Chin Music

How one mom-and-pop record shop climbed to the top of the reggae world

"This is a family business," says Miss Pat's oldest son, Randy, who manages the fiscal aspects of the label. "Within VP, sometimes we can't see the trees for the forest because we're so close to it. This is our whole entire universe, but every once in a while you have to step back and talk to people outside of reggae."

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.

VP Records in Jamaica, Queens; Angela and Howard Chung at VP Miramar; Clive Chin in Queens, 1979
VP Records in Jamaica, Queens; Angela and Howard Chung at VP Miramar; Clive Chin in Queens, 1979
Lloyd Campbell and stacks of stock (above); VP superstar Wayne Wonder (right)
Lloyd Campbell and stacks of stock (above); VP superstar Wayne Wonder (right)

"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. But because he was well beloved, no man ever tried to rob him."

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 on Tower Street in downtown Kingston. "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. Nobles' late-night show, sponsored by and named for Tennessee-based Randy's Record Shop, came in clearly even as far as Kingston and fed Vincent a steady diet of American AM hits.

By the time he moved the store to 17 N. Parade St. in 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. With a quickness 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 to hear what was new, to socialize, and finally make decisions and purchases. Miss Pat emerged as the store's primary fixture. 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. There were a few other small studios around, but Studio 17 was the place." 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, which he began more than 30 years ago in Jamaica.

It's difficult to overstate the importance Randy's small empire held in early 1970s Kingston. For starters, the complex was located on the main downtown bus stop for travelers arriving from out of town. This bustling nerve center, called Idler's Rest, was next door to Randy's. Producers would show up as early as 8 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. "You looked forward to every day because so much was happening. There was such talk, you know. It was a very popular spot, every day there would be Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown..."

"Everyone was there," recalls Campbell, "people like Sly Dunbar, Ansel Collins..."

"Oh, we're talking, like, the Skatalites, the Maytals, Ken Boothe, Lord Creator -- a host of artists coming in and out of the store on North Parade," continues Clive Chin, who started hanging out in the studio every weekend as a teenager. 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 for his then-favorite group. He performed similar functions for Ken Boothe, John Holt, and the Maytals trio (before their affiliation with "Toots" Hibbert), but his most prominent relationship blossomed in 1962 when he commissioned Trinidadian singer Kendrick Patrick to compose a tune for Jamaica's independence celebration. Better known as Lord Creator, Patrick went on to record a string of songs for Randy's Records, including "Don't Stay Out Late," which became an overseas hit.

Also above the retail store was a room with a huge wax lathe for mastering vinyl records. "At the time, the best mastering you could get was at Randy's," testifies Campbell. "Everybody used to do their tunes there." Not only did Vincent have the capacity to round up the city's best musicians at a moment's notice, capture their best work on reel-to-reel, and cut a test pressing (or "dub plate") on the spot, but he also maintained an in-store research and development laboratory -- patrolled by an ever-ringing cash register -- down below. Miss Pat would conduct the analysis, with a captive crowd always milling about the shop thanks to Idler's Rest.

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