Born on February 14, 1950, Laswell spent his early years in Salem, Illinois. His father was an oil businessman who died when Laswell was young. In 1958 the family moved to a predominantly black section of Detroit. Music did not play a large role in Laswell’s family life. At school, instructors led him to the drums and the baritone sax, but Laswell had other ideas. True to his collaborative philosophy, he chose the bass. He explained to Down Beat’s John Diliberto: "I was interested in forming groups at that time, and everyone had guitars and drums. So if you had a bass you were in a group." By age 13, Laswell was performing at local gigs.
During his fifteenth year, Laswell’s work in rhythm and blues bands put him on the road, playing black clubs in the South and Midwest. At the same time, Detroit’s late 1960s melting pot—as it mixed together the MC5, Motown, Iggy Pop, and Funkadelic—proved influential, if only retrospectively. "I remember concerts of Funkadelic and the MC5 on the same bill," he told Musician’s Jerome Reese in 1986. "Which was really interesting to me; because you’re there you think that’s what’s happening.
You don’t realize that it’s not like that anywhere else."
The rare combination of noisy punk and deep funk seemed natural to the young Laswell. He kept his listening horizons broad; he was also interested in the 1960s experimentations of John Coltrane, James Brown, Wayne Shorter, and JimiHendrix. By the 1970s, he was attracted to the European progressive sounds of Henry Cow, Gong, and Magma.
Within a few years of moving to New York, Laswell founded a recording studio with producer/engineer Martin Bisi (of later indie rock renown) and hooked up with Jean Karakos and his fledgling label Celluloid Records. Under the Material moniker (now also a production unit consisting of Laswell and Beinhorn – Maher being long gone - and by 1984 consisting solely of Laswell) Laswell became the de facto house producer for Celluloid until the sale of the label in the later 1980s. During this fruitful time in the early to mid-1980s, Laswell was able to record some of his Material excursions (which ran the gamut from experimental jazz/funk to pop and R&B, featuring everyone from avant-jazz figures Henry Threadgill and Sonny Sharrock to Archie Shepp and pop star Whitney Houston) as well as projects such as Massacre, with Fred Frith and Fred Maher.
His association with Celluloid allowed some of his first forays into this so-called "collision music" - the term was coined for Laswell by the British writer Chris May, then editor of Black Music & Jazz Review and later a Celluloid staff member - and forays into world music. Recordings with The Golden Palominos and production on albums by Shango, Toure Kunda and Fela Kuti all appeared on the label. Celluloid also released a slew of 12" devoted to Hip-Hop, becoming a pre-cursor to the popularity the form enjoyed starting in the mid-1980s. Fab 5 Freddy, Phase II and Afrika Bambaataa all appeared on the label. Criminally forgotten, Laswell also put together the very successful 12" World Destruction which paired PiL's John Lydon with Afrika Bambaataa – years before the Run–D.M.C./Aerosmith collaboration broke down the rock/hip-hop barrier. 1982 also saw Laswell's solo debut, Baselines.
Also recording a Laswell-helmed solo album for Celluloid was Ginger Baker, whom Laswell coaxed out of semi-retirement, giving the drummer's career a new boost. He likewise brought Sonny Sharrock out of semi-retirement and produced some of the guitarist's most acclaimed recordings, starting with the solo LP Guitar.
Bill Laswell continues to be a powerful and prolific force in the world of underground music. His recent work includes such important releases as the latest Herbie Hancock album Future 2 Future, featuring guests Wayne Shorter, Grandmaster DXT, Chaka Khan, and many others; the self-titled release by Ethiopian vocalist Gigi, and Grammy nominated Angelique Kidjo Black Ivory Soul (RCA Records). He is also credited with the mixing and mastering of the two latest John Zorn releases, “Astronome” and “Moon Child”. On the Tzadik webpage, he is described as a musical terrorist.