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David Axelrod: Producer

Hip-hop Inspiration By Sam Inglis
Published August 2001

David Axelrod, producer.

For a man who likes to work quickly in the studio, David Axelrod's new album has taken an awfully long time to make — 33 years, to be precise. Meanwhile, his groundbreaking '60s and '70s productions have become a crucial resource for the biggest names in hip-hop. 

"When people started calling me the king of the drum breaks, I didn't know what the f**k a drum break was!" says David Axelrod. "I called a very good friend of mine who's a drummer, and he said 'I'm not sure what that means either. Do they mean notes of some kind?' I said 'That's what I'm trying to figure out.' I hadn't realised until this started, when I started listening to my stuff again, but I have a habit of breaking up phrases — I hadn't noticed that before. I'll break up a melodic phrase, and then all of a sudden I'll have a two- or four-bar drum break, or a bass fill, or sometimes it's drums and bass — but that phrase is broken up. And I don't know why I do that! Before, it seemed spontaneous — you write what you hear — but now that I've become conscious of it, I'm going to try and maybe not do that."

If Axelrod carries out his threat to stop including drum breakdowns in his distinctive arrangements, it's going to be bad news for a lot of contemporary record producers. The king of the drum breaks has seen his work sampled by an amazing array of hip-hop and dance music's great and good, including Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, A Tribe Called Quest, and most famously DJ Shadow, whose use and knowledge of Axelrod's work borders on the obsessive. "If I want to know something, if somebody asks about something, I call Shadow," laughs Axelrod. "He has everything I've ever done, and if I hum it, he'll tell me what album it is. I can't remember back to 1968! I can't remember my own things. He and I got into a little thing about a guy named Ray Brown. I said 'I've never made an album with Ray.' He said 'But there's an album called Ray Brown, and your name is on the back.' I said 'I don't care, I didn't make it!' So he sent me a copy, and then I remembered it the instant I saw the guy's face on the cover."

Rise And Fall

David Axelrod began his career as a jazz producer in Los Angeles, hanging out with the likes of Gerald Wiggins, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, as well as the arranger and producer H. B. Barnum, with whom he would later form a close working relationship. Wiggins acted as Axelrod's mentor, helping him on his rise through the West Coast's small jazz labels to the job where he would do his most famous work, as a house producer at Capitol Records. He was hired initially to work with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, a partnership that would endure until the latter's death in 1975, but swiftly branched out into rhythm and blues, and in the late '60s, to the expansive orchestral pop projects for which he's know best known. In the '80s, however, Axelrod fell on hard times: production work dried up, his own albums suffered from distribution troubles, and he seemed destined to be forgotten. The '90s saw his work rediscovered by a new generation of producers, led by Shadow, who would scour second-hand shops for anything bearing Axelrod's credit.

David Axelrod 'Songs Of Experience' album cover.In his time at Capitol, David Axelrod quickly established a distinctive style of his own. Without formal training, he had learned classical composition and harmony with the aid of books and lessons from jazz pianist Bill Green, and began to apply the results to his production projects. The resulting dark, melodramatic orchestral arrangements were often wedded to unfeasibly groovy rhythm tracks, laid down by the hottest session musicians in LA — Axelrod sessions would often feature Carole Kaye on bass, Howard Roberts on guitar, Earl Palmer on drums and Joe Sample on keyboards. As Axelrod's reputation grew, his projects became more ambitious: highlights included the Electric Prunes' concept album Mass In F Minor, as well as two albums of his own based on the poems of William Blake, Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience.

"Right from the beginning I was always hearing for groups or orchestras. That's why I studied composition. I used the most common text book in the US, Walter Piston's. I remember Bill Green telling me to read each chapter, and at the end of each chapter there's a test. Then I met a guy named Marle Bruno, and he taught me how to take the harmony I'd studied and use it to analyse scores. He told me to get a book by a man named Schenker — the Schenker system is the most commonly used system for analysing scores. Schenker claimed that it could be used to analyse atonal music, but you can't; it doesn't work. But for tonal music it's perfect, and I learned a lot about it. Then I got to the point where I couldn't give a damn about what they were doing — it was the voicings."

