As staff songwriters for Stax Records in the mid-'60s, Isaac Hayes and his partner David Porter wrote dozens of hits, including the Sam & Dave smashes "Soul Man" and "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby." But the Academy Award-winning "Theme From Shaft" remains Hayes' best-known song. Its propulsive rhythms, dreamy orchestration, and boastful lyrics defined the kind of Black Power cool that Hayes exemplified. The Shaft soundtrack came in the thick of an astonishing creative period for Hayes, which began in 1969 with his second album, Hot Buttered Soul. It was cut alongside 26 others by Stax staffers, as part of an attempt to pad out the label's catalog, but it was a breakout hit. Its four extended-length tracks—three of them covers of modern pop standards—sounded unlike anything else on the radio that year, and though record companies were sure that black listeners only bought singles, millions shelled out for Hot Buttered Soul.
Hayes went on to record more hit albums and movie soundtracks throughout the early '70s, forging a powerhouse second career as a pop star. He then established a steady third career as a character actor, including a long run as the voice of "Chef" on the cult cartoon series South Park. The new compilation Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It? contains two discs of Hayes' seminal recordings, plus a bonus DVD with three performances from the 1973 concert film Wattstax and the video for Chef's UK hit single "Chocolate Salty Balls." On the occasion of its release, Hayes spoke with The A.V. Club about how he forged his sound, how he views his legacy, and whether he gets annoyed when South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone mock his faith.
The A.V. Club: You were a performer before Stax hired you as a staff songwriter, and then you were kind of forced to become a performer again when Stax needed some quick product. At the time, had you been hoping to get back on stage?
Isaac Hayes: Always. All the time I was writing hit songs with my partner David Porter, I always had the yen to perform. Sure did. And when the opportunity came, I took it. The first album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, didn't do so hot, but it was like a prelude for what was to come. When I was given an opportunity to do things the way I wanted to, without any restrictions and no holds barred, that's when I did Hot Buttered Soul. Which changed a lot of things.
AVC: Had the sound on that album been in your head for a while?
IH: Yeah, with the horns and the strings, and that selection of tunes. And just the way I presented myself. I'd always thought if I did my own album, I'd do it like this.
AVC: What was it about that orchestrated sound? Were you trying to recreate something that you'd heard before, or were you trying to make something entirely new?
IH: I'd always loved strings. When I was in high school and saw strings playing on stage, an orchestra or a symphony, all those bows moving at the same time… wow. [Laughs.] I like that sound, man. So I just kept it in my head. David and I tried some strings with Sam & Dave, but it didn't go over too well, because people didn't want to accept that. They wanted to hear what they first heard, with those horns and driving rhythms. So when I had a chance to do my thing, I did it. I did what I wanted to. I just heard those strings, and I expressed myself through those. And I heard the horns. I kept the funky rhythms underneath, but I put the strings on top and made them speak. With authority. And I did it long because I felt what I had to say could not have been said in two minutes and 30 seconds. I took some liberties. It was kind of selfish on my part. But you know, there were 26 other albums released at the same time mine was. [Laughs.] So I just did what I wanted to do, you know? It just so happened other people liked it too.
AVC: Were you surprised that out of that pack of 27, yours was the one that took off?
IH: Yeah, I was surprised. Because they didn't display me like that. They had me in the back. [Laughs.] The artists performed live in front of the whole contingent of people all over the world that came in for a sales meeting. And I got a standing ovation, and they said, "Do you have an album?" I said, "It's back there in the back somewhere!" [Laughs.] They sought it out. They found it. They got behind it and the thing just… took off, man.
AVC: What inspired the spoken-word "raps" you stuck in front of some of your early solo songs?
IH: That was out of necessity, to communicate. It started in a predominately black club called The Tiki Club. I was ranting and raving about this tune I heard, "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." Nobody showed too much interest, so I told James Alexander, bandleader of The Bar-Kays, "Hey, I'm coming down to the club tonight, ya'll learn 'Phoenix,' man." So I showed that night. Club was packed. Everybody talking. "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Isaac Hayes!" Nobody applauded. They were still talking. Shit. [Laughs.] So I tell James to hang up on those chords on the intro. Just recycle to the top of the song. And I started talking, about the situation I imagined would've happened if this guy's woman were taken through these changes. I started talking, and I went, and I went, and the conversations started to subside. It got quiet. I thought, "I got ya!" [Laughs.] I went, "By the tiiiiiime…" and they went, "Oh, wow!" They sat and listened to the whole thing. I went through the vamp, dragging it out, repeating it, and when I finished, not a dry eye in the house. I got 'em. That was it.
And then I did the same thing at a predominately white club. Same reaction. A local pop DJ named Scott Shannon, who's in New York now, said, "Ike, you ought to record that." So I did.
AVC: You did a lot of covers on those early albums, which was strange, since you were a songwriter first.
IH: I know, I know. But those were songs I liked. And I felt like I could do something with them. Because a hit song is a hit song. Take it apart and put it back together, it still stands, if it's put together right. So I did those tunes, because they were tunes I liked and that I could readily relate to.
AVC: You did them because you liked them and not just because you heard something you could do with them?
IH: That's why I liked them.
AVC: Were you listening generally to more rock, soul, or pop then? Because those cover songs were generally pop songs.
IH: I was a pop freak. I love music. Of course, I knew soul because I grew up in it. Writing it and everything. I love soul. But I love a tune that has some meat in it. Something I could hang my hat on. Because music is universal. Therefore I felt no boundaries.
AVC: Your sound ended up as the model for a lot of music over the next decade, especially TV cop-show and movie soundtracks.
