Zapp Taught Funk How to Talk, Then a Tragedy Silenced Them

If Stevie Wonder never croaked the alphabet through a plastic tube on a childrens’ show, a funk pioneer’s career arguably wouldn’t have happened. One day in 1973, Wonder stopped by Sesame Street to perform a tune he wrote for the show — and when Roger Troutman watched, his ears pricked up. “A-B-C / 1-2-3 / You and me,” Wonder crooned in a friendly, computerized voice, answered by a trio of female singers.

Lester Troutman would tell me that [his brother’s] reaction landed somewhere in the neighborhood of, ‘That’s the baddest shit ever!’” Dave Tompkins recalled in his 2010 book How to Wreck a Nice Beach, a history of the vocoder, or talk-box. Such was Roger’s introduction to the quirky instrument that would shape the rest of his life. How does it work? It’s simple, Lester says in the book: “The keyboard acts as your voice. It’s a pantomime. A lip-synch. You’re shaping the sound.”

Popular 1970s rock songs, from Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” to Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do,” had already featured a talk-box, but soon, Roger and his brothers would use it in funk to terrific effect. Forty years ago today (July 28), their band, Zapp, released their self-titled debut album, which had a ripple effect for decades via samples by hip-hop heavyweights. The band effectively ended 19 years later in a murder-suicide, but in regard to the rap game, their debut sounded a bell that would never be unrung.

Zapp was formed in 1978 by multi-instrumentalist Roger and drummer Lester, along with their brothers Terry on bass and Larry on percussion, from the germ of their previous project, Roger & the Human Body. Two non-family members — vocalist Bobby Glover and keyboardist Gregory Jackson — rounded out the lineup. “Before we had hit records, playing in nightclubs, doing cover songs, every time I would use the voice-box, people would be dancing,” Roger recalled in a 1987 interview. “It seemed to hypnotize them.”

That mesmeric device caught the ears of ParliamentFunkadelic’s guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins and bassist Bootsy Collins. By making a few crucial tweaks, P-Funk’s leader helped whip “More Bounce to the Ounce” into shape.

George Clinton just happened to step into the studio this night and he really liked this one part that we had already re-did on ‘Funky Bounce,’” Collins, who played guitar on and co-produced Zapp, later recalled. “He advised us to loop that section and put the other talk-box parts over it.”

The band named the effervescent “More Bounce to the Ounce” after a 1950s Pepsi slogan, which advertised that the beverage had twice the sugar of Coke. (A selling point that’s difficult to imagine in 2020.) Along with the kinetic, fraternal rhythm section of Terry and Lester, the talk-box truly makes the track stick. And as a whole, there’s bounce in every ounce of Zapp. Even when the brothers simmer down the BPM on the after-hours groover “Be Alright,” the album doesn’t lose any of its momentum.

Upon release, “More Bounce to the Ounce” cracked the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 86, but was in its afterlife that it truly grew legs. At press time, the track has been sampled at least 305 times; Public Enemy (“Anti-N****r Machine”), The Notorious B.I.G. (“Going Back to Cali”), Brownside & Eazy-E (“Eastside Drama”) and Eminem (“Venom”) drew from this well. To say nothing of Zapp’s “Be Alright,” which was sampled by Big Daddy Kane (“Prince of Darkness”), 2Pac (“Keep Ya Head Up”) and Kendrick Lamar (“Poe Mans Dreams”), among other MCs.

Ice Cube, who sampled “More Bounce to the Ounce” on “The Bomb” and “Look Who’s Burnin’,” first heard the track when he was 11. “I was in the sixth grade. We’d stayed after school. We had this dude named Mr. Lock, and he used to bring in his radio with these pop-lockers,” the rapper born O’Shea Jackson recalled to SF Weekly in 2002. “The guys came in wearing all black with white gloves. 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.”

Zapp exited George Clinton’s orbit in 1981 and soldiered on to varying levels of success. Rolling Stone declared 1982’s Zapp II to be better than its predecessor and its single “Dance Floor” shot to No. 1 on the R&B Singles chart, but Zapp mostly limped through the rest of the decade until Roger and Larry quit the band after 1989’s Zapp Vibe. The band had a brief commercial resurgence in the 1990s when Warner Bros. released two best-of collections under the name Zapp & Roger.

The end of Zapp in its original form arrived violently. On the morning of April 25, 1999, at a recording studio in Dayton, Ohio, Larry shot Roger four times, fled in his car, drove into a tree, then turned the gun on himself. While the motive for the murder remains unclear, their family-run company Troutman Enterprises filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy and Roger firing Larry as his manager were both likely factors.

Roger is no longer around to watch Zapp shape the hip-hop landscape. But he walked so Ice Cube could run: “It was the first thing that was really fly to me,” he said about “More Bounce to the Ounce.” “[The song] 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.” Same goes for Ice-T: “Roger’s music is a part of the backbone of hip-hop, along with James Brown and George Clinton,” he declared in the same article.

Almost exactly 26 years after Roger watched Stevie Wonder on Sesame Street, his nephew Clet Troutman took the stage at his funeral. He slipped a tube into his mouth and sang to the assembled mourners. “I once was lost, but now I am found,” Clet warbled. “Was blind, but now I see.”

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