10 years of Detroit’s Rocksteady Disco

Could partying be considered… a social good? Peter Croce, head of Detroit’s Rocksteady Disco record label, makes the case.

“I genuinely believe this in my least cynical moments,” he says. “I do think if you can get off your phone for a few hours and like, dance and meet some strangers — people have met at my parties and got married — that’s pretty cool.”

Croce launched Rocksteady Disco a decade ago when he was studying to become a social worker at MSU, and started DJing at parties as a way to put his extensive record collection to use.

“I have this thing in my brain, where if I’m going to do something, I’m gonna like, go whole hog and learn the roots and the history and what is the most pure way of doing this,” he says. “And then that will take you to two turntables and a mixer.”

Fast-forward to today and Croce has now been invited to curate a Rocksteady Disco stage in the VIP section of Movement Music Festival, which returns to Hart Plaza Memorial Day weekend. Croce will hold down the VIP stage from 3-9 p.m. on Sunday with the help of Blair French, Eddie Logix, Heidy P, and Moonlighter.

He adds, “I feel like it’s the one thing I’ve ever felt really, really good at. Or at least that I’m where I should be.”

Not long after launched Rocksteady Disco, Croce moved to Detroit and landed a gig DJing the patio of Motor City Wine, which happened to be located just down the street from his new residence. “I thought it’d be fun to play records on a patio every Friday,” he says. “I walked in with like, no pitch, and they were like, ‘What are you playing?’ And I just froze and said, ‘I really love Sade.’ They were like, ‘That’s a good start.’”

The relationship has continued to this day. Croce and company will also DJ “Viva La Resistance,” a patio party at Motor City Wine that starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday and runs until closing time. Croce says the annual event is his favorite party of the year.

“We like to say that we play party music — people’s favorite songs before they know they’re their favorite songs,” he says of what people can expect. “Like, it’s not exactly pop music, but it often sounds familiar. It draws a lot from the big dance music hubs in the United States, whether it’s Detroit techno, Chicago house, disco, and garage and house in New York.”

Another signature of Croce’s work as a DJ and producer is his incorporation of world music sounds. “My dad used to play a lot of West African jazz fusion records and stuff in my house growing up,” he says. “And for whatever reason, I’ve always been drawn to Afro-Latin, Afro-Brazilian, and just Pan-African music at large.”

As a jazz-trained bass player and Steely Dan fan, Croce also likes to inject a dose of rock ’n’ roll into his sets. “I put on ‘Too Much Blood’ by the Rolling Stones at an 11-hour party and I thought that might be the part where everyone takes a break and goes to get a drink,” he says. “But like, people went nuts!”

He adds, “We don’t really have a specific lane, which I think is part of what makes our parties pretty fun and keeps people on their toes.”

Croce says he was unsure of the future of Rocksteady Disco until the label’s fifth release, which was also Croce’s 12-inch debut. The 2017 single “Revival” was built around an unlikely sample: a recent speech by pastor and social justice activist Reverend William Barber II at the Democratic National Convention in which he implores, “We must shock this nation with the power of love. We must shock this nation with the power of mercy. We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all.” When he first heard the speech, “I was like, ‘Oh, this is really different,’” Croce says. “As I was listening to it, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I need to sample this on a track.’”

Croce also added his own electric bass guitar performance to the mix.

“I think a lot of folks talk about a flow state, whether you’re an artist or otherwise, like you just know when you’re in it,” he says of the record. “It was just one of those times where there was literally no self-doubt about the production. … And it wasn’t because of me, it was just because like, I think there’s something that has been tapped into here. And I needed to put it out.”

The success of the track wound up breathing new life into Rocksteady Disco, according to Croce.

“I named the track ‘Revival’ because that’s what the preacher’s talking about, but it ended up reviving the label,” he says.

Croce says that Rocksteady Disco continued to establish its identity with subsequent records by Blair French and Eddie Logix. “It took us a minute to really find ourselves,” he says.

“My production leans more housey, while Blair and Eddie sound like hip-hop producers making dance music, which is so cool,” he elaborates. “Like, they’re just so good at sampling. They don’t even realize how good they are. They can do things in their sleep that I can’t do and I’m trying my hardest.”

The music of Rocksteady Disco, Croce adds, “is made to just make people dance, and there’s usually a little bit of work and unexpectedness to it.”

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