VP Records – a VIP label

Garry Steckles tells the story of a driving force in Jamaican music

Bennie Man. Photograph courtesy VP RecordsLady Saw. Photograph courtesy VP RecordsVincent Chin. Photograph courtesy VP Records

A cursory glance at the slick website of VP Records gives little indication that reggae’s most successful online retailer, with an artist roster that features heavyweights such as Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Sean Paul, Gyptian, Jah Cure, Lady Saw, Buju Banton, Tanya Stephens and Wayne Wonder, has a history that stretches back to the earliest days of the Jamaican music business.

Dig a little deeper into the site and you can track down a condensed history of VP’s remarkable story, but it hardly does justice to a unique Caribbean music odyssey.

Like most people who go back a few decades with reggae music and its precursors, mento, ska and rock steady, I was aware that VP’s history included perhaps Jamaica’s most iconic reggae store, Randy’s, which was one of my favourite sources of hot-off-the-press roots music in the Seventies. I spent most of my spare time in those days collecting reggae 45s, albums and 12-inch singles, and would be hard put to pin down exactly what I bought where, but I do remember picking up what I still regard as Bunny Wailer’s worst-ever album, Hook, Line and Sinker, at Randy’s, and that the guy behind the counter seemed a little sheepish about taking my money.

Randy’s featured in the wonderful 1978 movie Rockers, whose star, reggae drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, played a musician who gets into the often-cutthroat Jamaican music business selling 45s.

But the story of Randy’s, and VP Records, dates back further than the great roots era of the Seventies. It started in the Fifties, when a Jamaican teenager called Vincent Chin got a job carrying 45s to the jukeboxes in hundreds of rum shops and bars dotted throughout the island. One of the big attractions of these establishments was hot new music on the boxes, which meant young Chin would end a working day with scores of used records that the bars and rum shops just wanted to unload. A friend suggested he should open a shop and sell them.

Chin was still a young man, but he quickly showed the sort of business acumen that, decades later, would see VP Records honoured by Billboard magazine, the music-industry “bible”, as the best independent label in the world.

Chin was also spending a lot of his spare time at Rastafarian settlements in the Wareika Hills on the eastern outskirts of Kingston, where he befriended some of the great musicians of the early ska era – people like Don Drummond, Rico Rodriguez, Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, Lloyd Knibb, Lloyd Brevett and the revered bandleader Count Ossie.  Before long he branched out into the recording side of the business.

By the mid-Sixties, Chin was ready to take his next big step. He bought premises in the heart of Kingston. The location was 17 North Parade, and today it is among reggae’s historic addresses. That wasn’t enough for Chin and his wife and business partner Patricia. They built Randy’s studios above their retail operation, and it was soon a hub of reggae creativity. Among the landmark music recorded there were many of the tracks for Catch a Fire, the album that propelled Bob Marley and the Wailers to international stardom, many of the hugely influential singles and albums produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry, including the Wailers’ classics Soul Rebel and Soul Revolution, and Augustus Pablo’s This is Augustus Pablo.

The area just around the corner from Randy’s, known as Idlers’ Rest, was the hangout of choice for singers, musicians and producers in search of an outlet for the music they were creating. The cream of the first generation of great reggae artists were usually to be found within hailing distance of the Chins’ new studios, and Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown and Burning Spear were among the hundreds who recorded there.

Jamaica, despite its thriving music scene, was politically volatile in those days, and in the mid-Seventies the Chins decided it was time for another major move – to New York, where they first opened a record store called VP Records.

The VP label was established in 1993, and before long it was home to a roster of cutting-edge artists. VP’s online store is a virtual smorgasbord of Caribbean music over the decades, with a smattering of vintage and contemporary soca and a remarkable array of reggae and soca compilations – their Strictly the Best reggae series now consists of more than 40 albums, while VP’s catalogue also includes compilations from the studios that were Randy’s rivals in years gone by – among them Joe Gibbs, Channel 1, Dynamic Sounds and Studio One.

Vincent Chin died in 2003, after seeing his label firmly established as the world’s leading distributor of reggae music. Patricia Chin continues to play an active role in VP, and the label continues to snap up the newest and hottest artists emerging from Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean.

It remains a vibrant example of the resilience and creativity that characterise Jamaican music, the people who make it and the people who sell it.

I was practically drooling, in fact, as I browsed through their online catalogue the other day…and after scouring their offerings thoroughly, was delighted to see there was no sign of Hook, Line and Sinker.

 

Dillon rides the last train to Skaville

Another of the pioneers of Jamaican music has left us. Leonard Dillon, the man behind the Ethiopians, was 68 when he died at his daughter’s home in Portland, Jamaica.

Dillon’s career went back to the early Sixties and he was one of the artists who was comfortable and successful in the ska, rock steady and roots eras. And he was the constant in the Ethiopians from the group’s earliest days, after making his first recordings, under the name Jack Sparrow, at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One. On them he was backed by three ambitious young singers – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer – who were just setting out on their own careers at the time.

Among Dillon’s numerous hits were the classics “Train to Skaville”, “The Whip”, “Everything Crash”, “Obeah Book” and “One Heart”.