In the history of funk and R&B, few careers are as formidable as Zapp, the vocoder-enchanced band from Ohio with co-producer pal Bootsy Collins, an early endorsement from George Clinton, a steady run of sequentially numbered gold selling albums and an eventual inspiration in the G-funk sound of West Coast hip-hop. Besides “More Bounce To The Ounce” serving as one of the most sampled songs in history, the stable of singles in both group and solo contexts includes “Computer Love,” “I Want To Be Your Man” and “California Love” (2Pac’s collaboration with Dr. Dre and front man Roger Troutman). Yet Zapp’s remarkable story of highs is also tempered with unfathomable tragedy, stemming from the death of Roger from an apparent murder/suicide at the hands off brother/fellow band member Larry Troutman in 1999, which not only sent shockwaves throughout the family-centered band and their legion of fans, but the entire world (music and otherwise).
After an intense season of grieving bolstered by an unshakable faith, the reconstituted Zapp is back, recording upon occasion but regularly tearing up the touring circuit. In fact, the group’s upcoming stop at the Tinley Park Convention Center on April 4 comes less than a year after blowing Chicagoland audiences away with a legacy-cementing show that’s sure to sound even sweeter alongside Morris Day & The Time (“Jungle Love,” “The Bird,” “Jerk Out”) and comedian Tommy Davidson (“In Living Color”) during Narski Music’s latest “It’s A Party With A Purpose” (benefiting local charities). Here’s more from a Chicago Concert Reviews conversation with co-founder Lester Troutman on Zapp’s influential history, praying his way through the pain and emerging with both a musical and personal strength that’s nothing short of miraculous.
“We’re gonna be on our ‘A’ game, we’re gonna be dressed to kill and changing clothes, we’re gonna be stepping, we’ll be doing all the hits and we may try some new music in the show just for Chicagoland.”
CCR: How did having George Clinton in your corner give you guys a leg up when you were first starting?
Lester Troutman: Oh there’s no doubt. That’s indisputable and undeniable. George was quite instrumental in us going [beyond] a local band. We were a very popular local band, and incidentally, we played around the country, but when we hooked up with George, my God, having him to take us into Warner Brothers was like Michael Jackson or Diana Ross taking someone to Motown. Big George was wonderful. People always said he was this crazy guy with wild hair, but George is a business man and he’s on his game…
What do you think led to “More Bounce To The Ounce” being one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop history?
Troutman: The short answer is God, the second reason is I don’t know, and the third answer is if I knew, I would be the richest man on the planet! I could say “hey look, I, Lester Troutman know how to make a record that after 35-plus years, two generations of [artists] will still be using that song, and whenever anyone uses the song, they will have a guaranteed hit.” My God if I could do that, I would be rich! I don’t know man. I just live in God’s promise, that’s the only thing I know. I’ve heard people say, “well you know Lester, the reason why everybody sampled it is because Roger has passed on.” No, because when he was alive “More Bounce To The Ounce” was being sampled by The Notorious B.I.G., then Heavy D did it, De La Soul did it, Ice Cube and Snoop [Dogg] and on and on and on.
What’s your opinion when younger artists adapt the song to their style?
Troutman: Let me tell you man, there’s not a better form of flattery. We’re just so honored man that the younger generation embrace us enough or think of us enough to even want to do it. Imagine how that feels. It’s just an honor to be able to go somewhere- into a city or another country- and they know who you are by sight. Kids come to me and say “you’re Lester Troutman.” That’s amazing to me man.
How did your family and the band bounce back after all the tragedy you experienced?
Troutman: I’m gonna try to answer that in some words. I have to give you my short answer, which is God, and after that I just don’t know if there’s anything else. There’s no secret formula to say “hey man, you know what I did?” No, it’s only God’s praises and God’s mercy and his ultimate plan because he said “you are meant to do this, to play music and to entertain people.” My God said he would do it, he promised me and he showed me. When Roger and Larry left, he didn’t lie. He kept his word because we’re still doing it. It’s nothing else man. It’s only God. That’s how the family got through it. That’s it and nothing but…
What type of emotions did you experience when you first returned to performing?
Troutman: That was August 12 or August 14 or something like that in Los Angeles at the Greek Theatre in 1999 at 8:15pm and I cried like a baby. I cried through most of the performance. Most of the performance I was numb. It was very, very hard.
