On February 5, news emerged that exalted composer David Axelrod had died at age 83. Axelrod was a trailblazer of the avant-garde in his own right, but was celebrated and often sampled by a range of artists in hip-hop and R&B. FACT looks back at some of Axelrod’s most prominent appearances.
David Axelrod’s mark on hip-hop is undeniable. He’s been sampled time and time again by a wide variety of open-minded producers, from New York OGs like Pete Rock and Showbiz & AG to psychedelic West Coasters Madlib and DJ Shadow, adding a soulful bump to literally hundreds of tracks. Without Axelrod, an already-enormous artist like Dr. Dre wouldn’t have one of his all-time biggest hits, ‘The Next Episode’. Sure, Nate Dogg’s memeable “smoke weed everyday” interlude might be more visible these days, but that evocative opening? That methodical, plinking backdrop? All borrowed from Axelrod’s ‘The Edge’.
Known for his work with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and Lou Rawls, David Axelrod broke out on his own in 1968 with his debut album Song of Innocence, which used elements of jazz, rock ‘n roll and R&B and solidified Axelrod as a pioneer of fusion – the kind of hybrid sound that would later be paramount to hip-hop’s sample-based beginnings. And his legacy has endured.
“[David Axelrod] was so immersed in creativity and so pure with his arrangements he WAS hip hop,” Questlove wrote in memoriam. “And [he] 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) he appreciation for music and his ability to recognize musicianship is what I’ll take from him.”
FACT looks back at some of the songs that amplified Axelrod’s distinct sound, from DJ Shadow and Quasimoto to Lil Wayne and Eminem.
‘Midnight in a Perfect World’
(Mo Wax, 1996)
Samples: ‘The Human Abstract’ (1969)
“Insight, foresight, more sight, the clock on the wall reads a quarter past midnight,” bellows Prince Po on the eerie introduction to ‘Midnight in a Perfect World’. It’s a fitting preface to the centerpiece of DJ Shadow’s career-defining 1996 debut LP Endtroducing, an album that was literally pieced together from hundreds of samples.
Here, Shadow takes Axelrod’s ‘The Human Abstract’, looping elements from the track’s chilly outro to form ‘Midnight in a Perfect World’’s spine-tingling piano melody. It’s not hard to hear why Shadow was referred to as the “Jimi Hendrix of the sampler” when Endtroducing was originally released.
Samples: ‘The Mental Traveler’ (1968)
Recorded for the 1999 Rawkus compilation Soundbombing II, ‘Any Man’ finds Eminem at a crucial moment in his career. He’s still got something to prove here, spitting obscenities over a beat that borrows the high-pitched intro to Axelrod’s ‘The Mental Traveler’.
It’s these eerie strings that take the track to the next level, and when Em says, “I hope God forgives me for my sins / It probably all depends on if I keep killing my girlfriends,” you almost believe him.
Samples: ‘1000 Rads’ (1975)
In a simpler time, the Black-Eyed Peas weren’t pumping out tracks designed to soundtrack bar mitzvahs and weddings. The group debuted, as a three piece, with conscious rap efforts like ‘Joints and Jams’ and ‘Fallin’ Up’, which takes Axelrod’s percussion-heavy ‘1000 Rads’ and turns it into something more minimalist. It’s not just a good example of how well rap producers were able to take Axelrod’s intricate work and make it more gritty, but of how there truly was a time when the Black-Eyed Peas were cool.
Samples: ‘Song of Innocence’ (1968)
As we know from ‘The Edge’ and its use in ‘The Next Episode’ – Axelrod could compose a truly iconic, unforgettable intro. Macy Gray’s breakout single ‘I Try’ announces itself with a swell of strings that illustrates the same emotions as the song’s longing lyrics. The flourish came from Axelrod’s ‘Song of Innocence’, an instrumental that mirrors Gray’s delight remarkably. It’s no wonder something so sweet was such a hit.
Samples: ‘The Warnings (Part II)’ (1970)
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides when it was released back in 1999. It felt iconic – a late-stage play for the New York crown – and who better than David Axelrod to help him achieve his goal? ‘Hip Hop’ is one of the album’s focal points, as Yasiin Bey dissects the genre over a rousing Diamond D beat that just happens to sample Axelrod’s ‘The Warnings (Part II)’. It’s fitting that a track celebrating and dissecting the essence of the genre should feature such a prominent hat tip to one of its accidental engineers.
‘Return of the Loop Digga’
(Stones Throw, 2000)
Samples: ‘A Divine Image’ (1969)
Another confirmed David Axelrod devotee, Madlib has sampled the composer on numerous occasions in a variety of projects, but ‘Return of the Loop Digga’ just had to make the list. It’s a track that breaks down the kind of create-digging practices that led to Axelrod being elevated to the status of hip-hop deity in the first place.
Here, Madlib chats with a record store clerk asking for Chick Corea or Grant Green records before detailing his process and name-checking plenty of his heroes. “Like David Axelrod, I keep it raw from the first day,” he mutters, while Axelrod’s ‘A Divine Image’ squeals in the background.
(Young Money, 2008)
Samples: ‘Holy Thursday’ (1968)
‘Dr. Carter’ is itself a clinic in how to make a sample on your own. Swizz Beatz, who produced the track, may have masterminded it using the peaks and valleys in ‘Holy Thursday’, but it’s Lil Wayne (who was then at the height of his lyrical dexterity) who takes it to another level by using the song’s movements to bolster his storytelling. It’s one of the best examples of using fiction as creative tool in rap and Weezy’s writing tricks are all the more possible over Axelrod’s more meditative moments.