Funk is a much maligned and easily dismissed musical category, but it takes a certain amount of flair and know how to make it work effectively, as well as sound effortless. Dayton Ohio native, Roger Troutman, was an innovator of the genre in that he took the basic elements of the classic 1970s funk sound of the Ohio Players and the P-funk of Funkadelic, then added new technology, notably his talking box, without losing the very essence of the music, The three albums Troutman recorded at the head of Zapp are a testament to a brief period during the very late 1970s and up to the mid-1980s when Zapp invaded the dancefloors with a highly infectious and distinctive groove. Maybe it is simply in the blood in the state of Ohio because a number of other groups surfaced at roughly the same time and these included the likes of Aura, Dayton, Lakeside, Slave and Sun. Second only to the Ohio Players, who enjoyed major pop and R & B success, Zapp emerged out of a mid-1970s group, Roger and the Human Body. In fact Troutman was something of a child prodigy and the group first signed to an independent label, scoring minor local hits before no less than George Clinton spotted their talent and suggested they change their name. Troutman’s brother Roger had an unusual nickname of ‘Zapp’ and this fitted ideally into the band’s new image and signing to major label Warner proved to be the impetus the group needed.
Roger Troutman had already written a piece that was destined for stardom and in August of 1980, a debut 45 was released and one that would define Zapp. Synth bass, funky rhythm guitar and those soon to be famous talk-box vocals (similar to the effect that Herbie Hancock had produced on the vocoder), ‘More bounce to the ounce’ invaded the airwaves and was simply too strong a dancefloor groove to fail, with bassist and former Funkadelic member Bootsy Collins propelling the bass line. It went all the way to number two in the R & B charts, and entered into the Billboard top one hundred. The full-length album version is contained within and a stunning example of what P-funk could come up with in the right hands.
More significantly from a historical perspective,the song would later become one of the most sampled funk tunes of all time and re-introduce the music of Zapp to a younger generation. As a lead off to the debut Zapp album, it could do no wrong, but Troutman was a versatile musician with varied musical interests and soulful ballads and jazz-inflected guitar licks from the leader on the disco-funk of ‘Freedom’ made for an interesting album.
Avowedly stronger in content, ‘Zapp II’ is arguably the finest achievement of the group and spawned another hit single in ‘Dance floor’, which served to lift the album to another number two spot in the R & B charts, even if pop success continued to elude the band. Funk of this virtuosity was seemingly too complex for the general pop audience to comprehend at this juncture, though just around the corner Prince would deliver his own brand to an appreciative mass audience. A second single, ‘Doo wa ditty (blow that thing)’, with Troutman on talk-box and harmonica kept the listener and dancer entertained, but there was more subtlety elsewhere with Part II of ‘A touch of jazz (Playin’ kinda ruff)’ bookending the album and following on from track number two, ‘Playin’ kinda ruff’ gave the project as a whole a more left-field approach. A fuller brass section from the first album gave the recording in turn a more timeless feel.
It is important to stress that Roger Troutman was, at the same time, carving out a parallel career as solo artist, and just a few months after ‘Zapp II’, a debut solo album, ‘The many facets of Roger Troutman’, was released and included a terrific re-working of Marvin Gaye’s opus, ‘I heard ti through the grapevine’. Unfortunately,none of Roger’s solo work is included here, which is a pity.A final and third Zapp album was released in 1983 and opened up with ‘Heartbreaker’ as the initial single. By now technology was evolving rapidly with hip-hop and electro making inroads and the freshness of the first two recordings became somewhat lost third time round. Moreover, Troutman was increasingly interested in solo and production ventures and preferred to focus on those. In particular he produced vocalist Shirley Murdock and then entered into a collaboration with hip-hop artist Tupac. It was this that would catapult Roger Troutman back into the public eye as a new generation of musicians discovered his earlier work and hip-hop artists such as Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Snoop Dog each in turn sampled ‘More bounce to the ounce’. Sadly, just as his work was being appreciated once again, Roger Troutman’s life was cut tragically short aged forty-seven in 1999 when his own brother shot him dead before shooting himself. A new re-incarnation of Zapp with two surviving siblings emerged briefly in 2003 to pay homage to their brother, before the brand image and sound was laid to bed. An excellent introduction to the band, handily assembled on two CDs, with plenty of graphic illustrations of the albums and singles and once again Charles Waring does a sterling job of chronicling the development of the band.