David Axelrod: The Rebirth Of Cool

If Dr. Dre’s “Next Episode” ranked high on your nod-meter, David Axelrod deserves a lion’s share of the gratitude. Since the late 1950’s, Axelrod remained one of the hardest working songwriters and producers on the planet. In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, his Capitol Records phase gave Hip-Hop a crate full of sampling inspiration, and Los Angeles a sound that could not be toyed with. Ras Kass said recently, “David is a true genius of production. Plus, he’s real character too. They don’t make them like that anymore.”

That character is exemplified in a feature with AllHipHop.com Alternatives. In tribute of the recent release of The Edge, a compilation geared towards Axelrod’s newer audience, we discuss the album, film, Los Angeles, Hip-Hop, and what it truly means to be cool. To me, David Axelrod is one of the most original, inspiring, and charismatic individuals in and out of the studio. Hip-Hop aficionados, tip your titled caps.

AllHipHop.com Alternatives: Tell me about growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the ‘30s and ‘40s. How was it different from today, how the same?

David Axelrod: We had more music. You could just run Central Avenue. Central Avenue is always talked about, let’s face it. But there were a lot of other clubs too, on different streets. I had a favorite, called The Melody Room. It was on Slauson, and that’s where I first saw Jimmy Witherspoon. Little did I know, not too many years after that, I’d be recording Jimmy Witherspoon. That’s the main difference. They don’t have the amount of clubs that they used to have. And the different kinds of music – I mean the terrific Jazz. The same exact clubs would have Jazz on one night, and Rhythm & Blues on another night, so it was really hip.

AHHA: You surrounded yourself with all those different genres, I assume?

David Axelrod: Sure! Don’t think we didn’t get into trouble. I mean, you better know how to fight, or you were in deep s**t!

AHHA: Were there strong racial tensions in those days?

David Axelrod: Not nearly like I think what may go on now. Everybody seemed to have gotten along a lot better. I don’t know why that is, or if it is. It is just seems to be. We talk about this a lot.

AHHA: In the 1940’s, were White kids in general getting exposure to Black music?

David Axelrod: At Dorsey High [School], and a couple other schools. My closest friend is H.B. Barnum, he went to Manual Arts, and I went to Dorsey. They were big rivals, but we knew what was going on.

AHHA: I’m a big fan of the 1960’s show Dragnet…

David Axelrod: [laughs] That’s hip!

AHHA: Jack Webb [Sergeant Joe Friday] always cracked me up.

David Axelrod: I hate that motherf**ker!

AHHA: Why?

David Axelrod: Christ, he’s like Hitler. [laughs] Jesus. Jack Webb? That’s some funny s**t, man. It really is.

AHHA: Well, they always showed the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles in the opening. What do you think that company stood for in 1967 and 1968?

David Axelrod: I think it was everything. Whether the motion picture industry – which was a lot bigger, or television really realized it, I think they realized it – Capitol, the building stood for Hollywood. The guy who made that happen is Alan W. Livingston. He was the president of Capitol. He hired one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. Their job was to get everybody in the world to know about Capitol. We used to have painted bus tours, they may still have them, I don’t know. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they used to tour Capitol Records. Now if you were recording, which I happened to be, occasionally, they were brought in the booth. It was a pain in the f**kin’ ass! You had to put up with it, and you had to be nice.

AHHA: Stones Throw Records’ Eothen “Egon” Alapatt is a leader in educating my generation about the importance of great Funk, Pysche, Jazz, and Soul in Hip-Hop. What was his role in this project?

David Axelrod: He put the whole thing together.

AHHA: Did he approach EMI or did they come to him?

David Axelrod: I don’t know how that worked, I don’t pay attention to it. But Egon’s a hell of a guy. The guys at Blue Note [Records, also involved] are receptive to anything that they think is cool. These guys keep their fingers on everything, just like Clive Davis.

AHHA: Mo’ Wax Records released your album in 2001. The opening track, “The Little Children” was spoken by Ras Kass. It was so great to see you do a Hip-Hop record, and that record there makes my arm-hairs stand up. What inspired it?

David Axelrod: I don’t know, I probably watched something on TV, or a movie, or something, or I read something. That’s where I get a lot of ideas, I read a lot. I love movies. Something must’ve hit me about kids and crime, and what’s happening to kids – and I wrote a lyric. I like to write lyrics. I’ve been writing poetry all my life.

AHHA: You said you loved movies. One of my favorite lines in a film is actually in one you scored, Cannonball. David Carradine’s character says, “I don’t want to die, but it’s my life’s work.” That movie is classic 70’s drive-in cinema…

David Axelrod: My God! You watched that? I never watch it!

AHHA: Why?

David Axelrod: Well, I hated the director [Paul Bartel], one of the greatest pains in the ass I ever knew in my life. I had ten days to write and record and deliver a finished score. Meanwhile, I’m working on a reel, and he suddenly needs that reel,’cause he’s gonna change it. Okay, you gotta get used to that when you write for movies. I didn’t do a lot of writing for movies – mainly because if I want to do a two-minute cue, and I think up the music for that two minutes, I automatically start developing it out. I had to stop myself. It’s hard, and I don’t know how that do that, all that two-minute s**t.