Now that you’ve been back to regularly touring, how do you keep the show fresh after all these years?
Troutman: Almighty God. That’s the short of it. Because he lives in us, we love the career that he’s given us and we have the passion to want to go and entertain the people. My brother Roger- who we love and we miss- we honor him in our performance every night. You have to understand if somebody the caliber of Roger- who’s my big brother, my best friend, my mentor, my buddy, my partner- if he leaves some instructions for you, you have to follow his instructions to a “T.” And his instructions were to never ever, ever bore my fans. Everybody in the group takes that literally. We live on that word and we eat on that every day. We will not bore our fans and we will not bore Roger’s fans never ever, ever, ever. So that gives us the gumption and the power and the energy to want to go and give the best show that we can every time that we step on stage.
What’s specifically in store for the stop in Tinley Park?
Troutman: They can expect an absolutely wonderful show from Morris, who’s been my friend for more than 30 years. I think we first met him in 1982 when we toured with Prince. You should expect a great show from Morris Day & The Time, who besides making music were in movies [like “Purple Rain], and then there’s Tommy Davidson, who’s an international star. You’ve got Zapp in the middle and we’re gonna be on our “A” game. We’re gonna be dressed to kill and changing clothes, we’re gonna be stepping, we’ll be doing all the hits and we may try some new music in the show just for Chicagoland.
You made a great album a few years ago. What was it like getting back into the studio for “Zapp VI: Back by Popular Demand”?
Troutman: That was very, very hard. Time has passed and time heals everything, but it was really hard for me, because again, if you would use your imagination and go down memory lane with me…We built our own studio, I was the engineer and I was the drummer. It’s what I did and it was my job, but imagine having your best friend [and lifelong collaborator] just gone. Wow! And then when I sat down in the studio after all those years, it was crazy and really emotional for me. It’s very hard, but after time, it’s gotten better and better. We’re finishing up a project now. It was a hard to be in the studio for the first time in years, but you get back in the groove. It’s fascinating man and it’s fun, it really is!
What have been some of your personal highlights on Zapp’s journey thus far?
Troutman: Let’s start the reel when I was a kid. Getting my first drum set was the most incredible thing in the world. Then I guess when I was in junior high and we played on a local television station and we won this whole city wide talent competition. Then as a local band, we were able to play at the big convention center on the stage with Gladys Knight. Fast forward to meeting George Clinton, then having a hit record you hear on the radio of your 1965 Ford Country Squire station wagon, then you hear it at home and get telephone calls from all your friends saying “I heard you guys.” And then you look on the Billboard charts and you see the record is like at number 20 with a bullet and then you see your record number one! How does it get any bigger?
Then you go on tour and your first major tour is with the Commodores and Lionel Richie! Then you finish that tour and you go on tour with Parliament Funkadelic! And then in another rock star moment, you meet The Jacksons in Los Angeles at UCLA and then you tour with Prince and you tour with The Time and then your career goes on and you play all over the world! You do you first tour in Europe and you’re there for like 38 days. Then you go to Japan for the first time and it’s all sold out and they’re singing the songs even though they can’t even understand the language! Another highlight reel is you’re riding in an old car, and you look up one day, and you come home with a new car and then another new car. Then you look up and you have your own recording studio, followed by studio a, studio b, studio c and a rehearsal studio. You make videos and see them on TV!
Then you go full circle and you lose everything. You lose people, you lose your best friend, you lose your dearest two brothers in the world, and when you lose them, you feel like your whole world is gone. You look around here and you have nothing, but it’s you and it’s God and you look up and realize that’s who it was all the time. God spared your life and he spared your career and then you look at your life and go through a new reel like we’re doing now. You go around again and you say, “hey man, wow, is this really happening?” On April 25, my bothers will be dead for 16 years, but after 16 years [Zapp still goes around touring]. You play for people in Chicago and they invite you back eight months later! Oh my God, does it get any better? How about that for a news reel?
Zapp performs alongside Morris Day & The Time and Tommy Davidson at the Tinley Park Convention Center on Saturday, April 4 with proceeds benefiting local charities. For additional details and ticket information visit www.narskimusic.com.