Breaks With Tradition

Breaks With Tradition: “Impeach The President”

Breaks With Tradition is a new Stereogum column that examines a certain song that’s been frequently sampled and how that song has been used through the years.

For this second edition of Breaks With Tradition, I figured I’d jump right into the classic repertoire of breaks to take a look at one of the most well-traveled and instantly recognizable ones of all time — one that was key in establishing the first major breakthroughs in sample-based hip-hop in the mid ’80s. Any pertinent lyrical content is, honestly, entirely coincidental.

In the early 1970s, Roy C. Hammond, aka Roy C, had spent an already decade-plus career as one of those modestly successful but enduring soul singers who probably could’ve been a bit bigger if a label or two hadn’t slept on their recordings. He had a bonafide hit to his name, 1965’s excellent blues/rock/soul triangulation “Shotgun Wedding,” which hit #14 on the Billboard R&B charts, and a handful of other minor successes both on his own independent label Alaga Records and on Mercury Records. But it was his discovery of a group of high school students from Jamaica, Queens that really set his place in music history in granite — at least, eventually, about a dozen years after their first single was initially released.

The Honey Drippers aren’t easy to find info on — not just thanks to the Google-confusing existence of the similarly named one-off all-star ’50s R&B throwback band fronted by Robert Plant, but due to the fact that the names of the singers and the backup band aren’t listed anywhere in any available credits for the song. Roy doesn’t even remember the name of the drummer who provided that immortal opening beat, though in an interview with Wax Poetics he let slip that the most-sampled element of “Impeach The President” came from someone who needed a lot of coaching. “I worked hard with the drummer, because he wasn’t as good a drummer as I would have liked to have… I remember drilling him over and over in [this] basement in Jamaica, Queens.”

But while the Honey Drippers never got their names out there for a song that should’ve immortalized them, Roy C failed to get his due in another way: after finding out that “Impeach The President” had been sampled for the Shaggy/Janet Jackson duet “Luv Me, Luv Me” from the soundtrack to How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Roy discovered how often his composition had been sampled and lawyered up — only to have the first lawyer and numerous ones he hired afterwards botch the case for him. He still hasn’t earned any royalties from his sample usage — odds are that’s going to be an ongoing theme in this column. Industry Rule #4080 doesn’t care who it applies to.

The Original: The Honey Drippers, “Impeach The President” (Alaga Records 7″, 1973). Did Not Chart.

So obviously Roy’s tutelage for the drummer paid off: The beat that opens “Impeach The President” is lock-tight and an instant attention-getter, even without accounting for how many times you might have heard it before. The way the drummer lifts the hi-hat near the end of the pattern is the key, a blade-slicing swing that elevated such an obscure track to the ranks of Ultimate Breaks & Beats. Beyond that, though, “Impeach The President” is a no-fucking-around funk jam that stands at a solid 8.5 on a scale where the J.B.’s circa 1970 are a perfect 10. The interplay between the subtle but heavy bass and chicken-scratch guitar is fundamentally classic, the sax gets to stretch out a bit without overpowering the rest of the arrangement, and the Honey Drippers in question, though not the most harmonically complex vocalists, have this great everyman bluntness to their delivery that adds some needed edge to the protest.

The First Sample: Force MCs, “Live At Broadway International” (from N.Y.C. Live Throw Down, Madison Square Garage Recordings, 2007; originally recorded 1983)

In 1980, Tuff City Records impresario Aaron Fuchs was hanging out with Afrika Bambaataa and was given the rare privilege of getting to look through his record collection. Upon spotting a copy of the “Impeach The President” 45, inspiration struck. According to an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Fuchs saw an opportunity to get in good with a number of other DJs, buying 50 copies of the remaindered 7″ at 25 cents a pop and handing out copies of the rare, in-demand break record to people — often as a bonus throw-in to the latest Tuff City releases he wanted DJs to play. (If this counted as payola, then at least it was the kind of payola that advanced the art form.) One of these copies doubtlessly fell into the hands of Dr. Shock, the man who DJ’ed this mysteriously sourced, fortuitously recorded New Year’s Eve show featuring the hip-hop/R&B group that would later be known as Force MDs. (You might know them as the singers from “Daytona 500″.) If “Impeach The President” was in Bam’s crates, it was clearly already a part of live hip-hop DJ sets long before this set, so this routine is really only the first recorded instance of a hip-hop performance using the “Impeach The President” break. But when it drops — a few seconds after the five-minute mark, in the midst of a syllable-echoing “Auld Lang Syne” homage — it feels like a flag being planted.

