On Golden Throat: Zapp frontman Roger Troutman popularized the talk box

Excerpted from Dave Tompkins’s vocoder book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, published by Stop Smiling Books/Melville House.

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Roger Troutman of Zapp

 

“It’s so crazy, it just might work.” –The Muppets

Muppet of My Mind

By the time Stevie Wonder got to Sesame Street, Cookie Monster had already driven a stolen steam engine into a game show. A blue guy in overalls cried, “Hey, that’s my train!” A purple banker in whiskers asked for his cane. An orange thing ran around with jumbled fangs and a poof of eyebrows lifted from the forehead of Leonid Brezhnev. The show was Beat the Time, and its host, Guy Smiley, had lost control. He could be heard shouting Cookie Monster’s name as creatures frittered away nervous energy across the TV screen. A loose flap of hair leapt about Smiley’s head, a thing in itself, egging on the chaos.

 

Originally published as “Golden Throat” in Wax Poetics Issue 35

 

Cookie Monster was typically incoherent: a fuzzy bathroom rug with a rag-bag voice, trying to high-five the host (“Hi, Guy!”), his pupils jiggling everywhere at once, near lysergic, perhaps still feeling the effects from that appearance on Dick Cavett, when his stomach exploded after eating a time machine.

Backstage, a cubby full of reserve plastic eyeballs awaited its chance.

Sesame Street special guest Stevie Wonder tried to make sense of it all, assembling this herky-jerky riot of felt and foam inside his head.

What’s going on?

Cookie Monster has stolen a train.

Everybody okay? 

No less confused was Sesame Street’s target audience (age six, gnawing on a Matchbox truck) when Stevie later appeared on the show with a plastic tube that drooled, non-retractably, from his mouth and into a Moog synthesizer. Stevie’s bass bufo voice was certainly not his own, a strep croak that made Kermit green with—“Hi-ho-ulp!”

Sesame Street’s most important demographic that day was a twenty-two-year-old man who would spend the rest of his life sticking vinyl hardware tubing in his mouth. If there was ever a time when Roger Troutman should’ve been watching Sesame Street, it was that day in 1973, when it aired in Hamilton, Ohio. (Luckily, a younger cousin had it on.) Lester Troutman would tell me that Roger’s reaction landed somewhere in the neighborhood of “that’s the baddest shit ever!”

Called the talk box, Stevie’s gadget would be a nice addition for Roger, then already fluent in fifteen or so instruments.

As Stevie Wonder sang a three count, his pitch bounded from tree-trunk baritone up into fried cat yowl. He was revamping the Sesame Street theme into something nastier than a grouch in a trash can yet faintly redolent of a Honeycomb breakfast chant. Newfangled as the talk box seemed, it wasn’t a stretch for a children’s show where one learned to count (ah! ah!) and spell with animated noises (e.g., the letter b bouncing around to a vibes solo), where letters and numbers became characters, encouraging kids to hear things differently if not reinvent them all together. Sesame Street was musique concrète.

To a child, the talk box was tool of the avant-garde. Back then, I would lip-sync to Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” but do the talk-box solo by mashing my face into a Bjorn Borg tennis racquet, thinking the catgut grid would further convince the effect. (It helped that I wore a medieval anti-warp racquet press around my head.) But what sounded like a Luden-starved snake alert (boa-whoa-wow) with Joe Walsh became an actual word with a purpose—and weight—in Zapp’s ten-minute hit, “More Bounce to the Ounce.”

Though the talk box is no friend to intelligibility, its principle is sixth-grade science fair: bypass amp, pipe sound through tube, replace larynx with guitar or keyboard, turn mouth into speaker, hang on to teeth. “The keyboard acts as your voice,” says Lester Troutman. “It’s a pantomime. A lip-synch. You’re shaping the sound.”

“It’s not hard getting the note to the mouth,” says Michael “Mico Wave” Lane, a talk-box vet from Champaign, Illinois, who first met Roger in 1981. “If I blow through a garden hose and you’re at the other end—you become my tone. It’s learning how to play that’s hard. You use a lot of harmonica techniques when using the talk box. It’s learning how to use your mouth.”