AHHA: I’ll ask this, then. As a film buff, if you could score any movie, what would it be?

David Axelrod: Oh, man. Come on. There’s been so many great movies. You’re not gonna beat On the Waterfront, ‘cause that’s a motherf**ker! That’s a hell of a movie.

AHHA: How do you feel about your legacy within the Hip-Hop community?

David Axelrod: I feel great about it. Hip-Hop is something that’s here to stay. It’ll evolve, ‘cause everything evolves. But it will remain essentially a certain rhythm that everybody will be using. I like it myself. I used it! It’s fun for me when I’ve got some friends over, to play that Mo’ Wax [self-titled 2001] record. I tell them, “This is my Hip-Hop album.” B+ [the West Coast photographer for Rap records] goes, “It’s not fair. I wouldn’t call it Hip-Hop”. [laughs] I don’t give a f**k what you’d call it, believe me, it is – as a rhythm.

AHHA: So that’s what you were thinking in making that album?

David Axelrod: Sure, you have to think when you write.

AHHA: When people like Dr. Dre and Diamond D began sampling your records, what do you think that it did for you in looking at your career?

David Axelrod: It did a great deal for me. It made people very aware of me, and it made me money. I’m in love with Dre, let’s face it. “Next Episode”… Jesus – what’s that done, about 13 million? I’m serious. That’s what I’ve heard. That’s a lot of records. I will always be indebted to him for that. There’s a DVD coming out of the concert I did last year at Royal Festival Hall, and I sold it out by word of mouth. It was great. It was like a highlight of my career – to walk out on the stage of Royal Festival Hall, which is one of the five most prestigious venues in the world [laughs] – I’m only repeating that [from the flyer] – I walked out and got a standing ovation. I’ve done a lot of concerts, never got that. “What the f**k is this? This is incredible.” The God damned concert was already over.

AHHA: I’ll tell you, I’m in awe speaking with you. I can only hope that I can be a tenth as cool as you are now, let alone in my years. What does “cool” mean to you? You’ve made “cool” for us.

David Axelrod: I’ve been saying “cool” since I was in my 20’s, maybe before. I’m not a kid, let’s face it. But being cool just means you’re not an asshole. It’s the opposite of asshole.

AHHA: The years that The Edge are compiled from, 1966-1970, what was that time like for you away from the music?

David Axelrod: Not the best. I was having big fights with the woman that I was married to. And I had a son that OD’d, he was beautiful. He was always getting into trouble, oh Jesus. Constant dealings with the cops – who I hate – ever since I was a kid. They were chasing me and then they were chasing my son. [laughs] Always lawyers and having to go to court, but it was worth it. He was beautiful. That’s what “Loved Boy” is about. The point is, I did more recording. I got a thing from the union, Local 47, for using the most musicians during the year. The thing was, I was recording so much just because I didn’t want to go home. I just stayed at Capitol and made records.

AHHA: What has been your greatest muse?

David Axelrod: I’m not too in love with the term, ‘muse.’ I don’t need to muse. I love music, music is my life. When I’m sitting there writing music, it’s the best time, of one of two best times, in my life. The other time of course, is when the musicians are playing it. You don’t need a muse for that. If you need a muse, or anything to kick-start ya, you’ve got a problem.

AHHA: But you alluded to books and film, earlier…

David Axelrod: Well you get ideas from ‘em, and they’ll help ya. Just like I heard [Frederico] Fellini on the DVD to 8 ½, and he’s talking about how music helps him. I’ve heard so many directors say how music establishes a rhythm to how the movie will go. I use movies for the same reason. You pick up on certain rhythms that the film’ll have. I studied film. I studied with [acclaimed 1970’s director] John Cassavetes at UCLA. I call it my nervous-breakdown period, but I was going to go into directing, I thought. I never did. I learned a lot.

AHHA: I loved The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, it was powerful…

David Axelrod: That’s one of his best pictures, I think. Interesting man. He loved music, he loved Jazz. He talked about it quite a bit.

AHHA: Tell me about “Theme from the Fox” it’s my favorite moment of yours. What were you trying to accomplish in that song?

David Axelrod: To make a very hard-edged album ‘cause I was sick and tired about hearing how the Jazz coming out of L.A. was so much softer than the music coming out of New York. I knew we had guys just as hard-edged as there was in New York. That’s why I made that album.

AHHA: You accomplished it.

David Axelrod: That album also got me [Jazz icon] Cannonball [Adderley]. This guy was so open. He knew musicians in every God damned city there is. I was working for a small record company on Sunset Boulevard, producing. I was sitting in a bar across the street. A singer named Ernie Andrews who I knew for years, with Cannonball. They were gonna rehearse some songs during the day. I was introduced. When he introduced me, Cannonball went, “The Fox, aha, I knew our paths would cross someday.” That was 1962. Two years later, I’m at Capitol. They sign him four months after I’m there, and he asked for me as his producer, pretty weird.

AHHA: Beyond The Edge, what are you up to these days?

David Axelrod: Oh, right now I’m thinking of a couple of things that I’m writing. I’m gonna do some concerts in the spring – so far, they’re abroad. Hopefully, I’ll make a new album.

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