Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Who Is the Man?

By Matt Hanks

MARCH 9, 1998:  It’s 11:30 a.m. in New York City, nearly lunch time for most people, but Isaac Hayes sounds like he just rolled out of bed. At first, I’m concerned.

Flyer: How are you, Mr. Hayes?

Hayes: Mmmm [long pause] I’m okay. How you doin’?

Flyer: Just fine. Is everything all right?

Hayes: Yeah, yeah, I just got off the air. Sometimes it hits me and I get a little sleepy, you know?

Flyer: I hear ya’. So, you’re doing a daily radio show, right?

Hayes: Every day. 6 to 10 in the morning.

Flyer: What station is it?

Hayes: 98.7 Kiss FM.

Flyer: And is it strictly music, or are there talk-show segments too?

Hayes: It’s mostly music, you know, classic soul and today’s R&B. Sometimes we do other things – certain features – but it’s mostly music.

As the small talk continues, I’m reminded that Hayes’ lethargy is as much a product of his persona as his busy schedule. I’ve got Black Moses on the line. How else is he supposed to sound? This is one of Memphis’ most famous sons – a songwriter, recording artist, actor, humanitarian, radio personality, Scientologist, and South Park resident. Over the next hour we discuss all of these roles, and I’m reminded that a man’s worth is measured not by what he says, but what he does. And Isaac Hayes, 55, does it all.

Flyer: So, let’s talk about South Park. How did Trey Parker and Matt Stone [show creators] pitch the idea of Chef to you?

Hayes: Well, you know, my agent didn’t quite tell me what it was about, he was a bit nebulous. So I said, “What is it about then?”

He said, “Well, it’s kinda on the edge. Why don’t you come up to the studio and meet with the creators.”

So I got up there and [Parker and Stone] said, “We really want you to do this, you’re just so perfect for the part [of Chef].”

So they handed me a script and I said, “Are you guys serious [laughs]?” I said, “Either you’re mad or you’re very smart.” I said, “You guys are just crazy enough to count me in.” And that’s how it all started. I laughed my head off. I realized you can get away with all kinds of stuff with this thing, but when you look at it, it’s only about little boys with nasty mouths.

For the uninitiated, South Park is the hottest thing to hit popular culture since, well, at least since Party of Five. Though barely a dozen episodes of this bizarro-world cartoon have aired, South Park has proved funnier than The Simpsons, dumber than Beavis and Butt-head, and potentially more successful than both. The show’s crowning achievement thus far is last year’s Christmas episode. “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo” garnered the highest ratings in the history of the Comedy Central network, and galvanized a nation of vacationing college students like an expertly rolled joint.

Since then the South Park publicity and merchandising machine has kicked into high gear. Rolling Stone and Spin both featured the cartoon on their covers last month, and there’s nary a mall in America that doesn’t carry (and sell, by the truckload) a bevy of South Park gear. Show creators Parker, 28, and Stone, 26, are already fending off other network bids and wading through a deluge of movie offers.

Flyer: Are you surprised by South Park’s success?

Hayes: I’m stunned. [South Park] is everywhere, and the guys that don’t have cable, they feel badly left out. You know, when I took the job it was so crazy that I didn’t think it would catch on like it has. Nobody did. It caught us all by surprise. I mean, you go here, you go there, you meet people of all walks of life, and everybody loves it. Old people they love it, kids they love it, Wall Street-types they love it, everybody loves it. It’s a big winner.

Ostensibly, South Park’s winning formula draws on a skewed telling of the elementary-school experience in Anywhere, USA (more precisely, Colorado). The show revolves around the travails of four main characters – Stan the mildly conscientious and intelligent kid, Kyle the sensitive Jewish kid, Cartman the obese, single-parented, obsessive-compulsive kid, and Kenny the fiscally challenged, perpetually hooded, death-wish kid. The lads are united in their love of ethnic slurs, violence, and toilet humor (in a nice turn of self-deprecation, their own favorite program is the Terrence and Phillip show, a cartoon within a cartoon that features only one joke – farts!).

This posse of third-graders do their best to dodge the twisted agendas of South Park’s adults – its parents, its teachers, its politicians. At times it seems the only person over 10 that the boys can trust is Chef, head of the South Park school cafeteria. Chef isn’t without his quirks. He has a curious penchant for Salisbury steak and UFOs, and a ravenous sexual appetite (much of which is focused on the lovely and talented Kathie Lee Gifford). But in a town where Jesus hosts a cable access show, Scuzzlebutt – a mythical creature with a celery stick for an arm and Patrick Duffy for a leg – roams the hills, and Kenny suffers a violent demise on a daily basis, Chef is a positively sane voice of reason. Sometimes Chef’s voice takes flight in the form of mature-audiences-only love ballads, but more often than not, this dropout from the Love Man School of R&B is quick with a wise word for the boys.

