Images courtesy of VP Records
If reggae music were blood, you could almost call Pat Chin the heart, distributing syncopated rhythms throughout the body with every beat, since the very beginning.
“A Chinese woman living in America and doing reggae music. It’s different,” explains Miss Pat in slightly Jamaican-tinged English. VP Records (named after Vincent and Pat Chin) is the largest publisher and distributor of Caribbean music in the world.
The face of reggae music clearly isn’t Asian—over 90 percent of Jamaicans are of African descent. But from the mid-19th to early 20th century, a significant number of East Indians and Chinese migrated to the island as laborers, many later becoming shopkeepers. Miss Pat is a fourth-generation Jamaican of mixed Chinese and Indian ancestry. On being a minority in Jamaica, Miss Pat reflects, “We never had a barrier. We didn’t think we were different.” The national motto, “Out of many, one people,” rang true.
Miss Pat met her husband Vincent in the 1950s when he was working for Isaac Issa, a Syrian-Jamaican businessman, stocking and maintaining jukeboxes around Jamaica. Rather than trashing the old 45’s, mostly American music with a dash of calypso, the couple bought and stockpiled them. In 1958, they opened Randy’s Records in downtown Kingston, named after a Nashville record store that sponsored a popular R&B show they picked up on shortwave. “My husband liked the name, so he just named him same, Randy’s.”
People flocked to the store to buy these older records that were no longer available in stores. Many of the competing “sound systems” (Jamaican terminology for groups of DJs, engineers and MCs) got their records from Randy’s stock. Miss Pat started selling new records as well, scratching off the labels the way hip-hop DJs would later do, so that competitors would not be able to identify and hunt down the same records. No radio station was playing Jamaican music at the time. As ska music grew in popularity through the sound systems, Randy’s started selling more and more local records.
Vincent began recording local talent like Alton Ellis, doing Jamaican versions of R&B songs. To celebrate Jamaica’s independence in 1962, Vincent produced Lord Creator’s Independent Jamaica, the first record on Chris Blackwell’s Island label. The year 1962 was also the year Randy’s moved to 17 North Parade (which doubled as an ice cream parlor) in the heart of Kingston. By 1968, Studio 17 was fully operational upstairs. This is where Lee Perry recorded The Wailers’ Soul Revolution. Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Bunny Lee, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley—everybody recorded there. Miss Pat’s stepson Clive produced This is Augustus Pablo there, as well as the first-ever dub record, Java.
“We never had a barrier. We didn’t think we were different.” The national motto, “Out of many, one people,” rang true.
In the late ’70s, Jamaica was engulfed in economic turmoil, and politically-motivated violence was rampant. Vincent immigrated to New York in 1977 and opened Randy’s VP on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, while Miss Pat kept things running in Kingston and exported records to her husband. She followed in 1979, and VP Records was officially born. “We chose Jamaica Avenue, because the area is Jamaica, and we’re from Jamaica,” she laughs. The adjustment to a new culture and different way of speaking was difficult, not to mention the finances—she could bring records but was only allowed to take $50 in cash out of Jamaica. On top of that, Americans “didn’t know the art. They only knew Bob Marley.”
VP played a vital role in eradicating that ignorance. Miss Pat logically started with roots music, due to Bob Marley’s fame, but it didn’t catch on. What did was dancehall, which appealed to younger listeners. But “after the young people in the dancehall grow a little older, they will go back to the roots,” she explains. VP has the full spectrum covered.
In 1993, the VP record label was launched. Over the years, VP has released all the big names: Shabba Ranks, Beenie Man, Lady Saw, Morgan Heritage, Wayne Wonder, Shaggy, Sizzla, Sean Paul, etc. VP established a historic partnership with Atlantic Records in 2002 and purchased the major European distributor Greensleeves earlier this year. VP is clearly, as their slogan goes, “miles ahead in reggae music.” “There are other companies,” explains Miss Pat, “but they don’t put out as much as we do, because we are really current at what’s going on and because our biggest strength is developing the artists.”
Vincent passed away in 2003. Miss Pat is proud that her children and grandchildren have taken over the day-to-day operations of VP, but she remains active to this day, 50 years after the first Randy’s opened. She launched the clothing line Riddim Driven in 2004. As VP prepares to celebrate 30 years in America, Miss Pat reflects on a life of unparalleled achievement in the industry: “I wouldn’t do it any other way. I’m very proud to be Jamaican and really glad my husband chose to do music versus the ice cream parlor.” Indeed, the flavors she serves are much cooler than frozen desserts.