Digging Deep with David Axelrod, Hip-Hop’s Soul Provider
An honest, hilarious interview with the late composer/producer whose work was famously sampled by Dr. Dre, DJ Shadow, & more
“What’s the sake of doing an interview if you’re not going to tell the truth?” ~David Axelrod
Since 1958, composer David Axelrod has shaped the way that musicians produce records, influencing everyone from The Verve, Radiohead and Sublime, to De La Soul, DJ Premier and Lil Wayne. Starting off as an A&R man at Capitol Records before becoming one of their in-house producers, his eccentric musical vision propelled jazz legend Cannonball Adderley and late soul crooner Lou Rawls to the top of the U.S. charts.
In 1968 he produced an album for The Electric Prunces called Mass in F Minor. Featuring his trademark heavy drums, soulful horns and jazzy guitar riffs, its arrangements were so complicated that he had to hire session musicians to finish the record, leaving the band as bystanders. Two years later he made Earth Rot, one of the first albums to highlight the fallout of climate change.
Since his production heyday, Axelrod’s name has become synonymous with hip-hop — perhaps most famously as the foundation of Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” and DJ Shadow’s “Midnight in a Perfect World.” Crate diggers have been known to pay hundreds of dollars for mint vinyl copies of his early work, in the hope of unearthing an unused loop.
Back in 2005, I asked the Los Angeles native if he would like to make a mixtape for Dazed & Confused, a magazine I was working for at the time. The idea was for him to choose ten artists who had sampled his tracks and for him to rate their interpretations. He asked me to ring him to discuss it first. I never got the mixtape, but we had a hilarious chat.
I came across the recording of our interview last year and published it in full for the first time on my Medium channel. I’ve met a lot of iconic musicians in my career, but none have been so brutally honest, or as funny, as Axelrod. He was a true original, both in and out of the studio.
When the tragic news broke on Feb. 5 of the 83-year-old’s passing, Cuepoint asked if they could republish our chat as a tribute to the great man. On this darkest of days, reading it back brought a massive smile to my face. I hope it does the same for you. Rest in Peace, David Axelrod.
Tim Noakes: Hello David.
David Axelrod: Hi Tim, how are you? I’ve got a terrible cold. The only reason I’m answering the phone is that my wife is making me hot tea right now. It’s horrible. It’s the weather here. It’ll be in the 80s by the end of the week. This is January — how can it be in the 80s?! I was born and raised in L.A., you never get used to that.
Tim Noakes: Are you still cool to talk about all the artists who have sampled you?
David Axelrod: To tell you the truth I’ll get help to do it as I’ve only heard a couple of my samples. I’ve been sampled 89 times. That’s just the samples that MPL [McCartney Productions Ltd, Paul’s music publishing company] owns. If only they would pay me on them, everything would be cool. How do you get money out of MPL? Sir Paul is known to be a pretty frugal man, and his ex-brother in law John Eastman is exactly the same way. So what are you gonna do? You got two guys who don’t want to let go of any money. I need them that’s the problem. I’m coming out with a DVD of my concert at the Royal Festival Hall. It’s fabulous. The trouble is eight of the pieces that I performed are owned by MPL so I’m on a rate. They’ll give me the rate as long as I stop rapping Sir Paul in print!
Tim Noakes: It’s your music though.
David Axelrod: Oh I’ll do it. I’ll talk to you guys about what a bunch of bums they are! I’ve always done that. What’s the sake of doing an interview if you’re not going to tell the truth?
“I try to stay away from the blank piece of music. You look at it and think, ‘okay what am I going to put on here now?’”
Tim Noakes: Are you still working a lot David?
David Axelrod: What do you think I do? But I can’t tell you about it.
Tim Noakes: Why not?
David Axelrod: Because I don’t want people to know about it. I’m getting ideas though. That’s the way I’ve always done it. I think about and I think about it. Then I put it into a little tape recorder, which is a life saver. I wish they had had those things in the 60s. You know the piece “Ten City”? I got the idea for the intro on the Hollywood freeway. I had to pull over to the side and write it on a musical sketch pad. Today I keep this thing with me wherever I go and hum into it. This is oboe, this is strings, this is brass. What a lifesaver. When I have enough of those ideas I’ll go downstairs and start writing the music, because once you start you’re committed.
Tim Noakes: So you can’t approach a blank sheet and start writing?
David Axelrod: I’ve done that too, I’ve done everything in music. I try to stay away from the blank piece of music. You can look at it and think, ‘okay what am I going to put on here now?’
Tim Noakes: What was the best show you’ve ever played?
