David Axelrod, Legendary Producer, Dead at 83
The producer, arranger, and composer was sampled by DJ Shadow, Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, and more
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
David Axelrod—the legendary composer, arranger, producer, and musician—has died. He was 83. Axelrod began working at Capitol Records in the early ‘60s as a producer and A&R person. He worked on a number of jazz and soul records by artists like Cannonball Adderley, Lou Rawls, and the Electric Prunes, and was sampled prominently by DJ Shadow (“Midnight in a Perfect World”), Lauryn Hill (“Every Ghetto, Every City”), Dr. Dre (“The Next Episode”), De La Soul (“I Am I Be”), and others. Shadow, Questlove, El-P, and Flying Lotus were among the artists who mourned Axelrod on social media after his passing.
Axelrod also had a long career as a solo artist, releasing two William Blake-inspired records—1968’s Song of Innocence and 1969’s Songs of Experience—and more environmentally-focused work like 1970’s Earth Rot. After taking a hiatus from recording in 1980, Axelrod’s music would surface as a major influence on dance and hip-hop acts. A retrospective compilation, 1968 to 1970: An Axelrod Anthology, was released in 1999.
“I’ve had such a great life. It’s just been one great adventure,” Axelrod said in a 2001 interview, “Maybe I haven’t left big footsteps, but I’ve left something. People all over the world seem to be listening to my music. So, what the hell?”
DJ Shadow shared this statement with Pitchfork:
David Axelrod was not a familiar name to most vinyl enthusiasts when I first discovered his music in 1989 (through a sealed copy of his classic LP "Song Of Innocence.") Perhaps it's because he wasn't interested in seeking the zeitgeist of fame; indeed, during his most productive era between the mid '60s and mid '70s, he was essentially a workaday producer, seemingly content to lend his energies into making others sound better. What separates him from his contemporaries in striking fashion is that he refused to specialize, and was willing to tackle a wide breadth of genres in an era when most producers strove to establish brand recognition within the rock, jazz, or vocal field. Axelrod did them all, usually with best friend H.B. Barnum arranging: Soul (Lou Rawls), jazz (Cannonball Adderly), pop (David McCallum), even hard rock (Hardwater).
Of course it was through his solo albums that he wielded his greatest potency. Albums like "Songs Of Experience" (1969) and "Earth Rot" (1970) were challenging, intellectual social critiques and meditations on the failures of man disguised as easy-listening (On the latter point, perhaps this is why it took so long for collectors to recognize their brilliance.) As a producer just beginning to chart my path, I was hugely inspired by the audaciousness of the subject matter, and the sober singularity of his musical vision. He urged L.A.'s finest session players to create a melancholic world which felt like my world, and reflected the dread and disappointment society inevitably inspires in its emotionally vulnerable.
David Axelrod's output remains totally unique and uncommonly cohesive, which is a testament to his vision as a composer. As a producer, I count him as one of my biggest influences. He is missed and loved by all of his family, friends, and fans.
-DJ Shadow, February 6