Buried Treasure

Take a tour of South Florida's best roots stash

So let's say the missing piece to your perfect record collection is the essential Ska Boo-Da-Ba by the Skatalites, an original Top Deck issue. Or let's say your triple-LP Grounation, by Count Ossie and his Mystic Revealers of Rastafari, met its end in that unfortunate bong incident. Or maybe the cat marked its territory on your copy of the Heptones' On Top. Anyway, for whatever reason, you suddenly find yourself in search of one of these classic LPs and they're not even mentioned on eBay or cdnow.com, and the only thing you've found at your local record store that's even remotely related is a Christmas album by the Specials.

Fortunately this is Miami (how often can you say that?), and scattered throughout the city, tucked away in anonymous strip malls and lost in corners of flea markets, are record stores run by, and mostly for, South Florida's Jamaican diaspora. Of course most anything can be found in the exhaustive and well-organized selection at Blue Note Records in North Miami Beach. But where's the fun in that? A tour of the local reggae map, more journey than destination, is a better chance to hobnob with the actual producer of some of those prized 45s scattered about the store and take a peek through the keyhole of the Jamaican music business.

The first step in any successful tour of this sort is to hitch your wagon to a connoisseur, someone like Andrew Sloan, former road manager for Israel Vibration, and more recently the U.S. point man for fabled Jamaican producer Joe Gibbs. A long-time South Florida resident, Sloan has scoured the landscape for vinyl shops and attributes his success to patience and perseverance. "Some of these guys are sitting on gold, but for whatever reason, it's hard to get at the good stuff," he says. "It helps to know what you're looking for."

A few miles past Blue Note, in a tiny strip mall on the south side of NE 167th Street, one of the better-known Jamaican shops, Rankin Records, has been going strong for more than ten years. It's obvious from the stacks of LPs and seven- and twelve-inch singles -- calypso, soca, gospel, R&B, African, and zouk -- that Rankin serves all West Indian tastes. Don Drummond's Greatest Hits, The Best of Alton Ellis, Third World's Journey to Addis, John Holt, Jackie Mittoo, the Maytals -- they're all here, mostly recent Studio One pressings. Rankin even carries that Heptones LP you wanted, not to mention a 45 from boxer/singer Oscar de la Hoya.

From here it's a loop on the Golden Glades interchange, south on 441, and a stop in at the closet-size International Records, now part 99-cent store packed with Big Youth, the Paragons, and gold tinsel for the tree. Forget it.

A few blocks south on the right, in another lonely strip mall with a sign that simply reads "Records," lies a hidden treasure chest of vintage vinyl crammed into JaPee Records. The space resembles a storage locker more than a retail shop, and time and patience are required to comb through thousands of disorganized LPs and 45s thrown into bins with little regard for genre or the alphabet. Prince Buster and Rolando Alphonso hide behind multiple copies of Lionel Richie (in all his mauve-sweater glory) and Led Zeppelin. "It takes a few hours, but you can cherry-pick some great stuff here," says Sloan.

Behind the counter is the man himself: Norbert "JaPee" Pinto, former producer and associate of Joe Gibbs before Gibbs's sudden exit from the music business in the mid-Eighties (precipitated by the question of unpaid royalties on a cover -- and surprise hit -- of a Charley Pride song). JaPee acquired the vinyl from Gibbs's warehouse in Opa-locka, and many of these classics still litter his shelves.

"You know Freddie McGregor? I gave him his first break," JaPee boasts, and then points to a snapshot of himself with Freddie in headier days. "I used to fly to New York and Miami every other weekend. I drove a Mercedes-Benz. And the girls ... mmm." He laughs, "Now I'm poor."

Like many Jamaicans who left the island during the turbulence of the late Seventies, JaPee has lived in Miami for more than twenty years and has been in business for seventeen. His once mighty empire of five record stores and a warehouse has dwindled to this store on NW Seventh Avenue. Although he may be down, though, he's certainly not out. As the collectibility of vinyl grows, urban hipsters keep stumbling into his shop. "A Japanese came in here one time and picked out 8000 twelve-inches and LPs," recounts JaPee of one of his better days. "I said, “Give me $30,000.' He says, “How about $12,000?'

"“No, give me $25,000,' and that was it. I was kicking myself. I could've gotten $27,000 or $28,000 from him. As soon as he left, I closed my shop and flew to Jamaica for two weeks. If the Japanese economy was still strong," he adds, "I'd be in business."

Far to the southwest, in Perrine, sandwiched between a Jamaican patty shop and a Chinese-Jamaican restaurant in yet another strip mall, famed producer Herman Chin Loy holds forth inside the neat, well-lit Aquarius Records. Sparse shelves display LPs and CDs of classic soca and reggae. Chin Loy's kids come and go from behind the counter, where stacks of 45s are organized. Chin Loy provides service to the substantial West Indian community while keeping the fire of his Nazarene faith burning bright. "Give me a list, and I can get it from my store in Jamaica," he tells one customer.

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