Roy C’s legacy goes beyond the single song (and ubiquitous golden-era hip-hop break) “Impeach the President”
Roy C has written hits and cult classics, fought heads of labels and state. But he’s not just another R&B songwriter, and he should never be overshadowed by just one record.
It’s hard to conceive that hip-hop was almost deprived of one of the most ubiquitous breaks in the history of the genre, “Impeach the President,” due to its composer considering the most unlikely of careers for a future sultan of soul: pugilism. “Heavyweight,” exclaims soul singer-songwriter Roy C. Hammond. “Would you believe the same people that trained Joe Louis trained me?” From his self-contained Carolina Record Distributors offices located in the sleepy town of Allendale, South Carolina, Roy C twists the lid off the time capsule of his lofty childhood dreams. “From the time I was a young kid, I always said I was going to be a prizefighter,” he says with a grin.
Originally published as “Protest Song” in Issue 47.
“I used to order all kinds of literature about boxing when I was living in Georgia. Then at the age of fifteen, when I’d moved to New York, I started studying hard and training. Not long after, I met a guy out in Long Beach [New York] who introduced me to [legendary boxing trainers] Whitey Bimstein and Freddie Brown.” But as kismet would have it, a series of uppercuts and right hooks during a sparring match with legendary boxer Hurricane Jackson would knock him smack-dab into an effervescent cauldron of funk and soul. “He told me, ‘You can hit me as hard as you want to, and I’m not gonna to hit you back.’ 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!’”
From that crucial moment on, the Georgia native has staunchly committed himself to over five decades of the funkiest funk and silkiest soul that ever spun at 45 and 33 1/3 rpm. One of those compositions, born out of a 1973 presidential espionage scandal, would go on to have an unexpected shelf life decades beyond the mom-and-pop record-shop bins of the day. With a sly, syncopated backbeat and loopy guitar licks courtesy of a precocious group of high school kids from Queens, New York, called the Honey Drippers, “Impeach the President” was one funky juke-joint juggernaut destined to inform the headphone masterpieces of generations to come. Serving as the backbone for a cavalcade of hip-hop hits and misses over the past twenty-five years, from Audio Two’s “Top Billin’ ” to Nas’s “I Can,” the tune has earned its rightful place in the pantheon of lauded breaks. And just think: we have a punch in the nose to thank for it all.
It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to assume that Roy C has most every god and demigod in the history of hip-hop production on speed dial. However, this is where the praise dissipates and the story takes a rather sour turn. “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,” he testifies. “But I’ve gotten nothing in the way of mechanical royalties.” It’s no secret that everyone from Spoonie Gee to Sprite owes a great debt to Roy C. Still, that collective debt has yet to be paid. Sandwiched between a jab to the jaw and a backhanded slap, Roy C’s hard-knock career as a soul crooner has taken a licking and kept on ticking. But it’s all too apparent that he doesn’t intend on going down without a tenacious fight.
How long after your encounter with Hurricane Jackson did you begin to foster your love for music?
I went on back [to Long Beach, New York] not long after, and I met the guys. They asked me could I sing, and I said, “Oh yeah.” I tried out for them, and I got in the group. So I stuck with singing. We called ourselves the Genies. We used to go out and sing on the boardwalk for people. One night, a gentleman named Bob Shad pushed through the crowd and gave us a card. And his business card was from Mercury Records. We got excited. We called him that Monday, and he invited us down for an audition at his office. We went there, and he accepted us. But we didn’t know that he was planning to leave Mercury. In 1958, we went in and recorded a song called “Who’s That Knocking on My Door,” and the flip side was “The First Time.” After we did the record, Bob Shad pulled out from Mercury. I guess he was paying for [the recording session] with his own money instead of doing it under Mercury. But from the business card we’d gotten, we thought we were going to be under Mercury. And he pulled out from Mercury and started two record companies of his own called Time Records and Shad Records. We had a pretty good-sized hit and managed to go on American Bandstand.
How long did the Genies stay together?
