To say that hip-hop changed my life is an understatement. I feel blessed and highly favored to have grown up during what has long been considered the golden age of hip-hop, experiencing the anticipation for several classic albums at their time of release and the ensuing debates with friends in high school and college about their "classic-ness." I appreciate being present for the trip from the hood to the suburbs. And it’s not just hip-hop itself that changed my life; hip-hop was the conduit for which my musical mind was expanded exponentially, extraly.
While hip-hop itself is the overwhelming soundtrack to my youth, hip-hop ultimately opened me up to the soundtrack of my life and as my musical knowledge expanded, less and less hip-hop songs and more and more of their foundation appeared on that soundtrack. Buying hip-hop CDs opened me up to really reading liner notes, and liner notes opened me up to searching through hell and high water (remember, we’re talking the 90s, before Google and YouTube were a thing when I had to spend $90 to order a special-issue CD from Japan for one song) to find the original productions that served as soundbeds for all of my favorite songs, in monumental fashion even.
I still remember where I was when I first heard Jefferson Airplane’s “Today”, which was covered by Tom Scott, which would lead to arguably one of the best productions in hip-hop history. Shit, I remember when The Boondocks played Tom Scott’s “Today” in an episode and feeling like they let the cat out of the bag. Nevermind that nearly all clear samples are open record nowadays on Wikipedia. I can remember the first time I heard Isaac Hayes “Hung Up On My Baby” and nearly coming to tears feeling like I’d just listened to some of the most beautiful music ever created. Thank you, Isaac. Thank you, Geto Boys.
Once I started down the “sample” rabbit hole, I was a lost cause. Finding new music that I was previously unaware of became a life’s mission. It gave me purpose. Back in the early 2000s, there were TONS of websites that uploaded entire albums from the 60s and 70s and 80s from obscure artists, and others who dropped loosies, singles and one-off songs from artists with rare or obscure 45s, etc. I currently have two 500 gig external hard-drives full of albums I obtained this way. If I ever lost those hard-drives, I would cry. I promise you.
It was on one of those rabbit-hole sites that I came across what would become one of my absolute favorite composers, arrangers, and producers in one David Axelrod. I even remember the song that introduced me to him: “The Smile,” still my favorite piece of music from him.
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Bruh. Mind blown. Please go listen to “The Smile.” For me. For life. Oh, and you'll need to listen with both headphones. Then go pull up David Axelrod on your streaming service and just listen to anything that pops up.
Plainly, David Axelrod is hip-hop. His drums alone are beautiful, but the arrangements and good lord the mixing. And you know David Axelrod’s work. You know Dr. Dre’s “ The Next Episode” which is a CLEAN sample of his song “The Edge.” You know Lil Wayne’s “Dr. Carter” or, you know what, just check out this list of songs. He’s been sampled by nearly all of the famous and big name hip-producers from Kanye to Premier to Dr. Dre to Swizz Beatz to even underground titans like DJ Shadow. His works are everywhere hip-hop is because to listen to David Axelrod as a hip-hop fan is to hear where many songs we know came from.
But the hip-hop uses obscure the pure poetry in the original productions themselves. You’ve got lush strings, murderous drums, amazing bass, and he almost never faltered. And the mixing…good lord, the mixing. For music composed in the 1970s, it was so amazingly crisp. It reminds me of how sonically perfect Boston’s self-titled debut album is. If Dr. Dre were to tell me that David Axelrod is his spirit animal, I would not be surprised.
I love everything Axelrod created. Even if I don’t love the particular notes and chords, the sheer arrangements and intricacy of the compositions has me at hello. They all just SOUND so good. His work with Electric Prunes on songs like “Holy Are You” and “Our Father, Our King” still leaves me wanting to hit the MPC and get back to work creating new work. I wouldn’t have to mix anything because its so well done already. Axelrod was innovative and creative in everything he recorded. There are musicians who can break down the actual musicality; I can’t do that. I’m not a musician. I’m a consumer and as a consumer, David Axelrod’s music moved me and made me happy.
David Axelrod passed away on Sunday, February 5th. I only found out about this when I saw an article about hip-hop artists, largely producers, talking about his impact on the art form. I quickly read the articles and became sad that somebody whose influence loomed so large would never get the mainstream due I felt he deserved.
His fusion recordings are the perfect 70s staples. I am one of those people who absolutely believes that nearly everything that was released in the 1960s and 70s is better than anything from any other era in history. David Axelrod perfectly encapsulated this sound of innovation, fusion, and experimentation.
So shouts to David Axelrod, an artist who changed the way that I listened to music and who influenced the way I approached how music should sound. And thank you, David Axelrod for creating a body of work so well produced that I have to actively listen because I don’t want to miss any parts.
And thank you for creating “The Smile,” a piece of music that changed my life.
You are appreciated. RIP.