David Axelrod: The Royal Festival Hall. That concert was the highlight of my life. I don’t care if it’s smaller than the Albert Hall, every great artist has appeared there. I’ve done a lot of concerts in my time and 99% of the time I’ve received standing ovations at the end. My favorite was the Monterrey Jazz festival which is around 10,000 people. But, at the RFH when I walked out everybody stood up and I got a standing ovation! I went ‘shit! The concert’s over, fuck it, can’t top this, everyone’s already up and applauding!’ That’s never happened to me before.
Tim Noakes: You hadn’t even played a note?
David Axelrod: Nothing. I just walked across the stage to the podium and over 2000 people were on their feet.
Tim Noakes: Do you ever become accustomed to such adulation?
David Axelrod: No. If anyone says they do, they’re lying. Not at the beginning, not when you walk out! The guy who booked it was sitting next to me after the concert and just kept repeating ‘it’s a great, magical night.’ That’s all he kept saying, it became a mantra. I asked him ‘how many times have you seen a ovation before the concert starts?’ He couldn’t remember one. It was sold out! Sold out Royal Festival Hall and got a standing ovation at the beginning. Can you ask for anything better? I should have retired there. I shouldn’t have even played! What I should have done is walk over to the mic and say ‘I quit!’
Tim Noakes: How old was the crowd?
David Axelrod: It was a great mix. Colleges always dig my music. I think that’s because you can get high to it. It puts you off on a trip. Somebody once asked me why I thought Songs of Innocence sold so well seeing it was so abstract. I replied ‘you can get loaded to it’. That was in the 60s, the days of drugs.
“Colleges always dig my music. I think that’s because you can get high to it. It puts you off on a trip. Somebody once asked me why I thought Songs of Innocence sold so well seeing it was so abstract. I replied ‘you can get loaded to it’.”
Tim Noakes: And it’s been passed down the generations.
David Axelrod: Yes it has (laughs), I don’t know what that says about society…
Tim Noakes: Jazz has always had that edge to it though.
David Axelrod: Jazz is dying.
Tim Noakes: Some people say it’s already dead.
David Axelrod: Maybe it is, I dunno. I love it. We need a Miles Davis to come along.
Tim Noakes: Instead all we get is Kenny G.
David Axelrod: Oh gawd! Do you know what Kenny G is? He’s just like Mantovani. Pop music. He’s dying off! His sales aren’t what they were.
Tim Noakes: It’s just muzak.
David Axelrod: It’s not even that easy to listen to! It’s like Everest. It’s just there. There are certain things that are hard to explain in life. He’s one of them. That guy Yani. At least Kenny G plays. I don’t know what Yani does. He just used to stand out there, run his hands through that mop of hair and the audience would go crazy. I used to look at my wife and go ‘what is this?’ She would go “I don’t know, you’re the musician!’ He had that fabulous black chick on the violin. God could she play. I wonder what happened to her, she was magnificent. He also had a conductor who did the arranging. What did Yani do? He had a keyboard player.
Tim Noakes: He was just the focal point of the group — the image.
David Axelrod: He made all the money. How do you get away with that? I’ve got to work like a dog. When I get finished writing for the day, that’s it, I’m whipped till the next day. I concentrate so damn hard it becomes physical. I put everything I’ve got into what I write.
“When I get finished writing for the day, that’s it, I’m whipped till the next day. I concentrate so damn hard it becomes physical. I put everything I’ve got into what I write.”
Tim Noakes: Has your musical passion decreased over the years or have you got hungrier?
David Axelrod: I’ve got hungrier because my ideas seem to have got wilder and wilder. When you hear the first track on the DVD, oh my god they applauded! It was a transcription of “Paint it Black,” it was actually just a bit of the melody line for me to hang the hat on. I just wrung it out! It should be mine. If I sent it to Jagger and Richards they would love it.
Tim Noakes: Why don’t you?
David Axelrod: Fuck ’em, what have they ever done for me? I opened with that and closed with “Norwegian Wood.” I used a fandango rhythm for the first half and for the second half I used a faruka. That was an incredible mix. You should run this as your interview, fuck the goddam samples! I never understand those things anyways, I just take the checks!
Tim Noakes: If you had to compile a mixtape for me what would you put on it?
David Axelrod: I don’t know. I don’t have favorite things in my life except for one thing.
Tim Noakes: What’s that?
David Axelrod: The Thief of Baghdad with Sabu. I saw it when I was a little tiny kid and I’ve dug it ever since. I watch it every month. I had it on tape and now I’ve got it on DVD.
