by Ed Christman - Billboard, June 12, 1993  


NEW YORK--Back in the mid-'80s, Bill Laswell was on his way to becoming one of the hottest producers in the music business.

He co-wrote and produced Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," and won a Grammy for a track on the keyboard player's following album. He forged bonds with the emerging hip-hop nation, working with the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, Fab Five Freddy, and Grandmixer D St. He was enlisted to produce part of Mick Jagger's first solo effort, as well as the album Yoko Ono recorded after the death of John Lennon. And he scored an alternative rock hit when he married the rap vocals of Bambaataa and the wailing of John Lydon in a rap/punk/metal track called "Time Zone."

But instead of continuing down what likely would be a lucrative path, Laswell--who emerged in the early '80s as part of the then no wave band Material--decided to follow his own muse, which ultimately led to the inception of Axiom Records, a genre-busting label under the Island Records umbrella that has enjoyed great artistic, if not commercial, successes.

Since its creation in early 1990, Axiom has put out an impressive body of work that covers a wide range of different and disparate musical territories, often integrated on the same album.

Among the albums that have been put out by Axiom are Sonny Sharrock's "Ask The Ages," Ginger Baker's "Middle Passage," Henry Threadgill's "Too Much Sugar For A Dime," the Master Musicians Of Jajouka's "Apocalypse Across The Sky," and Praxis' "Transmutation."

Although Laswell and those who work with him strive to create music that has no boundaries and despise attempts by any who would try to categorize the label's music, Axiom's 18-title catalog can be divided into three broad types of albums: traditional world music; experimental jazz; and, what seems to be the heart of the label, anarchistic music that combines and mutates traditional world music, jazz, hip-hop, funk, industrial no wave noise, and more into a sonic melange of sound.

For his part, Laswell declines to describe the music on the Axiom label. But guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, who has just released "Ekstasis" for the label and serves as Laswell's aide-decamp on most Axiom projects as well as playing on them, says, "What's being assembled--by the vision of Bill Laswell and his overwhelming effort--is the only existing catalog of recordings that defies genre, formula, and obsolescence. Axiom's greatest asset as a label is its pure concern for creativity, innovation, and quality."

Indeed, Matt Stringer, Island's senior VP of marketing/GM, describes Axiom's music as "brilliant quality recordings from master musicians. We view Axiom albums as modern classic recordings."

Despite the critical acclaim Axiom has received, not many would describe the label's recordings as commercial hits. According to Stringer, Axiom albums have generated sales, on a low end, of 12,000 units, up to 75,000 units. Nonetheless, Island founder Chris Blackwell says he is committed to the label.

"I believe very much that Axiom is adding to the overall reputation of Island," Blackwell says. "It adds to the integrity of Island, and helps attracts the kind of artist that we would like to sign."

Moreover, over time Island will recoup its investment in Axiom, since the albums will have a long selling life, according to Blackwell and Stringer. "These are records that will not only be in demand for decades, but for centuries," Stringer says.



Island has a "history" of working with esoteric music, according to Blackwell, who adds, "PolyGram Music CEO Alain~ Levy has been very supportive of me on projects like Axiom."

That attitude appears to be unique for a major label. Terry Currier, a co-owner of Music Millennium, an independent record store in Portland, Ore., that specializes in world, jazz, and other alternative music, says, "There really isn't another major label like Axiom. It really stands out."

In 1990, Laswell first approached Blackwell, whom he knew from producing Sly & Robbie albums, about the possibility of Axiom when a similar creative arrangement with New York-based Celluloid label was winding down. He found Blackwell receptive and Axiom was born as a joint venture between Laswell and Island, with the bassist/producer maintaining total creative control over what projects to record for the label.

During the Celluloid years, he already had begun his experiments in non-Western music, producing the traditional African music of Toure Kunda and Manu Dibango, as well as stretching and mutating genres through Last Exit, Material, and Foday Musa Suso's Mandingo.

"Back then," Laswell remembers, "it was the beginning of rap and hip hop. I incorporated that and other musical elements such as drum machines with |non-Western music~, and at that time I received a lot of criticism. It turned out that many others have since blended different music in the same manner.

"I apologize," he quips, referring to the imitators he has unleashed.

Laswell says Axiom works well because of the Island CEO. "Blackwell has put out very adventurous music before," he points out. "He doesn't feel the need to police every detail, which is generally the problem with record companies."



In forming the label, someone suggested the name Axiom to Laswell. "I first heard the name Axiom as an image," he explains. "It has the letter I, it has 'om,' it begins with the first letter of the alphabet, and it has X. I had no choice but to accept it as the name of the label."

The first projects released by Axiom in 1990 were Mandingo's "New World Power," Simon Shaheen's "The Music Of Mohammed Abdel Wahab," and Baker's "Middle Passage."

The Shaheen album, a tribute to one of the most influential Arab musicians, is an example of the traditional music recorded by Laswell. Other Axiom albums that could fall into the world category are Shankar's "Soul Searcher," an album of Indian classical music; and Talip Ozkan's "Turkish Saz Music."

In addition, Laswell's thrust into traditional music led him to travel into the field with a 12-track recorder to capture the Master Musicians Of Jajouka, Gnawa Music Of Marrakesh, as well as to Gambia to record Mandinka and Fulani Music.

Another side of Axiom is Laswell's work at helping avant-garde musicians realize their ideas and capture them for posterity in the studio. So far, he has produced Ronald Shannon Jackson's "Red Warrior," Jonas Hellborg's "The Word," and Threadgill's "Too Much Sugar For A Dime" for Axiom.

