This past weekend was a pretty terrible one for iconic cool dudes. Between the deaths of Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes, the world has become significantly less cool -- despite the title of Hayes' signature album.
Below, an interview from 2004, when Hayes closed out that year's Bull Durham Blues Festival in the Saturday-night headline slot.
Speaking from the soul
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Sept. 10, 2004
Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" has been virtually inescapable ever since it first appeared on the air in 1971. Undiminished by parody or 33 years of saturation-level airplay, it remains the definitive blaxploitation movie theme. But there was a time when Hayes himself grew sick of his signature hit.
"Yeah, there was a time in the mid-'80s when I got real, real tired of it," says Hayes, calling from New York. "But then some more years went by, and I realized it's still here. So it's like a blessing. I don't mind doing it now."
Not to worry, then -- "Shaft" will be in the set list Saturday night, when Hayes closes out the 17th annual Bull Durham Blues Festival. It's fitting that "Shaft" has gone through a few phases in the eyes of its creator, since Hayes has done likewise over the past four decades.
Hayes has become an iconic touchstone of cool in recent years, voicing the perpetually aroused love man Chef in the animated series "South Park" (which yielded the left-field hit "Chocolate Salty Balls") and playing the narrator/deity figure in 1994's "It Could Happen To You." He also worked on pianist Alicia Key's Grammy-winning 2001 debut album, and has turned up in sample form on songs by Portishead and Snoop Dogg.
By now, Hayes is rightly acknowledged as a pioneering forefather of hip-hop as well as soul and disco. He started out as a behind-the-scenes producer, writer and musician at Stax/Volt Records in Memphis, working with Sam & Dave and Otis Redding. Then his 1969 breakthrough, "Hot Buttered Soul," moved Hayes to the front of the stage.
"Hot Buttered Soul" essentally invented the lavishly orchestrated sprawl that Barry White later refined. But Hayes always had a more epic, grandiose conception in mind. "Hot Buttered Soul" had only four songs, including a slow-burn version of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" stretched to nearly 19 minutes.
"If I was able to do a two-and-a-half-hour concert," Hayes says, "I'd still do it that long. But I have to abbreviate it somewhat."
Hayes hit his peak with "Shaft," adopting a message of black empowerment that turned him into "Black Moses." He was still riding high with the 1971 album of that title when he headlined "Wattstax" in Los Angeles in August 1972, the legendary "Black Woodstock."
Jesse Jackson served as master of ceremonies, leading the crowd in chants and prayers between acts. Hayes arrived at the show with a police escort and took the stage like a prizefighter, shirtless in wild-looking gold chains.
"Wattstax" yielded an amazing 1973 documentary film that launched the then-unknown comic Richard Pryor to fame. It's coming back into circulation via a DVD reissue, and also airs Saturday at 11 p.m. on WUNC-TV (which is when Hayes will be onstage in Durham, so set the VCR if you're going to the show).
"That was a great day and a great event, and it should be seen because it's still what's needed today," Hayes says. "We showed a lot of love and expressed ourselves, the point of view from the black side. The whole event was a celebration, and young people need to see that. Unfortunately, those social conditions I was speaking about in 'Shaft' and 'Soulsville,' those still exist."