Music: The talkbox & the .357
Roger Troutman had lived a favored life. But on April 25, 1999, he died a premature and unsought death.
As the fourth of 10 children growing up in Hamilton, Ohio, near Dayton, Roger’s ebullient humor and charisma marked him as special at an early age. He started playing guitar before he was 10, and showed enough natural prowess playing local dances that his father bundled him off to a music school in Cincinnati where he expanded his instrumental vocabulary to include bass, keyboards and drums. He was cutting singles while still in his teens, and by the time he was 29, the band he had formed with several of his brothers (including his eldest brother, Larry, who managed the band) had been signed by George Clinton to his Uncle Jam record label, and newly christened as “Zapp.”
If you’re a fan of funk or hip hop, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Zapp’s music, whether you recognize the name or not. The band exploded onto urban music charts in 1980 with their classic slab of heavy funk, “More Bounce to the Ounce,” and continued to rack up huge R&B hits like “Heartbreaker” and “Computer Love” during the next few years. Zapp’s music was characterized by big, fat basslines, contrapuntal funk guitar licks and Roger Troutman’s signature vocals, which were usually delivered through a talkbox — that strange, relatively low-tech cousin to the vocoder that allows a singer to send the output from an amplifier into his mouth, where the sound can be shaped into words, and then back out to a speaker. Roger sometimes called his talkbox the “Nasty Straw,” because the plastic tube would cause any singer employing it to drool profusely, and it had to be washed constantly or become infectious. But Roger used the talkbox copiously, probably to help hide the fact that his singing was the weakest of his musical talents.
Still, it was as a singer, not a guitarist, that Troutman scored his biggest commercial success. After Zapp’s fortunes floundered in the early 1990s, Roger found his career newly ascendant in 1995, thanks to hip-hop artists who had been sampling Zapp songs since the earliest days of the genre. It was that year that Dr. Dre asked Troutman to sing on a new track he was producing for 2Pac. Roger was doubtful, but cobbled together some lyrics from a couple of his old songs and went into the studio with Dre, armed with his trusty Electro Harmonix talkbox.
The result, of course, was “California Love,” a double-platinum hit in 1996. The song netted Grammy nominations for Troutman (as well as 2Pac and Dr. Dre), and rekindled his career. But with success came family problems. By 1999, Roger had decided he wanted to part ways with brother Larry, who was still acting as his manager. Larry quarreled with his more famous sibling.
Then, in the early hours of April 25, Larry apparently drove Roger in his black Lincoln sedan to Roger Tee Enterprises, the family’s recording studio named after the younger Troutman. As Roger got out of the car, Larry pumped four bullets from a .357 Smith & Wesson handgun into the singer’s back and stomach, and peeled away, leaving Roger to die on the curb. Larry drove a few blocks before putting the gun to his head and pulling the trigger. He was found dead where the car had plunged into a tree. It was a senseless crime that ended a career so fortuitous, it rose twice.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.
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