Even Axelrod's most elaborate projects were, he says, rooted in the discipline he learned producing jazz music. "I have been using 24-tracks ever since there were 24-tracks, but I love that when I started, you couldn't come back and EQ. You made two-track masters in the '50s right then in the studio — so you'd better be right, because you can always add on, but you can't take off. That was the motto. You had to be especially careful of the way you used reverb, and it was great training. You get people that don't know music, and they're taking days, weeks, years to do their albums, and spend two million dollars doing it. Don't they get bored? All the guys I know, after three takes we'd do another tune. F**k it, why should there even be three takes? Usually the reason would be technical. You'd do one take to get it so you could play it back and hear if there's anything wrong. Next take, do it. That's it. Maybe a third take. If we went past three takes, I would start going 'Why the hell are we doing this?' Why I am I going "take four?"' Damn, that sounds terrible just saying it, 'take four'.

"You don't go in to the studio until you know what you want. My mentor Gerald Wiggins always told me 'School is out when you go into the recording studio.' You can mess up in a club, but you can't in the studio, because the union rules are three-hour blocks, and it's expensive. The studio is expensive, the musicians are expensive — everything is expensive. Tape is expensive. So when we do it, I'm never in a hurry, I just know what I want, and I get it."

It was with this approach and the crack Kaye/Roberts/Palmer/Sample band that Axelrod entered Capitol B Studios in 1968 to begin the recording of another projected Electric Prunes album. Their records had always been largely concocted by session musicians, and by this time there were no original Prunes left. However, Axelrod's then manager Lenny Poncher owned the rights to the name, and wanted to milk it for one more hit album. The plan was that Axelrod would create another selection of orchestral backing tracks, while Poncher's son wrote the lyrics: a rock opera based around Faust.

"I wrote the rhythm parts out — that's how we recorded everything," explains Axelrod. "You'd go in and record the rhythm section, and then go home again and start listening to the tracks, and decide how you're going to sweeten them. Strings, horns, whatever — what are you going to do? And then you figure that out, and you bring in your strings and horns and everything and record them. Then the singer comes in last and the singing is recorded last. Even though we used ringer musicians, the Prunes did the singing. The guy that did 'Holy Are You' on Release Of An Oath had a terrific voice.

"Well, we did the rhythm tracks, and Lenny made a deal with the president of WEA, and he bought the tracks. I don't know what happened, but they just never got around to it, never did anything with it."

Something Old, Something New...

Given the patchy state of Axelrod's memory even for his own hit albums, it's unsurprising that he soon forgot about the half-finished tracks. "I didn't know about them until 1999, when I got a call from Lenny," says Axelrod. "He'd come across an acetate. We didn't have cassettes then — I'd had the acetate made so that I could listen to the rhythm parts and work out the orchestral arrangements.

"When he sent it to me, I didn't even listen to it, but the following day, when B Plus — the photographer who does all the hip-hop and rap acts — was over, he spotted it, and he said 'What's that?' I said 'I don't know yet, they're tracks I did in 1968.' He said 'My God, let's hear it!' So I put it on and he went crazy."

A unique plan was soon hatched in conjunction with Mo'Wax label boss and Axelrod fan James Lavelle. The rediscovered rhythm tracks would form the basis of a new David Axelrod album on Mo'Wax, to be completed by Axelrod himself in conjunction with both old collaborators such as Barnum and Lou Rawls, and some of his newer acolytes from the hip-hop world. "The acetate was already shot when I first got it, from listening to it to write to, because I actually had written all the horns and strings and so forth, but I lost the scores. It's a shame, but I think it worked out better, because I didn't have anything to lean on. The melody is the central point of a song, but I had no melody lines. So I had my copyist take down the chords for me. I didn't want to see the rhythm section lines or anything, as long as I had the chords. And then I started thinking about how to make it contemporary. That's why I'm glad I didn't have the scores, because I might have been too influenced by them.

