'B&S' CLASSIC INTERVIEW: Soul Icon ISAAC HAYES MAY 1995
Folloowing the sad death of Isaac Hayes earlier this week, Pete Lewis fondly recalls his interview with the Iconic Memphis Soul Legend in 1995
As hip hop culture grows to the point where its early influences are now studied intensely by music academics, the careers of several legends whose music immediately preceded rap's birth are simultaneously being revived. A perfect case in point is self-styled 'Black Moses' Isaac Hayes, whose new LP 'Branded' - out this month - represents his first new album release in over eight years.
"Since my last association with a major record company (Columbia) I hadn't even tried to pursue a recording situation because - when you do - most people nowadays seem to always ask 'Well, what you have you done lately?'... And that doesn' t sit too kindly with me, because I'm not a new kid on the block!", begins the majestic, deep-spoken Mr. Hayes, relaxing over tea in the tranquility of his luxurious West London hotel: "I've been around a long time and, when I was a the top of the hill, I was very ahead of my time! Evidence of that is that my music is still current today - you know, rappers sample it all the time. So, rather than compromise my artistic integrity, I concentrated on movies. Until - in '93 - I met John Wheeler, who has the Pointblank label which is associated with Virgin Records. He said 'All you gotta do is be Isaac Hayes - there is a market there. Why would you sound like someone else, when they themselves are copying your style and are influenced by your music?'... That made sense, so I signed. And, for the first time in years, I went into the studio without any kind of apprehension. I was relaxed, and as a result we've come up with some good product."
While acclaimed globally for his 1971 groundbreaking soundtrack opus 'Theme From Shaft', Isaac's most influential work on rap's generation remains arguably his classic 1969 set 'Hot Buttered Soul'. With its combination of neo-symphonic arrangements, tough'n'groovy soul rhythms and long drawn-out monologues, the album possibly marked the first time a mainstream black American artist had actually built tracks around the spoken word. All of which now comes full circle, with Isaac having re-recorded one of its songs - the preposterously-titled 'Hyperbolicsyllacicsesquedalymistic"! - for his new album, complete with guest rap from Public Enemy's Chuck D.
"Yeah, I gave it a new twist! I got my friend Chuck D to put a rap on it, and he did a great job. In fact, the tape ran out on the machine and we still grooved for about another 30 minutes", chuckles Isaac with pride: "What happened was, Public Enemy were in concert in Memphis while I was working there in the studio. So I sneaked in to see the show and, when Flava Flav saw me standing in the wings, he was like 'C'mon up, man!'. So I went on stage and, while I was embracing Chuck, I was like 'I want you to be on my record, man'. So, when he got off, he called me at the studio. And hopefully that track might now introduce me to a whole new generation of kids, who will find out who I am and the role I play in today's music."
So, how does Isaac feel about being regarded today as one of the most influential figures of his generation in the development of rap?
"I feel good - it gives me a sense of longevity", he replies without hesitation: "But, while I like groups like Public Enemy - who do things to wake up the kids and make them more aware and responsible - some of today's rap music I DON'T agree with! Especially the songs putting women down and promoting violence and the gang-banging. I mean, when some of these so-called 'gangsta rappers' first came out, it was understandable, in that they were protesting about the conditions they were living in and they got people's attention. But then it took on another turn. People started to EMULATE, rather than take note and say 'We need to change this situation’. And that's when it became exploited. Self-expression is always a right, but it's still not there to be abused."
Similarly, while appreciative of how rap's art of sampling has revived interest in Seventies soul legends like himself, Isaac is nevertheless concerned at the resulting lack of live musicianship in modern-day black American music.
