Getting Behind the Groove with
“If it just grooves and it makes you feel good then just follow that groove”
“If it just grooves and it makes you feel good then just follow that groove”
PREAMBLE: For many years, the name Midi Rain meant only one thing to me, and that was the landmark deep vocal house track, years ahead of it’s time. The Crack train.
The Crack Train is a record that cut deep and long lasting groove into the chakras of my mind during my earliest experiences of hearing house music. It’s taken many years since then for me to understand and fully appreciate the full history of the man behind this cult blueprint deep house classic and fully realise his contributions to the world of alternative music.
With his numerous highly regarded contributions, Midi Rain - John Rocca is responsible for a breadth of scene forming innovated music from his offerings to a budding Brit Funk scene through tracks like Freeez - Southern Freeez, to early sample and synth based popular dance music hits like I.O.U , and indeed then onto the rich depth of experimental house and dance music like Midi Rain’s The Crack Train.
Suffice to say then, that when I tracked the man himself down and secured some time to get behind the groove, we had much to talk about…
BTG: Thank you so much for taking the time out, we're really humbled that you can give us some time today. We are ultimately here to talk about the creation of a landmark underground house music track, 1990 Midi Rain, The Crack Train. But in actual fact, Midi Rain and The Crack Train, are actually a few chapters into a really interesting story, which was unfolding for you from the early '80's.
JR: Yes, yes it was
BTG: So, prior to releasing music as Midi Rain, you are recognised for your contribution the Brit Funk scene through your highly acclaimed Groups, Freeez, namely with your Brit Funk hir, Southern Freeez among others, and also with your Pink Rhythm releases.
Can you tell us a little bit about the early music influences that lead you to your first steps into music, and then onto the more digital approach you took later with Midi Rain?
JR: Well, I've always loved music from being a young kid. I would say that one of the earliest tracks I really liked was Michael Jackson, Ain't No Sunshine. That was something I used to play to death among others. But when I really got into what we would call 'R&B, jazz funk, disco, was the mid to late '70's, it first happened for me when I was at an after school club and somebody played a song called Wicky Wacky by the Fatback Band. I was playing table tennis or just sitting around or something and suddenly this thing came on, and i'd never heard anything like it before in my life. That was a real turning point for me.
So, that was where my music interest began. And very very quickly, I specifically channeled in that direction and went looking for that music. I wanted to find out what it was and how you get ahold of it. I went to record shops in Turnpike Lane, Harringey and central London, some reggae shops but most importantly US import shops. And started going to clubs that played that sort of music. That was a real birth for me in that area. I did my 'O' levels, and started 'A' levels at school, and dropped out after about six months, deciding that it was music that I wanted to do and not studies.
I really wanted to get into music, however, I didn't play any instruments, really. I played a bit of percussion, but it didn't go that well for me. All I could get, at the time, was a job on a van carrying records. Just delivering them. So, that was about as close as I got for a year or so. I got behind the counter working at a record shop at one point. This is the time of the Caister Weekenders, McFadden and Whitehead, Shalamar, all sorts of great unbelievable late '70's dance disco and jazz funk music. It was all happening at that time and that was a big influence for me.
In the shop where I was working, Bluey, Jean-Paul Bluey Maunick, from Incognito walked in one day. I got talking to him and I didn't know who he was. He just told me he has a band and I said I play. So, he said make me a cassette and I'll see if you can join. So, I did some bongos and I did some singing and he said, "Yeah, you're in." So, I started jamming with him and his group of folks that he had and it was out of that group, that I picked a few folks out, including Bluey, to do a record. And that was the first Freeez record, all from my own funds, it was called "Keep in Touch”and ended up a big dance hit, which I then signed to Pye/Cailbre Records, after which it hit 49 in the UK pop charts.
With the money I made form Keep in Touch I first recorded a track called "Stay” which I wasn’t happy with and neither was Pye/Excalibre who dropped me, but that worked quite well as I was free to start over, and get things right.
Bluey moved on after ‘Stay and so did the keyboard player but I found a new keyboard player and we moved on to Southern Freeez. And that's all the sort of Brit funk era stuff. That eventually got signed to a label. We had quite a bit of success. We did a tour and then the band broke up and at that time music was changing. And the technology behind music was changing. It was moving towards a bit more of an electronic vibe. So, the jazz funk stuff, a lot of it, was live instruments and musicians, but things were starting to be introduced, such as the 808 Drum machine and synthesizers were coming around everywhere.
I did love technology, so I was really excited by these electronic gadgets that came into the studio. And they gave me, as a non musician, an ability to start making music, because I made my music through the Freeez musicians. I would listen to what they played and try and focus them into something I sort of produced the music or hummed or sort of waved madly at people to try and get them down a particular groove that I wanted to have played. And, of course, they had their ideas own ideas, and together we made a particular sound.
But when electro came along, it was just the beginnings of me being able to twiddle around with sequences and start doing stuff myself. But, of course, you can't do jazz funk like that, so the sound changed, and also my ability as a musician flavoured what came out because I was only capable of certain things. And so, in some sense, things got simpler because I couldn't do such complex things.
As technology moved on, I moved on with it. I didn't stop loving and enjoying real musicianship and jazz funk and what have you, but I certainly enjoyed technology. I love the smell of electronics. It's just awesome.
BTG: Yeah, I was just going to say, as you morphed into that time, how aware were you of the developing electronic underground house and techno dance music scene at the time? Were you indulging in that club culture yourself from the electronic music side of things or were you just interested in the emergence of that sound along with the technology?
