David Axelrod, the composer and producer whose layered arrangements would later provide fertile ground for sampling for generations of hip-hop artists and enthusiasts, died Sunday at the age of 83. No cause of death was provided. DJ Shadow, a friend of Axelrod who frequently sampled the producer, confirmed his death on Twitter.
Axelrod’s music could be heard on songs like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “The Next Episode,” De La Soul’s “I Am I Be,” UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights” and Ghostface Killah’s “Stay True” as well as productions by DJ Premier, Madlib, Swizz Beatz and hundreds more.
Following news of Axelrod’s death, many in the hip-hop community paid tribute to the immensely influential producer.
“So sad to hear about the passing of musician/composer #DavidAxelrod,” Questlove wrote on Instagram. “He was so immersed in creativity and so pure with his arrangements he WAS hip hop. And understood and appreciated hip hop culture (most cats would get guarded about time moving on & easily take the ‘NO!!!!!!!!’ disposition if they aren’t informed. David embraced and often reached out to producers and beatmakers for cool collabos). [His] appreciation for music and his ability to recognize musicianship is what I’ll take from him.”
DJ Shadow tweeted of Axelrod, “I’ll never forget meeting him for the first time in 1998. We asked him to do a remix for ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’ off the Unkle album. David could be incredibly intimidating, & he did not suffer fools…but if he liked & respected you, he was the most loyal friend on earth. So honored to have known you David, you are a bonafide hero to an entire generation of hip-hop kids and musical dreamers.”
The Los Angeles-born Axelrod entered the music business as a session musician before transitioning to the other end of the studio, serving as a producer and arranger for a diverse slate of artists that included garage rockers the Electric Prunes, soul legend Lou Rawls and renowned jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who once said of Axelrod’s work, “there’s a layer of violence [to his music] no matter how pretty it is.”
In the mid-Sixties, Axelrod piloted four jazz-funk LPs by The Man From U.N.C.L.E. actor/musician David McCallum. Axelrod’s arrangement for McCallum’s “The Edge” provided Dr. Dre with the foundation for his 2000 single “The Next Episode.” At a rare performance in 2004 documented on Live at the Royal Albert Hall, Axelrod said of being sampled by Dre, “This allows you to have ‘screw you’ money! Thank you Dre.”
Under Axelrod, Mass in F Minor, the Electric Prunes’ third album released in 1968, became one of the year’s oddest release. Axelrod stripped the group of their garage-rock leanings to create a psychedelic rock opera containing Latin and Greek singing. While the group members were unable to perform Axelrod’s technically complex arrangements – studio musicians were brought in to finish the album – it remains a psych-rock classic.
In addition to his production work, Axelrod crafted his own solo albums starting with 1968’s pioneering Song of Innocence, a concept album based on the writings of William Blake that featured a kaleidoscopic amalgamation of different musical genres. The album, and its standout cut “Holy Thursday,” would routinely be plundered by hip-hop producers throughout the 1990s and 2000s. 1969’s Songs of Experience and 1970’s Earth Rot are similarly highly regarded.
According to RBMA, following the death of Adderley in 1975, Axelrod’s production work ceased and the rapidity of his own solo catalog slowed, but Axelrod’s later albums continued to provide future hip-hop producers with loops and beats; “Terri’s Tune,” an ode to Axelrod’s wife off of 1977’s Strange Ladies, would transform into Ghostface Killah’s “Stay True” and Inspectah Deck’s “Elevation.”
Axelrod, disappointed by the reception of his 1993 LP Requiem: The Holocaust, stepped away from the music industry in the early Nineties; however, soon after, his career was reinvigorated by the rush of crate-digging hip-hop producers discovering his work.
Axelrod’s last studio album was a 2001 self-titled LP released on the Mo’ Wax label, a collection of decades-old, unheard Axelrod tracks that the producer himself reshaped and remixed for release.