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‘Shaft’ With No Isaac Hayes? Heir, Studio Debate New Film’s Music

Hayes' son wanted to license unreleased tracks, but the filmmakers went with a score using the original theme and music based on Hayes' sound.

The son of the legendary Isaac Hayes is upset that there are no original Hayes tracks in the new “Shaft” movie, calling its soundtrack album “a cultural disaster.”

New Line Cinema, which made the movie — starring Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree and Jessie T. Usher as three generations of the Shaft family — insists that there is Hayes music all over the movie and soundtrack, even if no original tracks were licensed from the Hayes estate.

Isaac Hayes won a Best Song Oscar for his “Shaft” theme, written in 1971 for the original movie with Roundtree as a Harlem private eye. His score was also nominated, won two Grammys and launched an entire genre of blaxploitation movie soundtracks including Curtis Mayfield’s “Super Fly” and Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man.”

Hayes contributed a song to the 1972 sequel, “Shaft’s Big Score,” and re-recorded his original theme for director John Singleton’s 2000 reboot of the series with Jackson. He also starred in and scored two other 1970s action films, “Three Tough Guys” and “Truck Turner,” and is widely regarded as one of the seminal influences on soul and R&B music of that era. He died in 2008.

Isaac Hayes III went public with his complaints on Saturday (podcast here). He told Variety earlier this week that he “wanted to produce the new ‘Shaft’ soundtrack” and that he had been in discussions with the film’s producers and the studio as far back as 2015 when it was first announced.

“Isaac Hayes’ music is very lucrative in the world of hip-hop and samples,” the younger Hayes said, pointing out the recent success of songs like Alessia Cara’s “Here,” Beyoncé’s “6 Inch” and Kodak Black’s “Transportin’,” all of which are built on Hayes samples.

In addition, the Hayes estate contains “hundreds of unreleased masters, all these dope songs, mainly instrumental,” he said. “So much of ‘Shaft’ is the music,” he added. “It’s my job, running my father’s estate, to further the brand. But with ‘Shaft,’ it would also be great marketing. How do you put out a ‘Shaft’ soundtrack without Isaac Hayes?”

Hayes III visited the Atlanta set throughout filming and had numerous discussions with studio music execs, both sides confirm. Ultimately, no deal was made, and the soundtrack album (on the WaterTower Music label) contains a new end-title song by Quavo, “Too Much Shaft,” as well as nine older songs and more than half an hour of the score by Christopher Lennertz.

New Line declined to make executives available for this story, but sources close to the studio contend that, says one, “there was a good-faith effort to make something happen” with the Hayes material.

Regarding the unreleased Hayes masters, studio music sources say there were no “full length songs, only very short, raw, unfinished instrumental studio outtakes that did not work as stand-alone cues” and that Hayes was “welcomed and encouraged” to send other “finished songs” for consideration.

New Line execs also dispute Hayes’ charge that he was given “no seat at the table.” Rather, one source responds: “He was engaged, and they listened to him throughout the process, but ultimately it didn’t work out because what he was offering did not coincide with the creative direction of the movie.”

“At the end of the day it definitely wasn’t monetary,” Hayes III told Variety, “it was more about the culture of this film.” A source inside New Line said that director Tim Story “curated the songs for the soundtrack… to embody the character of John Shaft over the years, the music he would most listen to and identify with.”

Shaft 2019
CREDIT: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Composer Lennertz said that Story always insisted on returning to the patented “Shaft” sound as created by Hayes for the ’71 classic: the hi-hat cymbals, the wah-wah guitar, the rat-a-tat brass. “The studio was 100% behind keeping that classic ’70s vibe and using Isaac’s theme,” Lennertz said.

“I listened to that soundtrack over and over to understand how the orchestrations and arrangements worked, how he harmonized the guitar parts and all those things that were so iconic to his style. We spent weeks just getting that sound right,” Lennertz added, saying their efforts went as far as examining period footage of Hayes performances to determine what amps and wah-wah pedals were used.

“We were into this over a year ago,” Lennertz said. “We all wanted to do it justice and pay it the most respect.” Lennertz’s score makes musical reference not only to the main “Shaft” theme but also to instrumental sounds Hayes created for the ’71 film. “We pulled out iconic motives to pepper throughout the score, to feel like it’s a part of the whole Shaft universe. More modern, urban elements” are featured for the character of JJ (Usher), the newest Shaft.

So while there is no actual Hayes track in the movie, New Line’s position is that the Hayes sound and style is omnipresent. (Neither the third film, “Shaft in Africa,” nor the 1973 “Shaft” TV series featured original Hayes music either, although the theme was regularly heard throughout the TV episodes as arranged by Johnny Pate.)

Fans missing the authentic Hayes touch can content themselves with a new album: Craft Recordings has issued a two-disc “Shaft” set featuring both the original Hayes album and the rarely heard original film tracks, which Hayes recorded in L.A. before returning to Memphis to re-do the best material for his album.

As Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson writes in his new liner notes for the set: “‘Shaft’ did many things. What it did, most of all, was cement the relationship between African-American movies and African-American music. Every blaxploitation film that followed, whether it was a straight crime story, a feminist rewrite, a comedy or even a horror movie, had an accompanying soundtrack by an artist trying to put the black experience on wax.”

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