‘Sampled by all, the king of cinematic breakbeats has left us.’ This is how DJ Gilles Peterson remembered David Axelrod at the time of his death, on 5th February 2017. There was a chorus of praise on social networks, reminding us of the enormous importance of this man who kept himself mainly in the shadows, but whom sample enthusiasts had long since christened The Master. On the American West Coast, where he was born in 1933 (in Los Angeles to be precise), tributes made by everyone from the boss of the Stones Throw label to Madlib were in keeping with his influence – both had used his material and knew what they owed to David Axelrod.
‘He was hip-hop’ said the great Questlove at the time of Axelrod’s death. DJ Shadow, Pete Rock, James Poyser, Dr Dre, DJ Premier, the Beatnuts, and the Wu-Tang Clan – basically every band in the history of hip-hop was brought up on his sounds. Axelrod grew up in South Central in a working-class family where his father was a radical left-wing activist. An original composer, a brilliant arranger and a seminal producer, Axelrod left a lasting impression on the 1960s and 1970s, two decades that kicked off with The Fox by the formidable saxophonist Harold Land, in 1959.
In the service of others (singer Lou Rawls, the South African diva Letta Mbulu, the iconic Cannonball Adderley to whom he was most loyal, as well as the psychedelic delirium of the Electric Prunes), Axelrod had an eye for detail and a concern for sound. This can be felt on his numerous productions for Capitol, the first label that believed in his talents as an arranger. What we hear is a combination of swinging drums (reminding us that he was raised behind toms and cymbals) deep-reaching bass lines, breathtaking brass instruments that are never over-florid, strings that remind us of his taste for religious music, voices inhabited by a real spirituality, and all crossed with ambient psychedelia.
All of this makes up the DNA of his own records, a handful of collections recorded between 1968 and 1975 that can legitimately be considered masterpieces. Starting with an initial diptych released in the dying moments of the 60s, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are post-psych masses; tributes to the hallucinogenic poet William Blake and considered holy grails by every music lover.
After far too many years of oblivion Axelrod was rediscovered thanks to some works in tribute, belated recognition that allowed him to release a record simply entitled David Axelrod on Mo Wax in 2001. We promise you, the name is legendary.