Recent regrettable world events have meant that a rare slice of soul from an obscure singer from Georgia is experiencing an unexpected surge in relevance. Here, Piers Barber revisits the curious history of The Honey Drippers’ 1973 groove ‘Impeach The President’.
“Behind the walls, of the White House
There’s a lot of things, that we don’t know about
Behind the walls, of the White House
There’s a lot of things, that we should know about”
In 1972, veteran soul singer Roy C. Hammond gathered together five students from a high school in Jamaica in Queens, New York and named them The Honey Drippers. Together they laid down some tracks, all soaked in the funk-fuelled soul through which Hammond had made his modest name. One of their creations, all looped chopped guitar stabs, rock-solid drum rhythms and colourful saxophone flourishes, was named ‘Impeach the President’ – and would soon become one of the most popular unknown tracks ever recorded.
Mercury, Hammond’s label at the time, were taken aback by the track’s explicit subject matter and inevitably deemed it too controversial for release. It eventually saw the light through Alaga, Hammond’s own imprint, but sold just a few hundred copies. Yet the first four bars of the track went on to be used elsewhere in 731 other tracks (at least according to WhoSampled’s latest comprehensive count), reportedly making it the most-sampled breakbeat in music history.
Given the subsequent prominence of his work, Hammond’s analysis of the young drummer he recruited acquires particular irony: “I worked hard with the drummer,” he said, “because he wasn’t as good a drummer as I would have liked to have”. Today, he doesn’t even remember his name. “I remember drilling him over and over in that basement in Jamaica, Queens. But we finally accomplished what we set out to do.”
The subject matter of Hammond’s track is plain and direct, and represents a remarkable snapshot of the popular bafflement turned horror which greeted revelations of President Nixon’s unprecedented conduct. In 1972, staff associated with the president were caught breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters in Watergate, Washington. A subsequent investigation revealed that Nixon had wiretapped White House phones, records which after substantial pressure he was later forced to make public. This sensitive and illegal wiretapping, which revealed his attempts to cover up the break-in and detailed further sensitive information, resulted in his inglorious removal from office. With it came an era of mass national soul searching and shaken confidence which would linger in America throughout the following decades.
The Vietnam War and Nixon’s domestic criminality have, of course, proved fertile subject matter for some of music’s most inspired songwriters. Bob Dylan, for example, deemed Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Vietnam’ to be “the greatest protest song ever written”. Half a million protesters sang John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ at a rally against Nixon. Nina Simone masterfully converted a Langston Hughes poem into a powerful protest song against the war (‘Backlash Blues’), while the Kent State shootings of 4 May 1970 were enshrined in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s ‘Ohio’. The likes of Marvin Gaye pioneered soul music’s role as a protest vehicle.
Yet Hammond’s devastatingly simple composition constitutes one of the most explicit condemnations of Nixon’s specific predicament. The event confirmed America’s disappointing failure to maximise the hippy-powered potential of the 1960s; dominant instead was a disillusioned confusion, reflected in the nervous consternation of ‘Impeach’’s spoken word narrator: “Aw nah, we can’t do that, man—nah, nah!”
Hammond, a singer from Georgia who remains best known as a member of 1950s doo-wop group The Genies, did not shirk his perceived historical responsibilities, and throughout his career strove to tackle the issues of the day head on. His ownership of Alaga provided an outlet for some politically contentious views: indeed, he had previous with Nixon. His 1971 song ‘Open Letter to President’ pleaded with the troubled president to put an instant stop to the war in Vietnam (“Can’t you see all the protesters in the street… They want to be free, everybody wants to be free”). “Way down in Georgia, they want to be free, South Africa, they want to be free, New York”, he explained, his protestations featuring an early mention of apartheid in South Africa and noting the increasingly incongruent clash between racist American oppression at home and the nation’s professed ambition of exporting freedom abroad. Later in his career, a pointed track named ‘Great, Great Grandson of a Slave’ prompted Mercury to fly Hammond to Chicago in an attempt to persuade him of the benefits of working with a songwriter. Characteristically, he declined.
‘Impeach the President’ was warmly received, applauded for directly addressing the current affairs issue causing such chaos nationwide. It’s popularity quickly dwindled, though, and soon the record was just one of hundreds of soul records resigned to dusty shelves and record store bargain bins.
Fast-forward to the late 1980s, when the explicit themes of ‘Impeach the President’ were again jettisoned into focus during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who became the subject of summer-long hearings on his conduct during the Iran-Contra Affair in 1987. Yet it fell to Marly Marl, the visionary hip hop producer and co-host of Mr Magic’s Rap Attack, the first ever commercial rap radio show, to breathe second life into Hammond’s dusty old track. To his delight, Fuchs was at some point able to pick up a box of 50 copies of the record for just 25 cents each. “‘Impeach’ was cultish,” Fuchs later said. “It kind of separated record purchasers from crate-diggers.”
Marl reportedly obtained the forgotten 45 from Aaron Fuchs, founder of Tuff City Records and a pioneering hip hop journalist. Marl latched onto the kick and snare from the track’s first four bars, sampled it to his two Korg sampling digital delays, and added a kick and hi-hat from a Roland TR-808 drum machine. This new sample contributed to the backing to ‘The Bridge’, a track Marley produced for MC Shan.
“Hear that snare? That snare would change the world,” Marley said. It was used “for a good run on about ten records…they all were hits…Your brain just knows, there’s something in that sound that I like, so you automatically like it.” Marley headed up the Juice Crew, a now legendary collective of hip hop pioneers which included Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane and Masta Ace. All would record tracks built around the beat, which saw its inexorable rise as a hip hop staple cemented by its inclusion in the DJ-friendly Ultimate Beats and Breaks compilation.