We didn’t get paid from that company, so we were only there for about a year or so. In fact, we only got twenty-five dollars apiece. So we left and went to Atlantic Records around ’60, ’61. We recorded a beautiful song that would have been a hit, I’m quite sure. But there was so much confusion going on. I was previously singing tenor, and Jerry Wexler recognized me as a better singer than the lead singer, Claude Johnson. We did, like, fifteen songs, and Jerry said, “Nope.” Then he asked me if I had any songs. And the first one I wrote, he said, “We’ll do that one.” I did three songs, and he picked all three. Then we had a guy named Dorian Burton, who had done some writing for Aretha Franklin, to write some songs for us. But they never put the material out, because we broke up. After Jerry picked me to do all the lead vocals, Claude got irate. On the way back to Long Beach one night, he mentioned that he was not going to sing in the background. He said he was not born to sing in the background and quit. So he teamed up with another guy [Roland Trone], and they recorded a record under the name Don & Juan called “What’s Your Name.” It went top ten [in 1962].
So what was your Plan B after the collapse of the Atlantic deal?
Atlantic gave us a release after they’d found out the group had broken up. We did a few things for Warwick Records. After that, I went into the studio and cut a solo record called “Shotgun Wedding” for Black Hawk Records in 1965. I took some White high school kids and cut that record. After they’d get out of school, we’d rehearse. Then we went into the studio and cut it. It was a hit here in the U.S. and an even bigger hit in England the following year. Because of that, I made a trip to England with [singer] Billy Stewart, who I shared an apartment with while I was there. I got fan mail from around the world on that record! Once the record became a hit in America, Chris Blackwell contacted Black Hawk Records, leased it from them, then put it out on Island Records.
What prompted you to start your own independent record labels, being that “Shotgun Wedding” was such a hit?
I did another record for them called “Dance Girl.” But there was some interference from the company. So I asked Black Hawk for a release. After I got the release, I cut two songs that I took to Mercury Records. I had a guitar player named Jay Hines, so I cut one song under J. Hines and the Boys called “Funky Funk.” The other song was under my name called “I Found a Man in My Bed.” Mercury turned me down. So I went home and decided to open my own label. In fact, I started two labels: Nation-Wide and Alaga. I put the J. Hines record out first. Eddie O’Jay at WLIB started playing that record, and, man, it sold like crazy! Within the first few weeks of all that, Mercury called me back. They said, “We made a mistake on that one.” I said, “You sure did!” They changed their tune and offered me a contract, but I told them no, because I had my own label. I had my office out in Jamaica, Queens, and was doing pretty well. I had quite a few hits on Alaga and Nation-Wide.
But you later changed your own tune and decided to sign with Mercury. What made you reconsider?
I ran into a singing group called the Attractions. I told them that it wasn’t a good name. So I changed it to Mark IV. I put a single out on them [in 1972] called “Honey I Still Love You” that took off. Mercury called me again! The lead singer of the group told me that they wanted to be on a major label. The group kept bugging me about it, so I called Mercury back and signed them to the label. But this posed a problem with my independent distributors, because they were already selling the Mark IV record. Mercury picked up the record and had their own distributors for their records. My distributors got angry and stopped paying me, so I signed up with Mercury myself and stayed there for five years. And then I finally left them in 1977.
What do you think prevented the Mark IV from breaking through?
If I see an artist doing wrong, I’ll tell them. But if they don’t listen, I let them go and hang themselves. So they screwed their own career up. It has been over thirty years, and they could have been making money all those years. When they performed at the Apollo, I had a handpicked band for them. And that show was amazing! People were hollering and screaming! After that show, they were signed on to go on tour with the Stylistics for sixty-one nights! The Apollo called me and said they wanted more shows with Mark IV. Then the lead singer called me and told me they had new musicians. I said, “Oh Lord.” The rehearsal sounded like garbage to me, but the lead singer assured me that he would get it right. So I stayed out of it. After the first song on the night of the show, the Apollo kept cutting their set back until they only had one song. I knew then that it was over. They did everything but kick them off the darn stage. I was sick. I don’t drink, but that night I went home and bought me a jug. Shortly afterwards, the Stylistics’ booking agency canceled the Mark IV as an opening act on their tour, and the Apollo canceled the last show.
Do you still keep in touch with any of the members of the Mark IV?
In fact, they performed at my fifty-second anniversary show [in 2009] in Washington, D.C. I was going through some of the old tapes about five months ago, and I discovered something thirty-two years old that I never put out on them. So I called them up and reissued a CD on them. So we’re now working together again.
Though you and the Genies were excited about the prospect of signing to Mercury back in ’58, do you regret signing to the label in retrospect?
