Peter Croce interview and photos by Dustin Alexander (photos may be a bit blurry here)
In the past five years, Peter Croce and his imprint Rocksteady Disco have provided an interesting contrast to what constitutes as the “Detroit sound.” Both he and the grassroots label have been catching the attention of some of house and disco music’s most discerning heads. We chat a little about his sound, values, and perspective on what dance music has to offer in 2020.
DA: First of all, how’s life?
PC: This interview catches me at a funny time because currently I’m feeling a bit more like a travel agent than a DJ! I’m just getting done booking planes, trains, and automobiles to London, Berlin, Chicago, Boston, and New York. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to bring the Rocksteady Disco sound to more places. We’re six years into this label and party now, and I think people are beginning to catch the vision of what we’re doing.
DA: Knowing you personally, I get the feeling that your label, Rocksteady Disco, is a pretty good extension of yourself as an artist. What is the vision of what you’re doing?
PC: I think our releases and musical selections show people that they have permission– permission to be a freak, permission to not be a freak, permission to let their nerd flag fly, permission to dance, permission to love music from all over the world. It’s been really exciting to see the way that our party has brought together all sorts of different people across age, gender, and race lines.
DA: So it sounds like you’re trying to encourage artists and listeners and dancers to just be themselves in a way. Do you also try to influence? Or do you think encouraging self love and discovery are the primary functions of the music for you?
PC: Yeah that’s exactly right– we have everything we need inside of us and we’re loved and beautiful just the way we are. That’s a fairly iconoclastic notion in our current era, so I suppose I do try to influence, although until you asked me that question I think it’s been unconscious.
DA: So what made you want to start Rocksteady Disco?
PC: When I launched it in 2014 I wasn’t producing, but I was DJing a lot. People were sending me unreleased tunes, and I was listening to what my brother Topher Horn was working on and the edits that Lafleur was doing. The music that Rocksteady Disco is interested in is soulful, global, eclectic, but still rooted in the US dance music tradition. And I noticed that there wasn’t really a label or hub for that sound, especially in Detroit, and especially for the younger folks pushing this sound. So it all sprouted up organically, and naïvely.
DA: Sometimes naïveté is the best way to start anything. It means you’re open to learn. What have you learned along the way?
PC: I remember when we put out our first 12” from Lafleur– Crosstalk International was my distributor and he basically took all 500 we pressed the first week. Then just a few years Crosstalk went out of business due to Brexit and other factors. So there went a few hundred dollars in my net-90 agreement with him. Many labels and pressing plants lost thousands though so I guess I got lucky.
There’s also the reality that this whole thing we do is show biz. It took me a while to realize this because I was fixated on our talent pool instead of the fact that we don’t really have a music industryhere in Detroit.
DA: Speaking of Detroit, I know that you grew up near the city. Did the D provide any specific musical background for you to develop around, or did that come later in life?
PC: My dad was a professional drummer, and my mom has great taste and rhythm, so I grew up in a household that was playing a wide range of music. Also I’m lucky that I went to a school that valued jazz, so I was introduced to the bedrock of all good music through my public school jazz band teacher when I was 16 years old. So I guess through a sort of osmosis Detroit provided a musical background, simply because Detroit is a music city. I knew there were kids in my high school sneaking into parties in Detroit, but I never really went to a proper party until 2012. Looking back on it I’m really grateful that I got the music background without the party background.
DA: How did that affect your perspective of dance floor culture and DJ style later on when you are imbedded in party culture?
PC: It’s been liberating artistically. A lot of my all time favorite records aren’t exactly club tracks, and a lot of the music I buy and play and re-edit aren’t really in the typical rave or club tradition. They’re just beautiful songs that (hopefully) make you want to dance or love on somebody.
DA: Speaking of edits, you’ve done some pretty well rinsed versions yourself. What drew you to editing, and has your view on editing and releasing changed at all as you’ve stepped deeper into the production realm?
PC: To me, editing is as much a part of DJing as digging for new music, beat matching, blending, programming, and gain staging. I think DJing is such a beautiful and misunderstood artform. (Motorcity Wine’s) David A-P and I talk a lot about how a great DJ can play literally any song, as long as they program it properly in their set. As a good DJ you have the discernment to know what will work for your dance floor and what will not. So by editing you’ve done something unexpected, and you’ve created something greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve had people come up to me after playing certain edits that they never imagined would be played on a dance floor—specifically Andi Hanley’s edit of Yello’s “Tied Up”. A dude came up to me and said that his estranged dad used to play the original version of “Tied Up” all the time when he was growing up, and he went and called him the next day because he took it as a sign that he should get back in touch with him. What a gift to make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar!
DA: Contrasting that with original productions, your EP “Revival” did quite well and got some major remixes and playtime. Are you working on more original productions as well?
PC: “Revival” really was an unexpected turning point. At the time I had just moved to Chicago, and was struggling with distribution and having any money available for Rocksteady Disco, along with depression and anxiety that I struggle with. That record revived the label, and pushed it into the chapter it is in today. To have some of my favorite DJs in the world playing it and remixing it is a cherry on top.
I am working on more original productions, but they’re on the backburner due to the label and my DJing being my main priorities. But there will definitely be more original productions coming out sooner than later, including the remix on this release.
DA: And in a music culture that is constantly evolving its opinions, outlook, and values as a reflection of the culture around us, where is the real influence coming from right now?
PC: I read a recent interview with Quincy Jones where he says that there really isn’t a music industry anymore. For better or worse I think what we’re a part of is more of what Adorno and Horkheimer call the “culture industry.” The culture industry is not all that interested in music, despite how it looks on the surface. Whether people know it or not the opinions, outlook, and values being presented by those with power in this industry are not radical or genuine. They are marketing. And I think the only reason this is a shock to people is because we all think we’re “underground” (which is another fun marketing term.) when in actuality we’re a pretty sizable economy. And where there’s a sizable economy there are people ready to capitalize and commodify.
DA: We’ll have to do a more in depth discussion on that another time I think! Wrapping up though, what’s on the horizon for both you and the label?
P: 2020 has seen Rocksteady Disco’s heaviest release schedule yet, with a record a month so far. In May we put out our first full length LP entitled The Art Of Usby Blair French. It’s been a massive undertaking with a ton of moving travel parts. I have a feeling it will be the beginning of Rocksteady Disco’s next chapter. Blair and I are working on a hybrid live project and an art show to go with the LP, which we hope to take on the road. We also hav a 12” from Kiko Navarro dropping in June. Due to the Apollo fire we won’t be able to keep up with that hectic of a release schedule, but there will be quite a few represses and a few new EPs to come. Personally, I’m super excited for my remix of Peabody & Sherman from back in 2015 to finally get released on vinyl thanks to DEQ. Also I just had an edit come out on Brooklyn-based Razor-N-Tape’s 50th release.
I’m coming off a hectic last few months with gigs in Seoul, Tokyo, Mexico, New York, Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston, Lansing, and of course my beloved Detroit. I’m playing Movement Festival this year, Rocksteady Disco’s Viva La Resistance VI party 5/22, and a balearic/sleaze set to start off Marble Bar’s notorious 21 hour Memorial Day party. Belle Isle Balearic (aka Blair French and I) finally have a monthly residency called Mango Dive at Temple Bar. I’m excited to do some all night sets for my Sunday Revival party at MotorCity Wine, and my summer monthly Chicago residency is in full swing too. Suffice it to say I’ve got my pillow and AeroPress in the travel bag ready to go.