Rocksteady Disco bridges the best of the industry’s past with the relevancy of the modern music scene, while featuring a combination of influences that have been brought together with a singular purpose. With this approach, the young imprint which was established only five years ago has the feel of a label that has been around for generations.
The Rocksteady Disco name is a nod to the roots of the soundsystem culture of reggae with a respect for the original spirit of the discotheque, a history that founder Peter Croce feels is vital for today’s music scene to recognize. Other elements which create a feeling of longevity include an emphasis on forging a collaborative artistic community, as well as using only local Detroit-based businesses to manufacture their records. Inspired by the “DIY ethic & diversity of the music culture of Detroit,” Peter has made relationship-building a vital part of Rocksteady Disco’s ethos, one that runs from the first introduction to the artist to the printing of the final product. With every EP released on vinyl, the dedication to the process and the people involved is evidence of Peter Croce’s mission to “do something timeless in this neoliberal consumption culture.”
This really has to be about more than a couple hundred dollars. As DJs, producers, and musicians – we are doing spirit work. We are calibrating peoples’ vibrations at a deep level. So I try to step around the typical music industry madness as much as possible.
Rooted in house & techno but with a jazzy and Afro-Brazilian touch, Rocksteady Disco’s focus on the importance of dance music culture can be heard in their curation and witnessed in the care that is taken with each release. In a throwaway, on-demand, insta-satisfaction society, researching and respecting dance music’s history while implementing the ideals which led to its present state means taking the longer, more arduous road. But driven by a motivation to share its messages and to create lasting connections that stand the test of time, Rocksteady Disco’s journey has just begun.
I’d love to hear the origin story of Rocksteady Disco. was there a particular moment that drove the decision to start a label?
I got into DJing pretty late – I was 21 years old when I played my first house party, and 22 years old when I first played out. Rocksteady Disco started in 2014 when I was 24, so as I get ready for our 5 Years of Rocksteady Disco party this Memorial Day weekend I’m really reflecting on what a ridiculous but subsequently amazing experience it has been launching a record label effectively at the same time that I started DJing.
I knew what I wanted to do musically because I’ve been a multi-instrumentalist (mostly electric bass and guitar) since I was in 6th grade. I was your classic suburban kid who was trying to take bass lessons and play on multiple sports teams, and I got lucky because in 8th grade I broke my leg. I was laid up for 4 months, which is decidedly not lucky, but really this is when I actively started digging. I hopped around my parents’ house ripping my mom and dad’s CDs, which were a really great blend of funk, jazz fusion, progressive rock, and reggae. Compared to a lot of cats in my generation I’m extremely lucky to have such a great musical upbringing from my parents. My generation didn’t have the Electrifying Mojo on the radio, we had Clear Channel everything. A lot of my contemporaries lament that their parents listened to garbage. I got lucky that by the time I decided to start a record label I already knew the roots of soundsystem culture, being reggae in Jamaica and Disco in New York. That’s ultimately where the name “Rocksteady Disco” came from – it is meant to be a nod to the roots of what we do; the massive worldwide shoulders we stand on; while also doing something new that isn’t just based in nostalgia. And I wanted it to transcend genre classifications by nodding to soundsystem culture.
What were your intentions or goals at the beginning? How have you been able to fulfill them?
There were a few goals right at the onset. The first was to canonize and promote the sounds that filled my heart when I first moved to Detroit. The second was to have a Detroit-based business that used Detroit manufacturing to launch this art into the world. And the third was to try to build a small business that was not exploitive.
To the first point: I noticed that there was room for my generation to carry the torch for the sounds of Detroit. Furthermore, I noticed there was space for the sounds I play and am into that weren’t being put out in Detroit. These sounds are of course rooted in house and techno, but I’m really into stuff that is more melodic, more jazzy, more influenced by Afro-Brazilian sounds, digger/edit type stuff, and stuff at various tempos. Kyle Hall and Jay Daniel were (and still are) definitely showing the world what Detroit does with their labels, and I just wanted to get in there and compliment that. So many people think Detroit is just a gritty lo-fi crunchy house and techno city but that’s really a slice of the beautiful musical pie that Detroit is.
