Issac Hayes in an outfit that gave Liberace a run for his money. Seriously, what the fuck was up with this?
This one’s kind of tough for me to write because composer and icon of American blackness Isaac Hayes has been a part of my life almost for as far back as I can remember, and now he’s dead, just a mere ten days before he would have turned sixty-six.
When I was about four years old my dad brought home Hayes’ “Hot Buttered Soul” album and it enjoyed regular play in the family living room. Good stuff, but skip ahead two years later to the summer of 1971 and the release of the landmark movie SHAFT, arguably the Rosetta Stone for the entire Blaxploitation genre (although it’s miles better than the majority of what followed in its wake).
The soundtrack to SHAFT, a veritable Big Bang of Blackness with a capital "B."
SHAFT hit the Bunche household like an earthquake of unprecedented seismic proportions, awakening a false sense of black machismo in my dad to the point of him going out and buying a number of SHAFT-esque leather items for his wardrobe, an act of attempted hero worship that had the unintended side effect of causing my mother and me great amusement.
The sight of this just-shy-of-forty, balding-yet-afroed IBM suit wandering about the neighborhood in his long leather jacket and knowing with absolute certainty that his inner soundtrack echoed the words “Who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks? BUNCHE! Yer damn right!” was hilarious, and it remains one of very few cherished childhood memories.
The 8-track tape of the SHAFT soundtrack took up residence in the family Buick’s tape deck and played there endlessly for about five months, thus more or less burning itself into my cerebral cortex and introducing me to the comedic use of the word “motherfucker” — albeit in a cut-off form to keep it safe for airplay — before my first exposure to Richard Pryor. Even if you weren’t there for when “Theme from SHAFT” dominated the airwaves and won the Oscar for Best Song, I’m willing to bet you can join in with the “motherfucker” section of it. All together now, kiddies:
Black Dude: They say this Shaft is a bad mother…
Black Chicks: Shut yo’ mouth!
Black Dude: (apologetically) But I’m talkin’ ‘bout Shaft!
Black Chicks: And we can dig it!
This exchange has been riffed on and used for joke fodder for the past thirty-seven years with no sign of slowing down, and I dare say much of the song’s lyrical content has entered the common lexicon to such a degree that one could go over to Aberdeen, Scotland and say those words to some burly, kilted Jock and he’d most likely answer the call-and-response with a thick burr. Such is the legacy of Isaac Hayes, the unintentional crafting of what for quite some time was sort of the national anthem for American black people, and if you’re under forty the impact of the SHAFT soundtrack probably won’t mean much to you.
To my generation Isaac Hayes was an uber-black, visually flamboyant voice of whip-out-your-dick pride during a time when this nation really needed it, and his influence opened the floodgates for more honest, in-your-face expression in black music and fueling a public interest that would allow Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield and any number of ass-shakin’ artists to rule the 1970’s (sadly culminating in the ubiquity of disco and the subsequent, inevitable cocaine-fueled crash-and-burn).
Hayes in his attempt at being a Blaxploitation hero, the eponymous TRUCK TURNER.
This album cover always made me picture THE TEN COMMANDMENTS if Hayes had starred instead of Charlton Heston. Can't you just see Hayes as Moses showing up to confront Pharaoh and saying, "Yeah, I'm wearin' sunglasses, motherfucker! Whatchoo lookin' at?!!?" The Jews would have been out of Egypt five minutes later, each politely ushered on their way with a complimentary box lunch of lamb and honey as the Shaft theme played on a shofar.
After his Seventies-era heyday Hayes remained a vital force in music, but his days as a colossus bestriding black consciousness were behind him and to be honest all I really remember of him during the 1980’s was his memorable turn as the Duke of New York in John Carpenter’s imitated-to-the-point-of-absurdity ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).
Then the Nineties came along and Hayes gained a new level of popularity and media immortality for his indelible role as the voice of the funky, lusty and sagacious Chef, the unlikely mentor to the gang on SOUTH PARK starting in 1997.
Chef handed the foul-mouthed anti-Peanuts valuable life lessons ranging the gamut from making sweet love to women and understanding exactly what an extraterrestrial anal probe is, both vital pieces of info that helped me become the man I am today. And in his capacity as Chef Hayes provided the best and most borderline obscene novelty single in decades, namely the instant classic "Chocolate Salty Balls," so even if Hayes never came up with the SHAFT theme he would nonetheless be remembered for his ode to sticking his chocolate salty balls in your mouth.
Unfortunately Hayes’ association with SOUTH PARK ended in 2006 when he hypocritically bailed as the show’s creators decided to take a swipe at Scientology, Hayes’ “religion,” after years of Hayes standing by while the show mocked every faith short of Cthulhuism. That douchey act soured me on Hayes somewhat, but I eventually let it go, secure in the knowledge that Chef’s millennial, melanin-infused Yodaism would endure on DVD and bury the unfortunate Scientology bullshit beneath a mountain of healthily offensive humor that these dour times so sorely need.
Anyway, Scientology aside, rest well Isaac. You were much appreciated, and I doubt your like will be seen again.