'Chef' Isaac Hayes' Career Once Again Cooking

Soul legend enjoying career resurgence with 'South Park' role, 'Shaft 2000' soundtrack.

SAYREVILLE, N.J. — Thanks to his role as Chef on the "South Park" cartoon TV series, soul legend Isaac Hayes' career once again is cooking.

He's in the final stage of work on the "Shaft 2000" soundtrack; he's working on a new album and a cookbook ("Cooking With Heart and Soul"); and he's forming a new record label (Soul Temple) with RZA (born Robert Diggs) of the Wu-Tang Clan, he told a group of about 200 Sayreville War Memorial High School students at career day Friday afternoon.

"I like RZA a lot," said Hayes, wearing a skull cap and his trademark wrap-around sunglasses. "We hit it off since we met five years ago, and we've been friends ever since."

In his talk at the school in Middlesex County, N.J., a New York suburb, Hayes said he didn't mind being engulfed in fog at March's Academy Awards show, a moment that became fodder for jokes by the show's host, actor/comedian Billy Crystal.

"It could have been a disaster, but I kept my concentration," Hayes said. "I said, 'Isaac, this is not a rehearsal — you've got to keep going.' "

Hayes forged ahead with a performance of his classic "Theme from 'Shaft' " in the medley of best-song Oscar winners, despite being completely obliterated by stage fog.

But he called the incident a "blessing in disguise."

"As a result I got more publicity," Hayes said. "I think Billy Crystal turned it into a funny thing — he gave me so many mentions. Go Billy!"

His soundtrack for the upcoming John Singleton-directed update, "Shaft 2000," which stars Samuel L. Jackson, will be "somewhat a revision," Hayes said, even though he noted many familiar elements of the "Shaft" sound will remain the same.

"I'm working with [computer] programs, which is a quicker way of doing things, but now I have to learn how to use them," Hayes said.

Hayes broke into show business as a songwriter, producer and session man for the Memphis, Tenn., Stax label in 1964. He co-wrote, with David Porter, such classic Sam and Dave tunes as "Hold On! I'm a Comin' " and "Soul Man."

Solo albums in the late '60s and early '70s, including Hot Buttered Soul (1969) and Shaft (1971), helped boost Hayes to stardom. With his sunglasses, shaved head and imposing physique, Hayes became a symbol for African-American male empowerment.

But most students at the high school seemed less interested in Hayes' former "Black Moses" image than his current role on the Comedy Central cartoon series "South Park."

"When my agent called and told me that I had a job doing voiceovers, I thought it was Disney," said Hayes, who's also a morning disc jockey on New York's KISS-FM (WRKS-98.7). "When the air date drew closer, I got nervous. 'Oh my God, I've ruined my career, how can I face my friends?' " he recalled.

But he was relieved to find his role as Chef a positive experience, noting that Chef's song "Chocolate Salty Balls" knocked the Spice Girls from the top of the UK chart in late 1998.