Imagine living in Jamaica during the birth of reggae music. Like a fire igniting, the island had its own sound, a product of the unique time and place, of all the circumstances that brought Jamaicans to where they were—overcoming unimaginable suffering, uniting in hope and reclaiming their independence and identity. The sound of roots reggae is saturated with these contagious feelings; it syncs with our heartbeats and connects all of us vibrationally through space and time.
Now imagine being part of the birth of reggae. Being instrumental in supporting the singers and musicians, giving them a space to create and play, and helping distribute the music far and wide. A stone dropping in the water, creating a ripple that helped spread reggae around the world.
The story of VP Records begins in 1958 when husband and wife Vincent and Patricia Chin opened their music store, Randy’s Records, in Kingston, Jamaica. Their business was different than other record shops in that they sold records from all different producers, making them a place where people could come and hear the full array of the latest sounds. The place was iconic to say the least (you can see the store in the famous movie Rockers). In the sixties they opened up a recording studio upstairs, called Studio 17. Some of the most important early reggae recordings happened there. Vincent’s son, Clive Chin, produced and co-wrote classics that include Augustus Pablo’s “Java”. If you collect vinyl records, turn them around and you’ll probably see Clive’s name on a good number of them. Back in the day, you’d see foundational artists at Studio 17. If you could travel back in time and see them in action there, I’m sure your jaw would drop.
The Chins, while running their store and studio, saw all of this happen firsthand. In 1979 they decided to take their business to the United States, coincidentally to a place also called Jamaica: Jamaica, Queens. Vincent and Patricia combined the initials from their first names to name their business VP Records. The duo helped bring the Jamaican sound to New York City. The passing of Vincent in 2003 left Patricia managing the business. Known as Miss Pat, she continued growing VP Records to the level it’s at today. VP has signed artists like Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller, Barrington Levy, Alborosie and so many more, while continuing to re-release classics from their vault. In 2008 they acquired Greensleeves Records, officially making them the largest reggae label in the world.
VP Records is celebrating their 40th anniversary next year. Miss Pat is now 81 years old. She lives in NYC and has an incredible knowledge of reggae music, after seeing the birth and evolution of the genre close up and supporting it firsthand since its beginning. It was a real privilege getting the opportunity to ask her questions about what she knows. When we think of women in reggae, it’s not just the singers and musicians—it’s the women who have supported the music from behind the scenes as well. Here’s a transcript of a truly enjoyable phone call with a very cheerful Miss Pat:
Rootfire: Hi Miss Pat!
Miss Pat: Hi Kayla! You have the name of my granddaughter Kayla. How nice, how nice.
RF: I love it! I’m so grateful that you’re taking time to talk to me. First of all, congratulations on the upcoming 40th anniversary of VP Records. How does it feel to hit year number 40 of the business?
MP: Excited and happy. Happy because this year is 40 years in America after 20 years in Jamaica, so altogether it’s 60 years. I started in the reggae business when I was 18 years old. So it’s really been 62 years since I’ve been doing reggae music. A long, long, long, long time.
RF: Wow, six decades. And the music has evolved so much and crossed over in other genres. What are your thoughts on the evolution of reggae? Have you seen much change in the spirit of the music, or has that remained the same?
MP: The reggae music has always been evolving, you know, from ska, rocksteady, to reggae and dancehall. Whatever it is, it has the basic ingredients of reggae. But it has always changed with time. Sometimes the music is faster or sometimes it’s slower. I’ve seen that the whole thing goes around. Now we’re in this 60th year, and we are seeing the music from the fifties and sixties coming back. I was just talking to a friend and listening to Johnny Osbourne and those old school artists. When they were singing 60 years ago they weren’t as recognized, but today they are much more recognized. I’m happy for them that the tide has turned, and they really deserve it. I’m very excited to see how much the music has changed, but also not much changed.
RF: So my next question is about Randy’s Records. Back in the day in Kingston, Jamaica, Studio 17 opened upstairs and there was a lot of recording happening there. Who were some of the musicians that you frequently saw in person there, and what was the atmosphere like when all that was happening?