Some vital hits – ‘Eric B. Is President’ by Eric B. & Rakim, Audio Two’s smash ‘Top Billin’’ – have been powered by the Honey Drippers’ kick drum and snare. Indeed, a highlights list of the song’s appearances read like a rundown of rap royalty: De La Soul, Gang Starr, Ice Cube, Run DMC, NWA, Nas. It’s also appeared on recordings far removed from hip hop: take George Benson’s 1996 track ‘The Thinker’, or Mick Jagger’s ‘Sweet Thing’. It recently made a subtle appearance in an episode of Netflix’s hip hop series The Get Down, as well as on Kanye West and Jay Z’s ‘Otis’.
The sample has been used so repeatedly that it now essentially exits as public property. GZA went as far as to acknowledge its ubiquitous presence on Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘As High As Wu-Tang Get’: “You can’t flow, must be the speech impediment / You got lost off the snare off ‘Impeach the President'”, a reference to how perceptively easy the break is to rap over. Elsewhere, Public Enemy’s Chuck D rapped on ‘Rebel Without A Pause” “Impeach the president – pulling out the ray-gun”, a reference to both the famous sample and Reagan’s (‘Ray-gun’s’) bizarre ‘Star Wars’ nuclear missile defence shield.
After recording ‘Impeach’, Hammond’s recording career meandered on, with the artist later moving to Allendale, South Carolina to open a record store named Carolina Record Distributors. In 1998, he was sat listening to the radio when one song – ‘Luv Me, Luv Me’ by Shaggy and Janet Jackson – instantly peaked his attention: buried deep within it was the unmistakable break moulded from his own ‘Impeach’ creation. He later tracked down Fuchs, who it turned out had been profiting from Hammond’s groove for almost a decade, without ever trying to track him down.
A contentious legal battle has simmered between Hammond and Fuchs ever since. “You can do a computer search on ‘Impeach the President,’ and the results for how many times it has been sampled will come up in the hundreds. But I’ve gotten nothing in the way of mechanical royalties,” Hammond says. The extent to which The Honey Drippers missed out is perhaps best epitomised by the infamous lawsuit which followed the release of Biz Markie’s ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’, a track which sampled both Gilbert O’Sullivan and Hammond’s Honey Drippers. The case brought by O’Sullivan provoked a deluge of considered debate about the morality and legality of sample culture during hip hop’s golden age. Controversially and momentously, it resulted in damages paid to the artist and even a referral to the criminal court. Hammond was not involved – and so received nothing.
His struggles with the legal system continue to sting. On his album Don’t Let Our Love Die, the song ‘(If I Ever Get My) Feet Back on the Ground’ dissects those who have wronged him, including many lawyers. On one occasion, Hammond was told by the juror that the case had been won, only to later find his lawyer and the opposing attorney carrying out a private conference in the court’s bathroom. He went on to lose the case.
As well as finding trustworthy lawyers and ultimately receiving full compensation for the prolific use of his work, Hammond has one other demand from hip hop: “I would hope that they learn to use real drums. That art comes out of Africa. You cannot take an electronic drum machine and do what a live drummer can do. It’s impossible. The feel is just not going to be there.”
And yet still, the remarkable story of The Honey Drippers’ most influential track may well not be over yet. The election of Donald Trump as president has breathed new life into the original record, with few tracks expressing so explicitly the sentiments of so many. Some DJs have even suggested that the single positive outcome of Trump’s election has been that they can now let rip with The Honey Drippers’ infectious 45 and instantly raise spirits, rather than eyebrows. On Discogs, the original 7″ now goes for a median price of £132.27; it’s been sold for as much as £265.04 in the past.
Trump’s rise has prompted many impatient onlookers to bemoan the absence of the emergence of any true protest music capable of provoking anger and casting away apathy in response. Focus has fallen on the Top 40’s inability to function to any degree as a capable vehicle of protest, with arguments abound that the likes of the Chainsmokers and DJ Khaled are hardly rivaling Neil Young and Nina Simeone in their ability to articulate revolutionary anger at current affairs.
Protest music, of course, exists in its own specific moment: indeed, there will never again be a great era of punk, folk, or soul protest music. Artists such as Boston band Hallelujah the Hills have openly mocked such popular expectations that the musical forces of days gone by would be resurrected to face down this latest challenge on their ironic track “Punk Rock’s Gonna Be Great Now That Trump’s in Charge.” Famed political singer-songwriter Billy Bragg has also highlighted the current generation’s specific historical differences. “For it to be a golden age for protest music, you’d need it to be a universal social medium for young people, which it no longer is,” he said. “Since people have learned to use other mediums to express their anger with the world, there’s been a considerable decline of protest music, at least made by white boys with guitars.”
Yet dig a little deeper, and resistance is certainly there to be found in hip hop, a genre where artists have gone from name checking Trump as an money-making icon to forming a mouthpiece for the most extreme opposition to his administration and personal views in music. The likes of Kendrick Lamar and A Tribe Called Quest have led the way, with Kendrick calling out Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia and criticising the role played by the Electoral College in his election in his track ‘The Heart (Part 4)’: “Donald Trump is a chump, know how we feel, punk / Tell ’em that God comin’ / And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin'”. YG’s ‘FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)’ encourages opposition to Trump in an even more explicit fashion.
In the end, then, it feels neatly appropriate that hip hop, which has benefited so richly from a track extolling the impeachment of a president of the past, is leading the way in opposing the current presidency through music. ‘Impeach The President”s curious legacy endures: both musically and – regrettably – thematically.
As for the young drummer plucked from a Queens high school to play in Hammond’s session – well, it’s difficult not to wonder just what he’s made of it all.