Isaac Hayes has the lowest, smoothest, sexiest voice in soul music, bar none. Originally, a Stax Records session man, Hayes enjoyed a remarkable solo recording career in the early Seventies, thanks in large part to his incredible score for the movie Shaft.
“The Theme from Shaft” transformed Hayes into a superstar. He earned the titles “Black Moses” and “Hot Buttered Soul.” Not only did he continue to score movies, but Hayes starred in movies. His most memorable roles: Truck Turner, The Duke of New York in Escape from New York, Hammer in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and, of course, Chef in South Park.
Director John Singleton resurrected “The Theme from Shaft” as the theme of the latest incarnation of the black private dick played by Samuel L. Jackson. Recently, Isaac Hayes discussed the lasting power of the theme, what it means to the hip hop generation and the possibility of another Truck Turner.
Can you sing a little bit for me?
“I wanna make looooove to you…” (laughs)
First, the “Rockfish” episodes of The Rockford Files are my favorites.
Thank you. That was fun to do.
“The Theme from Shaft” is one of the most memorable pieces of movie music. What was the process of creating a song that’s become so recognized?
Mario Van Peebles was doing a movie called Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Asssss Song. And we realized that there was a market in our community of moviegoers, and we had to tap in. We had to come up with a black movie, with a black director, black leading man and composer and that gave birth to Shaft.
Now Stax records was somehow involved in that, so Stax tapped their roster and Isaac Hayes was the main man on the roster, so he’s got to get involved and write the music. I had never scored a movie before in my life. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to try out for the lead role, but they said I had to do the music, but I could try out. I went back home bragging about it. They would say, “Hey Isaac, you got the call yet?” I would say, “No.” So I went and called and they told me they had cast this guy named Richard Roundtree in the leading role, but they reminded me that I had to do the music. I said, “Okay.” They told me that this guy Shaft, I needed to zero in on his personality. He’s a roving type character; he’s relentless; he doesn’t let up. The music has to denote that type to attitude. I said, “Okay.”
They gave me three reels of sixteen millimeter film. One of him walking through Harlem. The other was when he was making love to his woman, Ellie. And the other one was when he came up out of the subway to begin the movie. They told me to sit down and write something to this. That was like throwing a baby into water and saying, “Swim.” But it gave me a viewpoint.
“Ellie’s Love Theme” was easy to write. I did that in an hour. The montage of shots when he walked through Harlem, I did that in about an hour. It was easy. The main theme, I thought, “Oh God, what can I do with this?” I had an idea. I told Warhol to give me some 16th notes on a high hat (imitates the sound of the high hat). That started something. There was a guitar piece we had worked on a year ago. I had them go get that piece and the engineer played it. (Begins to make more musical sounds) And we need some drumming, bass and everything began to fall into place. And I didn’t finish writing it until I finished the rest of the score. (more musical noises). The theme looked easy to write, but I had to put it on the edge: “Who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks.” I had to censor myself, “This cat Shaft is a bad mother -- shut your mouth!” I did that because somebody would have told me to shut my mouth. That’s how it all started.
Did you ever think that “The Theme from Shaft” would become “The Theme from Shaft?”
I would have bet you a million dollars to your one dollar that it wouldn’t have happened. I was convinced that it was just for that time. I had no idea it would go on like that. It took on a life of its own. I don’t know what the ingredient was in that theme. It could have been a number of things that captured the hearts and minds and imaginations of people all over the world. Even the kids now, who didn’t see the movie but they hear the music, it strikes a chord with them.
When you re-recorded the theme for this movie, did you change anything?
Well, when they approached me about doing the film the first thing I told them was you can’t change the theme. You don’t reinvent the wheel. We re-recorded it. We did it under today’s technology. They’ve done re-mixes for European. It’s hot. With today’s technology, it will be more dramatic and more dynamic because you can hear everything now. It’s so strong and powerful. So I bet that when you hear it now you’ll say, “I didn’t know that was in there.” John (Singleton) agreed and, with the new technology, it punches, it bites.
Did you like how “The Theme from Shaft” played over Singleton’s opening credit sequence?
Oh, it’s cool. That’s today’s view. You have to do it like that. I’ve only seen the trailers. It punches real hard. I think, “Damn, that’s the way my stuff sounds!” I haven’t seen the movie yet. I only consulted on this one. They wanted me to sit down with them and I was too busy. When they were ready for me, I wasn’t ready for them. I told David Arnold, it’s laid out for you all you have to do is follow your own brick road. You just reprise a lot of this stuff. The theme is so rich, just inter-work it. Just weave that fabric throughout the film. So he did.
“The Theme from Shaft” secured your status as an African-American pop icon. You were known alternately as Hot Buttered Soul and Black Moses. How did those monikers come about?
There’s a gentleman right now who is a minister at this church in Harlem. His name is Dino Woodard. He used to be my bodyguard. We had done a college gig and I had got about two or three curtain calls one night and I said, “Man, I can’t go back out there.” He said, “Man, listen to how they are cheering you! They love you! You’re like a Moses. You’re a Black Moses.” I said, “Dino don’t do that! That’s sacrilegious.” I continued to resist it and Chester Higgins who was writing for Jet magazine got wind of it and put it in an article he did on me. Then I performed at the Spectrum in Philadelphia a few weeks later and a local personality introduced me as “Black Moses of the Music World, Isaac Hayes.” And 18,000 people rose to their feet! And it caught on. And of course, the staff at the office at Stax records came up with the album concept. When I went to Europe, they were kind of resentful, “How dare he call himself a Black Moses.” I told them, “Let me straighten you out: I did not do that.” I realized that as long as it has relevance, it has positive things, I will go with it.
Shaft and Isaac Hayes certainly inspired the hip hop generation. What do you think of the “appropriation” of some of your music used as loops in rap songs?
Well, at first I didn’t like that. But if you remembered about my generation, there are so many things that we’ve done. It goes in so many directions. Big Daddy Kane told me in 1992, “Ike, you’re gonna blow up. They are going to be sampling you.” And I thought, “Really? Well, we’ll see.” I look at it as a compliment. Why is Shaft so popular today? Because the hip hop generation has embraced it. I think that at the time it was done, it was ahead of its time. It’s just now beginning to catch up. With the sampling by hip-hop, the sound has stayed out there. As recent as the other day, I got a fax from Erykah Badu’s people to get a release because she has a song called “Bag Lady.” They sampled some of one my songs and needed my permission to use it. Dr. Dre did it early this year. So it just keeps going in, hitting the well and drawing water. It’s a compliment to Isaac Hayes and the work that he’s done and that it has lasted over all these years. I don’t have all the answers to it, but I’m thankful for it.
Can you tell me about Soulhouse.com?
Soulhouse.com is a new thing I’m involved in. We sell music, videos, books and movies. We have chat rooms, and it’s targeted towards the African-American and Latino markets. We are slow to get into computers; we are intimidated by them. But most people are, so we want to make it easy. We expect that to blow-up pretty big.
Since they’ve resurrected Shaft, do you think might see another Truck Turner soon?
They’ve been talking about Truck Turner for over a year. If somebody really gets the idea to do it and put the finances behind it, of course I would get involved with mad Truck Turner. I’ll be ready to kick butt.