Verse-Chorus-Verse: Issac Hayes and Public Enemy

Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

"By the Time I Get to Phoenix" - Isaac Hayes

Written by Jimmy Webb

From Hot Buttered Soul, (Enterprise, 1969)

"By the Time I Get to Arizona" - Public Enemy

Written by Carlton Ridenhour, Cerwin Depper, Gary G-Wiz, Stuart Robertz, and Neftali Santiago

From Apocalypse '91... The Enemy Strikes Black, (Def Jam/CBS, 1991)

These two songs are bound together, musically, lyrically, and spiritually, by the inventively funky vision of the artists, and by both artists' commitment to civil rights. In 1969, after taking a break from music in the wake of the death of his close friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Isaac "Ike" Hayes took a country/pop hit performed by Glen Campbell and turned it into a striking, 18:40 soul-sermon about love and leaving. Twenty-two years later, Chuck D of Public Enemy (PE) borrowed the title of Isaac's tune, swapped a state for a city, and lit into that state's racially-charged refusal to acknowledge the holiday for Dr. King. Isaac Hayes and Public Enemy are both unabashedly funky, strong, cerebral-in-a-good-way, and multi-dimensional in their approach to conveying their desired message.

Hayes' version of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" begins with a hypnotic ride cymbal and organ (courtesy of the Bar-Kays), and Hayes' stretched-out rap exploring the meaning of the song. He gives it an incredible back-story, expanding on Webb's emotionally detailed lyric. He also breaks into little melodic moans every now and then, but for the most part, he sustains a very compelling, spoken-word-only intro for about nine minutes or so. Many old-school R&B songs have brief, spoken explanatory intros or interludes (e.g., the Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her?", Earth, Wind, and Fire's "All About Love", ) -- but Ike really shows off here, digging deep and coming up with a fascinating narrative to complement Webb's song. His "sermon" is packed with details about the protagonist's "love blindness", the nonchalant emotional (and financial) exploitation of the protagonist at the hands of his partner, sexual betrayal, and the dangers of mistaking a kind heart for a weak constitution.

Public Enemy's "By the Time I Get to Arizona", has a less personal agenda than "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." In this piece, Chuck D's lyrics detail his (allegorical) journey to the southwestern state to confront the governor about the King holiday (a controversial video accompanied the song's release). There's no doubt in my mind that Chuck D, ever the sonic post-modernist, gleaned a great deal of joy out of simultaneously paying tribute to Hayes' jam (and Webb's title) while also subverting it for his own powerful message. PE's song samples Mandrill's mindblowing "Two Sisters of Mystery", a thick-n-sick psychedelic-funk thing that pleases rhythm-fiends but probably frightens the hell out of folks who don't like big beats and rumbly bass sounds. Over that groove, Chuck D spits his lines, which since the beginning of his career have imparted a unique, poet-meets-sportscaster vibe that goes beyond rhythmic rhyming. In the following excerpt, Chuck D (not too surprisingly) casts his impending confrontation of a hostile power structure in a prophetic light:

So I pray

I pray everyday

I do and praise Jah the maker

Looking for culture

I got but not here

From Jah maker

Pushin' and shakin' the structure

Bringin' down the Babylon,

Hearin' the sucker

That makes it hard for the brown..."

It's almost impossible to describe how those lines, which read like they wouldn't flow at all, actually spill out of Chuck D's mouth in a completely natural, listenable way, with that same sense of mission and authority which informs all of his best work. Chuck D's delivery here, and the fact that the PE song so boldly references Hayes' song, reminds the listener of the tremendous importance and influence of the Black American tradition of testifying and signifying; it's that same oral tradition of offering testimony and referencing earlier work which binds Isaac Hayes, Chuck D, and other tuned-in artists in a way that runs much deeper than clever turns of phrase, well-placed samples, or a hooky chorus.

Of course, songwriter Jimmy Webb (himself a preacher's son and no stranger to oral traditions) and his beautiful piece are also central to all of this business. I've always loved the opening lyrics to "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", which paint a scenario that leaves you wanting to learn more:

By the time I get to Phoenix, she'll be rising

She'll find the note I left hangin' on her door

She'll laugh when she reads the part that says I'm leavin'

'Cause I've left that girl so many times before..."

This is Webb at his best. His unique imagery ("Wichita Lineman", "Macarthur Park", "Up, Up, and Away") and master craftsmanship have influenced countless songwriters, and his work has also inspired thoughtful reflection by fellow artists and fans of all genres, as evidenced in Isaac Hayes' work. In turn, the work of Hayes and Public Enemy continues to impact and influence artists of all kinds, as well. It's a fitting full circle for Webb, who, though not primarily known as an R&B songwriter, received priceless songwriting training in the early Motown camp.

A larger-scale full circle also emerged when in 1992, a year after the release of Public Enemy's "By the Time I Get to Arizona", and 24 years after Isaac Hayes marched with Dr. King, the state of Arizona decided to join 44 other states in recognizing the holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.





Nazis, Nostalgia, and Critique in Taika Waititi's 'Jojo Rabbit'

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze with Jojo Rabbit: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves.


Why I Did Not Watch 'Hamilton' on Disney+

Just as Disney's Frozen appeared to deliver a message of 21st century girl power, Hamilton hypnotizes audiences with its rhyming hymn to American exceptionalism.


LA Popsters Paper Jackets Deliver a Message We Should Embrace (premiere + interview)

Two days before releasing their second album, LA-based pop-rock sextet Paper Jackets present a seemingly prescient music video that finds a way to ease your pain during these hard times.


'Dancing After TEN' Graphic Memoir Will Move You

Art dances with loss in the moving double-memoir by comics artists Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing After TEN.


Punk Rock's WiiRMZ Rage at the Dying of the Light on 'Faster Cheaper'

The eight songs on WiiRMZ's Faster Cheaper are like a good sock to the jaw, bone-rattling, and disorienting in their potency.


Chris Stamey Paints in "A Brand-New Shade of Blue" (premiere + interview)

Chris Stamey adds more new songs for the 20th century with his latest album, finished while he was in quarantine. The material comes from an especially prolific 2019. "It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time," he says.


Willie Nelson Surveys His World on 'First Rose of Spring'

Country legend Willie Nelson employs his experience on a strong set of songs to take a wide look around him.


Gábor Lázár Is in Something of a Holding Pattern on 'Source'

Experimental electronic artist Gábor Lázár spins his wheels with a new album that's intermittently exciting but often lacking in variety.


Margo Price Is Rumored to Be the New Stevie Nicks

Margo Price was marketed as country rock because of her rural roots. But she was always more rock than country, as one can hear on That's How Rumors Get Started.


DMA'S Discuss Their Dancier New Album 'The Glow'

DMA'S lead-singer, Tommy O'Dell, discusses the band's new album The Glow, and talks about the dancier direction in their latest music.


The Bacon Brothers Deliver Solemn Statement With "Corona Tune" (premiere + interview)

Written and recorded during the 2020 quarantine, "Corona Tune" exemplifies the Bacon Brothers' ability to speak to the gravity of the present moment.


Garage Rockers the Bobby Lees Pay Tribute to "Wendy" (premiere)

The Bobby Lees' "Wendy" is a simmering slice of riot 'n' roll that could have come from the garage or the gutter but brims with punk attitude.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.