Whether printing complex mixes, section-by-section, through old Neve consoles without automation to 1/2-inch tape, or hauling recording rigs and generators into the mountains of Morocco, Bill Laswell embodies a fearless resolve in creating a discography that no one can touch in terms of depth, breadth or sheer number of records produced. I started digging Laswell in the early 1980s, and was particularly intrigued with his fluency in the languages of then-nascent hip-hop, as well as reggae and the electric rock styles of West Africa. His incongruous collaborations with musicians from different parts of the planet, as well as regular use of some of my favorite musicians from the worlds of Parliament/Funkadelic and reggae were always wrapped in sounds, textures, and rhythms just a few steps ahead of the bleeding edge of NYC club styles. Everything that appeared with Laswell's name on it was a challenge of some sort, aggressively demolishing notions of genres while always expanding ideas of sonic possibilities. Some of the most interesting people and projects Bill has produced include Ornette Coleman, Santana, John Zorn, George Clinton, Pharoah Sanders, Iggy Pop, Herbie Hancock, Buckethead, William S. Burroughs, Tony Williams, James "Blood" Ulmer, PiL, Praxis, Material, as well as re-workings of Bob Marley and Miles Davis.
I've been a friend of Bill's since the late 1980s, via his long time engineer Robert Musso, who had initially hired me to run his MuWorks label. I went on to run Bill's Axiom Records for the first half of the 1990's. Bill also pushed me into founding the Tzadik label with John Zorn, and got me on the payrolls of Rykodisc, CMP and other labels as a consultant. Bill's blessings allowed me to travel worldwide, become friendly with many of my musical heroes, and, most importantly, spend a lot of time in the studio with him.
I wonder if you realized what you were coming up with when you created "Rockit" [from Herbie Hancock's Future Shock (1983)].
I had no idea.
How did you make that record? What was the strategy?
The strategy really came from the street. "We're going to take a couple of tracks to Herbie Hancock." I'd been going to the Roxy, and I'd been experiencing DJs, so my idea was to make a record where we featured a DJ playing. I programmed stuff, but I didn't even know how to program the drums — it was the Oberheim DMX. I didn't know how to make a sequence; I only knew how to make a beat. I went to the studio and I had to actually push the button for the next section, because I didn't know how to program the sequence. Once I got it on tape, I played a bass line on it. The bass line came from a Pharoah Sanders record called Tauhid; it's a vocal line that I took. The end of it is borrowed from Jimmy Castor Bunch — I took these two ideas and put them one in front of the other, and that was the bass line. Then I said, "I need a DJ. I need somebody to cut this like I've been hearing in the clubs, but who can play in time." Who's going to play in time, like a drummer? I called [Afrika] Bambaataa and he said, "I've got the guy. Cheese." I can't go to L.A. and say, "I've got this 'DJ Cheese' on the record." We called DJ Whiz Kid, but he'd just joined the Army or something. I said, "What about D.ST?" He said he could do it. I brought Grand Mixer D.ST [Derek Showard] from the Bronx to Brooklyn. He sat on the couch for ten minutes, I gave him $350, and he cut "Rockit" with his driver, some Puerto Rican guy, sitting there waiting. The driver made more money than he did. I had Daniel Ponce [congas] around those days, and I said, "Put an Afro-Cuban beat in there." He played it on the Batá [double-headed hand drum]. And that was "Rockit."
The Batá doesn't get recorded that much because it's a sacred instrument.
No, and not like that. The track was killing before we got to L.A.; it was already great. Herbie asked, "What am I going to play?" I said, "Think about Manu Dibango. Think about 'Chameleon.'" We pretty much hummed it to him.
The Sly & Robbie records, Rhythm Killers and Language Barrier, and then Material's The Third Power album, were pretty deep introductions of a lot of current Jamaican dancehall/DJ/rap stuff.
Yeah. Also Shinehead and Shabba Ranks. I think, for me, Rhythm Killers and those records, were an offshoot of the concept of [Afrika Bambaataa's] "Planet Rock," where you have black music with a mechanization of meter and metronome. It's much like the way the Germans do rhythms — like Kraftwerk and Neu! It's like this cold, rhythmic thing; and then you have this other syncopation on top of that. That was the concept. A lot of critics don't understand that; they think, "Oh, it's not funky." We weren't trying to be funky; we were trying to be new. And we were. I'm still recovering from that one, but I like the concept.
After "Rockit" suddenly you were a famous producer and it was time to produce Mick Jagger's She's the Boss.
Well, I wasn't really that known. I was known as the guy who was doing this new, hip stuff. I hadn't done a lot of work, but people like Mick Jagger were calling. I didn't know the Rolling Stones' music so much. I remember they called and said, "Do you want to come to Compass Point, Nassau, to meet Mick and talk about the recording process?" I was like, "Cool, but I need to bring somebody." I brought D.ST. We met at Chris Blackwell's house. Mick was very aloof, but kind of cool. We didn't say much. D.ST made a few comments that were quite humorous. We left it like that. I said, "Let's go back to the hotel, get something to drink,...