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The Boston Phoenix Shafted

The baddest "theme from" ever

By Alex Pappademas

JULY 24, 2000:  I'm not psyched, exactly, that John Singleton has remade Gordon Parks's 1972 black-private-dick flick Shaft. I don't doubt Sam Jackson's ability to risk his Armani-sheathed neck for his brother man, and I don't have a purist objection to the revisiting itself. It's just that though the original Shaft may be the flagship of its genre, as blaxploitation goes it's a clunker, no match for Foxy Brown's Technicolor seaminess or the surreal sociological sting of The Mack. Ex-model Richard Roundtree kicks impressive game to the ladies, throws guys out of windows capably, and looks good in a leather trenchcoat, but that doesn't stop me from dozing whenever they show it on TNT.

Shaft the movie is really just one long music cue for Isaac Hayes's "Theme from Shaft," a resplendent piece of Cinemascope funk that is perhaps the greatest "theme from" anything ever. The rest of Hayes's big score is fly but flyweight Hollywood soul -- aside from the almost side-long freakout "Do Your Thing," it misses the vast richness of '70s Hayes albums like To Be Continued, where the songs (often mild material like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix") are friends Hayes brings to the party, loses track of in a haze of Hendrix-on-Hennessy extemporaneity, then bumps into hours later, when it's time to drive home.

But "Theme from Shaft" itself is a great soundtrack song and a great piece of modern folk-hero mythology (pantheon-wise, John Shaft now ranks with Stagger Lee, A Boy Named Sue, and Redman's "Sooperman Lover"). It's a great New York song, too, a drolly sexy epic of crosstown-traffic tension and Gershwin-esque scope. It's gritty and strangely delicate at the same time: cutting hi-hats and an eager graffiti scrawl of wocka-wocka rhythm guitar give way to colossal piano notes that open canyons in the sidewalk. Flutes and strings trace the skyline, then the whole orchestra starts to swoop and stab. Behind Hayes's rap, the music breaks into a confident stride, just as Roundtree himself presses through Times Square's human traffic in the movie's opening credits.

The coda's syncopated string-section hits inspired countless marching bands to cover the "Theme" at football-game halftime shows in the '70s. "Theme from Shaft" also turns up as the funkiest song on innumerable easy-listening collections (seek out the renditions by the Cinema Soundstage Orchestra and 101 Strings, both of which seem to be performing the theme from "Shaft Rides in an Elevator"). There are jazz-funk versions by Bernard Purdie, Maynard Ferguson, and Joe Bataan. Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and the Chosen Few cut reggae versions; Stax Records' crack rhythm section, the Bar-Kays, cut a sequel ("Son of Shaft"). It's spawned parodies -- the Dead Milkmen did it as "Shaft in Greenland," Bart and Lisa Simpson did it in the karaoke lounge of a sushi bar (paving the way for Hayes's own animated role as South Park's Chef), and Jon & Ernest cut it up on their 1973 proto-Prince Paul interview-skit single "Superfly Meets Shaft." When Chuck D goes to court for beat larceny on Public Enemy's "Caught, Can I Get a Witness?", the rhythm guitar from "Theme from Shaft" is Exhibit A, boiled down to a six-note algebra problem by DJ Terminator X. On LL Cool J's "Get Down," the same lick sounds more like a breaking wave toying with swimmers. It's a measure of the song's strength -- and of the tongue-in-cheek quality it had to begin with -- that "Shaft" has lent kitsch value to commercials for Burger King, Nissan, and Pepsi ("Shaq!"), without losing its inestimable cool.

In other words, this is the song that won't cop out, which is why it's only fitting that the new Shaft soundtrack (LaFace/Arista) opens with a subtly Y2G-upgraded Hayes re-recording of the "Theme." The rest of the disc is an only-sorta-cohesive collection of velvet-appointed R&B and hip-hop thugsploitation. The Timbaland-curated Romeo Must Die soundtrack is both a bottomless fount of funky John Cage bubblegum and a bar raiser for the urban-flick-soundtrack sphere in general; the Shaft disc, by comparison, is a flossy brag book for LaFace's L.A. Reid, who was recently installed behind Clive Davis's old desk at Arista.

That said, the album's still rich in cool midsummer singles. R. Kelly's "Bad Man," his tightest-wrung ballad since Sparkle's "Be Careful" in '98, fuses pained ghetto shit and searing gospel with Mayfieldian flair; Angie Stone's "My Lovin' Will Give You Something" could be a lost Stereo MCs gem. And crunkadelic producers Organized Noize achieve Hayes-worthy breadth on Sleepy Brown's "Automatic," which is all stormy Clavinet keyboards, vulcanized-rubber wah-wah, and Dionysian flutes. But it's Dre from Outkast who emerges as the collection's complicated-est man. It takes a bad mutha to write a song about bubble baths and Blockbuster nights with wifey and call it "Tough Guy."

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