Chin Music

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...
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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.

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."

"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.

"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.

"I tell you how Miss Pat used to pick the hits when she was in the shop," begins Campbell. "Now, Miss Pat was not a great dancer, but whenever you'd take a record into the store, and you'd see Miss Pat make her a little dance when she's laying it on the turntable -- you could bet your sweet life that's a hit song! If Miss Pat doesn't dance to the song, well, it might happen, and it might not. But when you see Miss Pat dance, we'd know right away that was a hit song. She knew it. She just knew it."

What sort of dance?

"I can't even explain it!" he says, dissolving into laughter. "She just had something about her, trust me!"

"Of course, man!" adds Clive happily. "You have to drop legs when you hear dat! Miss Pat would make you feel comfortable. It was a beautiful time. I can't really explain it either."

"I don't even remember doing that!" laughs Miss Pat today. "I would hear 100 records, and they're just playing and I'm not noticing. Then, all in a sudden, I hear one and think, 'This one sounds very good!' It just comes natural. I guess after you do it for many, many years there's an art in doing it."

Clive spent little time in the retail store, instead gravitating to the studio upstairs, 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. Growing up and seeing it happen in front of me motivated me to propel my energy and my skills into the industry. I just loved the music." Soon it was Clive who was running the show upstairs at Randy's. From the sound of it, those were productive days.

"We'd cut a rough mix, send that downstairs, and say, 'Miss P! Jus' test it deh!'" he tells. "And Miss Pat would put it 'pon the turntable on a Friday evening, and when they heard that one, these people would jump and say, 'Miss Pat, mi want dat one deh!'

"And Miss Pat would call back upstairs and say, 'Clive, cut quick!' So we'd just cut it, because the facility of the store took advantage of knowing what the buying public want, 'cause remember, we are in the heart of Kingston. So every man who come off the country bus is right in front of Randy's, and dem step in, y'know. So the minute dem step in our store and hear our new music play, right then dey can get what they wanted and carry it back out to the country. That was a unique opportunity to know exactly what tune dey want, and [Miss Pat] was the one who gave you the green light to either cut, and put out, or keep on the tape for another date."

In and out of Studio 17 at this time flowed an endless stream of living legends. 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, all upstairs at Randy's. 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.

For the young producer/engineer, his dad's Studio 17 was a free playground in which to learn and experiment. "We used very basic boards," he says, "simple 8-in, 16-out; nothing sophisticated, only analog. We'd just stay in there and make tune! Anything that would come to our mind, we'd just make tune! Oh, yes, we'd stay up there 24/7. The only time we'd come out was just to smell fresh air. We'd sleep in the drum room, and we'd get up, take a shower 'round the back. We'd eat breakfast, we'd eat lunch, we'd have a smoke. We didn't ever go away. We just stay there and make tune!" Agrees Campbell, "It was more of a love t'ing in those days, not a money t'ing."

But when Erroll Thompson left the studio to work elsewhere, the loss upset Vincent and dented Studio 17's business. By the late 1970s, once Kingston's large, ultra-modern Studio One took precedence as the biggest and best place to make a reggae record, 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. Yet the family expressed enormous respect for the business savvy behind Marley's accomplishment, and took a valuable lesson from it: "The way I see, Island Records marketed Bob well," reckons Clive. "They knew what they were doing. They weren't hesitating. They knew what they had and they worked it to the fullest."

Those ideals, he continues, weren't lost on Vincent. "My father was one of the first, and he could see things ahead of time. He didn't have any competition at first, and he took advantage of it at that time. Because him was a man who would challenge like a real true gladiator. Him would go into a ring and see four or five lions and take them one by one. Behind the scenes, he was a very loving father. He found time for us. He gave back to his community. He was very kindhearted, because he came from nowhere. And when a man come from nowhere, 'im know how hard it is."

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! They were the heartbeat of this thing, Mr. Chin and Miss Pat. But I would give Miss Pat credit for 75 percent of the workload. She was the brainstorm, I would say, at Randy's Records in those days. Everything was down to Miss Pat. She was a very, very hard worker and a sharp businesswoman."

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. Bob [Marley] wanted me to go on tour with him. I was a young engineer at the time, and Familyman wanted me to do the mixin' for the world tour. But my father said, 'No, it's best for you to come and set up business in New York.'"

In 1978 the Chins left Jamaica, relocating their lives and livelihood to 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, New York -- soon emerged as a reggae hub in its own right. Favoring the common tactic of using their first initials, Vincent and Patricia brought Randy's Records to Queens as VP Records.

"Sometimes our mail from the U.K. ends up in Kingston, Jamaica, and has to be rerouted back here," says the bespectacled Randy Chin, now VP's vice president of marketing and distribution. First he detoured to the West Coast, where he worked for McDonnell Douglas for nearly a decade (his undergraduate degree is in engineering). By 1996, with military spending slashed, he wanted to return to the safety of the family firm. "My dad said, 'Bring 'im into the business,'" recalls Clive. "But 'im don't really know the business like me! When I say that, I mean, 'im smart, 'im have 'nuff common sense to know one and one is two. But to actually ask 'im about a record, or how to make a record? You have to ask someone like me who lived that for 35 years. Me know the ins and outs of the recording business."

