Axelrod was also influenced by the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of his family life. His father worked as a union organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a sometimes radical organization under constant attack by businesses and the government for its militant stance on workers’ rights. Eventually, Axelrod’s father toiled as a garment worker, a low-paying occupation often accompanied by sweatshop working conditions. At home, however, Axelrod remembered that weekend jitterbug parties were the highlight of the week, with his parents clearing their living room to make room for dancing. As a teenager at Los Angeles’ Dorsey High School, Axelrod did not stay off the streets for long. Frequenting some of the clubs along Central Avenue, the young man soon earned a reputation as a brawler. “The thing was, at that time, the cops were so crooked,” he recalled of his early clubbing days to Los Angeles Magazine. “I think if you were in diapers and you could pay cash, nobody bothered you, long as you could pay for the drinks.” Before long, Axelrod was left with a long scar on his stomach from a street fight and a damaged eye from a boxing match.
With unspecified troubles, possibly both legal and extralegal, Axelrod left Los Angeles in the early 1950s and spent a year exploring the jazz clubs in New York City. Upon returning to his native city, the burgeoning hipster dabbled in heroin as part of Los Angeles’ beatnik scene. After meeting jazz pianist Gerald Wiggins, however, Axelrod was inspired to study music composition. Before long, Axelrod’s love of music and familiarity with the Los Angeles jazz community led him to work as both a talent scout and record producer. Riding the crest of the city’s reputation as the center of the 1950s “cool jazz” movement–at its best, a mixture of precise musicianship with complex arrangements demanding a listener’s total attention– David Axelrod established a reputation as a producer with excellent live recording skills.
Although David Axelrod’s most significant productions involved saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, his work with R&B singer Lou Rawls on Capitol Records in the mid-1960s was his most commercial success. Indeed, with Rawls’ string of hits on the R&B and pop charts, Axelrod was one of the most sought-after producers at Capitol. With its signature headquarters–a building shaped like a stack of records on Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles–and acts such as the Beach Boys and the Beatles on its roster, Capitol Records was the center of the pop music industry during the 1960s. In addition to his work with Rawls, Axelrod also produced such avant-garde efforts as the Mass in F Minor by the Electric Prunes in 1967. A psychedelic rock album with religious themes, the Mass foreshadowed Axelrod’s own musical direction. That same year, one of Axelrod’s productions, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance for the Cannonball Adderley Quintet.
With a string of commercial and artistic successes behind him, Axelrod also found an opportunity to realize his own musical vision. In 1968, David Axelrod wrote Mass in F Minor and Release of an Oath in a contemporary rock vein for the Electric Prunes; they were released under the band’s name, but because of the music’s complexity were actually recorded by other musicians. The Electric Prunes disbanded during the recording sessions and Axelrod’s team completed the albums. Axelrod’s success also encouraged Capitol to allow him to produce solo albums, the first two of which, Song of Innocence (1968) and Songs of Experience (1969), were homages to the mystical poetry and paintings of William Blake. These albums used sweeping strings, booming sound and heavy beats in a way that was unique for the time and became highly influential many years later during the hip hop rise. His third solo album, Earth Rot (1970), warned of the impact of environmental pollution and degradation.
Axelrod’s music has been sampled many times by hip hop musicians:•In 1993, De La Soul sampled Lou Rawls’s Axelrod-produced “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” on their track “I Am I Be” from the Buhloone Mindstate album.•In 1994, The Beatnuts became the first musicians to sample one of Axelrod’s own pieces: “Holy Thursday” for their track “Hit Me With That” from the Street Level album and again in 1997 where they sampled the Axelrod written Electric Prunes songs: “The Adoration” for their “World Famous Intro” and “General Confessional” for “Niggaz Know”, as well as Axelrod’s “Life Time Monologue” for Lou Rawls, particularly the song “Thinkin ‘Bout Cash”.•In 1995, producer T-Ray sampled Axelrod’s “A Divine Image” for Kool G Rap’s “Take ‘Em To War” from his 4,5,6 album.•Also in 1995, producer Joe Fatal on the Fat Joe album Jealous One’s Envy samples the Axelrod written Electric Prunes song “Holy Are You” in “Respect Mine” and Axelrod’s “Holy Thursday” for “Bronx Keeps Creating It”.•In 1996, DJ Shadow in his Entroducing album sampled Axelrod’s “The Human Abstract” for his “Midnight In A Perfect World”.•In 1999 and 2000, Wu-Tang Clan members Inspectah Deck and Ghostface Killah both sampled “Terri’s Tune” by Axelrod for the songs “Elevation” and “Stay True” for the albums Uncontrolled Substance and Supreme Clientele.•Rap producer Swizz Beatz looped “Holy Thursday” for the track “Dr. Carter”, which is on Lil Wayne’s album Tha Carter III. “Holy Thursday” was also sampled in part on Sublime’s self-titled album in the song “Doin’ Time”. It was also sampled in InI – “Think Twice”, produced by Pete Rock. It was sampled in its entirety by Skyzoo for the track “The Definitive Prayer” on his mixtape The Great Debaters.•DJ Premier sampled “The Smile” for the track “Shake This” from Royce da 5’9″’s album Street Hop.•Los Angeles producer Nameles (a.k.a. Nahm) produced “Substance Abuse” with samples from several different tracks off the Songs of Experience album.•Producer Diamond D sampled the riff at 1:20 of “The Warning Talk (Part II)” to create the basic beat for “Hip Hop” off Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides. In 1996 Diamond D also sampled Axelrod, where he uses a portion of “The Mental Traveler” for his remix of Ras Kass’s “Soul On Ice”.•Madlib sampled “The Signs Pt. II’ for the track “The Unseen” of his 2000 album The Unseen.•Optical Illusion, a South African-based crew, sampled “The Edge” in 2005 for the track “Pure Service,” produced by BATTLEKAT on their album The Offering.•In 2013 Manic Street Preachers used “A Little Girl Lost” for the title track of their album Rewind the Film.Madlib covered “A Divine Image” as part of his Sound Directions project. Cypress Hill used parts of the same song for the track “16 Men Till There’s No Men Left” on their album IV.• In 2008, two tracks by Axelrod, “Holy Thursday” and “The Edge”, were included in the soundtrack to the video game Grand Theft Auto IV.