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The Blues/Funk Futurism of Roger Troutman

From: American Studies
Volume 52, Number 4, 2013
pp. 119-123 | 10.1353/ams.2013.0125

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More than a decade after his tragic death, the sonic innovations of Roger Troutman—known simply as Roger and leader of the group called Zapp—continue to influence pop music. Contemporary artists such as Kanye, Akon, and T-Pain owe a tremendous debt to Roger’s brand of electronic funk. Though reigning supreme during the 1980s, his sound built on the commingling of technology and futuristic representations in film and television decades earlier. Beyond television and movie screens, African American musical artists created accessible avenues for futuristic representation through musical art. Lyrics, concepts, costumes, and album cover art, from a range of musical styles, evoked futuristic imagery set in outer space or imaginary places to frame commentaries on love, human possibility, politics, and racial conflict. Musical illustrations of the future were often textured by new technologies of sound used in scores for postwar science fiction film and television. Tonal companions to the American Aquarian age were wrought with technological enthusiasm and anxieties—most notably expressed in numerous guitar effects (popularized by Jimi Hendrix) and the synthesizer, which, in keeping with its namesake, created analogues to traditional sounds and synthesized altogether new ones.

Roger Troutman is most known for expanding the range and melodic possibilities of the talk box or voice box—a device that allows an artist to fuse vocal patterns with the sound emitted by electronic instruments and mimic speech. After more than twenty years as a regional midwestern act, Roger and his brothers’ group Zapp emerged with the 1980 single “More Bounce to the Ounce,” which introduced audiences to his signature talk box style. Roger described his use of the device with imagery that associated it with science fiction film and television: “I consider the voice box . . . like an African robot. . . . It says logical things that a computer says, but instead of saying them very drab and disgusting as a robot would say . . . I can sound computerized and I can also sound real funky.”1

Though precursors to this effect date back to the 1930s, the talk box emerged in popular music during the late 1960s, overlapping with the widespread use of synthesizers. Roger Troutman was in his early twenties when inspired by Stevie Wonder, who frequently used the talk box during live performances in the 1970s. Wonder’s maturation as an adult artist was distinguished by the specialized branding of his musical genius—his blindness notwithstanding, Wonder could conduct an entire recording, playing all of the instruments and doing all of the vocals. Throughout the 1970s, the recording studio expanded its place as the terrain for individualized expressions of musical genius—a path followed by many other artists, including Patrice Rushen, Rick James, and Prince. Roger Troutman was practically groomed for this brand of virtuosity, mastering numerous instruments as a child prodigy—the guitar, piano, bass, and harmonica. Having grown up in Hamilton, Ohio, just in between Dayton and Cincinnati, he and his brothers—Lester, Larry, and Terry—formed a band initially known as Little Roger and the Vels, then later Roger and the Human Body, and then Zapp.

Troutman recalled that his band Roger and the Human Body independently released the single “Freedom” on their own Troutman Bros. label, and it was a regional hit in 1975. “It was number 1 in the Ohio area,” he remarked. “We didn’t have any national distribution because we just put the record out . . . [w]e paid for it ourselves.”2 Many acts from Ohio and throughout the tristate area were able to ascend to regional stardom. The area was ripe with independent record labels and disc jockeys at stations like WDAO (Dayton) who frequently aired singles by local bands. Numerous artists who would never acquire deals with major record labels had scored local hits that were played on the radio and could be purchased at neighborhood record stores. The early, pre-synthesizer Roger sound had the steadiness of a James Brown–inspired groove with an unwavering natural electric bass line, choppy rhythm guitar licks and conga patterns. The only hint of the forthcoming electronic Roger and Zapp brand was a short guitar solo connected to a talk box, which sounded more like a distant effect than anything that...

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