Zapp with Roger Troutman

 

Watch a Mug Take Hold

This brassy squawk would be the voice of Zapp, a 1980s slap-funk outfit from Hamilton, Ohio, plopped conveniently between the R&B hubs of Dayton and Cincinnati. A selfless, garage-grown operation, Roger Troutman and his brothers Lester, Larry, and Terry would cover anything from Rufus to Zeppelin (Lester says he studied John Bonham’s foot). Often, the talk box would stand in for Chaka Khan, before Shirley Murdock joined the group as a vocalist and songwriter. “As good as Roger was on the talk box, he was three times better on guitar,” says Robert “Bigg Robb” Smith, taken under Zapp’s wing at age eleven.

In the late 1960s, it was Little Roger and the Vels, with Lester Troutman on drums and Roger on just about everything else. Bootsy Collins first met Roger at the Soul Lounge in Cincinnati when they were fourteen, just kids trying to figure it out. “Roger had a real support group,” says Bootsy. “The only support group I had was a bottle of Ripple. His dad always made sure that Roger had a cool way to travel, like in a mobile home. We was lucky if somebody stopped to pick us up while hitchhiking. It gave us an incentive to get better. We didn’t want to have to jump out of hotel-room windows anymore.”

By 1977, Roger and the Human Body had released their first talk-box single, “Freedom.” (Lester: “If I find my copy, I’m not giving it to you!”) The oldest brother, Larry Troutman, was then just growing into his role of managing the band.

 

“I was always liking the fact that Roger not only had his brothers with him, but his dad went everywhere with them,” says Bootsy. “It was something I could only wish for, because I never knew my dad. So he had the perfect situation to make it out here in crop-duster land. Roger’s brothers were the backbone. I would like to think that I was the Other Brotha from Another that just happened to fit into the family’s circle of trust. I had to go through a lot with Roger’s dad. He always accused me of stealing his cigarettes.”

It was Bootsy and his brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins who’d give Roger his first big break, one night at the Never on Sundays Club in Cincinnati. Bootsy recalls, “I had said to Roger years ago, ‘Whoever makes it first will reach back and get the other.’ Catfish and I went to the club, and Roger got down extra special. We jumped in the time machine and headed to Detroit. I told him that I want him to be the New Player. So he packed up his brothers, and we moved to Beverly Hills. Motown hills, that is.”

Shepherded by Bootsy Collins and George Clinton, Zapp’s first three albums for Warner Brothers followed Zeppelin’s roman scheme (Zapp, Zapp II, Zapp III) and went gold. Bootsy would treat Roger to the stage when Parliament did two sold-out nights at the Madison Square Garden circa 1979. “They didn’t know who he was yet,” says Bootsy. “The record wasn’t out, and the talk box was unfamiliar territory. That was so funny to be there to watch a mug take hold of his audience.”

According to Midnight Star’s Reggie Calloway, Zapp blew his band off the stage so many times that they were forced to drop their “pretty jazz music” and pick up the vocoder. “Roger was indirectly responsible for ‘Freak-a-Zoid,’ ” Calloway says, on the phone from Cincinnati. Often stealing the show with his borrowed voice—and minding predecessors like Sly Stone and Larry Graham—Roger was the consummate performer, whether standing on his head in nothing but a G-string, or backstage goofing around in an X-rated Donald Duck voice. “His conversation was always moving,” says Mico Wave. “Like he had eight Red Bulls. We’d talk about life, pizza, ice cream, whatever. He’d answer the phone and say he was Lester. Then he’d realize it was me and say, ‘They don’t let me out of the studio, man. Just one day, I want to go get me some ice cream and pizza.’ ”

Having been sampled to the teeth, Troutman often enters the conversation with George Clinton and James Brown, though sadly he’s no longer around to hear about it. Ten years ago this spring, Roger Troutman was shot and killed by his oldest brother, Larry, who then turned the gun on himself. The story itself was barely noticed by the hip-hop media, despite Zapp being a gatefold drug to West Coast G-funk. Zapp was the reason why O’Shea Jackson figured that life would be more interesting if he started being Ice Cube. Zapp is also why people spend a perfectly fine day dismantling their cars and putting them back together, only to try to blow it all to pieces with a subwoofer. There should be a study on how “More Bounce” stimulated automotive sales in California—Latino- and African American–made, and manufactured in the Rust Belt.