The Early Sample: MC Shan, “The Bridge” (B-side to “Beat Biter” 12″, Bridge Records, 1986)

If there’s a reason the “Impeach The President” drums feel as fundamental to hip-hop as the Bo Diddley beat is to rock ‘n’ roll, it’s all thanks to Marley Marl. Marl’s early experiments with sampling individual drum beats — including replacing the default sounds in the bank of a drum machine with pieces of existing songs — give him a major claim to being the atom-splitter of hip-hop sample culture. And once he got ahold of “Impeach The President,” he made the most of it: Among the songs he used those drum sounds for in his beats circa ’86, there’s his (uncredited) co-production of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Eric B. Is President,” the early Biz Markie classic “Make the Music With Your Mouth Biz”, and most notoriously of all, MC Shan’s “The Bridge,” which kicked off the infamous Queens vs. Bronx beef between Marley Marl’s Juice Crew and Boogie Down Productions. The limited capabilities of early samplers meant that Marl was more about using the individual kicks and snares than actual loops, so he was able to get a considerable amount of mileage out of those beats, especially considering how effectively he was able to build even more complex and intricate drum patters of his own with them. Those sounds became so coveted that one urban legend spread of BDP affiliate and Ultramagnetic MCs MC/producer Ced-Gee swiping Marl’s drum reels, using them for “The Bridge Is Over,” and then covertly returning them to the studio where Marl worked. It’s a credible accusation, if easily refuted with an alibi — Ced was his own kind of brilliant with an SP-12 sampler, and by ’86, who didn’t have a copy of “Impeach The President” to lift beats from? — but it’s an interesting explanation, literally or allegorically, about how one producer’s trademark sound could become reverse-engineered into a collective source.

The Breakthrough Sample: Audio Two, “Top Billin'” (B-side to “Make It Funky” 12″, First Priority Music, 1987)

In the mid ’80s, live hip-hop band Stetsasonic were making a big name for themselves through their raucous shows at the old Latin Quarter location in Times Square, to the point where Daddy-O — the group’s main producer and one of their MCs — was able to talk his way into production gigs for artists like MC Lyte and Audio Two. And one beat he co-created for the latter group proved to be one of the great happy accidents in hip-hop. Thanks to the success that Marley Marl had with it, Daddy-O and Audio Two’s Milk D had turned to the drums on “Impeach The President” as a sure-fire production weapon. The problem was that the sampler they were using didn’t have nearly enough memory to use the entire drum loop, so they had to input the drum beats piece by piece. And on top of that, when Milk tried to play back the loop he made, he accidentally played it back using the drum pattern Daddy-O used for “Make It Funky,” a completely different track they’d worked on earlier. But the weird, loping beat that came from this mistake immediately won them over, and by the time they were finished, they’d created “Top Billin’,” a bonafide classic and one of the biggest hip-hop cuts of 1987. That’s the miracle of sampling for you — sometimes even your fuck-ups drop bombs.

The Weirdo Sample: Biz Markie, “Alone Again” (from I Need A Haircut, Cold Chillin’, 1991)

“Impeach The President” was everywhere in golden age hip-hop — even on the song that nearly killed sample culture entirely. Biz Markie had the idea to write a track about being stuck without a ride and always walking home by himself despite being famous — and to use Gilbert O’Sullivan’s proto-emo-as-all-hell 1972 hit “Alone Again (Naturally)” as the basis for both the hook and the sampled melody. Biz and Cold Chillin’ Records reached out to O’Sullivan to ask permission, which the latter felt was contingent on actually hearing the finished product. And when O’Sullivan discovered that his Very Serious Song was going to be sampled by a rapper who’d previously been known for doing songs about bad body odor and nose-picking, he declined permission. (“I’ll go to my grave in defending the song to make sure it is never used in the comic scenario which is offensive to those people who bought it for the right reasons,” he explained in 2010.) Cold Chillin’ released it anyways — the song wasn’t that comedic, was it? — and that soon led to the Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. court case that resulted in the legal precedent of samples needing to be cleared, not merely with a licensing payment to the copyright holder, but with the holder’s approval and permission as well. Since this opened the door to make rights holders demand exorbitant fees and significant royalty percentages (sometimes up to 100%), the possibilities for sample-based producers were drastically narrowed — good luck making anything like Paul’s Boutique again. With all that historical baggage, I guess it’s almost beside the point to talk up how well the “Impeach The President” break fits with the O’Sullivan piano riff, but it’s… well, maybe not entirely worth all the legal repercussions, but it’s pretty good.

The Recent Sample: Kali Uchis, “Mucho Gusto” (from Drunken Babble, self-released, 2012)

I’d prefer to use this section to discuss a track I like, which is difficult since the two most prominent uses of the “Impeach The President” break in the last 10 years are Flo-Rida’s “My House” and J. Cole’s “Wet Dreams.” Sometimes this means I come across a track that doesn’t do anything especially revolutionary with the sample — just uses it as a familiar touchstone to build from, or maybe even a recognition of tradition that any MC or singer feels like riffing off. Kali Uchis released one of the most widely acclaimed albums this year, Isolation, which fits the generations-long notion that the wide stylistic range of source material that’s made up hip-hop across the decades has potentially freed artists from being beholden to the old radio-dictated constraints of genre. Her debut mixtape Drunken Babble hints as much, with the short but well-crafted, self-produced “Mucho Gusto” reminding listeners that the same beat that armed the Bridge Wars worked for Janet Jackson and Mary J. Blige, too — and Soul II Soul, Digable Planets, and Panda Bear for good measure.