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.
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.
"Randy's was the place," remembers Lloyd Campbell. "Studio 17, we used to call it. That's where everything used to happen at the time." Campbell grew up in Kingston with the Chin family and lives today in Pembroke Pines. He works in VP's Miramar office, where he oversees his own small label, Joe Frazier.
It's difficult to overstate the importance Randy's small empire held in early 1970s Kingston. The main downtown bus stop for travelers arriving from out of town, a bustling nerve center called Idler's Rest, was next door to Randy's. Producers would show up as early as 8:00 a.m. to find session musicians kicking it on the street corner, and hire them to record tracks upstairs. "Everything that happened in the music business, bad and good, happened there," recalls Miss Pat, who had emerged as the store's -- and Randy Chin's -- primary fixture. "It was a very popular spot, every day there would be Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown ..."
"Oh, we're talking, like, the Skatalites, the Maytals, Ken Boothe, Lord Creator -- a host of artists coming in and out of the store," continues Clive Chin. Saxmen Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso, trumpeter Johnny Moore, and trombonist Rico Rodriguez were among Studio 17's best-known session men. When they joined the legendary Skatalites, Vincent gladly became the producer. He performed similar functions for Ken Boothe, John Holt, and the Maytals trio (before their affiliation with "Toots" Hibbert).
It was a productive time. Niney the Observer recorded singer Dennis Brown there, Bunny Lee taped Delroy Wilson, and Lee "Scratch" Perry cut some of his earliest sessions with Bob Marley and the Wailers. By the early 1970s, engineer Erroll "ET" Thompson had added more modernized equipment to the studio, Clive became the de facto producer-on-premises, and the house band (called "Randy's All-Stars") included Wailers bassist Aston "Familyman" Barrett, Wailers keyboardist Tyrone Downie, drummer Sly Dunbar, and another young keyboardist named Horace Swaby, better known as Augustus Pablo.
Son Clive spent little time in the retail store, instead gravitating to the studio, where he learned to run the boards alongside the few other engineers of that era. "I grow up in the business, y'know," he says. "I got out of school in the early '70s and went straight into my father's business establishment." Soon it was Clive who was running the show upstairs at Randy's.
But by the late 1970s, once Kingston's large, ultramodern Studio One opened up, Randy's upstairs room saw less and less business. Bob Marley was becoming an international success, putting Jamaica in the spotlight, but Randy's wasn't responsible for much of his music.
Although Studio 17 had waned in influence, Patricia and Vincent were increasingly busy downstairs with Randy's Record Mart, which was constantly thriving and thrumming with foot traffic as well as steady global mail-order business. Along with their three young children, Christopher, Vincent "Randy" Jr., and Angela, the Chins made the store a second home, remembers Lloyd Campbell. "In those days, anywhere in the world that wanted a reggae record, you had to send off to Jamaica to order your records from Randy's!"
Unfortunately in 1977, Michael Manley's electoral victory spooked businesspeople all over the island, who already feared his socialist leanings and cozy relationship with Cuba. "It wasn't that we didn't like the country," explains Clive. "My heart and soul was in the music business there, I knew I was playing a major role, and I felt betrayed that I had to leave at such a precious time."
But in 1978 the Chins left for Queens. By the next year, the studio and record store in Kingston, unable to survive without the family's presence, both shut their doors. But Jamaica -- the one in Queens -- soon emerged as a reggae hub in its own right. Favoring the tactic of using their first initials, Vincent and Patricia brought Randy's Records to New York as VP Records.
VP's first store rented for $375 a month, Clive remembers, at 170-03A Jamaica Ave. "Print that," he insists. "Me run that for eight years." After that, he took a break from the record industry and got into catering and Caribbean food. In the meantime, Angela and Miss Pat had moved the retail store into a bigger location while Vincent, Randy, and Christopher turned their attention toward VP, the label. After licensing their past recordings for U.S. distribution, VP Records officially launched in 1993. "It was tough when we came here," recalls Miss Pat. "People didn't know much more than Bob Marley. But Clive was into the older type of recordings and Chris took on the newer."