Flyer: Did you have any input in creating Chef’s character?

Hayes: Matt and Trey had a pretty good idea of what they wanted Chef to be.

Flyer: How about Chef’s dialogue? Do you make any suggestions or do you read straight off a script?

Hayes: I record the voice-overs here in the studio. They’re in L.A. and I’m in New York. Matt or Trey is on the other end, and they direct me. Sometimes they give me a little freedom to do what I want to do, sometimes they want it a certain way. I give them different reads on it, you know. Basically, it just works.

Flyer: Do you write Chef’s songs?

Hayes: Sometimes I can ad-lib on a song, but [Matt and Trey] always have a basic idea of what they want, and I try and deliver.

Flyer: So, how much do you share with your character? Chef seems awfully interested in UFOs and Kathie Lee Gifford. Are these interests based in reality?

Hayes: [laughs] Well, I think there are UFOs out there. We can’t be that arrogant and naive to think we’re the only ones in the universe. They’re out there somewhere. They’ve already been here, probably.

Flyer: And how about Kathie Lee?

Hayes: I was on the [Regis and Kathie Lee] show once. I like Kathie Lee a lot. She’s been very good to me. She likes music and romantic songs, and, you know, she sings, so we just hit it off really well. She’s a nice person, and so is Regis for that matter. I’ve been kind of apprehensive to talk to her since we’ve aired that episode [titled “Weight Gain 4000,” during which Kathie Lee visits South Park for an awards presentation and Chef gives her “sweet lovin’”]. She’s had her share of problems the past few months, so it’s best to just let it lie, I think.

Flyer: Do you think Chef is a good role model for the kids in South Park?

Hayes: Sure. Kids have questions about life, you know, like cloning, or marriage, or sexuality [all of which are concerns for the South Park kids]. When issues like that come up, kids want to know. And kids do have mothers that say stupid things [in the “Volcano” episode, before Cartman embarks on a hunting trip, his mother warns him not to wipe his butt with poison ivy when he goes to the bathroom]. It’s like the Christmas show [which dealt with Kyle’s confusion about Judaism and the holiday season]. This kid being a Jew, it might be kinda weird for him. And then there are some moral issues that are raised here. It’s all explained with rib tickles but, it’s there – racial prejudices, gay issues. These things come out, and kids, they want to know “why this, why that?” It’s just so funny. It’s a cockeyed approach to things that happen in the neighborhood.

Cartoons and radio shows aren’t the only roles that Hayes is juggling these days. With recent high-profile voice-overs for Pepsi and Burger King campaigns, a couple of movies in the can, and a new album in the works, he’s waging a comeback of Travoltan proportions. He credits his resurgence to one thing – Scientology. Wrongfully or not, Scientology is often maligned as a faux-faith for the rich and famous. Subsequently, many of the religion’s higher-profile proselytes are reluctant to discuss their beliefs. Not Isaac Hayes. When I ask him about his involvement with Scientology, the lazy swagger in his voice gives way to scarcely contained glee.

Flyer: How did you first become involved with Scientology?

Hayes: I was slated to do a movie in L.A. at this particular church facility, but I got stranded in Africa, so I had to do a pickup shot later. The producer was livid, he said, “This man will never work in this town again.” But what he didn’t realize is that in Third World countries sometimes schedules aren’t met, more often that not, actually. So it was not my fault.

Flyer: Wait a minute. What were you doing in Africa?

Hayes: I was in Africa because I was being installed as a king in Ghana. Public Enemy happened to be over there, and they attended my ceremony. It was great; beautiful place, beautiful people, and I mean, I’m a king! By the way, I’m building a school over in Ghana too. Part of my responsibility as King is to take care of the area over where I was installed. I put in a [Scientology] study technology over there, and each year we will annex the school with computers and other things.

Flyer: You were explaining about your introduction to Scientology.

Hayes: Yeah. So, another movie came along that was supposed to film at this same church. So I asked a brother, Reverend Alfreddie Johnson, “What is all this church business?”

He said, “Brother, this is a place full of wonders. Our people use this technology [a common term for Scientology doctrine] to take control of their lives.” And then he started explaining to me what the technology was.

So, I talked to the vice president of this particular chapter, and I started asking the hard questions, you know. “Scientology, that’s all that Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard business. I hear you guys brainwash people, you all take folks’ money.”

But she was cool. She said, “Look, that’s just what you’ve heard.” She convinced me to take a course called “The Ups and Downs of Life.” So I took the course, and completed an essay for it, and I was blown away. But I tried to play it cool, so I was like, “Okay, I’ll take another [course].” The second course I took was called “Personal Values and Integrity,” and at that point I knew I was about to become a Scientologist.

