Buried Treasure

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.

"I started back in the Sixties," Chin Loy explains. "I knew the Skatalites. I knew Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. You heard of Pablo Augustus? I gave him his name." Indeed he did. A cousin of Leslie Kong, another pioneering producer, Chin Loy produced keyboardist Augustus's unique Far East sound on classics such as "East of the River Nile." The merchant's own Aquarius Dub (a young Chin Loy graces the cover) from the early Seventies was seminal in the burgeoning dub form. These days his projects are few and a far cry from earlier Aquarius productions, considering the Kenny G-inspired CD from 1997 he hands me as an example of his more recent work. "I do some producing," he says, "but I need to be in Jamaica, where the musicians are."

The last stop on the tour is hidden at the back of the 183rd Street indoor flea market, inches from the Miami-Dade-Broward line. Behind rows of wigs, barbershops, and neon-color camouflage pants lies Life Time Records, which offers African art, books on black consciousness, and, yes, reggae music. Owner Percy Chin, resembling a clergyman in black tunic and puffy hat, checks the quality of a stack of 45s on his turntable and tests presses of the latest from Barrington Levy and other roots artists produced by his partner, Hyman "Jah Life" Wright, at Jah Life Records in New York.

"A dancehall release is around for six months and then throw it in the trash bin," Chin says of the shelf life for the typical artist in the DJ/rap stylings of dancehall. "But the roots stuff is still going strong." Chin's heart clearly is set on the roots side of reggae, even though the success of his New York affiliate has much to do with the booming baritone of early dancehall pioneer Barrington Levy, discovered by Jah Life more than twenty years ago. "My partner was in Jamaica at a singing competition and heard Barrington sing," recalls Chin. "My partner called up and said, “I found someone; send me some money. This guy is tuff.' We [recorded Barrington] through Channel One."

Even as Barrington endures, the roots revival continues. Serious vinyl collectors around the world are a boon to record shops like Life Time. "A guy from Holland came into the shop and wanted everything on the Bullwackie label," says Chin. "I sold him everything I had."

Roots Map

Aquarius Records
9487 SW 160th St.

Blue Note Records
16401 NE Fifteenth Ave
North Miami Beach

JaPee Records
13800 NW Seventh Ave.
North Miami

Life Time Records
18200 NW 27th Ave.
Carol City

Rankin Records
164 NE 167th St.
North Miami Beach

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John Anderson