On 5 February 2017, the world lost a man of great musical influence. Whether you recognise the name of David Axelrod or not, you will definitely have heard some of the fruits of his labour. I first heard the distinctive sound of a David Axelrod as a 13-year-old, having received a CD player for my bedroom as a birthday gift, I then proceeded to purchase 2001 by Dr. Dre and a few other albums with the remainder of my birthday money. It was the sample of David McCallum’s The Edge, recorded and arranged by Axelrod on The Next Episode that really stood out for me. Little did I know I would revisit and listen to his work in a much different light at a later period of my life.

Dr. Dre Chronic 2001 - Adsum
Most people, whether they realize it or not, we're introduced to Axelrod by way of Dr. Dre's 2001.

David Axelrod grew up in South Central Los Angeles during the Second World War, a landscape with few present male role models. Having lost his father and older brother, he found solace in the streets, developing a taste for drugs and alcohol at a young age, finding himself involved with something of the wrong crowd. It was here that he received his education, listening to R&B and jazz and learning the ways of the world. In 1959, he self-funded and recorded The Fox by Harold Land – his first serious foray into musical production.

He had an influential reach far beyond anything that he could have imagined, with a pioneering approach to musical production and a strong personal vision. Known for his skilled execution as a composer, producer and arranger, he gained notoriety within the soul and jazz communities, eventually signing to Capitol Records.

It was there that he produced records for the likes of Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderley, pushing the musical limits of The Electric Prunes and also oversaw the development of Capitol’s portfolio of black recording artists such as Letta MBulu. He also produced his solo albums Songs of Innocence (1968) and Songs of Experience (1969) on Capitol, paying homage to the paintings and poetry of William Blake, and Earth Rot (1970) that warned of the negative consequences of pollution on the environment.

These records helped to shape his signature sound – heavily-microphoned booming drums, rich sweeping strings and idiosyncratic arrangements. It was noticeable elements such as these that later earned him popularity amongst the crate diggers and hip-hop producers. Samples of his work have been most notably used by Dr. Dre, DJ Shadow, Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Madlib, featured on the records of Lauryn Hill and cited as an influential by the likes of Radiohead and The Verve.

Axelrod was initially sceptical of the use of sampling within hip-hop due to his personal wrangling over the publishing rights of a lot of his work with Paul McCartney’s publishing company MPL. This trepidation made way for celebration of a musical culture that would borrow and infuse influence from a variety of sources – something that rang true with his working style. It was however the sampling of his work that allowed him to extend the longevity of his career. This culminated in a rare live performance with a 26-piece orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 2004 – a show that he acknowledged would not have been possible had it not been for sampling.

Wax Poetics Magazine Axelrod - Adsum
Wax Poetics, a magazine dedicated to the crate digger tradition, dedicated a magazine cover to Axelrod after his passing.

Though David Axelrod has now sadly passed away, his musical legacy will live on for many decades to come.

Words by: Scott Causier