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Isaac Hayes (1942-2008)


When Isaac Hayes became as well-known for being a voice on ‘South Park’ as he did for his funk-soul compositions, it didn’t negate or overshadow his musical contributions as cynics and snobs like to suggest. Rather it made explicit the weird tension between sophistication and willful goofiness that had always been a part of his persona. Late in his career, Hayes often performed outdoor venues and free festivals with a band that wasn’t perfect, but didn’t reek of super-clean studio bullshit, still did 10-minute plus versions of his hits, and also found a place for “Chef’s Chocolate Salty Balls” in-between “Walk On By” and “Theme From Shaft’”.

As he sang about his uh, balls, he did it in the same voice he was just singing about “foolish pride” and he sort of had this shit-eating grin on this face because he was getting away with it and because he was having fun and not racing through the hits. That same grin was probably on his face when he aggressively titled his album ‘Black Moses’–and meant it in a way, right?–or made goofy album covers like that one for ‘Chocolate Chip’ or ‘JuIcy Fruit’. And the grin was wider because he knew the albums themselves weren’t goofy love jams, but music that had its roots in popular genres like soul, funk, and R & B–there’s some psychedelic rock in there too–but also moved into far more unexpected areas of arrangement and composition. Think of those regal strings on “Walk On By” and how they quickly become terrifying and back to regal again. Or “Cafe Reggios” from ‘Shaft’ which balances being the kind of cornball elevator jazz played in a place called Cafe Reggios and being a signature Hayes composition full of subtle details…a guitar that gets thicker in sound as the song progresses or the perfect interplay between immaculate piano and warm keyboards throughout.

Hayes was basically a jazz musician in the sense that he relied heavily on improvisation and group/band interplay and understood that covers and reinterpretations were actually less restrictive than original material. And like the best jazz musicians, Hayes understood that music needed that tension between raw immediacy and mindful intellectualism. It’s actually not that hard to make “pop” music “sophisticated”–every few years some new rock band discovers electronics or an orchestra and dummies go crazy in ‘Spin’ or ‘Rolling Stone’–but it’s harder to find Hayes’ understanding of the high and low, and their merger (because he’s smart enough to see there’s not a difference) because his work never screamed out “I’m a genius composer who just happens to sing lots of songs about fucking over top baroque soul symphonies!” This is what made it not only okay but just logical that he’d also end up as The Duke in ‘Escape From New York’ or as a sexy chef on a cartoon.

Along with Hayes, the only other soul-based musicians that really seem to fully grasp this weird tension I’m babbling about are Donny Hathaway and Philly Sound pioneer Thom Bell. Hathaway understood the immediacy of a good hook but he also explicitly flirted with classical music. In the liner notes for ‘Extension of a Man’, Hathaway confidently but modestly discusses the “Romantic Period” influence on his own soul-suite “I Love the Lord: He Heard Me Cry Pts. 1 & II”–and adds “My writing was also inspired by George Gershwin”–and it’s a song that probably maybe wouldn’t exist without the work of Hayes a few years before. Thom Bell’s strings too, have as many roots in classical as they do the studio experiments and production flourishes of pop and R & B of the 60s. Bell himself cites one on his biggest influences as the booming string music from Gladiator genre pictures of the 50s and 60s. In 1971 of course, Isaac Hayes would score a genre movie himself, the “blaxploitation” movie ‘Shaft’ and elevate it to mainstream popularity and Hollywood recognition with an Oscar.

“Walk On By” off ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ (1969): This song’s been sampled plenty of times, most effectively on “I Can’t Go To Sleep” by Wu Tang, so I thought I’d highlight a few other excellent uses of the song.

-‘Walk On By’ by Pete Rock: It’s pretty telling that Pete Rock didn’t even change the title of this beat. Maybe it’s out of respect or some sense that no matter what it was called, those stirring strings would still be super obvious. As expected, Rock flips it well, giving it a more upbeat feeling than the original and subtly using Hayes’ breathy vocals for like, a half-second in the loop.

--”Dead Bent” by MF Doom off ‘Operation: Doomsday’ (1999)

Doom uses those super-identifiable strings but he takes advantage of the wobbly, disturbing stir of them instead of the elegant, catchy intro string-part. Like most of the ‘Operation: Doomsday’ productions, it’s cheaply or strangely looped–at least from a conventional musical perspective–and so, the strings bump into one another and whine, but that works because more than any song that swipes from “Walk On By”, “Dead Bent” feels the most like the original in terms of feeling on-edge.

