As a solo artist, Isaac Hayes’ incredibly successful career was consistently situated between the seemingly disparate worlds of hard-hitting, sensual funk and emotive balladry. Considering his pedigree as one of the most influential songwriters and arrangers in the history of American pop music, it makes sense that he would also be one of the most far-ranging and catholic talents to emerge from an eclectic era, pulling equally from the worlds of soul, jazz and rock, with pit-stops in the worlds of gospel and Nashville. As another in a line of inevitable gift-purchase anthologies, Can You Dig It? does a fairly good job of encapsulating Hayes’ 1969-1975 solo work for the Stax label. It hardly tells the whole story, however, and in seeking for a representative sampling of Hayes’ output, lessens the impact of the handful of stone classics in Hayes’ repertoire.
It’s hard to get more classic than the “Theme From Shaft”, probably one of the single most famous compositions of the past half-century. There are few people of any age who wouldn’t recognize the indelible 1/16th hi-hat note and wah-wah guitar interplay that opens the epic suite. The track well deserves its place in the popular consciousness, and is maybe the most characteristic example of Hayes’ schizophrenic composition style. Equal parts James Brown and George Gershwin set into a complex tripartite structure, the funky soul rhythm that opens the track gives way to an airy and melodic middle section before Hayes’ vocal sets in with the third distinct movement. The track asks: “Who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” There are few alive who won’t know the answer: a chorus of backup singers orgasmically intone “Shaft!” The sexual implications are purely accidental, I’m sure…
But Can You Dig It? only gives us a 3:15 long edit of the epochal, Academy Award-winning track. This isn’t the only example of such tinkering. Hayes’ cover of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” appears in a 7:02 abbreviated version, down from the 18:00 original. Now, I can certainly understand the desire to want to squeeze as many of Hayes’ hits on to these two discs as possible, but this would be a stronger argument if the set wasn’t speckled with lesser numbers such as “Help Me Love” and “For the Good Times”. Hayes was as adept at interpreting the work of others as in writing his own songs, but sometimes the results were less dynamic than others. Sometimes, as with Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times”, the results were simply schmaltz.
But the schmaltzy, AM-ready ballads are by no means the whole story, and in any event a solid funk groove is only ever one or two tracks away. For every “Help Me Love”, there’s Hayes’ cover of Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love”, which takes the familiar romantic staple and turns it into an anxious, melancholy slab of orchestral funk. “Do Your Thing”—presented here in a 3:16 single edit, as opposed to the 19:00 original found on the Shaft soundtrack album—sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday; the crisp, punctuated rhythm was literally ahead of its time, eerily predating the sound of Timbaland and the Neptunes by almost 30 years.
One of the set’s most eye-opening selections is an almost entirely unadorned interpretation of the gospel standard “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, recorded live at Chicago’s PUSH Expo in October of 1972. According to the liner notes this is the set’s only previously unreleased track. I’m not going to say that the number is worth the price of the whole set, but it is without a doubt one of Hayes’ most expressive and compelling vocal performances.
There are a number of lesser-known cuts that might prove revelatory for casual Hayes fans. The “Title Theme from Three Tough Guys”, another attempt at the same magic that elevated the Shaft theme to cultural ubiquity, is interesting, a downright weird bit of funky disco that manages to succinctly connect the dots between early ‘70s funk and late ‘70s disco. This connection is illustrated more explicitly on the accurately-titled and wrongly-obscure “Disco Connection”, a track that desperately needs to be restored to its proper place in the pantheon of disco classics.
The brief DVD included with the set includes three selections from Hayes’ performances at the WATTSTAX festival in August of 1972, as well as the video for Hayes’, as Chef from South Park, singing “Chocolate Salty Balls”. I suppose the latter is necessary for historical reasons, but the three WATTSTAX tracks are only really a teaser for Hayes’ full WATTSTAX performance, available on another DVD and CD, both of which might even be on sale the same place you bought this set.
There’s no faulting the majority of the music that appears on Can You Dig It?—as a compendium for those who can’t be bothered to actually buy the real albums, I suppose you could do worse. But if you have any interest in Hayes, or in the history of 20th century American popular music in general, I’d suggest you skip this set and just track down a copy of Hot Buttered Soul, Hayes’ 1969 solo breakthrough. Three-quarters of Hot Buttered Soul appear on this set, albeit in truncated form—that’s how essential it is. If you like that, get 1971’s Shaft soundtrack and Black Moses, from the same year. I guess Can You Dig It? might make a good purchase if you see it on sale—as an introduction to the man’s essential body of work—but if this is the only Hayes’ CD in your collection, you’re gonna get laughed at.