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?”
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.
“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.
Today, you can't ride 10 blocks on a sunny day in any predominantly African-American or Latino neighborhood in urban California without hearing the trademark West Coast funk that Troutman spearheaded. Whether it's the heavy bass and thick synthesizers of a Zapp original or a hip hop track propped up by a sample from one of the group's records, Troutman's music is played daily on black and pop radio. As rapper and actor Ice-T puts it, “Roger's music is a part of the backbone of hip hop, along with James Brown and George Clinton.”
That Zapp and Roger's bass-heavy sound would have a special impact on the West Coast is no coincidence. Unlike on the East Coast — particularly hip hop's New York City birthplace, where subway riders routinely hide their ears under tiny headphones — in California, Nevada, Washington, and other spots, tricked-out Cadillacs and Chevys were (and remain) the major means of cruising through the 'hood. [page]
Zapp's sound was practically custom-made for those cars, rattling their speakers as ridahs slumped deeper and deeper into the driver's seat, announcing their arrival before they hit the corner. Heads turned, and gangstas in cutoff khakis and house shoes glared as they rolled up. But a scowl could quickly turn into a nod of love if those speakers were bumping “Computer Love”; one's musical selection confirmed one's credentials. And along with the proper oldies, no self-respecting lowrider left the garage without a Zapp tape.
“Roger Troutman and the funk really struck a chord with the people here on the West Coast,” says Davey D. “It probably goes back to how laid-back things are in California. It's a driving culture.”
“The West Coast has always embraced funk,” agrees Rhino Records funk expert Barry Benson, who's produced two Zapp and Roger anthologies. “I think it's because dance music never really meant the same to the West as the East. We've always been on some low, downtempo, 80-beats-per-minute dance music. That was the R&B out here. Even in the disco days, you still had Cameo, the Barkays, and Lakeside doing their thing, all those real laid-back kind of rider groups.”
Zapp and Roger first blew up in 1980, with the eponymous debut Zapp, buoyed by the success of “More Bounce,” which reached as high as No. 2 on the R&B charts. The song hit the streets when many of the West Coast's hip hop legends were teenagers or younger, still tying their Pumas with the fattest laces available and still absorbing the music they would shuffle and reinvent years later on the mike. One of those kids was Pacoima native James Robinson, aka J-Ro of L.A.'s infamous lush-hop trio Tha Alkaholiks. An avid Zapp fan, he and partner Harlan “Wolf” Morgan spent two years after Troutman's death putting together the tribute album Still More Bounce. Now out on WolfPac Records, the disc was a shoestring operation; when J-Ro started the project, he figured his paltry budget would keep top-notch artists away. But word of the tribute spread, and talent like Ice-T, Snoop Dogg, singer Chico DeBarge, Cypress Hill's B-Real, Xzibit, Ras Kass, and many others all ultimately jumped on board. For free.
“The man defined West Coast hip hop with his sound, with his instruments, and his talkbox,” says Dr. Dre protégé Xzibit in a recorded tribute on the album. “Countless numbers of records have been made off this man's art. … If it wasn't for you, Big Dog, we wouldn't be here.”
Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, as gangsta rap rose in prominence, West Coast hip hop producers borrowed — and often outright stole — from Troutman. “It's so hard-core,” Ice Cube says of Troutman's music. “[Songs] like 'More Bounce,' 'So Ruff, So Tuff,' 'Heard It Through the Grapevine' — these songs are not your typical 'Baby, come love me …' [songs]. These are motherfuckin' songs that were the gangster rap of their time. … He was very important to hip hop.”
J-Ro and Tha Alkaholiks specifically tried not to copy Troutman's sound. Nonetheless, they admit they were heavily influenced by him. “We loved Roger the same way as everyone else,” says J-Ro. “He was just a part of the West Coast culture. That's what you heard at every party. He, along with George Clinton, Parliament, and the rest of those cats. It was a part of the gang culture, and regular folks loved it as well. As far as the parties were concerned, once they played some [of Roger's hit cover] 'Heard It Through the Grapevine' or 'Flashlight,' that's when it was time to go, because that's when people were getting rowdy and throwing their sets up.”