"To record the album, we had to have a clean two-track from the acetate. We ran the acetate at Capitol through a computer that takes 50 minutes to clean one minute of music, so it took quite a while before we had a clean two-track. They sent me a cassette from the two-track and that's what I worked from. The strange thing is there were a couple of tracks missing, which I couldn't figure out. There must've been another acetate somewhere, because there's only a certain amount of time on an acetate. So I wrote two new tunes to replace them, and that's when I got the idea I want to do a rap [the album's opening track 'The Little Children' features rapper Ras Kass].

David Axelrod CD cover."This album was cut in three days. Wednesday was double sessions, three to six, seven to 10, Thursday was the same thing — all the music was cut. Friday, the singers came in at 12, I think we were done by five. That gave me Saturday and Sunday to listen, to see how I was going to sequence it, because that's difficult. Sometimes you can spend just days sequencing albums. I don't like that fast, slow, fast, slow thing, it drives me crazy. The only thing I knew about this album was I knew I was going to start with 'The Little Children', because I wanted it to end with the story of a boy, my son [closing track 'Loved Boy' is about the son Axelrod lost to drugs in 1971], and it kind of hooks in to the lyric of that rap. So you figure out what order they should be in, and then on Monday that's how you start remixing — in order."

The resulting album, simply entitled David Axelrod, has been attracting rave reviews, and should remind the world that Axelrod is very much alive and has lost none of his powers. The funky rhythm tracks are indeed perfect sample fodder, while Axelrod's jazz-tinged, largely instrumental arrangements provide a sharply contemporary alternative to whatever the Electric Prunes' Faust might have sounded like.

The Future Of Rap

Now that he's a cult name within the hip-hop world, David Axelrod feels that he has much more to contribute than his impressive back catalogue. The future of hip-hop, for Axelrod, is one in which sampled beats and breaks are left behind, and where composers and arrangers such as himself are directly employed to create new music: "I love rap. Hip-hop will be here forever. That rhythm's just here, that's it, it's part of music. But a guy as talented as Diamond D will know what he wants, he will work with an arranger that can give him what he wants — and think of the millions of dollars they'll save on sampling. I have to admit it's been very good to me. But they have to get permission from the label to use a certain piece of music, and then they have to pay for it — a percentage. It's all worked out on the amount of time used. Then a percentage to the publisher, and it's a lot of money. If you get a big hit out of it, it's a lot of money you're shelling out. This way, there'll be one fee, and that's it. That's what it'll go to, and I think they'll realise that too. The great rap producers will go, 'I don't need to cut and paste, I'll just do it with musicians.' I've got a feeling Diamond D will do that, I think Dre would too, I think Puff Daddy will. And others. They have all sampled me, and I really liked what they did — but rap has to evolve.

"I have an idea now of what I want to do next. And I'm telling you, it's going to be a motherf**ker."

Production Or Direction?

"Producing anything is all the same," insists David Axelrod. "I could go in and produce a country & western record, and I'm not very good at country music, but it's just music. The phrase 'record producer' is really an oxymoron. It got started by Norman Granz. He was the first person to put 'produced by' on an album. Van Morrison has been putting 'directed by' on his albums for years. It hasn't caught on yet, but it really should, because what is it that you do? You look for songs. Let's say I'm recording Lou Rawls, and I need songs. That takes up 90 percent of the time. Really good songs are very difficult to find. So you get them, you bring in an arranger or you arrange it yourself. The arranger takes that song — that's a screenplay. He takes a story and turns it into a screenplay. The singers and musicians, they're actors. The engineer is your cinematographer. You're the director. You're responsible for it all. There's nobody else going to take the heat."