John Rocca - Once Upon A Time in New York City

John Rocca - Once Upon A Time in New York City

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN N.Y.C. is a collection of pioneering proto-electro and house music made by in NYC (and London) by FREEEZ founder JOHN ROCCA between 1982-1987. The splattered orange LP contains six tracks, and another two, one of which is the international hit “I.O.U.”, are included on a bonus marbled grey 7”.

“I.O.U.” features on ONCE UPON A TIME IN N.Y.C. in its kaleidoscopic, near-eight minute-long “I Dub U” dance mix, as well as in its original form on a standalone seven-inch. With this extended version, it’s easy to hear why it was so influential on DJs and future dance producers. The video for the song, directed by the legendary Don Letts, is iconic in and of itself and is a must watch. “I.O.U.” was their most successful song. It reached #2 on the UK singles chart, the top of the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart, and was on the charts all over the world and was even featured on the soundtrack for the legendary film Beat Street. More recently, “I.O.U.” has been sampled by Jamie xx, Burial, Brandy, Coolio, Cheryl Cole and more.

JOHN ROCCA led FREEEZ, a pioneering early-80s band from North London. Their debut album Southern Freeez was initially released in late 1980 on John Rocca’s own label Pink Rythm, but within weeks, they were signed by Beggars Banquet, who re-released it in 1981. “Southern Freeez” was a massive hit. Soon after, the band quickly fell apart, and decided that the only way to make another record would be if they got an outside producer.

The four members of the band – bandleader/singer Rocca, keyboard player Andy Stennett, bassist Peter Maas and drummer Everton McCalla – flew to New York to seek out that producer and make that album. By pure alphabetical chance, top of the list was Arthur Baker, who had only months before overseen the recording of landmark hip-hop track “Planet Rock”, by Afrika Bambaataa and his Soulsonic Force. He wasn’t too keen on hearing the band’s new demos (which Rocca now describes as a “mishmash”). Instead, he insisted that himself and the group write entirely new tracks from scratch. “In New York,” says Rocca, “we transitioned through this jazz-funk thing into what was coming next.”

The music that John Rocca made that summer and fall in New York was to pave the way for his future solo style in the years that immediately followed: pioneering proto-electro and house music collected together on ONCE UPON A TIME IN N.Y.C. Much of it is presented here in the form of dub or alternative mixes that best spotlight its ground-breaking qualities.

By the time Freeez returned to NYC in the summer of 1983, “I.O.U.” was everywhere, having hit Number 1 in the Billboard Dance/Club Play chart. “I was amazed it was a hit,” Rocca says. “It was a surprise to me. All kudos to Arthur because he obviously had a vision for that track.” Back in the UK, the single reached Number 2, making Rocca, in particular, a pop star. Suddenly he was back on Top Of The Pops, but this time, as the band’s frontman.

Testimonies from other producers and DJs featured in the liner notes further underline just how influential the music of John Rocca and Freeez was upon many others. “John was creating the definitive sounds of the mid-‘80s,” states Junior Vasquez. “Rocca’s sound became our classics in New York City,” remembers Louie Vega.

After the second album’s success, Rocca was returned to his council flat in North London, getting to work with his Sequential Circuits Pro One synth, coming up with what was to be his first solo release, I Want It To Be Real (completed with the keyboard-overdubbing help of Andy Stennett). By the spring of 1984, on his return to New York, once again, Rocca had topped the Billboard Dance chart with “I Want It To Be Real”, . He experienced first-hand the excitement surrounding the track when he heard how monumental it sounded pumping out of the speakers at the legendary Paradise Garage club when it was played by DJ Larry Levan.

Meanwhile, “Englishman In New York”, originally the B-side of “I Want It To Be Real”, captured the sounds of New York as a loud, chaotic city, with field recordings made by Rocca on 42nd Street using his AIWA Walkman. Following swiftly after in 1984 came “Once Upon A Time”. The “Once Upon A Dub” version on the new album brings the track’s pummeling beats, slamming electro bassline and cut-up sonic features into sharp focus.

Elsewhere, the final two tracks that complete Once Upon A Time In N.Y.C. date from 1987. ‘Move’, made with Arthur Baker and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, is a dreamy-headed and propulsive dancefloor track that proves Rocca to be a pioneer of house music. ‘The Dream’, meanwhile, he produced in New York along with Nelson Cruz and Craig Peyton, making great use of the upmarket Fairlight sampling system. The track’s punchy electro beats are fronted by a soulful John Rocca vocal and what he admits is one of his most personal and heartfelt lyrics.

Ultimately, then, Once Upon A Time In N.Y.C. is a sonic document of Rocca’s musical and geographical adventures between 1982 and 1987. It is the sound of the bold maneuvers he made in club culture, both in America and the UK. John Rocca was there, every step of the way, and this brilliant new compilation is the proof.

“The era is not “I.O.U.’ on its own,” he concludes. “It’s broader, and it grows and evolves. I felt I wanted to capture that.” It’s about a window in time,” says Rocca of the album. “It’s about an era.”


Beggars Arkive is excited to announce the May 20th release ONCE UPON A TIME IN N.Y.C. - a collection of pioneering proto-electro and house music made by in NYC (and London) by FREEEZ founder JOHN ROCCA between 1982-1987. The splattered orange vinyl LP contains six tracks, and another two, one of which is the international hit “I.O.U.”, are included on a bonus marbled grey 7”.

JOHN ROCCA led FREEEZ, a pioneering early-80s band from North London. They had several massive hits, I.O.U being the biggest, having hit Number 1 in the Billboard Dance/Club Play chart. More recently, the track has been sampled by many artists including Jamie xx, Burial, Brandy, Coolio, Cheryl Cole and more.

Once Upon A Time In N.Y.C. is a sonic document of Rocca’s musical and geographical adventures between 1982 and 1987. It is the sound of the bold maneuvers he made in club culture, both in America and the UK. John Rocca was there, every step of the way, and this brilliant new compilation is the proof.

“The era is not “I.O.U.’ on its own,” he concludes. “It’s broader, and it grows and evolves. I felt I wanted to capture that.” It’s about a window in time,” says Rocca of the album. “It’s about an era.”