A longtime linchpin of the New York City underground music scene, Bill Laswell is among the most prolific artists in contemporary music. As a performer, producer and label chief, his imprint is on literally hundreds of albums, the majority of them characterized by a signature sound fusing the energy of punk with the bone-rattling rhythms of funk. Born on February 12, 1955 in Salem, Illinois, he initially played guitar, but soon switched to bass. Raised primarily in the Detroit area, he honed his skills in local funk outfits before relocating to New York in 1978. There Laswell formed Material, an outlet for his experimental approach towards sounds ranging from jazz to hip-hop to worldbeat; originally the back-up unit for David Allen, the group soon began working on its own, issuing its debut EP Temporary Music in 1979.
In addition to fronting Material, Laswell also mounted a solo career, issuing Baselines in 1982 on Celluloid, a label he partly owned and operated. Appearances on key recordings from the likes of David Byrne, John Zorn, Fred Frith and the Golden Palominos established Laswell as a virtual nexus of the downtown NYC community, and in 1983 he broke into the mainstream with his production work on Herbie Hancock's smash "Rockit," which he also co-wrote; the follow-up LP, Sound-System, won him a Grammy. Throughout the mid-1980s Laswell was everywhere, playing bass on LPs from artists including Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel, Yoko Ono and Laurie Anderson. He also joined the avant group Curlew and produced a number of African acts.
In 1986, Laswell joined guitarist Sonny Sharrock, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and saxophonist Peter Brotzmann in the group Last Exit. A second solo LP, Hear No Evil, appeared two years later, and after a long hiatus he also resurrected Material in 1989 with Seven Souls. Another project, the hip-hop-flavored Praxis, was resumed after close to a decade of inactivity with 1992's Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis). In 1990, Laswell formed another label, Axiom, to explore his interest in the new sounds of ambient and techno. Where in the past his work rarely appeared solely under his own name, by the middle of the decade he was issuing several solo records annually in a wide range of styles from dub to jazz. He also remained among the most prolific producers in the business, collaborating with the likes of Dub Syndicate, Pete Namlook, Buckethead and DJ Spooky.