Even the great ones stole from Troutman. The Notorious B.I.G. borrowed from Roger's vault for “Hypnotize,” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” Tupac Shakur's manifesto of self-love, sampled Roger's “Be Alright.” Rap group EPMD's career-making hit, “You Gots to Chill,” bit “More Bounce” all the way to the core. In fact, to this day, “More Bounce to the Ounce” remains one of hip hop's most sampled songs ever.
Dayton, Ohio, is just about the last place you'd look for the roots of West Coast funk. The blue-collar home of the National Cash Register Co., Dayton's the city where the Wright Brothers first started dabbling in aviation, the birthplace of track legend Edwin Moses and writer Paul Lawrence Dunbar. And it was here, in this slow stretch of the Midwest a world away from the streets of California's inner cities, that the Troutman family band built its skills.
They weren't supposed to be in Ohio. When Dock Troutman, grandfather to the Troutman brothers, headed north from his native Georgia in the 1930s, he was aiming for Detroit. But the former sharecropper made it only as far as Hamilton, Ohio, where he found success as a businessman, selling ice in the summer and coal in the winter and serving as the local black bail bondsman year-round.
As it turns out, Ohio was the perfect breeding ground for Zapp's hybridized brand of funk. Located close to the musical hotbeds of Chicago and Detroit and down-South spots like Memphis, the Troutmans had access to the best that black music had to offer, from soul to blues to rock and even country. And Roger Troutman soaked it all up.
“Roger was born to [perform],” says Lester Troutman, Zapp's drummer and, with his thick, black hair, bushy eyebrows, and clear, white eyes, a near carbon copy of his slain older brother.
“Dude was a comedian, man,” agrees Terry “Zapp” Troutman, the youngest brother, whose nickname gave the band its name. “He was the type that would crack on you no matter what time of the day it was. When we were kids, Roger never got a whupping. My mother and father never hit him. You gotta have skills to do that. If you can get past your parents, you have to have something going for you.” [page]
Roger's natural charisma was paired with a precocious musical talent. “When he was 2 and 3, he tried to mimic what was on the radio by playing a broom,” says Lester. “We would listen to a Victrola record player, and Roger [would be] like, 'I have to learn.'” Roger's father bought him a guitar when he was just a few years old, and Roger bartered for lessons. “There used to be an old guy walking around who would teach Roger for food,” Lester says. “My mom would cook him a meal and he would show Roger some chords and notes. But Roger was a talent, man! He picked it up from there and ran with it.”
When Roger was barely in his teens, he and Lester hit the road as Little Roger and the Vels, playing YMCA and YWCA dances, with Roger at times playing the bass, the organ, and the guitar all at the same time. “My dad would take Roger around to any stage he could get him on,” Lester recalls. “TV shows and all kinds of little stuff. He won prizes and money. He was playing the guitar and singing. We would go to the clubs or Legions and we would play blues and R&B. I was, like, 6 or 7. Blues, Poison Ivy, Junior Walker, or the Supremes. Anything popular, we would imitate them.”
The boys' father, Rufus Troutman, sent Roger to a music school in Cincinnati, and when Roger came back, he taught his brothers and other kids on the block to play bass, guitar, and drums. Rhino's Benson says that early training proved invaluable for the Troutman clan.
“It's really incredible when you find out that everyone can produce and play about three or four instruments,” says Benson, who's also worked with Bootsy Collins and Parliament. “It kinda created a discipline for them that you don't see in today's music.”
By the early '70s, Roger and Lester had been joined in the group by older brother Larry, who'd returned from Vietnam to become the band's conga player and road manager; youngest brother Terry joined in 1977. Now playing as Roger and the Human Body, the Troutman brothers had a regional hit in the late '70s with “Freedom,” and in the winter of 1978, they caught a break when Bootsy Collins' brother, Phelps “Catfish” Collins, saw them play at the Cincinnati club Never on Sundays. Catfish was impressed with their stage presence and promised to tell Bootsy about them. “Bootsy called the next day and asked could we be in Detroit,” remembers Terry, at the time still a teenager. “We said, 'Heck yeah!'” Within days, the band was in Detroit, and Parliament leader George Clinton was hooking them up with Warner Bros., where they recorded their eponymous debut album, having changed their name to Zapp along the way.
