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Bill Laswell is like mercury, quick and dangerous, a threat to those who want to keep the recording industry segregated into easily marketable categories. The notorious NYC producer/bassist typically juggles several projects--funk, dub, jazz, whatever--at once, dissolving genres in constant pursuit of music's far boundaries. He talks about the power of music the way priests talk about Jesus. Real music, not the candy-ass crap in heavy rotation, can change people's lives, he says. He's seen it happen during recording trips around the world looking for what's new by exploring ancient traditions.
"In Morocco," says Laswell, "music could be played for healing, it could be magic, it could be the transformation of a situation or person through ritual music. There's mutilation ceremonies where people are so far in trance they play rhythms with really sharp knives all over themselves. They don't feel anything. The next day they'll be fine. In some cases they'll hardly be scarred."
Music's outer limits are Laswell's playground. During a 20-year career, the kid who grew up in Detroit digging Parliament and the MC5 has produced and/or performed on more than 200 recordings. Another bunch is slated for this year, including Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974, a radical remix of session outtakes that offers new insight into Davis' genius. Often collaborating with master musicians from Gambia to Brazil, Laswell's also teamed with the likes of Mick Jagger, White Zombie and Laurie Anderson. He's figured prominently in John Zorn's band Painkiller as well as on Brian Eno and David Byrne's influential My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. His own ensembles have included Material, Praxis and the Golden Palominos. Perhaps most notable is Laswell's involvement as producer/performer on Herbie Hancock's 1983 million-seller Future Shock, whose hit "Rockit" introduced the world to scratching.
More recent projects like Arcana's excellent 1997 experimental jazz opus Arc of the Testimony find Laswell collaborating with Tony Williams in his last recorded gig before the former Miles Davis drummer suffered a fatal heart attack. Saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and mutant guitarist Buckethead, so named for wearing a mask and a KFC chicken bucket on his head during concerts, also appear on Arc.
Despite having said that "Rockit" was "a joke . . . a goof," Laswell's role in its success provided him with opportunities to advance his agenda using his Greenpoint Studios in Brooklyn as a base. With the help of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, Laswell says he "instigated" the subsidiary Axiom in 1990 to distribute an array of funk/world-music hybrids. Notable titles on Axiom's imprint include Apocalypse Across the Sky featuring the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Ginger Baker's Middle Passage, and Ekstasis by guitarist Nicky Skopelitis. Laswell's also created the Subharmonic and Black Arc labels as outlets for hard-core techno and hard-core funk, respectively.
Like an alchemist or a sorcerer--one gets the impression the soft-spoken producer takes magic quite seriously--Laswell routinely brings together artists who might otherwise never connect. Like P-Funk alumnus Bootsy Collins and the late Beat author William S. Burroughs, both of whom appear on Material's 1994 Hallucination Engine. Or ex-Sex Pistol Johnny Lydon and Zulu Nation leader Afrika Bambaataa who generated the 1982 hip-hop/rock single "World Destruction."
Of his role as matchmaker, Laswell says: "You get obsessed with the idea of being a catalyst, a person who can put things together." Under the proper conditions, Laswell believes, collaboration can produce a mystical presence--what he calls the Third Mind, a concept borrowed from Burroughs.
"When a collaboration works between two people," explains Laswell, "that creates a kind of third power, a force or energy that becomes bigger than the two. That happens quite a bit in improvisation, where music can actually happen. It's not preconceived. It's not prerecorded. It's not predicted. It's not controlled. And it sometimes can produce a magical effect which is incredibly orchestrated and perhaps even handed down from somewhere else. But it can only happen if that door is open and you don't trap it with all the things we use to trap music--like chords and rhythms which come from a classical sense."
Plenty of famous people have passed through Laswell's studio, but he says most artists he meets "have been discarded by the industry" despite their considerable talents. This treatment is one reason he eyes major labels with suspicion and describes his projects as "guerrilla battles" against those in his field who "have no knowledge about music or art and are purely dealing with the concept of creating money." When Laswell's been successful in his guerrilla role, he believes it's because record executives "are always dealing with trends and formulas, and that [strategy] misses quite a bit." The more they miss, he says, the better the chances someone like him will be able to "slide something past while they're off balance."
Laswell perceives his subversion in terms of providing information to people starved for it. "There's always something innovative happening," he says. "The key is working to expose it. The more information people get, the more they understand and they eventually get the idea they're not being given a fair deal when it comes to exposure to new music."