We can dig it: Round 1

Posted: April 5, 2015 in music, Record reviews
Tags: , , , , , ,

In Boise, Idaho in the early ohs I was at a party where I mentioned the Samuel L. Jackson remake of Shaft and how consistently awful it was. A woman in our group, a doctor, was puzzled. “Shaft?” The rest of us began to chant the song. This was not something we’d planned, it just tumbled out of us. The woman kept saying “Shaft? Shaft?” until a light dawned and she screamed in amazement, “You mean penile shaft?!”

What I find interesting about this incident is not that 30 years after the original movie appeared, in a roomful of white people in one of the whitest states in the Lower 48, I met a woman who had never heard of Shaft, “Shaft,” or Shaft. No, it’s that the song has been assimilated so thoroughly into Caucasian culture that we can converse in its lyrics and even communicate ideas.

The 1971 Shaft is of course the story of John Shaft, the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks. This was one of my early career goals. Shaft wasn’t the first movie Hollywood made after it discovered African-Americans, but of all the blaxploitation movies, it’s the most notorious. Unleash those opening notes on the hi-hat at a party or a dance and you’ve got everyone’s attention.

John Shaft is trying to survive in a world of black gangsters and crooked white cops and still do the right thing. He’s a complicated man. I know that because it says so right in the song: Shaft is “a complicated man/but no one understands him but his woman.” This woman also understands something we don’t about her boyfriend being a sex machine to all the chicks.

A few characteristics of blaxploitation movies:

  1. They finally gave blacks a chance to see a movie with mostly black actors.
  2. Unfortunately, these movies tend to glorify violence, instant gratification, assorted stereotypes about blacks, and the degradation of women. Pretty much like most movies. They are bad, and I don’t mean “bad” as in “Run-DMSteve, that is a bad Subaru Forester.”
  3. They provide a ton of trivia. They’re a banquet for white male nerds.
  4. They’re an opportunity for an R&B, soul, or jazz giant to compose a soundtrack, though the music is often bad, and I don’t mean “bad” as in “Run-DMSteve, that is a bad Black & Decker weed whacker.”

Hayes’ soundtrack for Shaft was followed in 1972 by Curtis Mayfield’s score for Super Fly. Super Fly had its own super hit, which is for some reason spelled “Superfly.” Where “Shaft” is macho, “Superfly” is scared and fatalistic. There are no happy endings:

The aim of his role
Was to move a lot of blow
Ask him his dream
What does it mean?
He woudn’t know
“Can’t be like the rest”
Is the most he’ll confess
But the time’s running out
And there’s no happiness

(Bruce Springsteen recorded the white version of “Superfly” in 1975: “Meeting Across the River.” Neither of these songs are authorized for parties.)

Isaac Hayes was the first African-American to win an Oscar for best theme song. He was only the third African-American to win an Oscar for anything. He was the first person of any color to write and perform an Oscar-winning theme song and the first person to speak a curse word in a #1 hit record. (Brace yourself: “Damn.”) He deserved all the awards he got. “Superfly” is the better song, but “Shaft” is more fun. That sex scene in The Commitments would’ve drooped if they’d used “Superfly” instead of “Shaft.”

I’ve listened to enough blaxploitation soundtracks to fill the trunk of a Cadillac Eldorado (in these movies, that space is usually filled with a body), but the only movies I remember watching are Shaft, Super Fly, and Foxy Brown. This was so long ago that I saw all three at a drive-in.

Movies Run-DMSteve is fairly sure he saw at a drive-in:
Super Fly
Foxy Brown
Easy Rider
Soylent Green
The Omega Man
101 Dalmations (I dragged my parents to this.)
Never on Sunday (My parents dragged me to that.)
2001: A Space Odyssey
Wild in the Streets
McKenna’s Gold (Gregory Peck battles Dr. Zhivago, dodges Lurch and Kojak, kisses Catwoman!)

Blaxploitation music is a man’s, man’s, man’s world…unless your movie is about Foxy Brown, who is sexy and deadly, or Cleopatra Jones, who is deadly and sexy. Next time, we explore a select few soundtracks from this laboratory of middle-schooler behavior. (Armed middle-schoolers.) Until then, practice saying, “Run-DMSteve, that is a bad blog.”


  1. seasidedave says:

    Run-D: Wondering whether or not you saw any of these movies at a drive-in: “The Great Escape,” “Day of the Trifids,” “Take this Job and Shove It,” “Quest For Fire”?? When the drive-in theater finally closed down in Gearhart, Oregon cultural evolution went off the rails. Hey, that was a ‘baaddd’ blog you wrote.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Quest for Fire would’ve been perfect for a drive-in! I saw it indoors. Great Escape and Day of the Trifids I saw on TV. I still haven’t seen Take This Job and Shove It. I’m not sure I could convince my wife. I’m not sure I could convince me.

      A drive-in theater in Gearhart…with the scent of the Pacific in the air…Now that’s what I call culture.

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