When I learned how powerful this technology was, I knew I had to be a part of it. These were the tools that I had been looking for, to improve my life and other people’s lives. I joined the Church and I’ve been proud of it ever since.

Flyer: And you credit all your recent success to Scientology?

Hayes: Absolutely. L. Ron Hubbard was just such a genius, such a great man. He developed technology for everything in your life. In other words, Scientology is the key to life and total freedom. The minute that I started doing these courses and things, I started pulling in all kinds of wonderful jobs. It’s the key to my survival. Knowledge about one’s self is always the key to one’s survival. And I learned so much, I was so enlightened.

I’ve been disseminating this information to everyone I can. You see, you don’t have to join the Church of Scientology or become a member. Scientology is non-denominational. It’s a religious philosophy. I just think people need to look at some alternatives as to how they seek to survive on this planet. If you look at the downward social spiral in our communities: the poverty, the crime, the violence, the homelessness, the hopelessness, the drugs, the illiteracy. Now, illiteracy is the most serious problem because that is the underpinning of the whole scheme of things. L. Ron developed a studying and learning technology that is second to none. When it’s applied right, you get positive results. That’s the wonderful thing about Scientology – it really works. Even if you don’t believe it, just take the steps and you’ll find that it will work in spite of your beliefs.

Literacy is an issue that Hayes is passionate about. A couple years ago that passion got him into some hot water when, in his role as international spokesperson for the World Literacy Crusade, he tried to install a pilot program in a Memphis city school that was partially based on Scientology technology. Flags went up at the city schools superintendent’s office and at The Commercial Appeal, and the program was quickly suspended. The suspension came as a blow to Hayes, but he still believes he was in the right.

Hayes: I feel so fulfilled with my position as [World Literacy Crusade] spokesperson, because I’ve seen results. I’ve seen inner-city lives change when people get a handle on things and know what they’re doing. It’s just frustrating when you hear about all the problems and violence in the inner cities and you know they could have been avoided if only [they] had the tech[nology]. So, regardless of the bad rap that Scientology has received, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to this planet. Mankind just hasn’t caught up with it yet, and they haven’t realized the benefits therein. You learn so much about yourself, about your mind, about your spirit and when you’re ethical, and you do the right thing, your whole environment changes. Suddenly you’re in the right place. I could sit here all day and talk to you about it.

Flyer: Well, let’s talk a little bit more about the Literacy Crusade in Memphis. How did all the bad publicity that it received affect you personally?

Hayes: It was a travesty. I mean I didn’t lose, but the kids and the community did, because I couldn’t get any help from anyone. You know, I tried to talk to the superintendent of the Board of Education [Gerry House], and she wouldn’t return my calls. She ignored me. But we go to other cities, other places, and people are completely open to what we’re doing.

The sad thing in Memphis was that nobody stood up and came to bat to save this thing. I met with the editors of The Commercial Appeal and begged them, “Don’t do this, because the kids are the ones that are gonna suffer. Don’t listen to some canned, country whitest network with a bad track record, bad ethics and all the rest.” I said, “Go out and look at our program and get you some data. Don’t go on hearsay, you’re supposed to do responsible reporting. Go out and talk to the people whose lives have changed from receiving this technology, that’s who you need to talk to.”

They didn’t do that. They went on and slammed the project. But that’s okay, I told them I’d be back. And Lisa Marie [Presley], a former Memphian [and fellow Scientologist], she realized what was needed in this city just like I did. So Lisa Marie and I decided to put a mission in Memphis [the Church of Scientology on Central]. And when we did, people came. And we’re gonna work hard to keep it open because it’s bringing some good things to the community. It’s enlightening people and that is wonderful.

Anything that’s gonna help people regardless of religion, you ought to pay attention to it. People [in Memphis] were so caught up and insecure about labels. The thing you should worry about is the effect on people who are denied these opportunities of enlightenment. You know, if my house is on fire and my kid is trapped up on the third floor, do you think I care about who saves my child? Do you think I give a damn what religion they are? As long as they’re qualified to save my child, that’s what I want them to do. And that’s what we do, we save lives. We’ve taken people off skid row, we’ve gotten them off drugs. It’s amazing what this technology does.

Flyer: But don’t you think the school system and The Commercial Appeal had a right to be concerned about issues of church and state?