(Laswell also continues to selectively produce music for others when his schedule permits, including albums for the Ramones, Motorhead, Lymbomanics, Iggy Pop, the Buzzcocks, Yellowman, and Ryuichi Sakamoto.)

Finally, drawing from the jazz and world genres, Laswell fuses those types of music with other genres into musical mutations. Among the albums that feature "mutated" music are the Baker, Mandingo and Skopelitis titles, Material's "Third World," Bahia Black's "Ritual Beating System," and Praxis' "Transmutation."



In order to accomplish those albums, Laswell brings musicians together from many different worlds, styles, and genres and consequently has a community of musicians that now are affiliated with his work.

"The formation of that community of musicians goes back some 15 years now, when Laswell started bringing legends out of the woodworks to work with," says Peter Wetherbee, Axiom label manager. For instance, Laswell traveled to Italy to lure Baker out of retirement on his olive farm. Since then, he has produced two Baker albums, as he has for Sharrock, a visionary guitarist who came to the forefront in the mid-'60s through free jazz recordings made with Pharoah Sanders. In fact, Sharrock's last album, "Ask The Ages," reunites Sharrock with Sanders and drummer Elvin Jones.

Other jazz musicians often found on Laswell productions are Threadgill, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Wayne Shorter, Jonas Hellborg, and Herbie Hancock. It was on Hancock's "Sound System," recorded in 1984, that Laswell first used two African musicians, Suso and Aiyb Dieng, who have since become fixtures on Laswell's team.

Laswell's fascination with music by Parliament-Funkedelic and James Brown led him to look up such esteemed funk-meisters as Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Gary "Mudbone" Cooper, Maceo Parker, Blackbyrd McKnight, and the Ohio Players' Sugarfoot, as well as Sly & Robbie.

Meanwhile, musicians continue to come aboard. The Praxis album featured the upside-down guitar virtuosity of "Buckethead," whom Laswell has just produced for an album to be released by Columbia Records, while the Skopelitis project brought Jah Wobble, Can's Jaki Liebezeit and the Meter's Joseph "Ziggy" Modeliste into the fold. An upcoming funk project will feature Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, who both were in the Band Of Gypsies with Jimi Hendrix.

Laswell says all the Axiom albums are interconnected, not only with each other, but with other efforts he made before forming the label. "It's a flow, and I have tapped into it; it comes from areas where I have been and it is all continuous."

Wetherbee further explains. "Everything is interrelated, whether you can see it or not." In order to embellish that point, Axiom has released two compilation albums--"Illuminations" and "Manifestation"--each containing selections from the catalog.



In addition to "Manifestation," other Axiom albums released this year include the Threadgill and Skopelitis projects. Music Millennium's Currier terms the albums "two of the finest records that have come out this year. The Threadgill record is masterful, although it is a little more esoteric. The Skopelitis album is brilliant. It could be a strong seller because it has a more widespread appeal, thanks to the elements of worldbeat, jazz, and dub reggae that it incorporates."

Axiom likely will release three more projects before the year is out, including a new album from Material called "Hallucination Engine." In addition, in October Axiom will release a funk project that features George Clinton, Billy Bass Nelson, Miles, Cox, McKnight, Sugarfoot, and the last tracks recorded by Eddie Hazel, the former P-Funk guitarist who died in December.

Another album coming out this year is from Umar Bin Hussan, of the seminal Last Poets, which, some contend, was the first rap act, appearing back in the late '60s and early '70s. Early next year, Axiom will release an album called "China Blues," which will feature the vocalist Liu Sola. And somewhere down the line, Laswell plans to travel to Nigeria with Ornette Coleman to record the saxophonist with native musicians.

While there may be a coherent thread running through Axiom's music, the albums nonetheless cover a wide range of ground-breaking music, which means that marketing the label's albums presents a challenge for the PolyGram team.

Dave Yeskel, senior national director of sales at PolyGram Label Group, says, "Whatever Bill Laswell gives us, you can be sure it is something that we never heard before. As such, it presents us with a unique challenge to make sure it gets into the marketplace, into the stores that can sell it."

Since Axiom is so different from the other labels operating under the PolyGram umbrella, the first marketing moves that label manager Wetherbee says he makes is to educate the staff of PLG and PolyGram Group Distribution.

While some education is required, Curt Eddy, VP of field marketing, says, Axiom fits very nicely into the PGD portfolio. "Our branch staff is very hip to all types of music and they truly are music afficionados. Axiom music plays to the heart of this."

But in bringing Axiom to the marketplace, it is hard to find a specific niche for the label, adds PLG product manager Andrew Kronfeld. "Because of that, each Axiom album must be taken on a case-by-case basis. There is no marketing formula that you can pigeonhole the albums into."

Island's Stringer sees that as an opportunity, not a problem. "Axiom presents a chance for us stretch ourselves from a marketing standpoint," he says. "Some albums go to certain ethnic communities, others appeal to certain music afficionados. We have a good database of different ethnic groups. For example, Simon Shaheen's album obviously was just sold into specific ethnic communities. We know where they live and shop, and can tailor a marketing plan for each traditional recording. Or with Nicky Skopelitis' album, we know how to reach the guitar mavens."

In addition, Stringer notes that "beside the artistry and the pleasurable experience of listening to Axiom albums, there is a lot of education on these records."

Consequently, a significant marketing endeavor undertaken on behalf of the Axiom albums is approaching schools and libraries.

However, the overriding marketing strategy is to present Axiom as a brand name, according to Stringer. "We don't just sell albums, we market the label," he says. "We feel very competent that each release substantiates the image of the label and what we have already said and allows us to continue saying it."