--”Dead Presidents” directed by the Hughes Brothers (1996)

You can hear “Walk On By” faintly at the beginning of this clip from the climax of the Hughes Brothers’ ‘Dead Presidents’ as it scores the fucked aftermath of the characters’ bank robbery, and it comes back to score the final moments of the film, particularly the fate of Larenz Tate’s character Anthony. Setting the end of their movie to ‘Walk On By’ makes it clear that Isaac Hayes was making movie score-ready music way before ‘Shaft’.

‘Dead Presidents’ is the Hughes Brothers’ most realized and singular movie, even as it grabs from plenty of 70s American and 70s black cinema it feels more like it’s informed by those movies than it is totally paying homage. It’s over-the-top and clearly not that researched in its war scenes, but it has a kind of comic-book feeling that heightens the emotions and the political and message-oriented aspects of the film. That it ends with Martin Sheen of ‘Apocalypse Now’ damning Larenz Tate’s post-war actions is super-obvious but effective because it’s so obvious. It’s also brave enough to take on the failings of Black Power and the church and their roles–in addition to a government that had no interest in its soldiers–in moving the Tate character–and implicitly, the many Americans in the same boat as him–towards the fate-sealing bank robbery of the film’s climax.

“Man’s Temptation” off ‘Black Moses’ (1971)
-“Unknown Track” by J Dilla off ‘Pay Jay’ (Unreleased, 2001)
-“Animal Planet” by the GZA off ‘Legend of the Liquid Sword’ (2002): Producer Bink, best known for his Roc-a-Fella work, sampled “Man’s Temptation” for a beat that presumably first showed up on Dilla’s solo album back in 2001 when it was supposed to get a release, and then showed up on GZA’s ‘Legend of the Liquid Sword’ from 2002 when Dilla’s solo got shelved? I think my favorite part of this beat is how Bink occasionally uses Hayes’ keyboard plinks every few bars.

“The Come On” & “Light My Fire” off ‘Live at the Sahara Tahoe’ (1973): Sorry if the quality of this isn’t great, I couldn’t find it anywhere online so I had to rip it from my LP. Basically, a long-ass cover/interpolation/reworking of The Doors’ “Light My Fire”–also covered by Al Green around the same time on 1971’s ‘Al Green Gets Next To You’–that never ends up sounding much like the original but that’s more than okay. It’s technically two tracks and each part got it’s own groove on the record but I just made it one track because who the fuck knows exactly where “The Come On” ends and “Light My Fire” begins.

“The Come On”s just this epic, wah-wah chase music jam with a really incredible sonar-pling sounding keyboard workout before sort of turning into an actual cover. What’s additionally interesting about it–and shows the extent of Hayes’ musical brilliance–is the way Hayes ties all these not-so-apparent musical threads together between the Doors and his own music. Hayes’ voice sounds similar to Morrison’s infamous croon (and of course Morrison himself got a lot of his vocal and physical theatrics from 60s soulsters) and The Doors’ music is heavily influenced by jazz and fusion and soul, so there’s this interesting sense of borrowing and returning going on between the original and Hayes’ “cover”.

“Hung Up On My Baby” off ‘Tough Guys OST’ (1974)
-‘Tough Guys’ Radio Spot: Obviously, the sample used for Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” and probably one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded. The guitars shimmer and glow, the horns wander along, and it’s all kept together by a really simple beat. Also, just for fun, here’s a radio spot for ‘Tough Guys’.

Isaac Hayes At the Movies
In addition to ‘Tough Guys’–which is sort of hard to find and only half worth-it–Isaac Hayes has been in a lot of really cool and interesting movies. He’s the star (and again, composer) of ‘Truck Turner’ which is a really solid action movie. The main thing I recall about it are the fight scenes which were sort of hand-held and shot with a really wide-lense which looked really cool. Hayes is a really fun and naturalistic actor who always seemed to be enjoy his roles. The same way he would use his deep voice and tone in music, Hayes did the same in acting, to both dramatic and comedic effect. Listen to him mumble “hey…” in the ‘Truck Turner’ trailer below and then say “i got some beer…”; it’s really funny and self-aware but vulnerable too.
In ‘Escape From New York’, he’s genuinely intimidating and scary and its a role where his fame and image work perfectly because he’s playing this weird, near-mythic Duke of futuristic shithole New York and Hayes’ stage persona is similarly appealing but commanding. Everything in ‘Escape From New York’ has this weird balance between being campy and over-the-top but somehow realistic too and Hayes dives into it with lots of sincerity.
And finally, Isaac Hayes as comedic straight-man to Chris Rock’s goofball jean-vest and yellow T-shirt-wearing cheapskate:

Written by Brandon

August 13th, 2008 at 12:58 am

Posted in Isaac Hayes, RIP, Sampling, soul