"There's something about live players that you cannot get with machines", he asserts: "With live musicians you can strike a groove, you can feed off each other... And, even though somebody might make a slight mistake, it's all real! Innovations come in; new sounds come in; fresh ideas... There are always surprises around the corner, and that all feeds the industry. You know, it becomes a breeding ground with tentacles that stretch out in all directions. So that's why right now I have a community programme in Memphis that encourages the kids to play instruments again. I'm actually getting a High School band director to teach those who are willing to learn. So that they can play funk, rock, pop, jazz and even classical... And, in addition to getting live music back, that will hopefully also give the kids in the `'hood something to do. Rather than just sitting around with idle minds, absorbing all that negative stuff that is constantly being presented to them."
All of which also explains Ike's decision to return to Memphis (the city in which he was based through the Sixties and Seventies) to record his new album with local live musicians: "Yes, as was said by a great man, 'In order to repeat a successful action one must repeat the steps that initiated it'", replies Isaac: "And so what I did was go back to Memphis and use some of the musicians that played on my initial success with Stax Records. I got Charles 'Skip' Pitts and Michael Toles on rhythm and lead guitar; Lester Snell on the keyboards... And it was such a joy! I mean, the guys GROOVED! We cut 22 tracks, and 95% of them are just cooking! So that in itself is evidence that supports my belief in live playing and going back to the original source."
Indeed, with the Platinum success of Isaac's early Stax albums (1969’s'Hot Buttered Soul'; 1970’s 'The Isaac Hayes Movement' and '… To Be Continued') largely being based on his ultra-creative, long-drawn-out readings of other people's songs, it is significant that the first single to be lifted off 'Branded' will be his marathon, 14-minute-plus rendition of Sting's pro-ecology anthem 'Fragile': "Yes, that's typical Isaac Hayes!", he confirms: "When I first heard that song, I was very much moved by it. It makes a statement that needs to be heard around the world. You know, you get all kinds of destructive actions - be it against plant life, animal life, human life - and it's negatively affecting the planet in a lot of different ways. So I decided to reach out and make this appeal to humanity, but in a way that will not sound boring. People don't like to be preached at, but will listen when you issue it to them in an artistic, musical form that's easier to digest. So, in typical Isaac Hayes fashion, I put this rap on the beginning, and used a heartbeat to get people's attention. Then, once I've talked about the conditions and situations, I layer and build the music - and it all falls into place. Then, once you’ve got them in the groove, you present the song, and then you go out with surprises - Iike the children I put on the back-end of it. They are these kids outta Memphis called Watoto do Afrika, which means 'The Chidren Of Africa', and it was a joy to do that."
Incidentally, speaking of Africa, Isaac was recently made a King in Ghana. A once-in-a-lifetime experience that (alongside successful acting roles in such movies as 'I Mo' Get You Sucka' and 'Posse') kept his public profile high during his aforementioned spell of recording inactivity: "Yeah, that happened in '92", he confirms proudly: "They gave me a name Nene Katey Ocamstu - together with all the rights and privileges - and also gave me some land to build my palace on, in a region about an hour's drive from the city. It's a beautiful area that I will be involved in developing. You know, it's so relaxing when I go there and I'm well-received, right from The President on down. He even took me on his plane once and talked me through flying it! I mean, where else can you get a President giving you that kind of attention? It's just wonderful!"
Meanwhile, on the recording front, Ike intends to follow the release of 'Branded' with 'Raw And Refined' - a new all-instrumental album from The Isaac Hayes Movement, plus several other projects in the pipeline: "Yeah, this is like a whole new step for me - and I'm so proud to be with Virgin, because those guys have given me so much support already": he enthuses genuinely, before concluding: “I'm also coming out with a Christmas album, something I've never done before... And I can guarantee that, during the next 18 months, I'm gonna show people a whole side of Isaac Hayes that I've never had to the opportunity to display or experience before! So I'm very excited about it all. And it's gonna be a lot of fun!"
Isaac sadly passed away August 10, 2008 in Memphis, Tennessee after being found unresponsive near a treadmill in his home. He was 65.
R.I.P. Isaac Hayes: 1942-2008
Words PETE LEWIS