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World Music Features

Bill Laswell

By Judson Kilpatrick
Published July 20, 2006

Chances are you’ve heard Bill Laswell, even if you’ve never heard of him. He’s worked on over 700 projects with an endless list of artists, and co-wrote, produced and played on Herbie Hancock's monster hit "Rockit."

Chances are you’ve heard Bill Laswell, even if you’ve never heard of him. After all, this Grammy-winning bassist co-wrote, produced and played on Herbie Hancock’s monster hit “Rockit.” He’s contributed to over 700 projects with a seemingly endless list of artists, including George Clinton, Mick Jagger, Sly and Robbie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Michael Stipe, Ginger Baker, Manu Dibango, Brian Eno, Nona Hendryx, Steve Vai, Anton Fier, Olu Dara, Peter Gabriel, Nile Rodgers and members of the Last Poets.

He’s also famous for remixing venerated icons Miles Davis (Panthalassa), Carlos Santana (Divine Light) and Bob Marley (Dreams Of Freedom). Working with copies of the master tapes, Laswell cherry-picks elements of the original recordings and shifts them around into rich, atmospheric new tracks which he then blends into album-length suites. He calls this dub-influenced process “reconstruction and mix translation.”

"Dub,” Laswell says, “is a shadow. It’s elements and information and form and sound…an endless process of redefining and reimagining the original.” And he points out that the original mixes are hardly sacred—they’re the result of multiple in-studio decisions.

Now Laswell has brought that approach to seminal dub sides from the vast archives of Trojan Records, which he’s “placed” in two mind-blowing, continuous mixes full of gut-rumbling bass drenched in layers of echo. When he was selecting the tracks, Laswell “avoided things that had been used a lot,” like any songs UB40 has covered. And he deliberately stayed away from Bob Marley, having already done Dreams Of Freedom (and accepting his lawyer’s advice that getting permission from the Marley estate would be difficult).

Instead, for each “chapter” of Trojan Dub Massive, Laswell picked 18 obscure cuts he thought “would work together as a piece, making a whole record.” When asked about his remixing process, he described it as “intuitive” and declined to elaborate. “I think there’s too much talk about music. People should just lay back and listen,” he explained. “And the purists out there should listen to the originals and then listen to the mix, and they’ll see why I made it.”

Trojan Dub Massive: Chapter One opens with two instrumentals by Sly and the Revolutionaries. Gentle rain-forest sounds slowly build up to the drum rolls and crashing cymbals of “Cocaine.” It eventually dissolves into siren-like wails, which introduce “Herb.” Both tracks are broken down and built back up again and again (a standard dub practice that’s become a favorite club DJ trick). More sirens lead into two ancient versions by King Tubby, finding Laswell dubbing dubs by dub’s acknowledged inventor. He slows things down with Tapper Zukie’s “Man A Warrior,” an eerie gem that borrows the bassline of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” then winds though a Who’s Who of reggae/dub with cuts by Gregory Isaacs’ Allstars, Sly and Robbie, Prince Jammy, Scientist (the infectious “Miss Know It All”) and the Roots Radics, whose founding members also formed Dub Syndicate. Chapter One ends with the soothing nyabinghi drums of Ras Michael’s “Keep Cool Babylon.”

Chapter Two begins with a quiet rainstorm shattered by the guttural howls of Lee “Scratch” Perry. The Upsetters’ “Drum Rock” bursts into life, and when it finally fades away, the familiar bassline of “Stalag 17” (a.k.a. the “Ring The Alarm” rhythm) emerges. Next we are treated to Augustus Pablo’s haunting melodica as Laswell eases from “Java” into “Bedroom Mazurka,” which he transforms with echoing, percussive splashes and a speeded-up hook. On the Upsetters’ “Washroom Skank” he drops the funky rhythm guitar in and out over the meaty, low-frequency bassline and swirling effects. And he begins and ends the Revolutionaries’ “Freedom Dub” with the jarring sound of a CD skipping. The mixes are full of little surprises like