Zapp was a hit, with Roger's talkbox giving his not-so-strong singing voice a futuristic, almost omnipotent Black Wiz sound, one the family rode to a decade of success. The first three Zapp albums went gold and Roger's solo releases all eventually went platinum, with All the Greatest Hits selling over 2 million copies. Zapp toured as many as 300 days a year. They scored Top 10 hits with songs like “I Can Make You Dance,” “Doo Wa Ditty (Blow That Thing),” “Dance Floor (Part 1),” and the slow, smooth groove of “Computer Love” with Shirley Murdock. Roger, meanwhile, had solo hits (performing simply as Roger) with 1981's cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and 1987's “I Want to Be Your Man,” which topped the R&B chart and reached No. 3 on the pop chart.
Taking a cue from their grandfather Dock, whose business successes had planted the family's roots in Ohio, the Troutman brothers used their record industry money to form Troutman Enterprises in 1980. The company built and rehabilitated hundreds of lower-income homes in the Dayton area, hiring and training unskilled people to do the work. By the mid-'80s, Larry had put aside his congas to manage the band and run the business full time, picking up the nickname “Dollars” for his business savvy.
“Larry always believed that you could have platinum records and fame but still end up with nothing,” says Dale Degroat, who joined Zapp as a keyboard player in 1984. “He believed that the houses would survive longer than the music.”
Larry Troutman was right. By the late 1980s, the rise of hip hop and the commercial decline of funk had blunted Zapp and Roger's appeal as a mainstream act. 1989's Zapp V was the last original output as a band for one of the most commercially successful and consistent black music cliques of the decade, and Bridging the Gap, released two years later as a Roger solo record, marked the singer's last new album.
But the '90s marked difficult times for Troutman Enterprises as well, with the family business sinking into bankruptcy in 1992, reportedly after funding fell through on a planned real estate development project, leading to a cash crunch. Court files showed debts at nearly $4 million, along with more than $400,000 owed in back taxes, and by 1996, a judge changed the case from a bankruptcy reorganization to a liquidation. Once soaring, the Troutman family's fortunes were in difficult straits.
Roger Troutman's fortunes, meanwhile, were about to bounce back big time, his influence on a younger generation of musicians poised to bubble up and explode.
While he was working on it, Roger Troutman had some major doubts about the song that would herald his artistic comeback and become one of the biggest hits of his career. Actually, he hated it. [page]
“Dre and Roger were in the session,” says Terry, remembering the story as Roger told it. The pair had met several years earlier when Dre called Troutman for help with a talkbox effect on Snoop Dogg's first album. Now they were working on “California Love,” which Dr. Dre originally intended to put on his own album. “There was a song called 'Woman to Woman,' by Joe Cocker. … It was funky. Dre took a loop of that, and that was all [he] had. Roger was like, 'No.' He said he kept challenging [Dre], saying, 'Are you sure you want me to do this?'” Dre was sure, and pushed back. “So Roger did the best he could. He really didn't have any lyrics. He just did some ad-libs on it.”
The year was 1996, and Tupac Shakur was fresh out of jail, bailed out by Suge Knight and working for Death Row. He needed a hit, a song that would jump out of the gate, and unlike Roger Troutman, he liked “California Love” and Troutman's now-classic chorus: “California … knows how to party/ California … knows how to party/ In the citaaay … of L.A./ In the citaaay … of good ol' Watts/ In the citaaay … the city of Compton/ We keep it rockin'!/ We keep it rockin'!” Released as part of Shakur's 27-song double album All Eyez on Me, “California Love” exploded on the pop charts, selling a whopping 2 million copies en route to becoming the rapper's biggest-selling single. In 1997, “California Love” earned Shakur, Dre, and Troutman a Grammy nomination for best rap performance by a duo or group.
The song's success shocked Troutman. “Rog just looked at me and said, 'They went for it,'” says Terry. “He and Tupac performed it a couple of times in L.A. at the Strand. Suge was there. Aww, man! We did the song, and when it came time for Pac's verse, he came out and people went crazy. You couldn't even hear him rapping, they were so far outta their minds.”
