California Loved

Roger Troutman and his family brought funk to West Coast hip hop and influenced everyone from Ice Cube to Tupac Shakur. Then his older brother put four bullets in him.

Lester Troutman knew something was wrong the minute he turned on his cell that morning.

It was April 25, 1999 -- a Sunday -- and Troutman already had 25 voice-mail messages. Before he could check them, the phone rang.

"Have you heard?"

Born to Perform: Roger (standing, center) and Larry 
(second from right) with the band during Zapp's 
Born to Perform: Roger (standing, center) and Larry (second from right) with the band during Zapp's heyday.
Born to Perform: Roger (standing, center) and Larry 
(second from right) with the band during Zapp's 
Born to Perform: Roger (standing, center) and Larry (second from right) with the band during Zapp's heyday.

It was singer Shirley Murdock, a longtime friend of Zapp, the seminal '80s funk band Lester had formed with his brothers more than two decades earlier.

"Heard what?"

"It's Larry," she sobbed. "He's dead."

Lester's next question was both inevitable and horrifying. His oldest brother was dead, and his thoughts immediately turned to his best friend and other brother. "Where's Roger?"

Shot as well, Murdock replied. By Larry.

That's where memory gets hazy for Lester, where he loses all understanding of time and space. Tensions had been mounting between Larry and Roger -- over money, over the family business, over Roger's career as a solo artist and Larry's role as his manager. But not even their own family saw this coming. Larry Troutman had shot his superstar baby brother, had put four bullets filled with love and hate into Roger's torso in an alley behind the family's recording studio in Dayton, Ohio. Then Larry turned the gun on himself, leaving the first family of Ohio funk stunned and grieving. And the shooting reverberated far beyond the Troutman family, far beyond Dayton city limits. Roger Troutman had been a funk visionary, the man who'd popularized the vocoder talkbox as an instrument and one of the most frequently sampled artists in the history of hip hop -- particularly in the influential strain known as West Coast funk. His murder, and the unthinkable way it went down, was unforeseeable, unfathomable, inexplicable. It was not the way Roger's remarkable life was supposed to end.

Lester Troutman ran out into the street, dropped to his knees, and cried.

Ice Cube remembers the first time he heard "More Bounce to the Ounce." Remembers it down to the last detail.

"I was in the sixth grade," says Cube, beaming as he recalls Zapp's bass-heavy hit single. The actor/director/writer and original gangsta rapper is sitting inside his trailer in San Pedro, Calif., where's he putting the finishing touches on the film Friday After Next. "We'd stayed after school. We had this dude named Mr. Lock, and he used to bring in his radio with these pop-lockers. He used to teach [the dance group] the L.A. Lockers, and he would do community service in after-school programs. He knew a lot of kids and introduced them to all the new dances."

The year was 1980, and the 11-year-old Ice Cube, then known to his classmates as O'Shea Jackson, had never seen pop-lockers before, and he'd definitely never heard music like the nearly 10-minute-long funk classic from Roger Troutman and his brothers. "The guys came in wearing all black with white gloves," Cube recalls. "He put on that song 'More Bounce,' and they started pop-locking. And I think from that visual, from seeing that, it was my first introduction into hip hop. Period. I didn't know nothing about nothing. I hadn't heard 'Rapper's Delight' yet. It was the first thing that was really fly to me. They started dancing, and since 'More Bounce' goes on forever, they just got down. I just think that was a rush of adrenaline for me, like a chemical reaction in my brain."

Cube's memory isn't atypical. "More Bounce" and Zapp had that effect on black and brown kids growing up all over California in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Davey D, who hosts a local hip hop show on KPFA-FM (94.1), remembers hearing "More Bounce" growing up in New York. But Troutman's music was rare on the East Coast. "A lot of New Yorkers didn't listen to that whole funk vibe as we were coming up," he says. "It was more commonplace in the Bay [Area]. I think too that it had something to do with musical training. In New York not as many people played instruments. We didn't have a band or none of that. Out here, damn near everybody played an instrument. It was a whole different type of orientation toward music."

Sandwiched between the funk era of Parliament/Funkadelic and Bootsy Collins and the pioneering Left Coast hip hop acts like Mixmaster Spade, Ice-T, and Uncle Jam's Army, Zapp and Roger (or Roger and Zapp, or simply Zapp, depending on which album cover you're looking at) laid a musical foundation for Pacific Coast ridahs. Known for their thundering handclaps, guttural electric guitars, and trademark talkbox, an instrument that ran Roger's vocals through a keyboard (he once called it an "African robot, a ghetto robot"), Roger, Larry, Terry, and Lester rose to national prominence with their computer pop 22 years ago. Taking nods from the funk, soul, disco, and R&B music of the 1970s, and deeply influenced by the funk bubbling up in their native Ohio (from acts like Slave, the Ohio Players, and Sugafoot), Zapp and Roger altered the sonic landscape and unknowingly created an endless supply of samples to be raided later by hip hoppers from Oakland, Long Beach, Watts, Compton, Fresno, and San Diego. In short, Roger Troutman and his brothers became the forefathers of West Coast hip hop without ever intending to, influencing producers from Dr. Dre to DJ Quik, from Bosko to DaMizza, and others.

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