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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.

Wednesday, Aug 14 2002

Page 3 of 5

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.

About The Author

P-Frank Williams


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