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 on Jamaica Avenue while Vincent, Randy, and Christopher turned their attention toward VP, the label. After licensing the old stock 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."

Immediately sensing that the dancehall sensation taking place back on the island would translate perfectly to hip-hop aficionados in the States, VP began signing Jamaican dancehall artists in earnest, and during the last half of the '90s and into the '00s, Beenie Man, Shaggy, Sizzla, Capleton, and Buju Banton all recorded for VP under Chris and Randy's supervision.

Angela actually met her husband, Howard Chung, while he was shopping for reggae records at her store. Chung joined the family business as well, landing a job in VP's mastering plant after the two were married in 1989. By then Vincent had less and less to do with the day-to-day operation of the label. For starters, he'd never developed a taste for dancehall -- not even slightly, not at all. "That wasn't his bag, no!" laughs Angela. "He was very old school."

"He would much rather get an Ella Fitzgerald or Dean Fraser album and put it on for relaxin'," adds Howard. When Vincent finally 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. Plus, says Miss Pat, he was in poor health. "We'd go out and relax, and spend time with family, with the grandkids. He was very family-oriented. He was suffering from diabetes and its complications, so he just took it easy and rested." His children, after all, were poised to take over.

"One of the reasons he decided to retire was he saw the force in the family," Clive explains. "We weren't ready to push him aside or force him into exile or anything. He played his role, and he played it to the fullest. He retired pretty young, but he set the pace. And when you set the pace, there's nothing more you can really do." 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.

"I've always been in the business," says Angela, who lets loose a nervous chuckle when the music temporarily drowns her out. She cocks an ear: "That's always been a part of my life." In the lobby, a Marley poster covers one door, highlighting the phrase "IRON - LION - ZION." But the Chungs -- tired of dealing with a public that too often believes reggae begins and ends with Robert Nesta -- sometimes wish his image wasn't so pervasive.

"American understanding of reggae is not very deep," Howard -- who resembles a handsome, Chino-Jamaican Colin Powell -- points out. "People also associate dancehall with a lot of violence."

"It's very frustrating," adds Randy. "The reggae we've been able to break has been reggae that's actually from Jamaica. It's not a reinvented remix of reggae, it's not something that's been tweaked. One of the things we've been doing over the years is educating retailers and the buyers for the Sam Goody's and the FYE's of the world that reggae isn't only Bob Marley. There's more in common between dancehall and hip-hop than there is between dancehall and Bob Marley. But because of the closeness to hip-hop, it's been a challenge."

The charts indicate that the challenge is finally being met, with VP rising to the occasion. The industry couldn't help but notice the label's standout reggae and soca compilations, like its huge "Strictly The Best" series. Then again, no one could. Packed with hits, garishly designed to resemble those attention-wrenching K-Tel covers, picturing thongs riding up, up, up butt-cracks, the comps sold in the hundreds of thousands. And this year alone, 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. This week, 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 video for "Gimme the Light" was the number one video played last year on BET. Even better, VP entered into a distribution deal 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. "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. "We did our thing up to a certain level, but they have the machinery to really kick it much further than we could have." 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 last month, the family seems not to mind one bit. In fact, Clive says, "I'm pleased to know Perry got the Grammy this year. It was well deserved."

This Friday morning, three weeks after Vincent Chin's funeral, Randy Chin is busy polling the VP staff for impressions about last night's triumphant, sold-out Hammerstein Ballroom concert, which 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. It looked outstanding."

Clive Chin, on the other hand, sounds less impressed.

"I had to leave halfway through, because I started fallin' asleep," he deadpans. "After Wayne Wonder finish and [Banton] come on with that foolishness, I thought, 'Dammit, it's time for me to go home.'"

Clive probably figures his dad would've wanted him to make an appearance at a large event featuring one of VP's biggest stars. "Yeah," he agrees. "I want them to know that he was a major, major contributor to the music industry. I would never want anyone to think anything but how important his role in the music business was. So you have to go, you have to show your face, you have to keep up with the business. But to be honest, I wouldn't spend my $30 to go out and support that."

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. As he speaks, a squiggly, sharply invasive tape manipulation bursts through his speakers, just a few seconds into "Extraordinary Version." It sounds like one of the infernal Chipmunks being flattened through a wringer.

"That likkle sound you heard was me rewinding a reel-to-reel seven-inch tape backward. We would just catch it and record it. Just catch a likkle piece of it, y'know. So all of that is just tape spinning backwards. Like I said, we were just experimenting. In those days we didn't have any electronic stuff. Everything was done manually, so we'd find our own little effects."

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.

"I have been approached by major labels," he confirms, "but I want to keep the catalog as one entity. I don't want to break it up, because I feel it will become fragile. When you keep something whole, it's more firm than if you take pieces out of it. I'm not keeping it for myself or my family. You'll have the enjoyment of hearing this music in the future. I'll just be putting them out as I see fit." 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."

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