Music icon David Axelrod: six essential tracks

Soul Sides blogger Oliver Wang takes a dive into the back catalog of a musician who fused jazz with funk and soul, and reshaped 90s hip-hop

Lou Rawls – Dead End Street

David Axelrod was born in Los Angeles in 1933 and by his early 30s had landed a job with one of the city’s best-known record labels: Capitol. He was quickly paired with the R&B singer Lou Rawls, as a producer, and across the latter half of the 60s the two men worked together on over a dozen albums. Axelrod not only produced Dead End Street but also co-wrote the song and though it’s far less baroque than his later compositions, the song’s strong, swinging backbeat has all the trademarks of an Axelrod sensibility.

David McCallum – The Edge

The Scottish actor David McCallum became a star on the 60s spy drama The Man From UNCLE. He parlayed that fame into a multi-album deal with Capitol, where he was assigned to Axelrod. McCallum’s LPs were mostly instrumental covers of current pop hits but Axelrod snuck at least one of his own compositions on to each album. The Edge, which appeared on Music: A Bit More Of Me, has become Axelrod’s most famed track thanks to Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg’s The Next Episode, which made full use of Axelrod’s suspenseful take on a spaghetti western score.

Electric Prunes – Holy You Are

Axelrod was brought in to work with the LA psychedelic group Electric Prunes in 1967 but when the original members all disbanded after the release of their first collaboration (Mass in F Minor), the Electric Prunes were reconstituted with new members poached from other rock bands of the era. With Axelrod exerting even more creative control of the group’s Release of an Oath, he unleashed what would become his signature sound: dramatic melodic chords, swelling string arrangements, heavy doses of psychedelia and, anchoring it all, the heaviest of rhythms, provided by members of the famed Wrecking Crew studio band, including the drummer Earl Palmer and the bassist Carol Kaye.

David Axelrod – Holy Thursday

Axelrod’s success with the Electric Prunes helped him land his own solo deal with Capitol and the first fruit he bore was Songs of Innocence. Now empowered to bring his creative visions into full bloom, Axelrod created a pair of albums inspired by the poetry of William Blake (the other being 1969’s Songs of Experience). Holy Thursday is the second song on Songs of Innocence and it ranks among Axelrod’s greatest creations: a five-and-a-half-minute, epic-feeling composition filled with moments of dense gravity, funky slickness and sublime grace.

David Axelrod – The Warnings I

Earth Rot marked the last of Axelrod’s three albums for Capitol and it would become one of the most heralded of his eclectic, concept-driven albums of the 70s, which also included his rock opera take on Handel’s Messiah and the slavery parable LP The Auction. The Warnings, a four-song suite on Earth Rot, sounded the alarm over environmental degradation and Axelrod opens the song with an eerie, multi-vocal reading from the Book of Genesis before bringing the score to life with his own heavenly touch.

David Axelrod – The Shadow Knows

Axelrod’s solo recording all but disappeared after 1980 but a decade and a half later, his catalog was rediscovered by a generation of hip-hop producers eager to make use of Axelrod’s unique concoction of neoclassical compositions with a funk, psychedelic underbelly. This led James Lavelle’s Mo Wax to convince Axelrod to revisit a series of songs originally written and partially recorded in the late 60s during that early, fertile Capitol era. Teaming with his longtime partner HB Barnum, Axelrod finally completed those songs, delivering a literal vintage version of his sound – except now he devoted the songs to his younger apostles, including the Bay Area’s DJ Shadow, in whose honor Axelrod entitled The Shadow Knows.


Oliver Wang

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
David Axelrod, composer and producer, dies aged 83
LA-born musician helped shape the direction of hip-hop and inspired the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and DJ Shadow

Guardian music

06, Feb, 2017 @10:18 AM

Article image
DJ Shadow: 'Music has never been worth less, and yet sampling has never been more risky'
In Australia for a ‘block party’ curated by the Avalanches at the Sydney Opera House, the pioneering DJ spoke about the evolving challenges of his craft

Stephanie Convery

24, May, 2017 @2:32 AM

Article image
DJ Shadow – review
DJ Shadow may be a bit grumpy about free music downloads but he certainly earns his money live, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

10, Sep, 2011 @11:26 PM

Article image
‘I accidentally invented trip-hop’ – how we made DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing
‘People said: “Nobody’s going to listen to instrumental trip-hop.” But I was thinking of huge soundscapes, like the ones by Pink Floyd or Beethoven’

Interviews by Rich Pelley

27, Jun, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Grammy predictions: who will win in the rap and R&B categories?
Beyoncé looks like a nailed-on winner in the urban contemporary section, but elsewhere history hints it might be a disappointing night for Drake and Kanye

Alex Macpherson

08, Feb, 2017 @12:00 PM

Article image
Mo' Wax after 21 years: James Lavelle goes for a trip-hop down memory lane
The lynchpin of 90s music label Mo' Wax is releasing an eclectic archive of music, merchandise and street art for a planned book and art exhibition, writes Joe Muggs

Joe Muggs

12, Jun, 2013 @10:00 AM

Article image
Me and the muse: DJ Shadow on his sources of inspiration
The California hip-hop innovator on the records at the root of two decades of beat-making sampling and scratching

Killian Fox

26, Jun, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Mac Miller: grizzled determination made troubled star a rap icon
The son of a middle-class Jewish photographer and architect, Miller took a dogged approach to pushing his sound

Al Horner

08, Sep, 2018 @3:04 AM

Article image
DJ Shadow: soundtrack of my life

The Californian hip-hop artist and record-digger extraordinaire tells Gareth Grundy about his love of James Brown, his thirst for new music, and why Dr Dre sounds like home

Interview by Gareth Grundy

01, Sep, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
DJ Shadow review – a hyper-evolved beat frenzy
Trip-hop pioneer embarks on a bumpy, fun-filled safari that manages to sound both sci-fi and vintage

Graeme Virtue

21, Jul, 2016 @11:00 AM