Isaac Hayes: Shaft

Isaac Hayes

The film soundtrack is a funny beast.

In recent times, the craft of creating musical accompaniment to a motion picture has been relegated to basically an overpriced mixtape of songs you most likely own already that offers little more than another arm of promotional fare no less tangible than an action figure or a “collector’s” Slurpee cup at 7-Eleven. Sure, there is the odd stroke of genius in the field, especially when you consider such modern triumphs of the craft like Karen O’s beautifully childlike overture to Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, or any soundtrack to a film by Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. But as great and enjoyable these titles are, you would be hard pressed to argue the case that any of them were such achievements of artistic merit that they helped change the face of modern pop music as we know it.

In fact, if there is one soundtrack in the last 40 years that could be held to such a high watermark of groundbreaking innovation that it not only benefitted the film it represented, but the artist behind its creation as well, one can look no further than the late, great Isaac Hayes’s score to Gordon Parks’s 1971 blaxploitation masterpiece Shaft, the first-ever major motion picture soundtrack crafted by a soul artist. Upon its release that summer, the album shattered more glass ceilings in both Hollywood and the pop world than any other R&B release of its time. Powered by the smash hit “Theme from Shaft”, which spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in November of ’71, the soundtrack also marked the first double album that was released by an R&B act (paving the way for Hayes himself to release his magnum opus, Black Moses, later that year), which, in turn, made Shaft the first R&B double LP to reach No. 1 on the Billboard album charts as well.

Meanwhile, in Hollywoodland, Shaft the film was breaking every boundary in the book in terms of the African-American role in cinema during the post-Civil Rights era. And while the film itself is still considered today to be the crème de la crème of blaxploitation and a sociopolitical milestone in black culture, it was Hayes’s theme song that helped the movie clinch its sole Oscar at the 1972 Academy Awards for “Best Original Song”, augmented by another big win at the Golden Globe Awards that year for “Best Original Score”. All this on top of the soundtrack dominating at the ‘72 Grammys, where Hayes won for “Best Instrumental Composition Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television”, while “Theme from Shaft” won for “Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical” and “Best Instrumental Arrangement”.

Even 38 years after its initial release, the soundtrack to Shaft continues to create ripples in popular culture, with the theme song appearing in commercials, television shows, and contemporary films, while Hayes’s funky arrangements have provided the bedrock for some of the most renowned bangers in the hip-hop world, where the likes of Dr. Dre, 2Pac, Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Mobb Deep, Snoop Dogg, and LL Cool J have all gratuitously grazed from the trough of this epic LP for samples and loops. We won’t mention Boyz in the Hood director John Singleton’s unfortunate 21st century makeover with Samuel L. Jackson playing the role of John Shaft’s nephew and flexing a soundtrack that coupled Hayes’s original theme song with an array of half-assed rap songs and string arrangements from the guy who scored Independence Day and Godzilla.

Now, finally, after spending over 20 years in tinny first-run limbo, the time for this masterpiece in both cinema and soul music to enjoy a proper reissue has been long overdue. Released as a part of the newly revived Stax label’s successful 2009 reissue campaign of Hayes’s coveted back catalog, the Shaft soundtrack makes a mighty return to retail with this lovingly-crafted expanded edition containing new liner notes and bonus material. And it’s never sounded better. While the film’s theme song and the soundtrack’s other Top 40 single, a heavily-edited version of the 19-and-a-half-minute throwdown “Do Your Thing”, are more than likely the most recognizable tracks on here to the casual music fan, a more studied ear will certainly hear a vast improvement in the sound quality of Hayes’s massive arrangements, which owed as much to Burt Bacharach as they did James Brown, particularly the beautiful “Elle’s Love Theme” (covered by Madlib’s one-man-band project Yesterday’s New Quintet, coincidentally), the jazzy “Café Regio’s”, and the sassy, brassy “No Name Bar”, six minutes of orchestral funk placed during a pivotal scene in the film.

But for the fans of Hayes’s employment of fellow Stax act the Bar-Kays, as well as members of his own group, the Movement, for the rhythm tracks of Shaft, this reissue is certainly something of a revelation. Especially when you check out the full version of “Thing”, where the crystalline (albeit a touch low volume) remastering job really makes the titanic guitar interplay between the Bar-Kays’ Michael Toles and his fiery leads and the funk-drenched wah-wah licks of Charlie Pitts of the Movement pop in ways that will officially prove why this underrated head-spinning jam deserves placement right up there with both Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as one of the greatest guitar jams of 1971 (or perhaps even of all time).

As far as the bonus material, on the other hand, the sole extra track on this set is a tepid 2009 remix of “Theme from Shaft” that neither improves upon or hinders the original. But what this reissue lacks in rare recorded material, it more than makes up for in the brilliant revision of the CD booklet, which now includes excellently written liners from NPR music guru Ashley Kahn, as well as some cool photography and memorabilia coinciding the soundtrack’s original release. The craft of the booklet saves the reissue’s the lack of deluxeness in sonic portion of this deluxe edition.

In any case, Isaac Hayes’s Shaft remains one of the crown jewels of American film music and undoubtedly one of the most definitive and innovative scores to ever set sound to celluloid, not to mention a sonic testament to the genius of the amazing Mr. Hayes, who was taken from this earth far too soon.

RATING 7 / 10