Oh yeah. Five cotton-pickin’ years wasted! After I left, I started my new label called Three Gems in 1979. Then I started my own distribution company. It’s a better setup, because I control what I want to put out. When you have other people listening to the music you record, telling you that it’s not a hit, and be wrong as hell, it’s bad. For example, when I was on Mercury, one of their promotion men listened to my song “If I Could Love You Forever” and turned it down. So I asked them to release me from the label, but they wouldn’t. They wanted me to go into the studio and record something else, but I told them no. So they eventually overturned that promotion guy’s decision and put the song out as a single [in 1974]. As soon as I got promo copies of the record, I sent a few to a DJ friend of mine named Chuck Harris in Durham, North Carolina. He called me back the first day he played it and told me that the phone lines lit up! And wherever it played, it went number one. It took off. But after I served those five years, I was ready to get the hell out of there! They exclude you from the meetings about your material, which is dumb. The artist should also be there.
In the early ’70s, when you were still putting records out on Alaga, how did the Honey Drippers and “Impeach the President” come together?
After the group of young White guys that I used on “Shotgun Wedding,” I ran into a group of Black kids that went to Jamaica High School. I drilled them in the basement, and they were pretty good. So we recorded “Roy C.’s Theme [Song],” “Impeach the President,” and quite a few other songs that I’ll probably be releasing pretty soon. Some of them have never been released. I also used them on “Open Letter to the President.” I worked hard with the drummer, because he wasn’t as good a drummer as I would have liked to have. 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.
As a songwriter, I think we should be involved in the things happening around us. On [1973’s] Sex and Soul, I did a song called “I Wasn’t There (But I Can Feel the Pain).” I did two songs that Mercury didn’t like, and the other was called “Great, Great Grandson of a Slave” on [1977’s] More Sex and More Soul. And that song earned me a trip to Chicago to meet the president of the company. He flew me in from New York and took me out to dinner. At that time, he was trying to tell me that they were not interested in that type of music. And to cure that situation, he wanted to assign me an outside songwriter. I said, “Hold it! I’m writing stuff, and it’s selling!” But they thought I would be much bigger if I didn’t put out those types of songs.
“Impeach the President” has gone on to become a seminal breakbeat in hip-hop. What was your initial response to the sampling?
I was sitting at home one evening at the dinner table and heard a song on the radio. I didn’t recognize who it was, so I called my daughter, who was away at college, to see if she knew. She told me it was Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes.” But somehow, I didn’t get credited. I had a lawyer, but he messed over me. So I’m trying it again with a second attorney. In fact, I have a track on one of my CDs [Don’t Let Our Love Die] called “(If I Ever Get My) Feet Back on the Ground,” which talks about lawyers and all the people that have done me wrong. I’ve had about five lawyers that have messed over me. I was told by different people that “Impeach the President” was being used here and there. But I was so busy that I didn’t have time to listen to it. I first realized that it was something big when Shaggy and Janet Jackson used it on [“Luv Me, Luv Me”] for the soundtrack to the movie How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Then I started searching, and I’d found that hundreds of people had sampled it.
So it’s safe to say that you have yet to receive your just due in regard to publishing royalties from the sampling of that song?
When I went to court with one lawyer…things were looking good. Even the jurors came out and told me I had the case won. But that lawyer, man. I caught him and the opposing attorney having a private conference in the bathroom during the trial.
What do you hope that the new generation of musicians would take away from the legacy of your career?
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. So I hope that they use a real drummer and keep that art going. If not, what will become of the drummer? The new guys that come along will be inclined to pick up a drum machine over a set of drumsticks. So we’ll end up losing that art totally. Thirty to forty years down the road, we will have lost the drum, period. If you listen to my music, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Early on in my career, I used a guy out of Long Island named Earl Williams. The greatest drummer that ever lived. They say that Bernard Purdie was the greatest. But if you put the two together, I don’t think Bernard could stand up to this guy.
With all your experience taken into consideration, what would happen if someone offered Roy C a record deal today?
I wouldn’t sign with anybody else at this point. In fact, I got a phone call from a company (that shall remain nameless) recently. They expressed interest in buying my catalog. I laughed at the guy and said, “Man, you couldn’t give me ten million dollars for my catalog!” No way! When you have a catalog that’s out there and selling the way mine sells, it’s going to live forever. So why would I sell it? I believe it’s going to be bigger after I’m dead and gone.
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