Check the cover art of Zapp’s eponymous debut, released in 1980, and you can see exactly where this would go. Rendered in a Cray-Pas melt of pastels are the essentials: car keys, ocean, sunset, and cassette (or “Zapp tape,” as it appeared in King Tee’s glove compartment, next to the unregistered glock). The only thing missing is someone to share it all with, and she probably just drove off with the band’s name, spelled in a fuse-blowout of gold, for Roger’s homemade throat.

Zapp II with Roger Troutman

 

Panzers, Ice Cream, and B.O.

Stevie Wonder’s talk box wasn’t a box but a bag—or “Blowbag”—designed by Malcolm Cecil, son of Edna, Gypsy Queen of the Accordion, and Robert Margouleff, a man who strapped his Moog to a hospital gurney. Cecil introduced Stevie to the Moog and won a Grammy for producing Music of My Mind in 1972. (Called TONTO, Cecil’s space-engulfing synthesizer would cameo in the film Phantom of the Paradise, allowing Winslow Leech to vocode after his head was crushed by a hydraulic record press.)

The Bag was invented by Doug Forbes in 1963, when a customer walked into his electronics shop speaking with a “vibrating tuna can” jammed up into his neck. It was an artificial larynx, that buzzing Uncle Robot that frightens children at family gatherings, a speech rehab device for cancer patients. This throat vibrator was kin to the laryngophones used by pilots and tank commanders during the Second World War. A magnetic transducer worn on the throat, the laryngophone would plug Erwin Rommel’s voice box directly into his Panzer Telefunken, allowing communication among tanks without being chewed up by the engine’s roar.

 

No less menacing was the nanny grilling the ice cream man in 1950’s The Good Humor Man. Her gravel buzz—similar to Red, the celebrated homeless YouTube beatboxer—was provided by a Sonovox, another Roger antecedent linked to throat cancer. Treasured by yesteryear types and mastered by big-band guitarist Alvino Rey, this cloying gimmick consisted of vibrating speaker cones, or discs, that ran into a studio soundboard. Holding the Sonovox to the throat, one could channel recordings of airplanes, horn sections, Dumbo’s pneumonic train friend, and belching foghorns (the protracted “B.O.” heard on radio ads for Lifebuoy soap). The Who’s usage of a Sonovox commercial on “Armenia City in the Sky” nearly got them sued.

By 1976, the year Peter Frampton released his talk-box monster Frampton Comes Alive and started marinating his tube in Rémy Martin, Grateful Dead roadie Bob Heil had already designed a talk box for Joe Walsh and Jeff Beck. That year, Electro-Harmonix put its Golden Throat Mouth Tube on the market for $100 per unit. It had a fat red button that could’ve stopped a freight elevator and a gold tube that appeared to be an instrument of surgical discomfort. Peter Frampton first encountered the talk box via Pete Drake, a Nashville pedal steel player who used it in 1963 on Roger Miller’s “Lock, Stock, and Teardrops” and then solo for “I’m Just a Guitar (Everybody Picks on Me),” released the following year.

Frampton—recently spotted using the talk box for Geico car insurance—always believed Roger Troutman used a vocoder, ever since his wife first played him “More Bounce.” When I broke the news to him a few years ago, he was shocked. “Wow. I thought, ‘That’s the best vocoder I ever heard!’ He had a very clean sound with it. That’s why I liked Roger. Because he was using a synth. That’s what made it sound so vocoder-like. I loved his stuff.”

As with T-Pain and Auto-Tune, Roger Troutman is the most famous vocoderer to never use a vocoder. To be sure, talk boxes and vocoders are confused more than good and bad. (The vocoder reads signals as intelligence and constructs human speech from its frequency division.) “Talk box is way harder,” says T-Pain. “You gotta move quick on the piano. You gotta do the tube thing, and you gotta not get slobber in the tube or get electrocuted. I don’t even go near the tube. It’s weird. I’m real crazy with electricity.” It doesn’t help that T-Pain often refers to Auto-Tune as a vocoder, especially as it sounds more like a talk box. “People don’t know what to call [the talk box],” Frampton adds. “They think it’s a vocoder. That’s the word they’ve got, and that’s the word they want it to be.”

Roger from Roger Troutman (of Zapp)

 

They Had to Kill Bears

Nor was Roger Troutman in any hurry to clear this rarified air. He’d refer to his talk box as the Ghetto Robot or the Electric Country Preacher. The questions kept coming. One day it was Helium, the next it was Nasty Straw.

