The Long Read: Isaac Hayes - Hot Buttered Soul
Words by Evan Musgrave
The Long Read delves into the creative process behind those classic records. Without a further ado...
For our first Long Read Evan Musgrave takes us deep into the funk and soul classic Hot Buttered Soul, by Isaac Hayes. Hayes' debut solo effort that would influence popular black culture and provide inspiration to everyone from George Clinton to Outkast.
Hot Buttered Soul feels unconventional no matter what way you look at it: four tracks with an average time of over eleven minutes, a full eight and a half minutes of its running time comprised of a monologue, and much of the rest taken up with loose wails over flowing funk solos. It involves the kind of experimentation that wouldn’t seem amiss from a random Soundcloud artist whose production costs and reputation are practically zero and hence has nothing to lose. To release an album like this at a time when the cost of production and distribution was so burdensome is a marvel of understanding and cooperation between artist and label. The world was however only greeted to this masterful work by virtue of a peculiar chain of events which hastened Hayes into the studio to record his second album on the back of his debut being a complete flop. The legendary Stax Records had just sold its back catalogue to Atlantic and lost its leading star, Otis Redding, to a plane crash. In an act of apparent desperation, Stax ordered all artists signed to the label to produce albums to be released suddenly en masse. Enter the backup singer, the studio session band, the big idea.
It’s difficult to go into any detail in writing about the music of this album. Trying to come up with written phrases to describe the swells of emotion conveyed over the course of HBS’s four songs - and especially its opening number, the majestic, ‘Walk On By’ - is like trying to turn oneself into an iceberg in order to be able to fully comprehend the waves of the Atlantic. Even if you could, at the end of the day all you’ll produce for others to see is an awkward, superficial blob, while the real significance lies unseen below the surface, impossible to configure with the naked eye.
Perhaps it’s best to start with some observations and work one’s way along. HBS was the album that started to pull the embattled Stax label from its nadir and it was achieved by allowing a relative unknown to take control of the studio and assume the role of auteur. It was a bold choice and it was even more boldly executed. Despite it being one of the most influential soul albums ever, having influenced innumerable audacious LPs since, the fact remains that hardly any other album in the genre is as defiantly unique, and hardly any other soul album received such a heavy personal stamp from the dude’s name written on the album cover. As well as this, the actual songs – two of them cover versions – detail the throes of romantic passion with stark delivery and feel consistently inspired in its layered musical approach. “If you see me / walking down the street / And I start to cry / Each time we meet / Then walk on by / Walk on By / Walk on By” – Hayes sings this phrase to his absent ex-girl in such a lengthened, wobbling manner that it’s not only as if he penned the lyrics himself originally, but as if he were speaking them for the first time there and then. The vocals sound like a man having truly walked through the doldrums, both in his romantic and professional life. Now given his chance to return, he’s only going to do it if he can do it 100% his own way. Hayes’s take on Burt Bacharach’s original song is the first hint that this album will speaketh the whole truth and nothing but the truth according to Isaac Hayes. Like the album as a whole, it’s beautifully defiant, and defiant in its beauty.
The exceptionally harmonious female backing singers bring out the perfection of pain in Hayes’s vocal delivery. He bellows out his hurt, getting more extreme as he repeats his obstinate message to the point where the song fizzles out into a glorious five a half minutes of ascending horn sounds and experimental solos, as keys and guitar seemingly try to outdo each other. ‘Walk On By’ is an exercise in musical repetition; riffs and hooks appear dozens upon dozens of times per song, the vocals are loose and unpredictable, and the song is long enough to make the dramatic chord changes and vocal ticks surprising even after many listens. It’s hard to pin down. It’s like the music is a constant flowing backdrop for Hayes’s precarious soul to take a ride on.
‘Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic’ switches things up, as the album segues into a rawer funk style that would end up highly influential on the likes of George Clinton and Sly and The Family Stone in the years to come. An innovative title in its own right, it’s surely the inspiration for titles without spaces in black music, such as Outkast’s seminal southern hip-hop album Southernplayalistikcadilacmusik. Though this track showcases Hayes’s wry lyrical approach - as he throws out comically convoluted sentences, sometimes using gibberish words, reflecting the title (“My gastronomical stupensity / Is really satisfied when you’re loving me”) – this song is a Bar-Kays tour de force. The producer, Al Bell, comes into his own here in coordinating a fantastic experimental section during the latter half of the song, featuring thumping piano lines and a funky bassline that wouldn’t seem at all amiss in an electro song.
