There’s this thing that happens every time a musician like David Axelrod dies. He’s not famous enough for prepared obituaries, so writers on deadline quickly compile a compendium of response tweets from still-breathing idols who the late artist influenced. They scan “WhoSampled.Com” for a brief litany of the hip-hop producers that lifted loops and breaks. They head to Wikipedia to highlight a handful of the artists’ canonical albums and within an hour, the post is online. By the end of the week if not the day, the artist is often forgotten about.
The truth is that there are no artists like David Axelrod, nor will his influence vanish anytime soon. You can’t summarize his music in rapid summary because it’s something you feel in your marrow, something that doesn’t lend itself to social media acid reflux. To the majority of the world, David Axelrod refers to Obama’s political strategist, who along with Jon Favreau helped pioneer the art of political operatives using the same name as celebrated cultural figures. But if you were a cratedigger, a producer, or just a fan of psychedelic soul, jazz, and R&B, David Axelrod’s name was as iconic as Quincy Jones.
That’s no overstatement. Axelrod composed both devotional and secular music that showed the existence of a divine force as well as anyone possibly could. There were requiem tributes to Handel and the Holocaust, early ecological odes to the destruction of the earth and symphonic renderings of the Electric Prunes that ended up on the Easy Rider soundtrack. At the height of the acid era, he came up with the idea to do a pair of concept albums devoted to rendering William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience into actual song. In hindsight, it sounds like a grandiose and pretentious ambition, but Axelrod wrote music that channeled into some direct sacral pipeline. At times, it felt like he was communing with Blake, at other times the authors of the Old and New Testament, and all times, he wrung maximum emotion out of the musicians making his hallucinations sound heavenly.
In the LA underground hip-hop scene, people spoke of Axelrod with the hushed reverence usually reserved for austere myths. To talk to Gaslamp Killer or Madlib about Axelrod was to ask them to articulate the platonic ideal of how they’d like their music to sound. If Quincy Jones was the forerunner to Dr. Dre, David Axelrod filled a role akin to DJ Quik — the people’s champ, the one’s who knew really knew. A mad scientist born and raised in South Central, no stranger to danger, or buying heroin and hitting up jazz joints on Central Ave. Mentored by legendary jazz pianist and Louis Armstrong collaborator, Gerald Wiggins and Cannonball Adderley. Stabbed in the stomach by Chicano gang members in the 50s, but able to survive thanks to the iron fists of his frequent musical partner, HB Barnum.
In the mid-60s, he became the producer, A&R, and essential head of the black music department at Capitol. The newfound freedom led him to produce canonical records for Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderley, and his own trio of solo albums that have since been plundered relentlessly for every last snare drum, string levitation, and guitar solo. Before hip-hop even existed, Axelrod seemed to have the idea in his head. The microphone’d drums offered deity-level breakbeats, the assembled mini-orchestras supply ready-made loops, as though each song was built to supply a half dozen more. Rap producers used Axelrod the way that Native Americans did the buffalo. Every single piece was put to work.
We can go all day with the major samples used in his work. The most famous was “The Next Episode,” in which Dre pretty much jacked a straight loop and gave himself a comeback smash that set his career back on track. He was sampled by De La and Rakim, The Beatnuts and Wu-Tang, DJ Shadow, Premier and Madlib. Even people more familiar with Big Sean than Biggie know his work thanks to the “Holy Thursday” loop that Swizz Beatz used on “Dr. Carter.”
At 83 years old, Axelrod’s death is depressing but not a tragedy. He was able to live long enough to see himself go from has-been to legend. Dr. Dre gave him enough “Fuck You Money” to re-buy his ultra-rare records thousands of times over. His passing reminds us that they aren’t minting David Axelrod’s anymore. He was a one-time fluke, a genius who created some of the most rich fossil fuel that hip-hop ever saw, and a legendary character with stories that probably never all got transcribed. His loss means that the world is that much more impoverished in spirit. Holy was he.