JR: I was in a wave of a movement so, as with a wave made of water, you just sort of get pulled along by the current. Some people might resist and try and swim in the opposite direction and I'm sure people did but I didn't. I just welcomed it and enjoyed it. Take I.O.U, for example. That was one of the first tracks, at least the first successful tracks to use proper sampling. So, we sampled our voices and John Roby played this solo using voices over the top I just wanted to use any bit of new kit that came out that was fun to have a fiddle with and made a sound that was cool.
We're talking about early '80's now, when I spent a fair amount of time in New York City. But the New York club scene was quite influential to me. Just the sound of the speakers there. The sort of massive clubs that we played. Awesome places. Absolutely amazing. I'm sure that some of that influenced where I went to next, which was the solo John Rocca stuff because, as things moved forward, I was able to do more stuff on my own and didn't need so much of a band. I did quite a few things with Andy Stennet from Freeez.
Fantastic keyboard player and a very good friend. Great musician. He helped me through that transition, really, by doing all the sort of proper playing which I couldn't do.
As computers came along, which was going the late '80's now, early '90's. That gave me the ability to do everything myself, unless I particularly wanted something done.
So, Midi Rain was the first time I've done everything.
BTG: Wow... And the name Midi Rain itself, a nod really to the technology and of that era, sequencing approach you were taking to make music at the time, too, right?
JR: Yeah, absolutely. I loved it. I love the technology and I love music, so I think that was a good marriage there. After Freeez
I bought myself a recording studio like a lot of people do. With Midi Rain, I had a little Atari computer and a little tiny Yamaha mixer. I had probably one keyboard, an Akai sampler and maybe a couple of other units that make sound, the kind where there's no keyboards or anything. . .and you just fiddle around and get sounds out of it.
That's the sort of thing I loved. I love sound, mixing it all up together. I would sit there with headphones on at home just making sounds and that is what Midi Rain was born out of. It was all written in my house basically. In one room. Not even a studio.
BTG: Wow.. one of things that I wanted to talk about with The Crack Train, is that there is lots of really beautiful delays and reverbs layered into the track. Really experimental and quite boundary pushing for the time for 1990. So, let's get on to the track itself then.
So the actual song itself, the vocal storyline of the track. It's a really deep and captivating storyline. The track is really low slung, almost melancholy and entrancing. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired writing of the track itself?
JR: Well, the song is about crack cocaine. At the time it was a fairly big thing and I think it was fairly new if I remember rightly. That someone had come up with this new drug. Destroyed a lot of people's lives. It was a particular thing that drew people in and certainly criminals would use it to enslave people. But, yeah, The Crack Train came from there.
As for the rest of the track, one of the key sounds is a Pro One Synth. It's a bit older than The Crack Train music and Midi Rain really because it's from early '80's really. It didn't connect up very well to my modern kit but I didn't want to let go of it because it made such an amazing bass sound.
I'm not frightened of delays and reverbs and things that sound like they're somewhere up on a mountain or that sound like they're right in your face. I like a mixture of the things. I like to look to create space for things and I like to layer things. I like things that are a bit more complex.
BTG: It's beautiful fusion... There's something really amazing about the way the percussion ride works with the beat in the track. It almost has a feeling of a chugging train in way it the sounds. Was that something conscious, or just coincidental?
JR: If we start with the original, then no, I wasn't trying to make any kind of train sound at all haha. But if I think about the main mix that was done with Jonathan Saul Kane, between us, I do remember the night ... He did one night with me on that track, one evening really. It was fun and I liked what he did. If it chugs, it's because I like a good groove. If it just grooves and it makes you feel good then just follow that groove.
I think that is still similar to how I work. I'm not a very intricate musician. I don't know how to read or write music, or play notes. I can't play musical instruments per se, but I now how to layer things together, put things together, and get some sort of groove going, whether it's up tempo or down tempo or some just sort of feel.
BTG: On the subject of partnerships/remixes, with you referencing John Saul Kane for example, there were other important remixes of subsequent Midi Rain releases, of particular interest to me are Mr. C's remix of Eyes and DJ Pierre's remix of Shine. Those guys, both then and now, are regarded as long standing ambassadors of the underground house and techno sound. Were you very conscious of who they were that at the time? How did you come to actually come to work with those guys for those remixes?
JR: It's a really good question because actually I had no idea who they were until the record company said we're going to get them to do those remixes. I think, there's no doubt in my mind, that DJ Pierre, who is very nice, had his style. Again, that remix was just one evening, and I think he did a great job... Shine was my last number one in the U.S. billboard charts. So, I'm very happy to have bowed out at that point. And as you say, Mr. C did some good stuff on Eyes.
BTG: Both then and now, those tracks stand as great examples of solid deep house track and are highly revered!
The Crack Train itself, is often sighted as playing a key role in the early acid house and house music nights in the UK around the the early years. It gets referenced as being an important track at clubs like the infamous Dungeons Nights in London. Were you aware when The Crack Train was on the club circuit, that it was having such an impact on basement club dance floors up and down the country? Were you very aware of that?
JR: No, I wasn't. I'm always very flattered when people say that something I did was influential in some way. That wasn't the first time I heard that, because 'I want it to be real' and 'Once upon a time' were also referenced in similar ways, particularly from Chicago DJ's. So, it's always very, very flattering and I'm most appreciative of people's good and kind words.
BTG: Well, they continue to serve as pivotal tracks that stand the test of time!
OK, so I guess all thats left to say is thank you John for taking the time out to get Behind the Groove with us today, and thank you for your incredible contributions to the amazing world of electronic music we know and love today!
JR: You are very welcome, and thank you!