impeach_the_president_honey_drippers

‘Impeach the President’ Was Written for Nixon, but Hip Hop and Trump Have Kept It on the Playlist

In 1973, a little-known artist named Roy C decided to write a song about Watergate. His anger resulted in a funky protest tune that would become one of rap’s most enduring samples.

Roy C. Hammond had been working in music since the 1950s, first as part of a vocal group called the Genies and then as a solo artist. In 1965, he had a hit called “Shotgun Wedding,” an R&B tune accented by saxophone and whimsical gun sound effects. Hammond wasn’t a household name, but he was doing okay, even starting up a couple record labels because he didn’t like how the suits treated him. 

But although music had always been in his blood, Hammond (who recorded under the name Roy C) was a man of other passions, too. At an early age, he thought he’d be a boxer, but he changed his mind after sparring in the ring with an actual professional, heavyweight contender Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson. (“He told me, ‘You can hit me as hard as you want to, and I’m not gonna to hit you back,”’ Roy C later recalled. “So by him telling me that, I just let my guard down. And he hit me straight in my face! Bow! I said, ‘Man, I’m gettin’ out of here!’”)

Roy C was also interested in politics, although he never ran for office. Instead, he made his voice heard in the studio, devoting the B-side of one of his 1971 singles to a song called “Open Letter to the President,” which asked Richard Nixon to pull the troops out of Vietnam:

Why don’t you stop the fightin’ and bring all our boys home?
That’s right
But Mr. President, oh, can’t you see
All the protesters in the streets?
And look at all the hungry people
The fatherless children
With no shoes on their feet
Can’t you hear them singin’?
I can, they’re sayin’
I wanna be free 

But Roy C’s frustration with Nixon only started there. In 1973, he was living in New York and watching the news, which was discussing the president’s possible connection to the previous year’s Watergate break-in. “I saw it was wrong,” said Roy C, who decided to take action. “I just came up with a beat, and I said, ‘I’m gonna do something concerning the impeachment.’ I wrote the lyrics and made it into music.” 

Most people haven’t heard of Roy C, who turns 81 in August, but there’s a decent chance they know the song that he ended up writing. Or, perhaps they know one of the dozens of hip-hop songs that have sampled it over the years. Regardless, ever since 1973, “Impeach the President” has always been with us. And it’s probably not going anywhere any time soon.

Unlike his solo material, “Impeach the President” was recorded under the name of the Honey Drippers, a Black group from Jamaica High School in New York. Roy C had used them on “Open Letter to the President,” but it took awhile for the band to meet his exacting standards. “I worked hard with the drummer, because he wasn’t as good a drummer as I would have liked to have,” Roy C said in 2013. “But we finally accomplished what we set out to do. I had a good bass player and horn player, but the drummer was the weakest point. I remember drilling him over and over in that basement in Jamaica, Queens.” 

In “Impeach the President,” Roy C imagines both sides of the debate regarding what to do about Nixon. He lets the opposing viewpoints each make their case, but it’s pretty clear where his loyalties lie: 

Some people say that he’s guilty (that he’s guilty)
Some people say, “I don’t know” (I don’t know)
Some people say, “Give him a chance” (give him a chance)
Aw, some people say, “Wait till he’s convicted” (till he’s convicted) 

Impeach the President
Impeach the President
Impeach the President
Impeach the President 

Funny enough, “Impeach the President” wasn’t the only funk track at the time that referenced Tricky Dick’s dilemma. That same year, James Brown’s backing band the J.B.’s put out “You Can Have Watergate, Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight,” and the following year they released “Rockin’ Funky Watergate.” Brown inspired plenty of backlash in the Black community by endorsing Nixon’s 1972 re-election — although before his endorsement, he met with the president, imploring him to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, a request that ended up being ignored. But having the Godfather of Soul in his corner ultimately couldn’t stop what was coming for Nixon, who left office in disgrace in August 1974.

With its laid-back, insistent groove and celebratory tone — as if the Honey Drippers were throwing a block party for Nixon’s imminent departure — “Impeach the President” may have spoken to its moment, but the song failed to chart. Roy C kept making music, including the politically-themed track “Great, Great Grandson of a Slave,” but he never again experienced a radio success like “Shotgun Wedding.” In the eyes of most, he’d be considered a fairly minor artist.

Unbeknownst to him, though, a new generation of Black artists would soon seize on “Impeach the President” as a seminal musical bed for their own work. Principal among them was Marlon Williams, an early-1980s radio DJ who wanted to get into producing. Under the moniker Marley Marl, Williams realized that the Honey Drippers’ song had potential as a drum sample.

“I was trying to sample a vocal for a chorus and the snare went in accidentally,” Marley Marl recalled. “And I started playing the snare along with the track, and it made it sound better.” At that moment, a light bulb went off. “[I thought,] ‘We can take any drum sound off of any record, manipulate it, make our own patterns off of it.’ And immediately I went and got ‘Impeach the President.’ … I always noticed that every time I would play ‘Impeach the President’ at a party it was a banger. I probably made like 10 records with those drum sounds — in the same week.”

Soon, that drum sound that Roy C. had worked so hard to get right was everywhere in hip hop. It was featured in Eric B. & Rakim’s “Eric B. Is President” and MC Shan’s “The Bridge.” It helped make LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl” a hit. Other producers quickly recognized the track’s potential, too, and eventually everybody from De La Soul to Digable Planets to Tupac was riding the strutting, chilled-out beat from “Impeach the President.” 

Not that anybody bothered to tell Roy C, who discovered his song’s second life when he flipped on the radio one day while at home. He heard a woman singing over a track that seemed familiar, but he couldn’t place it. “I called my daughter, who was away at college, to see if she knew,” he said. “She told me it was Janet Jackson’s ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’” — one of the biggest hits of 1993. “But somehow, I didn’t get credited.”

That’s remained a sore subject for Roy C, who claims that he’s been screwed out of royalties by lawyers who didn’t have his best interests at heart. Meanwhile, in 1992, Aaron Fuchs, who owned Tuff City Records and had bought the song rights, sued Sony, accusing the label’s artists (including LL Cool J) of violating his copyright. (The case was settled out of court.) 

For what it’s worth, Fuchs has said that it was him who hipped Marley Marl to “Impeach the President,” which he views as one of the keystones of hip hop’s first wave. “If you look at the value of ‘Impeach’ as a breakbeat, you could almost call it the first hip-hop breakbeat,” Fuchs said in 2015. “Listen to that next to ‘Funky Drummer’ by James Brown, which was the most popular drum beat prior to that, and you’ll almost hear the difference between a funk drum beat and a hip-hop drum beat.”

But the song’s second life hasn’t just been musical. In September 2019, when Congress began its impeachment proceedings on Donald Trump, Billboard reported that the Honey Drippers track “garnered 52,000 on-demand streams (audio and video combined) in the U.S.” over the next two days, as compared to the 4,000 streams it received the previous two days. It’s a good bet a lot of those listeners knew nothing about the Honey Drippers — or Roy C — but the song’s straightforward throw-the-bum-out sentiment still resonated. And ever since, “Impeach the President” has been frequently cited on Twitter when people are thinking about our current president. It sounds as good now as it did in 1973.

During one of the worst weeks in our country’s history, it was hard to see pictures of a walled-up White House and not think of some key lines from “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 

CNN asked Roy C how what Trump has done in office compared to Nixon’s crimes, which inspired “Impeach the President” in the first place. “It’s a little worse, I think,” the musician said of Trump. “He’s jeopardizing the country’s freedom.” 

Thankfully, he gave us a song 47 years ago that can help us process that anger.