Chin Music

How one little record shop climbed to the top of the reggae world

Easing his white Ford Bronco into the lead spot of the funeral procession, red-faced, red-haired Irish Catholic priest Father Gabriel O'Reilly leaves the church in Broward where he's just officiated over the mass for Vincent "Randy" Chin. A trail of funeral flags follows him, all flying atop sedans and SUVs loaded with black-clad mourners. There's a tiny, wizened Rasta with gray dreads arranged neatly under a wool herringbone hat. There's a little black girl with a new dress and new braids. And there's an elderly Chinese couple speaking in Jamaican patois. At Chin's soon-to-be grave site, O'Reilly says a quick midafternoon prayer for the man who somehow transformed a simple mom-and-pop record store into the world's most successful reggae-oriented record company.

Standing next to the casket is Chin's widow, Patricia -- better known as "Miss Pat" -- a tiny woman of Chinese/Indian heritage who grew up in Kingston. The two maintained a modest home in Pembroke Pines, where complications from diabetes took 65-year-old Vincent on the morning of February 2. Clive Chin is there too, Miss Pat's stepson and Vincent's oldest heir. From New York City, where they run the company their parents began, have come Christopher and Randy Chin. There's the Chins' youngest child, Angela, and her husband, Howard Chung, who oversee the Miramar branch of the international label known as VP Records. Clive's son Joel, who now works as the company's A&R director, and twelve more grandchildren are here as well.

Clive's ex-wife, Mandy, steps up to Chin's casket, touches it, and tells the assembled mourners that she'd long ago promised him she'd attend his funeral to fulfill one final wish. With that, she launches into a long, slow rendition of "My Way." "Frank was one of his idols, I think," Chung mentions later.

Miss Pat and Vincent Chin behind the counter at Randy's, circa 1960
Miss Pat and Vincent Chin behind the counter at Randy's, circa 1960
Angela and Howard Chung at VP in Miramar
Angela and Howard Chung at VP in Miramar

As Chin's family buried its patriarch, thousands of reggae fans celebrated (with the help of numerous blunts and copious cups of booze) the Bob Marley Festival at Miami's Bayfront Park, with the talents of Cedella Marley Booker, Steel Pulse, Inner Circle, and a brace of Marley kin. Throughout the performances, no one mentioned Chin or his passing. But his family never noticed -- they'd rented a hall and filled it with jerk chicken, rice and peas, oxtail, egg rolls, fried rice, and won ton soup. They ate and reminisced, Skatalites songs playing as they skanked the day away.

The elder Chin left to his family a still-growing empire they remain grateful for. "He was a very good provider," Angela says. Adds Miss Pat, "The bottom line is, it's not just money. It's what you do over the course of your life that makes you stand out, even when you're gone."

But VP's bottom line is indeed impressive: The family now oversees the most successful reggae record label ever -- one that has crossed over onto Billboard's charts and mainstream radio without losing its insurrectionary spirit. Saddled with the thankless task of replacing Bob Marley as the end-all and be-all of the genre with something a bit more contemporary, VP went beyond. Sensing dancehall's parallels with hip-hop, the label took reggae back to the streets, where it started. Some of her youngest grandchildren, says Miss Pat with a soft, melodious giggle, are on the front lines. "They're always telling me what's hot and when the beat is changing," she says.

Vincent G. Chin was born to Chinese immigrants on October 3, 1937, in Kingston, Jamaica. Music ruled the island's culture even in the late 1950s, with radio stations from Miami and New Orleans offering Jamaicans tempting glimpses of American jazz and R&B. Chin found employment servicing the island's jukeboxes, all stocked with seven-inch singles.

"He used to sleep in his car," remembers Clive Chin, who speaks in the gruff patois of Kingston's streets, even though he has lived in New York since the 1970s. "His duty was to clear the boxes and keep the money, and it was a rough time to travel with all that silver, y'know, with coins in your car and no protection."

Amassing an impressive personal collection of music through his line of work, in the summer of 1959 Chin was able to open up his first record store. "He kept dem records, and that was the springboard of his business, y'know?" explains Clive. Vincent's biggest source of musical information from abroad was Gene Nobles, a disc jockey from WLAC in Nashville. Transmitting as far as Kingston, Nobles's late-night show fed Vincent a steady diet of American AM hits.

By the time he moved the store to the oldest part of central Kingston, Vincent had become "Randy," and applied his new nickname to his shop as well as the store's small, home-grown label. Randy's became a hub of activity and a major player in Kingston's network of retail and wholesale record sales and distribution. The cauldron of Jamaica's music business depended more on records than musicians; more on traveling sound systems and recording studios than the material itself. The store wasn't just a place for making purchases; it was where customers came in to hear what was new and to socialize. Above Randy's, Vincent was busy constructing a basic recording studio. By the time the place opened for business in the spring of 1969, reggae had begun to unfurl its revolutionary counterpoint to the previous feel-good vibes of calypso and mento. A radical time was coming to the island, and Randy's sat atop its geographical and cultural center.

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