWELL: It really is. The whole time we were doing it I think everyone was conscious of that. Everyone got it that there was something going on that was unusual and special.
SF Sonic: How did this project come about?
LASWELL: I remember we arrived in Berlin and somehow Sonny and I arrived a day earlier than the others, and we went to the bar and started talking. I had the imprint (Axiom), we had started it in 1989. So this had to be 1991 or whenever when we did the record. And I asked Sonny, “So what do you want to do, in terms of recording something when we get back?” He said, “I want to reconnect with the music of John Coltrane. That energy, that possession, that power. I want to get back to that level, that quality again. Make something serious.” And I asked, “Who do you want to play with?” He said “I’d really like to play with Pharoah. We had played together when we both were younger.”
[Note: Sonny Sharrock’s first ever recording credit is on Pharoah Sanders’ 1966 release Tauhid. Tauhid is the same Pharoah Sanders record that gave Bill Laswell the idea for a bassline in Herbie Hancocks “Rockit”.]
LASWELL: I told him that I worked with Pharoah so we could get him. I didn’t think that would be a problem. We just needed to find money and organize the business side of things. But you should really consider Elvin Jones as the drummer on the project, cause that’s the real force behind John Coltrane right there. It’s rhythm at its highest level. And we need a bass player who is not afraid of Elvin. And then we started talking about Reggie Workman, Charlie Hayden. We really didn’t settle on anything.
So the next day Ronald Shannon Jackson came to Berlin. We met. Went to the same bar. Had the same conversation. And he said, “Why don’t you get a younger musician who is going to follow Elvin? Cause Elvin might not be listening to the bass player. If you listen to John Coltrane’s work with Elvin, the drums and bass are kinda like two different worlds. So maybe get a younger musician who may be a little intimidated of Elvin so he will follow him.” And that’s how we chose Charnett Moffett.
As soon as I got back to New York I got the money together and did it.
When Sonny and I were sitting in the bar in Berlin the song “Ask The Angels” by Sonny Stitt was playing on the jukebox and that kinda stuck in my head. And I was thinking about what Sonny was talking about. You know, going back in history. He was not necessarily asking permission or seeking gratification. Just some kind of blessing from the people who came a little before him. So I wrote on this piece of napkin, “Ask The Ages,” as I was leaving the bar. And it all came out of that little moment at the bar in Germany.
SF Sonic: Was it a quick recording session?
LASWELL: You figure with mastering and overdubs, which normally does not go into recording jazz records, the whole record took seven to eight days. It was a little bit more of a production. But we had a budget thanks to Chris Blackwell. Jason Corsaro engineered and mixed that record. He’s a beast of an engineer and really famous for mixing drums. He pretty much defined the 80s with bands like the The Power Station and Robert Palmer. He created that sound. He came out of the Bob Clearmountain school. He was Bob’s assistant. But he was more of an animal and still is. His sound has more of an impact and I wanted Elvin to have that. And they got along very well. Later on we did the same thing with Ginger Baker and Tony Williams.
I mentioned to Carlos (Santana) at the time that I was doing this session with Sonny, Pharoah, and Elvin and that if he was anywhere near New York, he should come by and play. Santana was going to be in Philadelphia but he was too busy, he said he would be on the next record for sure. So he missed it and of course Sonny Sharrock passed a year after “Ask The Ages” was released, and he knew he missed out.
But he listened to that record a lot and played along with it in his house. And he had it on vinyl, CD and cassette so he could always play his guitar along with it.
I remember his office in San Rafael was right next to Metallica’s office. One time when I was there, we were coming out of the office and he had the CD and popped it in his SUV, turned it up, rolled down the windows and the Metallica guys were standing outside the studio rehearsal space…..And he turned to me and said “they never heard nothing like this”…and cranked it all the way up while he took off.
Its too bad Santana didn’t make the session. Not that we needed him musically, but just for history.
You want to hear a funny story?
SF Sonic: Yes, please.
LASWELL: There was this one time Nile Rogers was producing David Bowie and I went to the studio . And they were trying different things and I played for two hours and I don’t think it was really working. I wasn’t really focused to be honest with you and I didn’t really like where the music was. But Nile was in the control room and they were ordering lunch or whatever. And Nile was telling David Bowie a story about when he was a kid and how bad he wanted to play with Pharoah Sanders. And Pharoah, at the time had this guy with him who Nile thought couldn’t play guitar. And that… was Sonny Sharrock.
