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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 appear and disappear behind the counter, where stacks of 45s are organized. Herman 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 '60s," Chin Loy explains. "I knew the Skatalites. I knew Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. You heard of Augustus Pablo? I gave him his name." Indeed he did. A cousin of Leslie Kong, another pioneering producer, Chin Loy produced melodica master Pablo's unique Far East sound on classics such as "East of the River Nile." The merchant's own Aquarius Dub (his young face graces the cover) from the early '70s was seminal in the burgeoning dub form. These days his projects are few and a far cry from earlier Aquarius productions, considering the Kenny Ginspired 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, barbershop chairs, 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 dance-hall 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 dance hall. "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 dance-hall pioneer Barrington Levy, discovered by Jah Life more than 20 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."