MP: The late fifties and the sixties were an exciting time because we had Dennis Brown, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Israel Vibration. Those were some singers that used the studio, and Lee Perry was always there using the studio, bringing new musicians and their artists and backup singers. Studio 17 was like an employment agency—you could find everybody right there. If you want a singer, he would be there, or a backup singer, or any musician. Everything was exciting, there was new music coming out, new deejays and everything. That was the time when I think our Jamaican music just really stepped up front, because in the past all we had was American music. We didn’t have a culture called Jamaican music. That was the time. It was Ska first and then it changed to rocksteady and then come right up. And as the music evolved, the name changed, but the underground beats is the same. It just gets fast or slow. And also what’s beautiful about reggae music, Jamaican music, is that every time it changes, you have a new dance. It’s always evolving with the movement as well as with the musicians and the singers.
RF: What was the main reason you decided to move to New York City from Kingston, Jamaica?
MP: My brother-in-law had a store in Brooklyn, and we were going through a lot of political disturbances in Jamaica. My children were in school—my daughter was only 12, and my step-son Clive was like 14, and my eldest son Chris was 17, so we just decided, said, you know, things are getting very bad over here. We just have to move. So we just go ourselves and move. It took us three years before we finally migrated. My husband and my first son came first, and I was running the studio and the store at Randy’s Records during that time. Then three years after I came with my other two kids. It was a transition at first when I came to New York City. They didn’t know nothing about Jamaican culture then. They knew Bob Marley, but they didn’t know anything else. So it was very hard at first—I didn’t even know where I lived. I was very busy. Sometimes I think I’m in Jamaica and sometime I think I’m in Jamaica, Queens. I was getting the kids in schools, trying to sell my culture, trying to build a business, being a mother still, going backward and forward to Jamaica and back. It was difficult, but we overcome it. Like everything else, we overcome it and we are here 40 years and I haven’t regretted a day. I miss my country, but it’s like we’re still connected everyday to Jamaica because of the music and the culture and the people that we deal with over the last 60 years.
RF: One thing that I love seeing is that vinyl sales are starting to trend again. With the digital music revolution, people started buying more digital music, but now vinyl sales have been coming back. Why do you think that is?
MP: A lot of things have happened, but I would say vinyl has never died because of the sound system, and I can agree to that. When the CD came about, we lost the soul of the music. With the vinyl, it’s like going to a play. We’re onstage and you hear the real musicians playing and the singers are singing from the heart. In the CDs you lost all that. Those who have never grown up on vinyl will not know the difference; because I grew up on vinyl, I know the difference, and I’m happy that it’s coming back so that people who weren’t born in the fifties and sixties can listen to what the music was all about. It’s the live-ness of the music and the soul of the orchestration. I’m happy that they’re able to see the difference from our vinyl versus that of a CD. With the vinyl, you get the real stuff, it’s like you’re going to a live concert and you know, that vibe, that feeling of the beat, you get that same feeling in the vinyl. I’m glad that VP is going to put on quite a few new vinyls. Some of the singers, you know, at the time in the fifties and sixties and seventies, a lot of the small singers did not get to shine, but today a lot of people are going backward and they are now getting what they deserved. When Bob Marley and Peter and all of them were getting hits and Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs…a lot of the smaller producers did not do well, but today, their music is in demand, and I’m happy for them.
RF: Absolutely. I’ve read that you’ve encountered some discrimination in your career as a woman, and that sometimes men would specifically request to speak to another man while doing business. How did you overcome that, and have things changed very much since then?
MP: Well, you know, back home in Jamaica, we didn’t have a career difference. We’re just doing what we were doing as a career. Some would sell the fruits on the sidewalk, while others would have a music shop. I didn’t judge myself on being a woman, I was just doing a job. Then when I came to America and I was doing business on the phone, they usually wanted to speak to a man because they’d think I didn’t know what they wanted. But I’ve already educated myself 20 years before that in Jamaica selling over the counter. I knew all the singers, all the producers, all the beats, all the deejays, everything that you can think of in Jamaican music. I was educated enough to be able to sell. A lot of people are very surprised when they come and interview me. They say, this is a woman that has done reggae for 60 years. And yet back home it wasn’t a big deal, but I think in America they were very surprised. I feel like I’ve come a long way, and that is why VP now has embraced so many of the female singers. We have signed at least seven of them—we have Jah9, we have Etana, we have Queen Ifrica and a few others. We have signed a lot more of the female singers now and they are doing pretty good. I did talk to Etana when we just signed her, and she said how difficult it was when they put her on stage. They would say to her, when it’s time for her to go on, “Not your time now, not your time.” They would keep putting her backwards, backwards, backwards. And sometime there was not a time for her to go and perform. I’ve seen even in the sixties and seventies where Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, the I-Threes, they were only in the background. They were background singers. But I’m happy to say now the female singers are doing very good and I’m so happy for them that they are part of the industry.
