“He was not expecting to see a Chinese woman talking about reggae,” Patricia Chin, now 82, recalls with a laugh, during a telephone interview from New York.
But the half-Chinese, half-Indian Chin, who was born in Jamaica, knows just about everything there is to know about reggae.
She and her late husband, Vincent “Randy” Chin, helped build the nascent reggae music scene in the late 1950s from their home in Kingston, Jamaica, along with the likes of the legendary Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.
In 1975, the Chins emigrated to the US and opened VP Records, in Brooklyn, New York. They later relocated the store, ironically, to the neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens.
This year, the label is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a year-long series of events, including a free concert in Central Park on September 10 and the release of a special box set and special-edition vinyl records.
The Chins’ foray into the reggae music scene began six decades ago after the couple met in 1957, the same year Patricia became pregnant and the couple married. She was a student nurse at the time, and admits they didn’t know much about reggae music.
Vincent was traveling around the Caribbean island updating vinyl records in hotel jukeboxes, which were the main form of musical entertainment. Patricia Chin quit nursing school to accompany him. They then hit upon a business idea.
“We went to the company Vincent worked for and asked them if we could sell the reject records from the jukeboxes,” Chin recalls. “Back then, 60 years ago, we didn’t have Jamaican music, but American music like R&B and Elvis Presley.”
People were happy to buy the used records and demand grew so large that customers lined up outside the door of their first shop, Randy’s Records, on Saturdays.
They had sublet a small space in a restaurant for the record shop, but eventually bought out the owner to expand their space. They even occupied the building next door to turn it into a recording studio, naming it Studio 17.
“There were seven or eight musicians doing reggae music, while we Chinese were the ones who owned the Chinese shops. [These shops] were the meeting places for young generation Chinese to mix with the blacks,” Chin says.
“The Chinese bought equipment like speakers and turntables, and the blacks had the idea of producing, singing and making music. The shops were like a [public] square for people to meet up.”
Like much of the Caribbean, Jamaica is a multi-ethnic country. Most people are of African descent, with smaller groups of European, Chinese or South Asian origin.
The Chinese originally arrived on the island in the mid-19th century as indentured laborers on plantations. Some stayed and started businesses, particularly grocery stores.
The Chins made Studio 17 more affordable than other recording facilities to help young musicians.
“We invested in them, helped them press and sell records,” Chin says. “It was the natural thing to do. We were a hotspot for artists to listen to music.”
While Chin, who was nicknamed “Miss Pat,” was behind the counter selling records at Randy’s, she briefly met some of the artists her husband brought to the studio to record with.
“Bob Marley; he was very shy. He would come in with a producer. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Peter Tosh were young, they were around 16 or 17 years old,” she says.
Bob Marley and Peter Tosh were among the original members of legendary reggae band The Wailers. Perry, now 83, is still dropping reggae albums.
But a recording didn’t mean instant success.
“In Jamaica, everyone is a singer, so they [Marley and Tosh] didn’t sell any records at all at first,” Chin recalls.
She adds that it wasn’t until British-born, Jamaican-raised producer and founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, discovered the likes of Marley and Tosh in the 1970s that they become world-famous.
To seek new business opportunities, Vincent went to America and hung out in jazz clubs, where he met many African-American musicians, including rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Fats Domino, reggae singer and songwriter Johnny Nash and keyboard player and composer Arthur Jenkins, who also visited Kingston to record in their studio.
Amid an escalation in political violence in Jamaica in the latter half of the 1970s, the couple found it increasingly difficult to operate the business, so they left the country bound for the US.
With four children in tow, they landed in New York in 1975 and started over with VP Records, using the initials of their first names.
Unlike in their hometown, business was initially slow. American customers only knew of Marley, but not other reggae artists who, Chin says, were just as good.
They were also unaware of the different styles of Jamaican music, including cool hop, ska and dancehall. During this period, only a handful of mainstream music stores in New York carried reggae music, so it was a struggle for the Chins to introduce other reggae artists.
“We thought that Bob Marley was popular so we brought other music like roots reggae, but we couldn’t sell [the discs],” Chin recalls.
They made only $270 a week and had to make ends meet by selling records in the back of a van in Brooklyn.
It took five years for business to pick up and they then began to sell reggae records across the US. After 10 years in business, VP Records moved from the small shop space in Jamaica, Queens into a bigger building at the end of the block.
In 2003, tragedy struck when Vincent died from health complications. By this time Chin’s children had begun to help her run the business.
Her eldest son, Christopher, had been working at VP Records since the age of seven and, like his father, was personable and liked talking to the artists.
Her younger son Randy, who had worked as an aeronautical engineer at McDonnell Douglas and Boeing, returned home to work on digital downloads, while daughter Angela works in distribution.
Two grandchildren have also gone into the family business. Chin’s stepson Clive, who also became a record producer, went back to Jamaica to set up his own record label, however.
While VP Records is based in New York, they continued to sign artists in Jamaica, record them, make the records and then sell them.
“I didn’t go to business school – things happened naturally for me. [I was able to] see the need to develop artists, even though not all of them succeeded,” Chin says.
She adds that many years ago, there weren’t many Jamaican female artists, they were mostly relegated to the role of backup singer. Today, however, there are a number of successful women singers, including Current, Spice, Queen Ifrica, Jah9, Fay Ann Lyons and Ikaya.
Capping the 40th-anniversary celebrations for VP Records, at the end of this year, will be the publication of a coffee-table book Chin is writing to document the family’s music career.
“Sixty years of music in Jamaica. Looking back we were just doing a business,” Chin reflects. “Some people say to me that I have a glamorous business, but I don’t know anything about glamor.”