Sensing that the dancehall sensation taking place back on the island would translate well to hip-hop aficionados in the States, VP began signing Jamaican dancehall artists in earnest: Beenie Man, Shaggy, Sizzla, Capleton, and Buju Banton all recorded for VP under Chris and Randy's supervision.
By then Vincent had less and less to do with the day-to-day operation of the label. He'd never developed a taste for dancehall. When he decided it was time to retire, he selected South Florida. It was close enough to Jamaica to make returning to see relatives simple, and besides, none of the Chins had ever gotten used to New York winters. When Vincent and Miss Pat resettled in Pembroke Pines around 1997, Howard and Angela headed south as well and opened their own branch of VP in Miramar.
All but hidden behind a barbecue restaurant sending visible streams of hickory-flavored goodness across the clogged lanes of 441, VP Records Florida occupies one end of a nondescript block of businesses. Inside the clean white space is a large warehouse with floor-to-ceiling product, a series of offices where the seven employees make their calls and send their e-mails, and a noisy retail outlet, whose vibrating bass permeates the whole place.
VP itself is vibrating. The music industry couldn't help but notice the label's standout reggae and soca compilations, like its huge Strictly the Best series. Packed with hits, garishly designed to resemble those attention-wrenching K-Tel covers, picturing thongs riding up, up, up butt-cracks, the comps collectively sold in the hundreds of thousands. This year Sean Paul's new album Dutty Rock debuted at number 14 on Billboard's pop chart, and Wayne Wonder's No Holding Back entered at number 29. Wayne Wonder's "No Letting Go" is the number one song on Z100 (WHTZ-FM 100.3), the big pop station in New York. Sean Paul's clip for "Gimme the Light" was the number one video played last year on BET. Much of this is the result of a distribution deal VP entered into with Atlantic Records last October, instantly making the conglomerate responsible for VP's international marketing.
The crossover victories scored by VP were too striking to ignore, says Atlantic vice president Craig Kallman, who adds, "This agreement puts us in the position of capturing Jamaica's most innovative sounds as soon as they happen in the studio."
The benefits of the Atlantic partnership are enormous, obviously. "Even though we have an office in the U.K. and distribution deals in other countries, we don't have infrastructure across the world," says Randy. But even without Atlantic's helping hand, VP artists have scored well critically as well as commercially, and though Freddie McGregor's Grammy-nominated Anything For You album lost to Lee "Scratch" Perry's Jamaican E.T. for best reggae album in February, the Chin family doesn't seem to mind. In fact, Clive says, "I'm pleased to know Perry got the Grammy this year. It was well deserved."
Friday morning, three weeks after Vincent Chin's funeral, Randy is busy polling the VP staff for impressions about last night's triumphant, sold-out concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York that featured Buju Banton and Wayne Wonder. "Everybody loved it!" he says excitedly. "Wayne did 'No Letting Go' and the crowd went crazy! He did extremely well onstage."
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Clive, on the other hand, sounds less impressed. "I had to leave halfway through, because I started fallin' asleep," he deadpans. In the background, but still loud and clear, Clive can be heard playing some of the old music he recorded during the fertile period from 1972 to 1975. The original album release of Randy's Dub was limited to a mere 200 copies, but five years ago was reissued as Forward the Bass: Dub From Randy's, credited to Impact All-Stars. Clive is recording it for a friend this afternoon.
Today the old master tapes from Randy's Studio 17 are in Clive's control; he is in charge of overseeing the archives left behind by his father. Some have been released already -- Skatalites & Friends at Randy's, for example, and Lord Creator's Greatest Hits. He promises it will all eventually see the light of day, but it'll be on his terms; he certainly won't be turning the reels over to Atlantic. Upcoming archive projects, he says, include A Rough Guide to Ska and another Impact All-Stars collection of soul, funk, and rarities.
"With the old stuff, if you package it right, people enjoy it. Atlantic commercializes too much. Me go right down to the groundwork and let the music speak, because the music is timeless!" roars Vincent Chin's eldest heir. "And whoever is keeping it alive, it's lovely, and me love dem for that."