RF: Right, there’s so many more female singers on the rise. I think it’s empowering to see other women be successful, and that’s maybe helping to increase the amount of female reggae musicians in the industry. I’m wondering, since you’ve seen the ins and outs of the music business and you’ve worked with so many musicians up close—do you have any advice for women in the industry, knowing the different playing field that they have? Do you have any advice for them specifically about the reggae music industry?
MP: For me, you know, as a woman in business, it is a little hard at first, but I’m sure that they have a lot of people who will embrace them. It does help to work on your trade and be a part of a big community, because other women will embrace you and other people will embrace you, too. Make friends, don’t be afraid to step up, don’t be afraid to ask questions. If it’s your desire, you have to work on it, and it will work out. You know, not everybody’s going to reach the level, but I’m sure if you’re being skilled in what you do and you keep steadfast in your heart’s desire and your conscience, you will be fulfilled. I also want to tell you that you can be a mother and also have a career in music, but you need to get help. You need to get help because I remember back home I was at the store 24/7 everyday, everyday except Sunday. But I was able to bring my kids on the weekend down to the store to see what I do, and I had good people to help me with them. So if you want to be a singer, you can be a singer and also a mother, you just have to get help. Help from the husband and your relatives and your community. And, don’t be afraid to step out and start where you are. That’s my advice, and you’ll be okay. Just do what you do with a passion, be willing to work hard, and don’t give up. And don’t let them tell you you can’t. You can. [laughs]
RF: Absolutely. I love hearing how supportive your family is, everyone from your late husband, Vincent, to your children and grandchildren who are helping you run the business. VP Records is the true definition of a family business and you support each other. I’m wondering how you think VP Records would have been different if you wouldn’t have been working with your family. Are there benefits of working with your family versus people who you aren’t related to?
MP: Well I should say I’ve been thinking about that question a long time. People that we have working, some of them have been working with us 20, 25, 30 years. I think three ingredients make a good business. You have to have a good product, but you have to have great employees, and great customer service, too. And yes, I’m at an advantage where I have my family working with me, but my staff is just as important. I have staff working with me 30, 40 years from when I leave Jamaica. I had some come here and work with me because they’re faithful and they work hard. I also love the new employees that we have, you know, they love the passion of the music, but we encourage them if it’s not fulfilling for them and they get a bigger job. I would never stop them from going out, just like artists. If an artist gets a big contract, I would encourage them to go and fly, because sometimes we don’t have the funds to help them as much as we would like to help them. For example, Sean Paul. When he signed with Atlantic, we knew we couldn’t bring him to the heights that he wanted to go and he deserved to go. So we did a partnership with Atlantic. We will still be there as a reggae company, but we want to keep it a reggae company—a Jamaican music company with culture, a strong culture of what we believe in. And our motto is to develop upcoming artists and singers or musicians, to make good music, and to give back to the community. And that’s my motto from ever since I’ve been in business.
RF: My last question for you is: Now that you’re hitting your 40th anniversary at VP records, what’s next?
MP: My desire! My desire is to continue to do music and one day to build a museum where we can embrace all the singers, musicians, and everybody who has contributed to the Jamaican culture, whether it be here or back home, because there’s so many great musicians, singers, artists, comedians…everybody just loves our country. You know, I’ve been to Rototom in Spain, I’ve been to Mexico. I’ve been to Cuba and I’ve been up to Alaska. The first thing I saw when I came off that ship, was a little band singing “One Love”, and I felt so proud to know how far my music has reached. Reggae music is all over the world, and I feel so proud to come from the tiny island of Jamaica and have so much great music. My desire and my hope is to build a museum so that we can big up our culture, which is music, food, beautiful sand and sunshine, and the people, the people, most of all. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
RF: Well thank you so much for talking with me and sharing your insights. It’s truly an honor. And thank you so much for being a role model for other women in reggae.
MP: And I just want to thank you very much Kayla, and I appreciate you and what you’ve been doing for the culture and the music also. Because if it was not for you and all the radio station personnel and the DJs, VP could not be where we are. So everybody contributes to this pie and we can only make it bigger and better. Thank you.
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VP Records celebrates its 40th Anniversary next year. Keep in the loop to make sure you know about all the planned festivities.