For many, the name Isaac Hayes is linked with his instantly legendary 1971 Oscar-winning ''Theme From Shaft.'' This was a particular problem when Hayes, after working intermittently for the past 12 years in film and TV, began looking for a new record company. (Hayes, citing creative differences, parted company with Columbia Records in 1989 shortly after the release of Love Attack.) ''I'd talked to some younger A&R people who'd say, 'Well, what have you done lately?''' says the singer, who recorded 18 albums after Shaft. ''And I thought to myself, just turn on the radio and listen to some of your hip-hop stuff that's what I've done lately!''
Indeed, Hayes, 52, has been sampled by everyone, from the gangsta-rapping Geto Boys to torrid trip-hoppers Portishead, all of whom bow to this acknowledged master of myriad genres (doo-wop, R&B, funk, soul, disco, ''bedroom music''), the father of what has come to be known as urban contemporary. Fortunately for Hayes, there was a sympathetic ear in the industry, Pointblank Records president John Wooler, who signed him in 1994. ''[Wooler] told me, 'You don't have to sound like anybody; you just have to sound like Isaac Hayes. Nobody can do Isaac Hayes better than you.'''
The resulting two albums are essentially refresher courses in Hayes' eclectic career: Raw & Refined, an instrumental project; and Branded, a vocal LP that references his Memphis roots as a Stax session man on Otis Redding recordings, and every musical touchstone that followed, including his sage social commentary during the early '70s. In addition to two ecologically minded tracks ''Ike's Plea'' and a cover of Sting's ''Fragile'' Hayes reworks his own ''Soulsville,'' a song about urban blight. ''We are spiritual beings on a planet that's trying to survive,'' says Hayes. ''I see the TV, and I see certain things going down. I cry. I care not only about what happens in my own neighborhood to the black community but to communities around the world. Because we are part of the human family.''
Now that he's back in the thick of it, does he still struggle with the albatross that is Shaft? ''No. because I'm kind of removed from it now. I can finally enjoy Shaft. In fact, I listened to it two days ago and said, 'Damn, that's fresh!'''