Isaac Hayes, Stax and Black Power

The recent death of Isaac Hayes has been reported in loads of blogs, but it seems the political aspect of his life has been a bit overlooked. The thing is, even though his political angle was far from controversial, I think it's interesting and well worth considering, even today. I might even have agreed with it.

Because it goes to the heart of the issue of race and cultural collaborations.

Stax records is legendary in part because it was the ultimate race-integrated collaboration. Its producers were defiantly cross-cultural, controversial during the tail-end of the segregationist era. Its house band, Booker T and the MGs, was perfectly 50/50 split between black and white musicians, with a black band leader. Everyone was working together and the result was some completely stunning work that ranks among the best soul of the 60s – not least on Isaac Hayes's production collaborations with David Porter. Isn't it marvellous to see the black Al Bell and Booker T Jones in that clip, perfectly gelling with the white Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunne? Doesn't that hit right at the spirit of Stax?

Isaac Hayes was the one who destroyed it.

Well, obviously, he wasn't alone. And although his lawsuit of the label in 1974 might have been the thing that pushed it over the edge of bankrupcy, the seeds of discord were sowed much earlier than that. When Al Bell took over half the label in 1970 Stax ended up splitting into separate camps, then falling apart altogether, along cracks that had started appearing several years earlier.

Because at some point in the late sixties Isaac Hayes started realising that the perfect race mix wasn't enough. He started asking questions like: who benefits from my music-making? Who earns the profits? Who, ultimately, decides? (This was around the time he was being most strongly hampered creatively by the rigid (though brilliant) "Stax Sound", so that probably has something to do with it.) Well, who made the profits, and who ultimately decided, were white people. No matter how independent and how "r&b" the label was, it was run by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. And with the widly successful tour of Europe in 1967, the market was also increasingly the white kids across the Atlantic.

Isaac Hayes started protesting. He wasn't going to be part of a pat, "race-blind" operation in the increasingly concious seventies. With new co-owner Al Bell (who was black) brought in and Jim Stewart and the white elements pushed out a few years later, Stax became a different company all together, one full of Black Power rhetoric. Maybe a change for the worse creatively, but I personally don't think Isaac Hayes was wrong in asking those questions.

Maybe there are some people who ought to still be asking them today.


Anonymous said...

That is interesting, some stuff I didn't know. But for someone like me, who never even heavily liked the Stax sound, his legacy is much more the guy who made all those fantastic samples. I don't think any soul/funk artist had such an impressive rap sheet when it came to creating sample-worthy music. James Brown would probably win in numbers, "Funky drummer" and all, but not in quality.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point there. I too prefer Isaac Hayes samples over JB samples, simply because they are more melodic. The James Brown sound is strictly rhythmic.

Ibrahim said...

I have always had a deep love for the Stax sound. And I actually prefer the music the label produced when it became more "afro-centric".

If you have the chance check out the movie/dvd Wattstax from 1972. All the great Stax artists are there in what has been called "The Black Woodstock".

Birdseed said...

Actually, I think I like the old Stax sound more too. Sometimes the correct politics (if it was the correct politics!) doesn't gel with the best creative environment.

Anonymous said...

Hello editor friend. What an interesting blog! I'm still at work reading it.

My favourite Stax albums are Whatcha See Is Watcha Get by The Dramatics and Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul, so I guess that makes me more of a late Stax guy. No one has made a better version of Walk On By than Isaac. Love those explosive heavy strings in the intro!

On the other hand I sometimes use the expression "muscle soul" as an abuse...