Not one to miss out on some good nomenclature, Bootsy Collins had his own ideas, calling it the Magic Babbler, Snake Charmer, and Cosmic Communicator—as if “talk box” was just too square. Too British for phone booth.

“This unknown, secret babble was really unknown to Roger as well,” says Bootsy. “But he was the messenger boy, just like myself. It just has to come through certain people like it is magic. But as usual, they thought I was crazy, so whatever I said was cool. ‘That boy is out of his mind.’ And I was.”

Watching old video clips, it’s strange hearing Roger address the crowd in his dinner table voice. We assume his speech has always been talk-boxed, as if he’d permanently swapped out his pipes for the tube. “I would say that what you hear is the way he talks,” continues Bootsy. “I told Roger that promotion was key for him. At the radio stations, when you go do an interview, you have to take the talk box with you. That has to be your voice, and he agreed.”

Bigg Robb served as Roger’s tube tech and security from 1987 onward. Often he’d guard the talk box between sound check and when Zapp took the stage. Or he’d just have to take it with him. “I used to have to hide the talk-box tube, because every roadie, every sound technician, every guy working at the venue… After you set the voice box up, always some cat comes up, when nobody’s there, and wants some wwwwrangringrang. I didn’t want them messing with my dude’s stuff. Roger’s talk box is like Grandmaster Flash’s turntable; it’s like Michael Jackson’s sequined glove. Like Bootsy’s Space Bass. Everybody just can’t come up touching it.”

Bootsy calls the talk box a drug addiction. “Everybody wants to use it. Roger’s talk box and my Space Bass are both taken from the streets of another galaxy and time, but it was placed in our hearts and began to grow up in us. We were able to translate this unspeakable sign language into street talk, on-the-corner croonin’, babble, and liquid lovemaking. Anybody can reproduce the sound of it today, but [they] don’t have the magic that came with it when we did it. It is a special gift, and it is forbidden for you to know the secrets. It will always be a mystery.”

H. P. Lovecraft, who was well acquainted with the unspeakable, once pondered, “From what unplumbed gulfs of extra cosmic-consciousness…were those half-articulate thunder croakings drawn?”

They were unplumbed from a meat freezer in a garage in Central Ohio and plugged into Roger’s amp.

“I shouldn’t be giving you these secrets,” Lester Troutman tells me, being the one who helped Roger build his first Golden Throat. “But we took the tube off the deep freeze in our garage, for meat. They had drains on them.”

Drains being drains, I have to ask Lester about the hygiene situation.

“We had no money, man! You think we went over to the Guitar Center and said, ‘Give me one of those tubes, and, by the way, better call the family doctor and see if this stuff is going to give you toxic poisoning’? You think that when Daniel Boone went from Kentucky to California that he hopped on I-40? They had to kill bears! We spent hard-earned hours. It was a rig from somebody’s mind, and we emulated what we saw. The whole thing with the talk box was a struggle. We were hungry entrepreneurs. With the talk box, we had to go out there and hurt for it. So when you ask, ‘Was the tube clean?’—you want the answer?

Hell no, it wasn’t clean! It wasn’t clean at all! But I didn’t put the shit in my mouth, so I didn’t give a daggone what Roger did.”

The talk box’s failing sanitation grade would be a problem when combined with Zapp’s exhaustive touring habit. In the early ’80s, when MTV wouldn’t play Black music, your best chance of seeing the talk box was catching Zapp on the road (at one point, they were doing up to three hundred shows a year). Yet the tube itself wasn’t visible from the crowd, so Roger appeared to be showing off a funky sore throat—which wasn’t far from the truth. When your mouth is open for the ten to fifteen minutes of “More Bounce,” there’ll be some backwash dreck waiting for you when it was time for “Computer Love.”

“You go through a lot of tubes,” says Bigg Robb. “Of course, there’s a lot of Dr. Tichenor’s and Listerine involved. And a lot of hot water. Before I was handling the tubes, Roger had gotten sick many times, getting these weird stomach viruses. They said, ‘Hey man, make sure you get plenty of clean tubes.’ So I would go buy a fifty-foot spool of nontoxic vinyl tubing from a plumbing or hardware store. That makes more sense than getting the master of the talk box rushed to the emergency room, which happened a couple times.”

