The death of Isaac Hayes

You may want to curse, recoil or roll eyes when I tell you how I first came to Isaac Hayes. But I suspect it was like so many of my generation, drunk on Chuck D's new left escapism and the Bomb Squad's sample of"Hyperbolicsyllabicseequedalymystic." I spoke some the other day about how that song hit me, but there was another angle which I didn't really get into. In those days, older cats hated hip-hop, mostly because they felt it butchered the classics, and reduced the complexity of cats like Hayes to repetitive loops. You can't listen to Jay-Z's "Can I Live"--lovely as it is--and then listen to Hayes's reconstitution of "The Look Of Love" without sort of seeing their point.

Still, when I think of hip-hop and the art of sampling I think of that great Rakim line, "It'll answer your questions, if you understand the message." Those who understand the message know that hip-hop, at its Bomb Squad best, is a history of music. Whenever, I heard a great hip-hop track, my next question--always--was what was the sample. And then after tracking the sample and hearing it in its full context, I usually wanted to hear the whole album. And then, if I was truly taken, I'd move to the artist and his entire catalog.

That was how I came to love James Brown, to love Stax, and consequently, Isaac Hayes. There's something to be said for coming to an artist in that fashion, like falling for a beautiful woman you've only seen as a photo, and then falling again when you see her in the three-dimensional pulsing flesh. You get the initial, head-nod inducing thrill of the sample, and then you come back, hear the sample in context as it originally existed, and you get something deeper. Finally--if its actually a classic--you just take it all in as a great song. 


I came to Isaac Hayes from at least three angles. Hip-hop took me to his 70s joints which I kept on repeat during my early college years. Then hip-hop sent me to Stax (Marle Marl's "Symphony" to Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle"; Salt and Pepa's "Tramp" to Otis Redding and Carla Thomas's original.) I was down with that for awhile (Sam and Dave covering "Soothe Me", The Barkays "Holy Ghost" etc.) and then I found out that Issac Hayes had basically built Stax as a composer, years before he became a solo act. I count that as Hayes basically living three times. Once as a composer and producer, once as a solo act in his own right, and then again through hip-hop.

Anybody who reads this blog knows I love hip-hop, but I don't think there's any doubt that for all the greatness of Pete Rock, Rza, Premier, Kanye and Dre, we haven't produced anything like an Issac Hayes. That's not a completely fair comparison. The industry, in the latter part of the 20th century, was just vicious. So much so that I don't think an Issac Hayes was even possible. Maybe that's changing with stuff decentralizing. Outkast is about the only exception, I think.

Still the saddest thing, to me artistically, about Issac Hayes' death is that it's a reminder that a certain class of black artists--I'm talking James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and maybe ending with Prince--is starting to depart the scene. It's not that these guys are somehow superior to the folks I came up on. They just had so much more leeway. My one hope about music business having to cope with online, is that maybe that sort of broad individualism and experimentalism can make a return.