See Nile didn’t understand the concept of what he was doing.
When Santana speaks about Sonny, he starts to speak cosmically like a hippie. But he’s right. Sonny Sharrock doesn’t play in a genre base or a technical base…it’s more of a spiritual base. And it transcends. Certain musicians have that Albert Ayler spirituality that is very much based in the unknown.
SF Sonic: Are you familiar with Flying Lotus?
LASWELL: I know all his records from the beginning. He’s a nephew in some type of capacity of Alice Coltrane. I kept hearing his name in reference to Ravi and the other kids of John Coltrane, so I checked on him immediately. And he has come quite a ways going back from when he first started. The new one I thought was a little stretchy, but the one before that, “Until The Quiet Comes,” that was a very well done record. Flying Lotus and another one. The one with the saxophone.
SF Sonic: Kamasi Washington?
LASWELL: Yeah. And then there is Thundercat. There is like a fusion feel. But they are all kind of trying to go somewhere else. And for the most part, they are getting there.
What I miss in what they do is that spiritual music. That spiritual base. I hear the technique, I get the references, I see the good ideas. I am missing just a little bit of depth. But they are developing and evolving all the time.
SF Sonic: You can hear George Duke, but its not a bad knock off version.
LASWELL: No. It’s appreciation. They are carrying on the lineage. And all of those guys have that musical technique. You can’t just go out and play that. It takes time. George Duke was deep too. He did the Jean-Luc Ponty thing, the Zappa thing.
When we were discussing DJs and I mentioned DJ Krush, I also was thinking of a guy who died a couple years ago. He was a Jewish Algerian guy named Cheb i Sabbah. He was based in San Francisco and worked as a world music buyer at Amoeba Records. He was incredibly smart about the music history in India and Africa and started compiling and playing as a DJ at this place. It was a small bar called Nickies. He played there for many years and then started to put together these tapes and he drew the attention of this label called Six Degrees. They gave him a deal and he made 3 or 4 records and I played on all of them. He made the best records of all those guys trying to do this Indian Bhangra. And he wasn’t an engineer, or a musician.
SF Sonic: It was a sad day in SF when he passed. The whole city mourned. I remember the impact that Madlib had on hip-hop when he started sampling Indian music.
LASWELL: There were a lot of hit records where people were sampling Bhangra, and they were taking it from film. Indian film. Jay-Z himself had a hit. And it worked perfectly. If you take it at half-time, you have an accelerated rhythm like a drum and bass idea and then you have a half-time bass line which you can easily put a vocal over and incorporate hip-hop.
SF Sonic: Did you produce any drum and bass?
LASWELL: Yeah, But it was pretty extreme. I paired the young kids, the younger producers with the older musicians like Pharoah Sanders. I went through a time where I did a year and a half of ambient music. I was really into drum and Bbass ten or twelve years ago…And then before that jungle coming in from England. Now we are talking 15-20 years ago.
Mick Harris, he was in Napalm Death and came from more of a noise and hardcore backround, loved drum and bass. And every month he would send me a massive amount of white labels. Most of which you could not find in record stores. I still have all of that stuff and some of them are really good and quite relevant today.
SF Sonic: In the States Jungle/Drum&Bass/Two-Step/Broken-Beat did not connect or break on a pop level.
LASWELL:Yeah. I don’t think it made much money. And it didn’t break here at all. I used to play live with DJ Soul Slinger. Just play and improvise. And in England, I can’t think of the DJ. It was Goldie and…what’s the name of the guy. Huge guy. Bald headed guy.
SF Sonic: Grooverider?
LASWELL: Yeah. Grooverider. He was a big fan of the stuff I did with Herbie. So I went to the club and Goldie is there, maybe Roni Size. And they would do a set. Two DJs to a set. And they would record it on a hard drive and during a break they would go around the corner to a mastering studio and press up vinyl of the shit they just played. They would then take the vinyl, come back and then that’s the next set. So they are playing on top of what they just played in the first set. Using turntables and a laptop. Actually there was not even a laptop. Just drum machines and turntables. Grooverider, that’s the guy.
He did a remix of Rockit and it got rejected by the label. I never heard it. But I was encouraging him to do it because that was the type of music he liked.
Find out more about Bill Laswell on his website.
See the Silent Watcher page for a complete Bill Laswell discography here.
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