In this context, ‘One Woman’ seems rather anomalous as a relatively conventional track. This is not to say it’s straightforward or perfunctory however. It’s conservative only in relative terms. At over five minutes, it’s by far the shortest on the album, but is still a good bit too long for regular radio play. Like ‘Walk On By’, the sheer compatibility of lead singer, backing vocalists and band is simply stunning. The sound of this touching ballad is decidedly maximalist too; Hayes reaches into the back crevices of his lungs to bring a powerful soaring voice screaming out, while the string section rings out in overdrive.
This full-bodied sound makes for a nice entry point to the severely contrasted minimalism of ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ – a song which clocks in at almost nineteen minutes and which is certainly the most out there statement on the album, not to mention in Hayes’s career and probably has a claim to one of soul music’s most successfully wrought alternative songs. In the opening eight-and-a-half minute monologue section we witness the invention of the loverman archetype in soul music, as refined by Barry White and Marvin Gaye. Even with its extraordinary length, there is no sense of filler in the song. Hayes is in no rush to cut to the chase. He establishes a narrative about a broken-hearted man with an astounding level of detail. Just in case the listener needed any confirmation, this section tells you that this is an album created for careful, long listening. Half way through the track, the sullen, single keyboard notes step up a notch and the organ enters, just at the point where Hayes, finally, breaks into actual song again. It’s a masterstroke. Hayes makes a cover song his own by taking the time to literally tell you the backstory of the protagonist as conceived by him.
To call upon Outkast once more - an act whose debt to Hayes probably still remains a tad under-reported – the duo’s alternative hip-hop masterpiece ‘Spottieottiedopalicious’ seems to draw on the textured lengthiness of the tracks on Hot Buttered Soul. ‘Spottie’ is a sprawling seven minute downtempo soul-funk track which features Andre 3000 and Big Boi delivering free verse lyrics about the conception of a child, while a catchy horn section is repeated throughout. You can imagine Isaac listening to it and responding with an emphatic bald-headed nod.
Perhaps more than anything, this album gives tangible proof to the idea that a musical artist can pursue their own vision to the fullest and have it end up a critical and commercial triumph. Hot Buttered Soul paid absolutely no attention to the three minute pop song formula and in the process outsold countless artists who pegged their musical philosophy to the very notion of this formula in order to gain an audience. It’s such a moving and endearing album because it’s a profound expression of personal will. This is also why it’s so influential on hip-hoppers. It shows how the game can be changed when the rules are disregarded - this is one of the central principles of hip hop and indeed a major reason for its continuing cultural relevance.
Indeed part of the thrill for a modern listener experiencing the album is the influence of the likes of ‘Walk On By’ on hip-hop artists. Its component parts may well be familiar to those who’ve never heard the song before. Juxtaposed in different settings, such as the flange guitar stroke which crops up in Biggie’s ‘Warning’, and the badass funk riff which forms the central musical hook of Compton’s Most Wanted’s ‘Hood Took Me Under’, Hot Buttered Soul, like many great soul works, lives on and on again through the magic of sampling. Sampling involves taking what’s not really yours and making it into your own personal statement – an act of theft that is only permissible when the pursuit is centred on creating a piece of artistic beauty. Artistic beauty depends on your interpretation, but the intent must be authentic.
The influence of Isaac Hayes on later black music artists is profound. Like an iceberg, there’s always more than we can imagine below the surface. The cooler it is, the deeper that shit goes. Only a few months before the release of HBS, James Brown had said he was black and proud and this album treads similar ground. Cultural theorist Alice Echols has remarked on the album cover, pointing out how the gold chain and bare chest image displayed by Hayes became the norm for hip hop artists twenty years later. Perhaps more immediately significant, however, was what took up the majority of the cover – Isaac’s bald head. It ties in perfectly with the bare emotion of the album and the raw pride Hayes had in his own skin – a controversial statement at the time indeed. The image of his shaved head, as Hayes proudly said, was “as black as you can get”.