“If you’re feeling like things aren’t going too well or things really aren’t cool watch The Thief of Baghdad and you’ll feel better. It’s better than any drug. It’ll do more for you than Prozac.”
Tim Noakes: What’s it about?
David Axelrod: You don’t know The Thief of Baghdad? Go get it. Rent a tape of it. It’s got magic in it. The evil magician Jaffar is so bad. Matter of fact Disney is coming with their own movie about Jaffar because the characters never get old.
Tim Noakes: Must be that Persian water.
David Axelrod: Alexander Corda produced it, and it cost a fortune because he didn’t skimp. They shot one version that he didn’t like so they had to re-shoot the whole thing. They used four different directors, he kept firing directors. He was a brilliant director himself. London Films was the name of his company. His pictures always opened with a shot of Big Ben. Do yourself a great favor — I did this so much with DJ Shadow that he finally went out and got it. He called me and understood why I liked it so much. It’s just full of magic, it’s a delight. To me if you’re feeling like things aren’t going too well or things really aren’t cool watch The Thief of Baghdad and you’ll feel better. It’s better than any drug. It’ll do more for you than Prozac. That’s the only favorite thing that I have. Beside my wife. My wife is my favorite person.
Tim Noakes: How long have two been married?
David Axelrod: Twenty eight years.
Tim Noakes: That’s some serious time.
David Axelrod: Even I am bewildered by that.
Tim Noakes: Has it been good all the time?
David Axelrod: Well it’s like everything else, it’s been good most of the time.
Tim Noakes: It amazes me that people like yourself with such global fame can stay faithful to one person for so long.
David Axelrod: I’ll tell you something. I’ve been married four times and she’s the only wife that I’ve been faithful to. She gave me everything that was possible so why should I want anything else? Besides that I reached a point where the grass was no longer looking greener. I had nothing to prove. I’ve never had problems with chicks anyway. There’s a new album out on Blue Note called The Edge, which is the tune that Dre sampled used that made me a ton of money. I make money off that. I did a rap during the concert rehearsals and one of the guitarists said ‘you know Dave when we start doing the intro to The Edge, you should do a rap over it,’ and I thought it was such a damn good idea that I did. The Dre album is the largest selling CD I’ve been a part of. It sold something like 13 million copies.
“The Dre album is the largest selling CD I’ve been a part of. It sold something like 13 million copies. The money was coming in from every direction.”
Tim Noakes: And you got a slice of the pie.
David Axelrod: Not only a slice. It was the single called “Next Episode” and it was music behind the video. The money was coming in from every direction. Dre is so cool you look at the credits and it says Music: David Axelrod, which was very hip.
Tim Noakes: Wasn’t that for David McCallum though?
David Axelrod: Yes, that’s very good. Guess what — EMI owns it, thank God, if there’s a God. They were so happy when the Dre album turned into what it did that that was the most money brought in by a EMI writer for the year 2001.
Tim Noakes: Is it still pouring in?
David Axelrod: It’s slowed down a lot but he’s coming with a greatest hits and “Next Episode” is going to be on it, which will make EMI very happy and it will make David Axelrod very happy.
Tim Noakes: There must have been other hip-hop stars that have sampled your music though?
David Axelrod: Everybody. Every fucking rap artist there is, except Eminem damn it! What happened was that so many people were doing me that I think they all thought ‘he’s been done too much.’ Off the top of my head Wu Tang, Jay-Z, Ja Rule used my stuff.
Tim Noakes: What song did Wu Tang cover?
David Axelrod: I haven’t the faintest idea. I have a list that I faxed to John Eastman thinking that I was going to get all this money, but he’s been sending it to me in dribbles. That was two years ago that I sent him that fax with 89 samples that Mori owns. Why the fuck did EMI sell him all of Mori music anyway? That was their ASCAP firm. They sold that to Paul McCartney and then they started a new ASCAP firm.
Tim Noakes: And you didn’t have a say in it?
David Axelrod: What say do I have in it? I was under contract to them, I can’t exactly advise them on what to buy and sell. They’re the largest publishing company in the world now. Warner Music was and it’s now EMI, which is why they’ve had do many problems trying to sell the label.
Tim Noakes: Have you still got that list David?
David Axelrod: Yes, but I’m not going downstairs to find it. That’s the problem, to do this mixtape I would have to go downstairs and I just cant do it, I’ll fall. I live in an apartment building, I live in the second floor. I rent a really nice one bedroom place, with a kitchen and everything that you would want in North Hollywood, the other side of the hill.
Tim Noakes: In the San Fernando valley?
