Okay, I know everybody loves "Chocolate Salty Balls" and the soundtrack to Shaft, but damn. Isaac Hayes was a great songwriter. Not as prolific as Smokey Robinson, but Hayes and his songwriting partner David Porter were just as integral to the Stax sound as Smokey was to Motown. American popular music is unimaginable without the songs they penned, especially the Sam and Dave cuts -- "Soul Man," "Hold On I'm Coming," "You Don't Know Like I Know"... these are perfect bits of pop craftsmanship, down to the tiniest details (the twangy guitar intro on "Soul Man" that comes back to trigger the key change, the cup-muted trumpet behind the vocals on "Hold On," the oblique vocal harmonies on "You Don't Know"... ).
So basically, I am in total agreement with Andrew Durkin:
I'd be lying if I said I didn't suspect, with some chagrin, that Hayes will be remembered primarily for the latter phase of his career, and particularly as the epic soul artist who brought us the music from Shaft.
Not that I don't love that music -- even if it did set the template for a lot of cheesy porn soundtracks, and even if it did lay the groundwork for later generations of white comedians who could then counter-exploit the aesthetics of blaxploitation by using its definitive music to make fun of their own lack of cool (everyone from Will Ferrell to Conan O'Brien has toyed with this tiresome trope in some form or other). Obviously that stuff wasn't Hayes' fault.
Unlike a lot of the other music that ends up in constant rotation / Clear Channel / oldies purgatory, much of this stuff defies exhaustion. These recordings are like little perfectly-constructed perpetual motion machines: they don't wear out. They also demonstrate that just because a piece of music appears simple, logical, and apposite in retrospect -- the sort of thing that makes you exclaim "of course!" upon hearing it -- it does not follow that anybody could have written it. (In some ways, I've been trying to pen something as elegant, true, and basic as "Soul Man" for my entire career, and I haven't even come close.)
Ta-Nehisi Coates (you already read Ta-Nehisi's blog every day, right?)
I came to Isaac Hayes from at least three angles. Hip-hop took me to his 70s joints which I kept on repeat during my early college years. Then hip-hop sent me to Stax (Marle Marl's "Symphony" to Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle"; Salt and Pepa's "Tramp" to Otis Redding and Carla Thomas's original.) I was down with that for awhile (Sam and Dave covering "Soothe Me", The Barkays "Holy Ghost" etc.) and then I found out that Isaac Hayes had basically built Stax as a composer, years before he became a solo act. I count that as Hayes basically living three times. Once as a composer and producer, once as a solo act in his own right, and then again through hip-hop.
Still the saddest thing, to me artistically, about Isaac Hayes' death is that it's a reminder that a certain class of black artists--I'm talking James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and maybe ending with Prince--is starting to depart the scene. It's not that these guys are somehow superior to the folks I came up on. They just had so much more leeway. My one hope about music business having to cope with online, is that maybe that sort of broad individualism and experimentalism can make a return.
Only thing I could do was wear my vintage “Black Moses” T-shirt and head out to a local bar in remembrance and reflect. There, I had to confront frustrations of many bar patrons not knowing what the “Black Moses” T-shirt was in reference to – many thought it was some hot T-shirt from H&M or Abercrombie & Fitch – then deal with annoyance of others reducing him to being the crazed black Scientologist who was the voice of Chef on South Park. If I got lucky, I ran into someone who could reference “The Theme from ‘Shaft’” but that was about it. Soon, I realized that it’ll be too exhausting to really talk about the breadth of Isaac Hayes’ legacy in a room full of debauchery. So I had to just go inward and grapple with my melancholy.
Growing up in Mississippi, which is very close to Memphis, Isaac Hayes represented many things to me. But the one that always stood out is his transformation — that a poor Black person from the segregated South could reinvent himself through art, become an international icon and not lose sight of where he came from. He beat the odds.
The big news yesterday, of course, was the death of Isaac Hayes over the weekend. I came to Hayes, like every other white kid I knew, through his soundtrack th Shaft, but I think my favorite song of his ended up being "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymystic,", the nine-and-a-half-minute laid-back epic that's only the third-longest track on his 1969 solo breakthrough album, Hot Buttered Soul. It's the sort of song that, when it comes up on shuffle play, all activity ceases, and I just sit around being an Isaac Hayes fan for ten minutes. I once read an appreciation of the song by some well-known DJ (DJ Spooky? One-half of The Chemical Brothers? The internet isn't helping me out here) who said that he would always spin the song at the end of a long evening, when it didn't seem like anyone else was listening anymore. That gets at what I always found to be one of Hayes' most distinguishing features, the way that, even in the most blazing song, he kept that quality of cool intimacy, like he was leaning in to tell you a particularly juicy secret.