“Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
You’re damn right.
Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?
Can ya dig it?”
Well, if you can, then you’re probably a good deal younger than I am. Because that’s not how the above Isaac Hayes song actually goes.
Chef? Shaq? Please. Shaft!
But it’s an honest mistake. Because for you, silky singer Hayes is probably synonymous with soulful school-cafeteria cook and hefty love machine Chef, shouting his hearty “Hello, children!” and singing smooth praises to his “Chocolate Salty Balls” on Comedy Central’s most consistently popular series, the rated-M-for-mature cartoon South Park.
Or else Hayes is, for you, the voice behind last year’s ubiquitous Burger King TV ads in which gargantuan L.A. Lakers superstar Shaquille O’Neal saunters into some spotless, sunny BK in ghetto-fabulous attire to order a “Shaq Pack” (a 34-ounce bacon cheesebomb on a sourdough roll, fries with chili-cheese sauce, and a Coke) to the tune of another butchered version of the Shaft song (“Who is the man that can jam more than any man?”).
But for the rest of us, Hayes is the living embodiment of the Grammy- and Oscar-winning theme to the classic 1971 blaxploitation flick (and 2000 John Singleton remake) starring a strong, stern and suave Richard Roundtree (and, later, Samuel L. Jackson) in a long, leather coat.
“Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about?
You’re damn right. And if you’re of a certain color and gender, the Shaft theme may be about black empowerment. And if you’re perhaps a little paler, then it may just be about a sense of cool you secretly envy.
Yet Hayes is so much more than all those things.
He’s a high-school dropout who later graduated, and who now leads an international literacy campaign. An entrepreneur, author, restaurateur and Scientologist. An enthroned king in the African nation of Ghana, where they carry a visiting Hayes — known there as Nene Katey Ocansey I — through the streets on a palanquin.
And a soul icon, of course. Have I mentioned that Hayes changed the face of music?
Grammy winner and the first black songwriter to land an Academy Award, 1971. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, 2002.
And when we talk by phone, Hayes, just days shy of 61, is just hours away from the third-annual BMI Urban Awards, a black-tie affair in Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hilton where he’ll receive the music-publishing giant’s Icon Award.
Such music-industry props have been unforgivably late in coming, but musicians themselves have been celebrating Hayes’ genius and social consciousness for years. Rappers have given him the James Brown treatment, sampling Hayes’ licks at every turn (Wu-Tang’s “I Can’t Go to Sleep,” for instance), or copping his style outright (there’d be no Coolio classic “Gangsta’s Paradise” without Hayes).
“A lot of rappers — from Tupac all the way down — they say, ‘You’re like our mentor, man,'” an animated Hayes admits, sounding y’know, just like Chef.
But that’s hip-hop. What about soul? Or would the caramel-voiced Hayes even claim any paternity for the nasal singing that radio-wasteland R&B has become?
At this, he absolutely guffaws. (Take that as a no.)
“One thing about it,” he says, still laughing. “They all sound alike. Back in the day, you knew Teddy Pendergrass from Marvin Gaye.”
Of course, it’s a little tougher sometimes to tell the difference between Hayes and his old friend, the recently deceased Barry White, whom Hayes calls “an icon of love.” Visit any file-sharing platform and see how many people think White was the Shaft guy.
“A lot people had said that Barry was bitin’ off me, and was copyin’ me,” Hayes comments.