In the Studio with Axelrod

  • Text & Photos: Egon
  • September 01, 2001

Late in 2001, Egon, PB Wolf and Madlib sweet-talked their way into a recording session with producer/recording artist David Axelrod at Capitol Records in Hollywood. Egon documented the occasion on film and the following day, set the experience to paper. A truncated version of the piece below previously appeared in The Fader magazine, 2001.

I went into the studio today - not to record anyone on Stones Throw. Rather, I went to the Capitol Tower in Hollywood and told the guard at the front gate, "We're here for the David Axelrod session."

"Right this way," he replied.

Peanut Butter Wolf, Madlib and I rolled into studio B. What we witnessed was simply miraculous.

First off, I roll into the control room and see H.B. Barnum chilling in a chair. This being the cat that has worked with Axelrod for years, an arranger of the highest caliber. And he's talking to Willie Tee! I interviewed Willie for my Origins of Hip Hop (91.1 FM WRVU) show when I lived in Nashville 'cause of the funk work he did with the Gaturs in New Orleans, but he also cut a little-known record with Axelrod. He's in town running post production on a gospel gig, and he had called H.B. to play golf. H.B. told him he was recording at Capitol and Willie rolled by the studio.

It's only then that he finds out that he's sitting in on an Axelrod date. You can imagine how hot this is! Willie sees me and bugs out; he had no idea that I had moved to L.A.. I introduce myself to H.B. Barnum, and basically say, "I'm worthless in your presence, but I'm happy to be here."

By this point B+, photographer, has told Axelrod, who was working in the recording room, that I'm here. In through the door walks this fucking legend, white frizzy hair, big sunglasses, an over-sized, long-sleeved shirt and a pair of faded jeans.

"Which one of you motherfuckers is Eothen?," he asks. I hold my hand up. He rolls over, gives me a hug and says, "Why are you all over six feet tall?! What the fuck is wrong with all of you? Everyone here is over six feet tall!" I expected nothing less.

The session is broken; the recording room is empty, but there are oboes, cellos, upright basses and the like strewn behind dampers on one side, and horns and woodwinds on the other. This is the same studio where Axelrod recorded his classics, "Songs of Innocence," "Songs of Experience," and "Earth Rot," in the early 70's, where Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra recorded before him, and countless artists and session musicians recorded after him.

As we're upstairs, talking with Axelrod as he eats a quick meal with his wife Terri, in walks Ernie Watts. Madlib is the first to notice, and he calls me over to the window overlooking the room. We bug out as Watts kills a series of scales as a warm up. He is such a giant in the LA session scene, and played sax on all the early Axe records.

The session musicians start piling in. All of them are fifty-five plus - some look like they're over seventy. All are legends, most played on all of Axe's records. Incredible. Upstairs, Madlib rolls a blunt while Axe talks about Sly Stone. Ends up Axe hung out with Sly in the late 60's when Sly moved down to L.A.. He's telling stories about Sly and his nearly comatose manager offering him coke from a four pound pile ‚ an ability to candidly discuss his past is one of Axe's strong points. At one point in the story, he responds to a Stone-Jones question by stating, "What drug hasn't Sly done?" Wolf, obviously a little upset that someone is sizing down one of his musical idols, chimes in, "Watch it buddy, you're talking about my hero here!" Yeah, he was joking, but it didn't seem like it. Axe doesn't miss a beat, doesn't get upset or anything. He qualifies his statement ("Well, I've done every drug myself, so I should know!") and keeps stepping - much to my relief.

The session itself is almost too intense to watch. Axe had just finished composing the piece before he arrived at the studio. The music was transcribed into its component parts as he finished the previous day's work. So the piece we witness consists only of horns, woodwind and strings (all of the tracks dubbed over the acetate were recorded the previous day). Seeing the session musicians blow through that piece was incredible. These people had never seen this music before, but they record it live - in one take. All fifteen of them. And they nail it. Axe, headphones cupping his ears, stands in the room with the musicians, in the center taking it all in. H.B. Barnum controls the boards and watches the scene through soundproof glass. This was breathtaking.

When the recording ends, a camera crew films Axe as he walks around the studio. He's like a prize-fighter that has just beaten the fuck out of a worthy opponent. He's beaming from ear to ear, hugging and kissing the musicians he's worked with his entire musical life as they leave. Some of these men he hasn't seen in years. Some he will probably never see again. And he's talking about how he's "back home." How powerful is that! One of the greatest producers Capitol Records (and the world) has ever seen is back in his element. He single-handedly created Capitol's black music division; he was there for Capitol's glory years. He was making a million a year. He's one of the reasons that the company is so strong. Somehow he let go, but now he's back, recording beautiful music that will reach a growing audience.

During all of this, Madlib and I (and any other conscious person, for that matter) are bugging out. Just tripping as historic day comes to a close. Listen to the Mo Wax LP from this session ("David Axelrod") and you'll know why.

A quick aside - Madlib's dad recorded music in the 1960's and 1970's. H.B. Barnum produced his records. Small indie shit, but great soul nonetheless. Anyway, B-Plus introduces Madlib to H.B. as "Otis Jackson Jr." H.B., who's playing a Yamaha Grand with Willie Tee, smiles and hugs Otis. Turns out he has known Madlib since Madlib was a baby - Otis Sr. used to take his son to his recording sessions. No wonder he's such a natural!

Tomorrow Madlib and I go back. We have to give Axe Madlib's new jazz workings - maybe one day Axe will arrange some of the tunes. And Lou Rawls is coming in to do vocals. I'm still spinning, this is surreal. L.A. definitely has it's low points, but there's certain bits of magic that occur here that would never happen anywhere else. I wish I could have seen this place in the 60's. What a trip that would have been.