“California Love” marked the beginning of Roger's artistic resurgence. In short order, he was handpicked by Martin Lawrence to write the score for A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, and was beginning to get calls and offers from all over the world. Terry says Roger loved the newfound attention. “He did all the way up to the day he died. And we love it. People are still sampling us. Roger was a stand-up type of guy. Real down-to-earth. Obviously, he left an indelible mark.
“For guys 20 and 30 years younger than him to want to use his music to make their music? To Roger, that was a rejuvenation. Ask any successful musician and they'll tell you that you have to always reinvent yourself. [The rappers] did that for Roger.”
Police found Roger Troutman at about 20 minutes past 7 that April morning in 1999, in the alley behind Roger Tee Enterprises, the family's Salem Avenue recording studio. Roger had four bullets from a .357 Smith & Wesson revolver in his torso, two in the front and two in the back. Witnesses said he'd been shot as he tried to get out of the passenger seat of a black sedan.
Minutes later, dispatchers got a call: A black Lincoln had slammed into a tree less than a mile away. When officers arrived at the 2100 block of Harvard Boulevard, they found Larry Troutman in the driver's seat, dead from a self-inflicted shot to the head. The bullet, a coroner later confirmed, came from the same .357.
“My brothers and I rode around and tried to collect our thoughts,” says Lester of the days following the murder-suicide. “We went to my sister's house, and we wouldn't let nobody come in for a week. … We got through it with love and bonding.
“A week before was Columbine, and I think there was some type of military conflict [going on]. My mom was watching TV, and she was like, 'I can understand how all those boys' mothers feel.' That killed me.”
Word of the shootings ricocheted around Dayton, with pastors somberly reporting the news during Sunday services. The community was stunned.
“It was just so unthinkable,” says Dale Degroat. “Larry was the guy in the beginning who told me, 'A lot of money is gonna cross your hands. But never let the money be more important than the people.'”
Nobody knows exactly why Larry Troutman did what he did, but family members say Roger wanted to break off the business relationship with his older brother and manager. Roger's career, independent of Zapp, was on an upswing, and just when Roger's fortunes could have brought new money into the flailing Troutman Enterprises, he was asking for a split from Zapp and, particularly, from Larry's management.
But it was almost certainly more than purely an issue of money. Roger was 47 years old, Larry was 54; for more than a quarter of a century, from Little Roger and the Vels to Roger and the Human Body to Zapp and Roger to just Roger, they'd been part of a team. Now Roger wanted to break that up.
“At a certain point, Roger wanted to do his own thing,” says Terry, “which presented a conflict. And so therefore, you've got a conflict that was deeper than business. It was their whole life they'd been together. And then for it to break off? That was a strong move, man. Strong move.”
Asked if he resents Larry for taking his brother and best friend, Lester answers quickly.
“Of course I resent it. I resent that my brother Roger is gone more than anything else in the world. I resent whatever sickness came over Larry that caused him to do something like that.” [page]
Meanwhile, Zapp has reassembled without Roger and begun touring. The group recently appeared at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine alongside funk and hip hop stars ranging from the Gap Band to Morris Day and the Time to Doug E. Fresh and the Sugar Hill Gang. The show, a tribute to Roger Troutman, marked the first time Zapp had performed in front of such a massive crowd without the band's charismatic lead singer and guitarist.
“People see us and say we haven't lost it,” says Degroat. “But the truth of the matter is that we lost everything. But God can restore. Roger's not replaceable, but they say that if you have ever built anything solid, anything of value, then it will last long after you're gone.”
Roger and Larry Troutman were laid to rest with a joint funeral six days after the shooting, in Monroe, Ohio, halfway between the brothers' native Hamilton and their business and residential home in Dayton. Some 2,000 to 3,000 friends, relatives, and fans packed Solid Rock Church for the service; hundreds more had to settle for a closed-circuit feed outside the main sanctuary. Bootsy Collins was there to pay his respects to the musicians he'd helped break more than two decades earlier, as were members of fellow funk elite the Gap Band, the Ohio Players, and Lakeside. Blues singer Gerald Levert sent flowers, as did Warner Bros. Records. And Rufus Troutman III, nephew to Roger and Larry, performed “Amazing Grace.”
He sang it, naturally, through a talkbox.