This article was originally published in Mean Magazine (October 1999), with art direction by Camille Rose Garcia, and an overview of Fela’s catalog by Michael Veal; the main article text, and sidebars, were later reprinted in full in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 book (thank you Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick). Main article text is online here: http://www.arthurmag.com/2009/11/02/fela-king-of-the-invisible-art
by Jay Babcock
Bill Laswell is a bassist, producer and, having worked with countless important musicians from dozens of countries, one of the vortex points around which the musical universe revolves. I spoke with Laswell about his controversial work with Fela…
Q: When did you first get into Fela’s music?
Bill Laswell: When I started listening to Cream and stuff, I started to read interviews with people like Ginger [Baker] about where they were getting their stuff from. Just like [Eric] Clapton was getting ideas from blues guys, I realized that rhythm musicians were getting a lot of information from Africa. I immediately started looking for the records, especially Afrobeat. Just that syncopation, the up feel. You get ideas about putting rhythms together.
Those early bands Fela had were really tight. This African guy told me James Brown had just ‘messed him up’—well, Fela had bands that were almost like that. I don’t think as aggressively tight, but it had a feel, an Afrobeat, African feel, with a modern sound.
How did you end up producing Army Arrangement?
At that time in Paris in ’84 or ’85, Celluloid was the label that all African, or West African, everybody, was going to them for some reason. And they got ahold of Fela’s contract and his catalog and they just started calling the shots. Fela was on his way to New York to come and we were going to mix the record when he came.
On the way to New York, getting on the plane in Nigeria, he had something like ten grand in cash in US dollars, I think. He was immediately put in jail, the tapes arrived, and the Celluloid people were like, ‘Well great, let’s go ahead and mix it. Let’s capitalize on the fact that he’s in jail, we’ll get more press.’ But the tapes I received weren’t really musical or necessarily well-recorded. So we felt that if we just mixed it, it wouldn’t bring anything new to what Fela’s legend was. So we added Sly Dunbar, Bernie Worrell and Aiyb Dieng from Senegal.
Did you ever meet Fela?
[When he got out of jail,] Fela did a press tour in the States. He was at the Gramercy Hotel in New York. I went there and he was sitting around his room wearing a shirt and some underwear and sitting in a lotus position on the couch, a bunch of people coming in and out, and we spoke for a few minutes. He was kind of amazed that I would come because he had said that he didn’t like what I had done. There was an African magazine where I was quoted as saying, “It’s much better to mix an artist’s work if they’re in prison.” Some really stupid shit. And that freaked him out. And he was saying that there was a sound that wasn’t African that I put on the album. [But] it was a Senegalese drummer, so of course it’s African.
It’s very interesting because everybody thought I wouldn’t go meet him, so I just went in anyway. By that time he had started to deteriorate, he wasn’t as strong. You could feel he wasn’t the person he was. He just
wasn’t the presence that he was before. And it showed in the music too, because in the ’70s Fela had a really strong band and then he just got kind of more lighter and lighter. And then a lot of weird shit came into that scene… That was a heavy scene. They were around some heavy people. Cuz he was the BIGGEST thing happening in Nigeria, and there’s some heavy stuff in Nigeria—not all positive.