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David Axelrod's essential '60s sounds are charting again in hip-hop hits

June 03, 2007|Lynell George | Lynell George is a senior writer for West.

David Axelrod doesn't do encores, as a rule. That's a boldfaced and underscored imperative. There are other rules--"codes in life"--in his hip pocket that he'll pull out when the time is right: Don't welsh on a bet. Can't fink--ever. Always take the offensive. Those are also imperatives. But the no encores rule doesn't preclude a "second set," in jazz parlance--when the personnel are warmed up, when things are getting good, when the magic can really happen.

Back in the day, as a producer and arranger at Capitol Records, Axelrod was a hit machine, the brains and imagination behind a succession of chart climbers by Cannonball Adderley and Lou Rawls, among others. Though he created the first black music division at a major record label, Axelrod could swing effortlessly from one genre, style or setting to another, and was known as much for his versatility as his idiosyncratic work with the Electric Prunes, David McCallum and South African vocalist Letta Mbulu, as well as his own prescient, genre-defying solo projects, "Songs of Innocence," "Songs of Experience" and "Earth Rot." He was one of the first artists to fuse elements of jazz, rock and R&B, evoking spacious expanses with swampy backbeat, dustings of strings, incantatory break beats. And as fast as he ascended, he vanished.

But his sonic imprint didn't. Forty years later, bars of sorrowful brass, a charging drum break, a lacy keyboard motif here, a slinky bass line there--began to surface in samples like aural ghosts, slipped into bridges of songs, stutter-stepped around choruses of rap and hip-hop hits. What had been ahead of its time, outside or completely uncategorizable was no longer.

Suddenly--again--Axelrod was juggling interviews with journalists around the globe, hanging out in luxe watering holes, doling out feedback to young musicians as if he were still in the booth at Capitol, passing on a pressing's back story to "diggers" trying to amass his entire catalog, much of it decades out of print. His name--paired with those of DJ Shadow, Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Madlib, and pared down to the appropriately sharp "Axe"--became a passkey among a new generation of musical omnivores with an ear for beats and fills and space, who listened as a producer might--to the bones, the structure, to what makes it stand up straight, what makes it move.

For many, upon first listen, it was head-expanding. "It was kind of jazzy and psychedelic all in one," says Madlib. "Then there's that funky, hard bass and drum--Carol Kaye and Earl Palmer. It was like world street music. I think it was so out there because, well, he was probably so out there."

"With David you can love Sun Ra and James Brown and Stockhausen too," says Eothen "Egon" Alapatt, general manager of Stones Throw Records, who produced "The Edge: David Axelrod at Capitol Records 1966 to 1970." "He's the one rogue guy whose picture isn't on the wall."

Though it wasn't the first, a sample from a 1966 Axelrod cut, "The Edge," from "David McCallum--Music: A Bit More of Me," was dropped into Dr. Dre's "The Next Episode," which became a mega-hit in 1999, giving Axelrod's dwindling bank account a big boost and provoking a change of heart. After a lifetime of giving musicians work, he'd seen sampling as stealing jobs. "And it is!" he says. "But I can't be hypocritical about it. I mean, come on. I thought the Lauryn Hill thing was cool, but then came Dre and that made Lauryn Hill look like she wasn't even selling, which of course is ridiculous. I didn't give the money away, I didn't give it back," he admits, palms up. "My man, Dre!"

The momentum built, much like one of Axelrod's own big, sweeping, what's-around-that-blind-corner soundscapes. An old acetate was found; new compositions were written, CDs released--reissues, compilations and new work. All of it culminating in a concert in London in 2004 (his first live performance in 25 years) and, on June 18, a celebratory screening in his hometown, Los Angeles, of a film documenting that concert at the Royal Festival Hall. In an evening of discussion, drinks and, of course, DJs spinning a career-spanning mix of his work in the courtyard of the Egyptian Theatre, Axelrod, at 75, will finally be properly feted.

Back in the golden era--of digging, that is--DJs and beat heads were searching for very particular sounds. "When we were first digging we were looking for drums with good hits with air around them, and strings," says B+ (Brian Cross), an L.A.-based photographer/filmmaker/DJ who first discovered Axelrod while eyeballing records at a Goodwill in Culver City. There he came upon a copy of "Songs of Innocence" (1968). This was the early- to mid-'90s, the days of "raw digging," before EBay and other forms of Internet assist. "Somehow I knew that name, Axelrod."

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