IH: The Shaft thing? Oh yeah, everybody was going "chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka." They wore that out. So much so that, you know, I kind of laid back, because that's all I could hear, was me. [Laughs.] I needed something new to hear. It took a while.
AVC: You were one of the first R&B artists to have a hit album that was really a complete album, and not just a collection of hits. And a lot of other R&B acts followed suit quickly, like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Were you in any way pushed by your contemporaries? Was there a sense of competition?
IH: No, because I did it first. It was my creativity. When I did it, they went, "Oh wow. There's an area we could go in." So they followed. Which was okay, you know? Because I think Marvin Gaye had the greatest album ever recorded. What's Going On.
AVC: Like Gaye, you didn't shy away from political material. Do you think the R&B of today is as engaged politically as your generation was?
IH: I don't know. Kanye West said some things about Bush. [Laughs.] I think the kids today need to hear more about morals and values. Somebody needs to put a check on them. If people would write songs that would bring their attention to a better way of life and a better way of living, maybe we'd see a change in our society. Because you have to have some responsibility. And these artists, with all the money they're making, they should have some responsibility to remind their listeners, these young people, about how they should live and what they should do. Because it's kind of chaotic now.
AVC: A lot of what musicians model today is success. How to be successful.
IH: But success… a lot of responsibility comes along with that. You've got to realize what you're doing to influence these kids. Not just your bank account. I always try to leave a message for [today's musicians]. Maybe a few of them listen.
AVC: Do you ever challenge Trey Parker and Matt Stone on what they're trying to say with South Park?
IH: Well, when I did "Chocolate Salty Balls," I asked them, "Are you sure you want to do this stuff, man?" But then I looked into the studio and saw the whole crew in there cracking up. I said, "Shit, they might have something." So I went on and did it, and I'm glad I did, because it was such a huge hit. In fact, when it was out in England during the Christmas holidays, I aced… who were those girls who were so hot then?
AVC: The Spice Girls?
IH: Exactly. I aced them for the number-one spot. [Laughs.]
AVC: There's some pretty harsh satire on South Park. They don't really care who they offend.
IH: But that's their thing! They're success was built on that cutting-edge stuff. I've had to defend them a lot of times. One time on BET Tonight I defended them because Tavis Smiley, the host on that show, was coming at me. It was a call-in show, too, so people were calling in. I told them not to take this stuff seriously. If you do, you'll get in trouble. Just enjoy it. Remember your high-school yearbook? You look at those pictures now, you laugh, right? That's what South Park is. You got to laugh at it. Because we cursed, but we just didn't dare let the principals, the teachers, or the preachers hear it. And we didn't turn out bad, okay? Just look at it that way. Also, usually there's some kind of moral message at the end for the kids, by the Chef.
AVC: They did just do an episode that made fun of your religion, Scientology. Did that bother you?
IH: Well, I talked to Matt and Trey about that. They didn't let me know until it was done. I said, "Guys, you have it all wrong. We're not like that. I know that's your thing, but get your information correct, because somebody might believe that shit, you know?" But I understand what they're doing. I told them to take a couple of Scientology courses, and understand what we do. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you end up becoming an actor?
IH: Well, as the rule goes, when you become a successful recording artist, then some of these movie producers get bright ideas. I had the good fortune that the first movie I did was a Dino De Laurentiis production, starring Lino Ventura, a great European actor, and Fred Williamson and Paula Kelly. Three Tough Guys. We had a lot of fun. Followed by Truck Turner. Scored them both as well. I had a lot of fun with those things. And the hip-hop community sampled the hell out of both of them. [Laughs.] And then I did a John Carpenter thing, Escape From New York, which was great. I had the pleasure of working with a lot of great actors, a lot of my heroes. It was fun for me.
AVC: How do you decide whether you're going to do a role? Do you get offered more than you take?
IH: Yeah. I make choices.
AVC: So how do you end up doing a movie like Flipper?
IH: Well, that was a fun film. A young kids' film, you know? Playing with Crocodile Dundee! [Laughs.] Paul Hogan. I loved it.
AVC: Then with Robin Hood: Men In Tights, you got to work with Mel Brooks.
IH: Oh yeah, Mel Brooks, man. Come on! [Laughs.] I'd just like to do a Mel Brooks film anyway. It so happened I worked with Cary Elwes, and what's-his-name… Dave Chappelle. He played my son in that.
AVC: Does he ever call you anymore?
IH: We see each other, yeah.
AVC: What's it like to wake up in the morning and realize that you're Isaac Hayes?
IH: Well, you know. [Laughs.] I'm just now really getting it. The world's gone retro. It's like a rebirth. People everywhere I go say, "Wow, Isaac Hayes, wow." But I just got married to my fourth wife about six months ago, and she didn't know who I was when I first met her. She's from Africa. And it's a revelation to her and a revelation to me too, the way they still remember. I'm revered now. Is it my age? [Laughs.] All the things I've done?
I never think about all the things I've done until moments like this, talking to you. I'm moving so much. I've learned just to keep working. Learned it from my grandmother. When I used to pick cotton in the fields as a little kid, I was always looking back to see if I got cotton in my sack, and she said, "Stop! Don't look back. Just keep picking, you'll find out." So I was picking, picking, picking, and then it felt like someone was standing on my sack. I looked back. My sack is full!
I always keep my head down, working, doing things, moving forward. That's what I've done all my life. Then you stop and realize what you've done. "Damn, I did that!" I don't sit back and count up what I've done. There's just always something else to do. There's always a challenge ahead. I've faced those challenges and hit 'em, you know?