Funky history

What were the three cities where musicians in the ‘70s and ‘80s could make it big? New York, Los Angeles, and Dayton, Ohio—according to Scot Brown, assistant history professor at UCLA and Thursday’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture lecturer with “‘More Bounce to the Ounce’: The Blues Afro-Futurism of Roger Troutman and Zapp.” Troutman and his brothers—who made up the funk band Zapp—lived, played, and recorded in Dayton for nearly three decades, contributing to an African American music scene in the Midwest that was characterized by commercial success, independent record labels and shops, and the fusion of music with black cultural nationalism and social activism.

“Think of Roger as a sound innovator and experimentalist,” Brown says, adding that Troutman’s most noteworthy work was his use of the talk box—which he “translated from an exotic effect to an instrument with lots of capabilities.” The talk box is a technology that transforms human speech into robotic, “futurist” sounds. Prior to the funk revolution, Brown says, the dominant “masculinist style” and “culture of cool” dictated that a man might go out to a club and stand at the wall. “Roger’s task,” Brown notes, “was to get them to take off their fedoras, ask a lady to dance, and get sweaty.”

Chicago’s music and humanities associate professor Travis Jackson, who introduced Brown, had another take. “Part of what makes Roger’s work seem exceptional,” he said, “is the correlation people make between African American musicians and the body, and European musicians and the mind.” He pointed out that Troutman was one person in a long line of sound innovators, some of whom implemented techniques such as rhythm boxes and dub recording. Brown acknowledged the critique, but it had little bearing on one of his favorite points: “You can think of sampling as reaching back to the past, or you can see the past as imposing itself on the present,” he said, “with a chunk of funk so thick that history has no recourse but to double back and make you dance.”

Shira Tevah, ’09

May 6, 2009