I’m 28 years old. I didn’t grow up listening to vinyl. All throughout middle school, high school, and college I had one of those giant iPod Classics with every song I thought I’d ever want. But we’re really app’d out of control, and I think we really are looking for something real, and something that brings people together.
I am really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with our 15 vinyl releases and 4 digital releases. I’ve been able to “find the others” (as Timothy Leary says) and build a local, national, and global community thanks to the signal that Rocksteady Disco is putting out into the world. And people seem to know what they’re getting themselves into when they needle drop a Rocksteady Disco record, despite our fairly eclectic catalogue.
To the second point: I press my records on the east side of Detroit at a family business run by people who live here and care about this city. One of the guys who works at Archer (Andy Garcia) is a DJ and producer himself. I personally stamp and number my records; I don’t hire a P&D to do it. Mike Archer is one of the few consummate professionals in this biz, and I’m really grateful for him. Nationally, and even locally, Third Man seems to get all the hype. But most people don’t know that Archer has been around far longer, and that Third Man (and many other US pressing plants) calls Archer when they have problems with their presses.
To the third point: I guess this question would be better answered by the artists on the label, but I couldn’t be more grateful for the artists who trust me enough to put out their music. Just look at the crew – Blair French, Topher Horn, Moonlighter, Igor B, Lafleur, Bamboozle, Aroop Roy, Jaco Matthews, LADYMONIX, Sol Power All-Stars, G2S, and soon JKriv and Kiko Navarro. These people are some of the dopest producers and deejays in the world, full stop. I was fans of a lot of them before I ever thought I’d be releasing their music. Not to mention they’re also a ball to hang out with or have a conversation with.
What has been the biggest challenge for the label so far?
To say I was naïve to the industry when I launched Rocksteady Disco would be an understatement. I never had mentors to teach me how it all worked, save for David A-P telling me how to get a record pressed at Archer. So there was a lot of building the plane as I was flying, even to this day. I literally launched Rocksteady Disco out of classrooms while I was getting my Masters of Social Work. I was emailing Phil Hertz in between participating in discussions on social policy.
Did you see that legendary interview with Quincy Jones when he’s asked about the state of the music industry and he quips that there is no music industry anymore? That hit me to my core.
All I kept hearing repeatedly around me was that vinyl sales were going up-up-up, and that people (specifically people outside of America) will buy anything from Detroit. Come to find out through experience (and later through 5 Mag’s brilliant article about dance music vinyl sales) that the only vinyl sales that were going up were 180 gram reissues of Led Zeppelin IV and Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. Then couple it with the fact that just about everyone in this industry is robbing Peter to pay Paul, that basically the entire industry shuts down for August, Brexit, then distributors going out of business or putting you on the back burner – suffice it to say I had some extremely rude awakenings. Rude enough that I considered stopping the label just before “Revival.”
Has anything surprised you about running Rocksteady Disco?
I was quite surprised with how well “Revival” was received. We’re not exactly in a 9-minute-speech-on-a-12″-single era, but people seemed to really enjoy that one. Mr. Scruff’s been playing it in the UK, Gigi Testa has been playing it in Italy, I get tagged on Instagram by Israeli and Palestinian deejays playing it overseas, and Americans took to it in a way I wasn’t expecting. I couldn’t be more excited about that. Rev. Barber’s words shook me when I heard them, and I am so grateful that people around the world feel moved by his words and my music enough to bring it to their dance floors.
