The new Shaft may look a little different — Samuel L. Jackson is replacing that original bad mutha, Richard Roundtree, as the title character in director John Singleton’s remake. But Shaft’s trademark theme, written and performed by soul man and ”South Park” voice Isaac Hayes, and included on the just released soundtrack, sounds almost exactly the same.
So much so, in fact, that EW reviewer Tom Sinclair calls the differences between the new Hayes version and his ’71 original — an Oscar winner for best song — ”so slight as to be all but theoretical.” And this is just how Hayes wants it. ”You can’t change the theme,” Hayes tells EW Online, scoffing at the notion of adding trendy rap cameos or dance club beats to the funk classic. ”We had to do it exactly as we did it before, because you don’t reinvent the wheel. The only thing different is that we used the new recording technology. And I knew that if we did it like that, it would be slamming.”
Though Hayes now embraces his signature song, there was a time when he didn’t feel so good about the tune. ”In the late ’70s I had had it up to here with all this ‘Shaft’ stuff,” says the 58 year old. ”I was like, ‘I hope nobody ever asks me about it again.”’ But Hayes changed his mind as he saw new generations of fans discovering the theme’s insistent soul groove. ”The hip hoppers started sampling it,” he explains, ”and I began to think that I should be grateful that the song is still around.”
Of course Hayes’ rich baritone — singing or just speaking — is in demand other places, too: Since 1997, he’s been the voice of ”South Park”’s Chef, who offers wise, sometimes raunchy advice to the kids of Comedy Central’s animated series. And last March, Hayes did a live reprise of ”The Theme from ‘Shaft”’ for the Academy Awards telecast — the same night that his colleagues from the movie ”South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” were up for a ’99 best original song Oscar.
These days Hayes accepts that the ”Shaft” theme is as much a calling card for him as it is for the fictional private dick. ”At every concert I have to do ‘Shaft,”’ he says. ”You mention ‘Shaft,’ and the next breath is Isaac Hayes. It’s synonymous.” And it sure beats only being known for the Chef’s ”Chocolate Salty Balls.”