Hayes: That’s hogwash. You know, it had nothing to do with that. There are some educational districts in this country that use it [Scientologist technology]. There are some black women in Miami, Florida, who have a program running after school and they’re getting great results. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, there’s a school branch there that’s using it. I could name district after district in city after city, but in my own hometown where I’ve got relatives, kids, grandkids, and so forth. … I want them to have a chance. I want other people to have a chance as well. If you’ve got something good, you shouldn’t hold it in. We know it works, and we want to share our knowledge. I look at the statistics about crime in Memphis, that doesn’t make me feel good. When you know you have the key to turning that situation around but that key is turned down due to some kind of phobia – “oh, we’re afraid of Scientology blah, blah, blah” – no, I won’t accept that. This technology is secular. You don’t have to become a Scientologist to use it. It just happens that it was developed by L. Ron Hubbard.

Before Isaac Hayes was an amorous Chef or a crusading Scientologist, he was a musician. Still is. Perhaps more than any other individual, Hayes helped build the legacy of the Stax record label and studio. With David Porter he penned some of the label’s best-loved sides (“Hold On! I’m Comin’,” “Soul Man”), and as a solo artist he recorded its best-selling albums (Hot Buttered Soul, Shaft). Not surprisingly, he mourns the demolition of one of Memphis’ greatest musical landmarks as if he built the studio himself. In some ways he did.

Flyer: I wrote a story a couple years ago on the demolition of Stax studio …

Hayes: Which was stupid.

Flyer: Well, I wanted to ask how you felt about that?

Hayes: It’s a travesty. Why would they [the Southside Church of God in Christ, owners of the property at College and McLemore where Stax studio once stood] want to do that? It’s a legacy. It’s a landmark. It’s translated what our music was and is. What kind of thinking process was involved there?

Flyer: The thing that gets me is that it’s just a vacant lot now.

Hayes: Exactly. They could have done so many other things with it. It could have been a tourist attraction, it could be educational. They could have done a lot of things. They could have done mock-up sessions. They could have educated people.

Flyer: So you think it would have been successful if they turned it into a museum?

Hayes: Sure. It could have made money and the neighborhood could have really benefited from it. That neighborhood could have really turned around.

All the music that came out of that place I just don’t know how that happened. I wasn’t in town [in 1989] when all of that was happening, but if I was I would have been out there sitting or chained to a fence protesting. It’s such a shame. [Stax] meant so much to the city, not to mention the country and really the whole world.

Maybe even more than South Park.

Cartoons: The Rock-and-Roll of the ’90s

The idea of a cultural zeitgeist is as old as the ages, but the latter half of this century has seen that zeitgeist change guard more rapidly than any other time in human history. There are several explanations for this rapid turnaround, but in my own reductionist mind, all signs point to one thing – rock-and-roll. Rock held the pop-culture pole position for the better part of two decades (making a brief pit stop from relevancy in the late Fifties while Elvis joined the service and jokers like Pat Boone and Fabian washed the windows and rotated the tires). Just as importantly, it created a template for sanctioned rebellion that will never go vacant. In other words, rock-and-roll was the rock-and-roll of the Fifties and Sixties, whereas politics was the rock-and-roll of the Seventies, and money (or maybe stand-up comedy) was the rock-and-roll of the Eighties. And every few years, a new set of pop stars is christened; from John Lennon to Richard Nixon to Ivan Boesky. Forever and ever, amen.

But how about the Nineties? Early on in the decade, Kurt Cobain threatened to reclaim the top spot for rock, only to hit the third-turn wall and go down in a fiery blaze. Until very recently (say, since Monica Lewinsky became a household name), politics has faltered too. And after the S&L crisis, money decided it could do without all this zeitgeist business. But you can always bet on money to show.

So, what’s left? Oddly enough, cartoons. When the “Those Crazy Nineties” DVD compilation is released shortly after the millennium, it will likely draw more from the collected works of The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-head, Ren and Stimpy, King of the Hill, and yes, South Park, than from any would-be rock star, crooked politician, or money grubber who shared the same space in time. Like it or not, we’re living in an animated golden age.

The cartoon’s rise to cultural prominence is hardly a stretch. With MTV looking – more than ever – like Saturday-morning television (Spice Girls, Hanson, Puff Daddy …), and Clinton/Gore bearing at least a passing resemblance to Mr. Garrison/Mr. Hat, we might as well hedge our bets and opt for the “real” thing.

But if cartoons are the rock-and-roll of the Nineties, then South Park is the Iggy and the Stooges of cartoons. When the Stooges laid waste to nearly every remaining rock taboo in the late Sixties, rock had no choice but to start reacting to itself. And if you don’t see the problem there, I’ve got two words for you – “American Pie.” Likewise, after Cartman finds himself looking down the business end of an alien anal probe, and Mr. Hankey leaves his, uh, stain on the Christmas season, what’s left? Say what you will about South Park, but consider yourself warned – it’s all downhill from here.

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