David Axelrod: Yep. In 1992 I rented a single downstairs and I turned that into a workroom. I keep all of that stuff down there, I don’t keep any of that stuff up here. There’s no way I’m going to go downstairs man, I’ll just fall down. I’m very lightheaded and dingy. It‘s the congestion.
Tim Noakes: So what date can we do this interview?
David Axelrod: If I still have this cold the first week of January don’t even bother, because I’ll be in hospital.
Tim Noakes: January?
David Axelrod: What the fuck, are you nuts? I’d be in deep trouble. It would be more than just a goddamn cold. I’m hoping this is gone by like next week!
Tim Noakes: You don’t have email do you David?
David Axelrod: No and I won’t because I’m a Luddite. I want to hear the people I’m talking to because I can tell a lot by the sound of their voices. How can you get into an argument with someone over email. It’s not even the same. If I go ‘FUCK YOU MAN!’ on email what is that to somebody? It doesn’t mean anything.
Tim Noakes: Why would you want to get into an argument with somebody on email?
David Axelrod: I’m just making a point. If I’m happy and I say ‘Wow! That’s great!’ It’s not the same when you’re reading it as when you hear me saying it. My wife has a computer. Fine, let her use it. I don’t like ’em. It’s doing in everybody. People who don’t have the vaguest idea of what music is can now write songs just with a computer. Bullshit!
“My wife has a computer. Fine, let her use it. I don’t like ’em. It’s doing in everybody. People who don’t have the vaguest idea of what music is can now write songs just with a computer. Bullshit!”
Tim Noakes: You think that’s bullshit?
David Axelrod: Of course it’s bullshit! You can get software today that will do damn near anything.
Tim Noakes: But that’s what the hip-hop guys are doing.
David Axelrod: Yeah but they still have to use a great deal of imagination. Dre is a great arranger. So is Shadow. He’ll spend three weeks on a four note beat, very meticulous. Diamond D is a very talented man. Buckwild, all these guys know what they’re doing.
Tim Noakes: Oh, you know the Diggin’ In The Crates crew?
David Axelrod: What? That’s what they do. I was reading a feature article about Buckwild in Elemental, because he’s been around for a long time now — he came just after Afrika Bambattaa and Grandmaster Flash. He was talking about this place where you get records and he said ‘for god’s sake I can get Axelrod there for three or four dollars. Go on eBay and try to get an Axelrod LP for less than $75.’ When you’re name is just thrown out you know things are going good. Somebody had a brand new copy of one of my records, still wrapped in the cellophane wrapping and they were asking $250. I said ‘my god, I’m still alive!’ That just struck me so weird. It’s very, very strange. There’s going to be a couple of tracks from the auction on the EMI album. I can’t wait for that album.
“Somebody had a brand new copy of one of my records, still wrapped in the cellophane wrapping and they were asking $250. I said ‘my god, I’m still alive!’ That just struck me so weird. It’s very, very strange.”
Tim Noakes: So what other records have you heard that sampled you?
David Axelrod: All I’ve heard is Dre and Lauryn Hill, that fucking bitch. She tried not to pay anybody.
Tim Noakes: She didn’t sample you though did she?
David Axelrod: Two guys co-produced that album and co-wrote all the songs that she was taking all the credit for. Tommy Mottola, when he was the head of Columbia Records, simply paid everybody. We were going to get into a lawsuit with her. She’s pathetic. She wasn’t going to pay me or anybody! Especially the two guys who did it with her they were suing her for millions. So Mottola gave them millions as a matter of fact.
Tim Noakes: Yeah but that sold like 15 million.
David Axelrod: Close, Dre outsold her. Now that I think about it Dre must be over 15 million. That 13 million figure was quite some time ago. And like you said it’s still selling.
Tim Noakes: Okay let’s talk again in January and get this mixtape together
David Axelrod: Cool.
Tim Noakes: If not we’ll hold it for your summer tour.
David Axelrod: I don’t want to do that.
Tim Noakes: What?
David Axelrod: Hold it. If I do it let’s use it, if you’re not going to use it lets not do it. Decide what you want to do before the first week of January.
Tim Noakes: Cool, we’ll find the list and we’ll take it from there.
David Axelrod: I don’t have to find it, I know where it is.
Tim Noakes: Thanks for talking David, have a great Christmas.
David Axelrod: I’m telling you that was fun, you should have taped it and you would have had your fucking article!
Tim Noakes: I did! Thanks, David.
David Axelrod: Okay, thanks Tim.
Tim Noakes: Bye.
David Axelrod: Bye.