The Many Facets of Roger by Roger Troutman (of Zapp)

 

“Is It Safe?”

The talk box may be the one thing you can’t return to the Guitar Center, and perhaps the only time you’d ever want to be intubated. “Once you master it, it’s a lot less drool,” says producer Teddy Riley, who first befriended Roger in 1987. “[The talk box] vibrates your saliva in.”

Side effects may include: electrocution, choking, migraines, irregular breathing, fainting, chronic dental aberrations, brain-cell depletion, mysterious stomach viruses, schizophrenia, excess enunciation, stale hardware-store breath, germs.

“In the early days, we were getting zapped in a hot second,” says Lester Troutman. “When you’re fourteen, fifteen years old, that was nothin’, man.”

“It’s not human,” says Patrick Gemayel, who first electrocuted himself while building his first talk box at age sixteen. “It’s not supposed to be there. But you get used to it and become a hybrid.” As the talk-boxing half of Chromeo, Gemayel took his first memorable jolt while learning Zapp’s “So Ruff, So Tuff.” So began a habit and a hazard.

“I don’t know how I’m going to be thirty years from now. Maybe it’s like boxing. There must be repercussions. We still don’t know the effects of repetitive talk-box use. You get migraines. You faint.”

Gemayel once passed out on a stage in Montreal after making the word “baby” last for thirty seconds. Breathing is a hindrance in the art of phantom enunciation—oxygen deprivation in itself is raw talent. The less you breathe, the better the sound. “You have to know when to breathe out so you don’t hear it in the microphone—make sure the mic doesn’t pick up all the crap sounds,” says Gemayel. “When you pronounce, you stop breathing and open your throat. You have to block your trachea during an extended phrase. So it creates a room inside your mouth—a resonance box. That’s what gives it a flangey effect.”

Yet, it’s the teeth, the last forensic survivors of fire and time, which take the real beating. The talk box will hurt your fillings. When we spoke, Frampton had complained of a “chronic sore tooth.” His dentist blamed the tube. Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider—who is more of a vocoder guy—attempted the talk box after seeing Zapp play a small hall in Cologne, back in 1980. “I thought I would lose my teeth,” he tells me. “After five minutes, I had problems with my teeth and couldn’t talk anymore. All those vibrations!”

Patrick Gemayel solved the problem by becoming his own dentist and hasn’t seen one since.

“I’m almost out,” says Mico Wave, who lost eight teeth to the talk box when playing in Japan. “It’s like hockey players. If you play hockey and you have teeth, then you ain’t in the game. We need to invent a talk box–proof tooth.”

Teddy Riley, on the other hand, ingeniously locks his tube in the space vacated by his rear molar.

Then there’s the risk of your tooth picking up a French soft-rock station in Montreal (107.3). One night, Gemayel found himself shaping Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” through the talk box while only hearing it inside his head. “Talk-boxing can turn you into a human transmitter,” he says. “You can pick up stations. I was speaking in the tube, and the signal was her voice. A radio station inside my head.”

Gemayel pauses to consider this.

“Talk-boxing can make you insane.”

 

The Effect of a G

“More Bounce to the Ounce” could be a new way to study streptococcal pathologies.

One of the best things about having acute bronchitis is opening your mouth first thing in the morning and just vibrating. Issue a few boa-whoa-wows, gut deep, before your formant resonances get wise to what’s happening.

“Talk-box skill can be predetermined by genetics,” says Gemayel. “Morphology makes every talk-box user unique. The bigger the mouth, the more resonance, the richer the dynamics.”

On “More Bounce,” the word bounce carries itself with a phonetic elasticity that turns one syllable into an exaggerated country mile, with Roger Troutman riding the assonance of “wow” and “whoa” in a low-riding stretch diphthong, as if amazed at the effect. Terms of elocution become dirty words. Everyone’s dancing in their underwear to the sacred thunder croak.

“Roger practiced the enunciation part, all day, every day,” says Lester. “A lot of words people still can’t say to this day. Some words were impossible to sing with it [the talk box]. Like u words. Y is all right. F words and s words are okay. Roger would practice the whole alphabet. Most artists do the effect of Peter Frampton or Stevie Wonder. We covered a little Frampton, but Roger was so much better than that. He actually formed words. Roger was the first to do the whole song, then the whole album.”