I’ve also been really surprised by my preconceived notions of what cities will have good parties. For example, two of the most fun parties I’ve ever played were in Louisville, KY for the Cosmic Incantations crew, and Buffalo, NY for a 9 hour day party at a taqueria with Blair French. The promoter had a Buzzy Beck Bozak and a Martin Audio rig, and someone even fainted and an ambulance had to come! Talk about a party…
I really want Rocksteady Disco releases and the music we play at our parties to be people’s favorite songs before they know it’s their favorite song.
How has your experience in the music industry influenced the way you run the label?
As I alluded to earlier I’ve certainly experienced enough to make me a bit cynical. To combat that cynicism I do everything I can to not make Rocksteady Disco a top-down business, and instead try to make it a community of artists. I’ve had some old heads approach me to put out their music and ask for a completely asinine advance. A lot of these cats think that the industry is the same as it was 20 years ago. That’s kind of the big reason I’ve mostly been breaking artists and working with artists that are my age – us younger cats have a much more grounded view of how much money can be made off of 300 vinyl pressings and a little bit of digital sales. Did you see that legendary interview with Quincy Jones when he’s asked about the state of the music industry and he quips that there is no music industry anymore? That hit me to my core.
That’s not to say I’m putting out fly-by-night music. If I don’t think it’s timeless and could be played at a variety of parties and through your headphones then I won’t put it out. But this really has to be about more than a couple hundred dollars. We’re artists right? We’re entrusted to make the world beautiful. And especially as DJs, producers, and musicians – we are literally doing spirit work. We are calibrating peoples’ vibrations at a deep level. So I try to step around the typical music industry madness as much as possible. I’m fortunate now that I am able to continually work with such great artists and some great record stores as well. I guess my early naïveté served a protective purpose in a way.
Vinyl is our way of making the intangible tangible. And it’s our way of bringing the memory of the joy of the dance into your living room, hopefully to enjoy with other people. And to do it using what’s left of Detroit manufacturing is really just a gift.
I really admire that you are releasing on vinyl. Was there ever a question that you would do so?
Thank you for that. There wasn’t really a question. In fact, if I had to switch to digital-only I think I would just close up shop. I mean I’m 28 years old. I didn’t grow up listening to vinyl. I bought a few records in high school and a few more in college, but I didn’t really get into hardcore digging until right after undergrad. All throughout middle school, high school, and college I had one of those giant iPod Classics with every song I thought I’d ever want. But we’re really app’d out of control, and I think we really are looking for something real, and something that brings people together. So vinyl is our way of making the intangible tangible. And it’s our way of bringing the memory of the joy of the dance into your living room, hopefully to enjoy with other people. This isn’t to say I’m one of those “vinyl only” people, but part of the reason I started Rocksteady Disco was to do something timeless in this neoliberal consumption culture. And to do it using what’s left of Detroit manufacturing is really just a gift.
I try to use vinyl to really say thank you to certain people and places too. This will be the third year in a row that we release a special hand-stamped and numbered white label Memorial Day weekend just in Detroit – this year’s is Mr. PC (aka myself) “Edits From Detroit #2.” They’re available at our Viva La Resistance party and at the local record stores. We also did a short run of white labels of “Standing Still Is An Illusion Remixed,” just for New York record stores. Blair French and I sprinkled them around town when we were out there for the release party at the Black Flamingo with Bamboozle and Topher Horn, so some New Yorkers were able to get copies before the release was officially out.
What do you look for (or listen for) in a release in order to represent what Rocksteady Disco is all about?
My A&R process can be a slow one. Take Igor B for instance. He sent me the demos for Águas de Setembro over a year before they were released. Igor was one of the few people (in addition to G2S and MVIM) to just cold call me with some demos. The music was incredible, and Atjazz’s mastering on them made them sing. But I really wanted to get to know Igor’s heart, mind, and soul. I really wanted us to form a relationship before we did this together. And with him being in Toronto and me being in Chicago at the time, it took quite a few Facebook conversations about music and politics and our partners and just whatever before I realized that he really is like my brother. It was obvious that he was Rocksteady Disco family – he, like everyone else on the label, cares so deeply about his art, his listeners, and bringing people together through music.
