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."
Another element keeping people from discovering alternative art, suggests Laswell, is the pace of modern life. "People don't always have the time or money to invest into finding out about different things," he says. "They deal with what's shoved at them and what their friends are doing. It's a control system that's working to the benefit of the people that control the money, which is Control."
When Laswell mentions Control, it sounds like something tangible, something right over there, even though he admits the concept is more subtle. The musician, like Burroughs and linguist Noam Chomsky, believes control systems arise around a variety of ideological cores. He cites drug hysteria and the so-called "War on Drugs" as obvious opportunities for government to limit freedoms. Laswell adds his voice to a growing chorus of conspiracy theorists who suggest the very system set up to fight the drug war covertly contributes to addiction, thus perpetuating the need for more police, more prisons. More Control.
"It's definitely no accident that a drug like crack exists in certain areas of town," Laswell contends, "that there's liquor stores in certain areas of town. There's all kinds of things that go into creating a kind of genocide and different ways to bring people down so they're more susceptible to being manipulated. We're dealing with a massive cover-up. It's so corrupt it's hard to imagine, and you can't really know that even from books. But as you talk to people and get out there and learn these things step by step, you see exactly the kind of corruption we're living under."
The counterpoint to this bleak picture is legitimate art, which offers a reprieve from the soul-deadening ravages of Control. "With music and art," says Laswell, "you give people hope that there are alternatives, possibilities to approach things differently. Maybe it's similar to the effects drugs have on people, in that you can get out of this reality and go somewhere else for a moment. Music is always revolutionary in that way. It has that real power. I don't know if it's gonna change the world or save people from problems that are much bigger than they can even possibly know, but for a moment, it can change their mind about how they feel."
One might argue that what Laswell tries to do--alter people's thinking in subtle ways--is precisely the basis upon which major social change is predicated. In many respects, the producer is part activist and part recording artist "playing from a spiritual base," as he says, "not just from an instrument." Axiom Records even has a motto which reads: "Against the Reproduction of Death."
Still, some have questioned Laswell's methods and motivation, finding fault with the way he collides African music with American funk. Sulieman El Hadi, a member of the proto-rap group The Last Poets, went so far as to accuse Laswell of being "a cultural bandit." Laswell scoffs at the accusation. His voice rises for the first time, menacingly.
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"That person was bitter," explains Laswell, "because I sided with another faction of The Last Poets, and him I did not support at that moment. If I was paying his rent, he would have said something very much more respectful. The fact that he is no longer living means that he won't be saying anything else."
Laswell disputes the claim that he is some neo-colonial vampire sucking the vitality from other cultures. "I don't think it's possible to own a piece of music," he says. "If there's such a thing as appropriating, I can see it more in someone like Paul Simon, who's a pop singer trying to decorate pop songs with 'ethnic' musics. I've never been able to do that. I've always played with people or worked for people or put people together who were from different backgrounds. I've never made an attempt to decorate a kind of music for profit. That's appropriating. It's opportunistic and in most cases it doesn't bring anything healthy to that music or where it comes from."
Possibly the parameters of the appropriation debate are themselves culturally determined, bringing an almost sacred Western notion of private-property rights to bear on a phenomenon that in other countries might be seen as sharing rather than stealing. In any case, it's clear Laswell sees the appropriation charge operating as another barrier to prevent musicians from reaching music's primal expressive place.
"Everything that has orders and involves things fitting and not fitting tends to limit," says Laswell. "It's incredible if you can get past the limitation of calling music 'jazz' or 'blues' or 'rock.' Beyond that, there's still limitations associated with how you market and sell it. There's all these things that go into keeping something incredibly small. If you can get around any part of those, you can use sound to transfer energy, to communicate something much heavier. That's basically magic.