Teddy Riley would often practice on the phone. “I’ll have conversations through the talk box. I could be talking to you through it right now.”

“Consonants are hardest,” says Patrick Gemayel. “Everybody wants to say ‘Girl. Girl, you’re on my mind.’ Girl is super hard to pronounce. You can never have a good g come out. You have to give the effect of a g.”

“The g is cool,” Riley tells me. “I do the g very well.”

On “More Bounce to the Ounce,” the g is understood, so to speak. The song was intended as a brief reprise of “Funky Bounce.” Bootsy, who was in the studio with Roger, remembers being airborne most of the session. “When we were recording ‘Funky Bounce,’ we were both jumping up in the air, as if to say, ‘Who is going to jump for the longest time?’ And neither of us would stop until the take was done.”

Troutman then stripped the track until it was all skin and drums, and replayed the bass, synth, and guitar. “If you listen carefully, it’s a repeat-add-repeat kind of thing,” says Robb. “That song’s really only a minute and a half long. But he keeps editing. Takes stuff in, takes stuff out.”

Bootsy remembers George Clinton getting involved. “George just happened to step into the studio this night and said he really liked this one part that we had already re-did on ‘Funky Bounce.’ He advised us to just loop that section and put the other talk-box parts over it. At that time, this was considered a genius act, because you had to actually cut the tape and make the right cut, line it up, and loop it. So let us not forget that Dr. Funkenstein was way ahead of his time as well.”

“More Bounce” doesn’t end, it just kind of veers off and drives over to the next county, giving the impression that it’s always happening. The loop—the bow, the boa, or whatever snake-eat-tail rig you’re rolling with these days—would be perpetuated in the countless rap songs that later sampled it. EPMD’s 1988 hit “You Gots to Chill” could’ve been a sleepy accidental nod to Troutman drain freeze in Hamilton, Ohio.

Yet Troutman wouldn’t truly get hip-hop recognition until appearing in the video for Dr. Dre’s “California Love” in 1996, leaning out of a helicopter above the Mojave Desert, working his electronic straw. Kids born in the juice-box era, who were in diapers when EPMD were in fishing hats, were getting their first look at a G-funk legend. Not bad for age forty-four.

Magic Babble Outreach

In the ’90s, it was just easier to sample Roger than relearn the alphabet and glean the tube yourself, unless you’re Devante Swing or Teddy Riley (no YouTube hours to squander back then). Roger himself was most impressed when hearing DJ Quik use it on a Shaq album, of all things. (Quik being already miles around the bend for sampling Kleeer’s vocoder for “Tonite.”)

Quik remembers Dre telling him that Roger was the most talented person he’d ever met. “He was kind of intimidating with music,” Quik says. “Dude was too far beyond good, and it freaked us out a little bit. I was green to what he was doing.”

Teddy Riley had a similar experience. “Just before he passed, Roger came to my studio in Virginia. We were there for hours just vibing. It was like my dream. Him playing guitar and talking. His expressions, everything came out of the music. He’d say a few words between playing. He would say this comes from focus. You can’t really describe how amazing he is. Very extra generous.”

“Quik and his boys had Roger trapped in that hotel room all day asking questions,” says Bigg Robb of the Vegas incident.

Both Quik and Teddy Riley remember one thing in particular. While Roger spoke to them about “life, music, ice cream, whatever,” he was playing the theme from Space Odyssey, on acoustic guitar—the solitude of being abandoned in deep space by your own IBM, in Cinerama no less, captured in a few choice strums.

Sadly, Quik’s next talk-box track, “Roger’s Groove,” would be a posthumous ode. “I wanted to do a real moody, solemn dedication to him. Just hearing the talk box and knowing that man was dead was a little too cathartic for me. It was really hard to do without crying or having to stop. I’m hearing a lot of people use it, and I can’t help but to think, wow, they don’t encompass the soul this man did—to do that and make you feel a certain way.”

Early in the morning of April 25, 1999, Roger Troutman was shot and killed by his oldest brother, Larry, just outside the family’s studio, Roger Tee Enterprises, in Dayton, Ohio. Larry Troutman would then drive off and commit suicide. Roger was forty-seven; Larry, fifty-four.

