Chin Music

How one mom-and-pop 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 on State Road 7 where he's just officiated over the mass for Vincent "Randy" Chin. A long trail of funeral flags follows him, slowly snaking into Hollywood Memorial Gardens, 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 nimble Jamaican patois. At Chin's soon-to-be-gravesite, O'Reilly says a quick midafternoon prayer for the man who somehow steered a simple mom-and-pop record store all the way to the world's most successful reggae-oriented record company. It's only February 8, six days after Chin's death, but it's so hot outside the grass underfoot is wilting and the ceremony has to be protected from the baking sun by a large green canopy.

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 and met her husband when they were both twenty. The two maintained a modest home in Pembroke Pines, way out by the Florida Turnpike, 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. The whole family has united on a day that seemed to arrive suddenly and too soon.

Clive's ex-wife, Mandy, steps up to Chin's casket, touches it, and tells the assembled mourners, in her husky British accent, 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," pulling out all the stops. ("Frank was one of his idols, I think," Chung mentions later.) As family and friends start to scatter, a bulldozer lowers the casket into the ground; Clive, Randy, and Chris throw in handfuls of dirt and sod along with the scoop-buckets of soil.

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
The first family of reggae gathers as Vincent Chin is laid to rest in Hollywood, February 8, 2003
The first family of reggae gathers as Vincent Chin is laid to rest in Hollywood, February 8, 2003

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 down 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 in Hollywood 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.

Three weeks later, his survivors reflected on his life and death. "It was surprising," says Angela Chung, a pretty woman with almond eyes and an island lilt in her voice. "He wasn't that well, but he wasn't in the hospital. I didn't get to say 'bye' or anything like that." Talking to them it becomes apparent that business and family are inseparable. Discussing their father, the children inevitably link his life and work as if they were a single entity. Yet Vincent's death didn't leave VP without a leader; in fact he'd been semiretired for years and spent much of his free time cruising up and down the Intracoastal in his boat. "There," Angela smiles, "he had no worries in the world."

The eldest Chin left to his family a still-growing empire they remain grateful for. "He was a very good provider," Angela continues. "He worked hard and he was lucky -- lucky for all things. He relied a lot on my mother. Both of my parents were very hard workers." Howard agrees: "He never emulated anybody. He would go all out, and he was the best at everything he did." Miss Pat concludes, "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 what's hot and when the beat is changing," she says. "I talk to them in the car when they play the pop stations. I learn a lot from them."

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