Aesthetically I’m looking for music that radiates soul. It has to be emotive, whether that’s through the melodies, basslines, drums, or all of the above. It has to hit people in their primal core. I really dig fusion sounds that are hard to put in a genre box. And I really like stuff that makes the heads dance, as well as normie punters. That’s really important – I really want Rocksteady Disco releases and the music we play at our parties to be people’s favorite songs before they know it’s their favorite song.
How has Detroit’s dance music history influenced Rocksteady Disco’s sound and purpose?
This is a really great question. I try to be reverent towards our amazing history, but I never made it to Cheeks, Heaven, 1315 Gallery, Motor, Finite Gallery, the Bankle Building or the raves; I never had a lacquer cut by Ron Murphy; I have never been to the dance room at Record Time. So mostly due to my age my experience is a bit different. I don’t think that’s inherently bad though. I’ve been able to have incredible conversations with Detroit legends; I’ve been able to learn a lot from the people who work at our record stores; I’ve learned a lot from Mike Archer; and I’ve been able to have some incredible dance floor moments. I’ve been able to experience some incredible jazz bands and other Detroit music, not just techno or house.
Detroit taught me a hardcore DIY ethic, so I’ve learned to bootstrap it and not rely on an overseas P&D. So these two points, being the DIY ethic and the diversity of music culture in Detroit, have been the biggest ways Detroit has influenced Rocksteady Disco’s sound and purpose. This is a music city, and a city that wants to own its art. I hope I’m another branch off that deeply rooted tree.
What do you think are the most important roles that music plays in our lives? How do you help fulfill this through your work with the label?
Whether we realize it or not, DJs really create the soundtrack of a city and the people who live there at least for a moment in time. Us DJs and musicians have the ability to knock people out of their normal day-to-day rigamarole, and to help people move to hedonistic release and/or contemplation. Through the work of the label and party I’ve been able to at very least experiment with creating a space where people can come to have their spirits refreshed and their bodies set free through dancing. I love hearing about people who have become friends after meeting at our parties, or who have met lovers at our parties. There’s a couple, who have become friends of mine, and their first date was to a Rocksteady Disco party. They’re getting married this summer, and I think that’s just the best.
I also think music allows us to learn about the world. I didn’t learn about Marcus Garvey or Steve Biko in my history classes, I learned about them by listening to Steel Pulse and Culture. Why is so much of Brazil’s music some of the most unique, sophisticated, and fun music in the world? It’s the influence of native Brazilian culture + the legacy of white colonialism + the influence from the often Yoruba-practicing black slaves that were brought to the north. That history is brutal and heartbreaking, but the music subverts the trauma into something restorative. And that’s not just a Brazil thing – that transculturation can be found in deeply affective music around the world, including Detroit and Chicago.
Is there anything you see changing about the way you run Rocksteady Disco or any big plans for the future?
I am so excited about our current catalogue and upcoming release schedule, and I hope to continually one-up it and throw in some curveballs to keep listeners on their toes. I’m so grateful for my monthly residencies, being Sermon at Temple Bar and Sunday Revival at MotorCity Wine. I’m also kicking off my summer residency at the Cerise Rooftop in Chicago in May. I’m also excited for more gigs/live hybrid sets/releases under Blair French’s and my new moniker Belle Isle Balearic. Belle Isle Balearic is the perfect soundtrack for beach and pool parties, for when you prefer to sip a caipirinha in the sun instead of reaching dance floor ecstasy in a club. I’m looking forward to building my weekly radio show on Underground Sessions, and I hope to get some more hi-fi/all-age/dog-friendly events going in Detroit. I’m also really excited to bring the Rocksteady Disco sound to more dance floors around the world (coming soon to West Virginia, San Francisco, and more). And I’m excited to put some more of my own music and remixes out there, when I find the time!