The entire community was stunned. Among the speculations was the fact that Roger wanted to break out on his own, inspired by his rebooted career success with “California Love.” “At a certain point, Roger wanted to do his own thing, which presented a conflict,” Terry Troutman would tell P-Frank Williams of Los Angeles New Times in August of 2002. “It was their whole life they’d been together. And then for it to break off? That was a strong move, man.”

“It made no sense,” adds Teddy Riley. “It could’ve been mended.”

DJ Quik first heard the news from El DeBarge. “Back then, R&B was a tight-knit community. So El would get that information early on. When I found out, he was in the hospital fighting for his life. Then he succumbed. It was earth-shattering. Roger was making a comeback. For the Troutman family, that had to be the saddest thing ever, to have a compound death. I really feel for them.”

The funeral took place six days later at the Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio, with thousands in attendance, including funk legends like the Gap Band, Bootsy, and the Ohio Players.

Bigg Robb was one of the pallbearers. “On that day, there was a double funeral,” Robb laments. “We didn’t lose just Roger. We lost Larry as well. And Larry was just as much the mastermind and just as much part of the group’s success and part of Roger’s success as anybody. I would say Larry was the epitome of all of that. Everybody talks about Roger, but nobody talks about Larry. Nobody looks at those credits. Larry wrote those songs with Roger. He directed the band. He led the band and masterminded the concept. Nobody knows what happened, or why it happened. That’s way water over the bridge, trippin’ on that. It’s not gonna bring my friends back.”

“My mom was hurt the most,” says Lester Troutman. “She not only lost a son, she lost two. It was quite tragic, and to this day we’ll never know. I told everybody who interviewed me, ABC News, BET—that I don’t know. Roger is dead. Roger is gone. And I am sick about that more than anybody will ever know. And to this day, people don’t believe that I am still able to get up and play.”

The funeral service concluded with Larry’s son, Rufus Troutman III, singing “Amazing Grace” on the talk box.

“The first note he hit, sounded like Roger,” says Mico Wave. “Then I burst into tears. Everyone started crying. Imagine if I’m talking to you and you die. And I get onstage and sound exactly the way you’re talking. It hit us then. We’re never gonna hear this guy’s voice again.”

“The magic was infused in Rufus at that time while Roger laid there and watched,” says Bootsy. “Not the passing of the torch but the outreach of the magic babble that was first born in Roger himself. Once you pass over, you are connected to the magic without distractions, so Roger got a chance to see the power of what was first gave to him.”

Bigg Robb shakes his head. “It was one of those things. We all gotta leave here sometime. And hopefully, it’ll be at ninety-five, in our sleep, with a couple of big-booty old ladies feeding us grapes and ice cream.”

 

Computer Love Is Iron Man

I’m telling Lester Troutman about a Zapp tour I saw in 1987, as if he wasn’t there. R.J.’s Latest Arrival did “Shackles” on the vocoder. Fresh Gordon played the Andy Griffith theme on his “drum computer” (which could’ve only been more futuristic if channeled through Aunt Bee’s dentures). Doug Fresh cracked knuckles inside his mouth. And Roger came out in his electric suit and did “Computer Love,” twice.

Lester is quiet.

And wasn’t Starpoint there? 

Lester roars, “I am Iron Man!”

Apparently, this was the effect Zapp was going for at the beginning of “Computer Love”—a talk box that had been tortured into existence from peasant bones and bubonic mud. Iron Man lives again.

“That was me,” says Lester, who practiced Black Sabbath in the garage with Roger and his brothers. “Black Sabbath! I am Iron Man! ‘Computer Love’ was ‘Iron Man’!”

“Computer Love” was once described to me as “a ballad for AutoCAD engineers with the vectors and flying-toaster screen saver.” It’s the only quiet-storm classic with enough bass to crack the lowrider scene in Los Angeles.

“Computer Love” is the encore that night at the Charlotte Coliseum. Roger Troutman wears his photon-studded suit. According to Lester, he’d borrowed the idea from Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman.

The swooning twinkle of lighters is pretty into it. So is Roger, probably four tubes deep by now.

He cuts the music so the crowd can hear itself do the chorus, replacing his larynx with six thousand voices singing thanks to my technology.

It sounds so good, Roger says he wants to do the song again.

So they do it again.

 

More on Roger and the talk box in Dave Tompkins’s vocoder book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, published by Stop Smiling Books/Melville House.

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