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Culture

All hail reggae’s First Lady

As a new book profiling Miss Pat’s trailblazing career is released, Clare Considine meets the 83-year-old music mogul

By Clare Considine

8 April 2021
I

t’s 1961 in downtown Kingston, Jamaica. Inside the disused Charlie Moo’s restaurant on 17 North Parade, an eight-by-ten foot space throngs with punters and musicians, here to buy records imported from America alongside the obscure new sounds beginning to emerge from the island.

This is Randy’s Record Mart. Sound clashers pluck turntable needles from the walls, American wholesalers stop by for patty and soup that bubbles on the stove, barefoot musicians head through to the studio upstairs. At the centre of it all a 4’11, 25-year-old woman of Chinese-Indian heritage conducts the chaos from her spot behind the counter. She is Patricia Chin — soon and forever more to be lovingly renamed Miss Pat — and this is her empire. She even made the soup.

Sixty years on, Miss Pat is the founder and head honcho at VP Records: the world’s most prolific distributor, shop and label for reggae and dancehall, with offices in New York, Kingston, London, Miami, Rio and Tokyo. In 2015 she became the first ever woman to win the American Association of Independent Music’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She has helped launch and shape the careers of everyone from Lady Saw to Beenie Man, Bounty Killer to Sean Paul.

Patricia ‘Miss Pat’ and Vincent ‘Randy’ Chin, pictured in 1957
Image by Miss Pat Family Archive

When I speak to Miss Pat she has just finished her new exercise routine, honed for lockdown, in her home on the border of Queens and Long Island. I ask if she remembers a moment when she knew big things would happen for her. “I never went to business school and I never see myself as a woman moving up in life,” she muses, Jamaican accent as strong as the day she left the island. “I don’t project too far because if I do, I lose what’s going on in the present.” There’s method in the mindfulness. But I can’t help but think that something deep inside Miss Pat always knew that she was destined for greatness.

For Jamaican music stans Miss Pat holds icon status. Stories shared about her are the type normally reserved for rags-to-riches businessmen. There’s the told-to-death tale of how she sold marbles in the school playground to earn her lunch money. There’s Kool Herc: “What Berry Gordy was to Motown Records; what Russell Simmons was to Def Jam Recordings….Patricia Chin is to the Reggae Industry and VP Records.” For a tiny island, Jamaica has an astronomical cultural clout that is not always matched in terms of commercial success. Miss Pat had a deepset love of the scene teamed with an entrepreneur’s instinct and she made it her mission to get many musicians their just desserts. She is a bona fide mogul.

‘At the time, record shops would only sell tunes by their own producers, so Miss Pat took the department store model and applied it to her product.’

Miss Pat in Flushing Meadows, Queens (Corona Park) by Kimmy Chung
Image by Kimmy Chung

VP Records’s very own Spice is widely regarded as the Queen of Dancehall. But it is Miss Pat who owns the unofficial crown of Queen of Reggae. Arguably, she’s challenged by Rita Marley or Marcia Griffiths, with Koffee coming up for the steal. This is the springboard for endlessly entertaining debate, but there is a frustrating subtext: that there is only room for one woman at the top.

Miss Pat has a new book out, the coffee table beauty, Miss Pat, My Reggae Music Journey. Filled with evocative anecdotes and stunning images, it lovingly and meticulously depicts her rise. She hopes that it will inspire future generations of women to fight for a place at the table, safe in the knowledge that there is room enough for everyone. “Music has a lot of wings for different types: you can be a singer, a DJ, a writer, a lawyer… So take the fear and walk it. You will see that the doors are open for you. If you never start, you’ll never see that there is someone there waiting for you at the other side.”

So, how did Miss Pat find her door to open? If reggae is her passion, she has a hip hop hustler’s sensibility. Take the birth of Randy’s, for example: when Miss Pat met her husband, Vincent ‘Randy’ Chin, he had a job driving around Jamaica stocking up jukeboxes in bars with all of the latest country-and-western, gospel and R&B. She would join him on his journeys: “I loved seeing people’s reactions when he walked into a bar with a pile of new records… I never grew tired of seeing their joy in knowing that they were about to hear new music.” There were always excess 45s at the end of these missions. So Miss Pat, clued-up to the drug-like quality of this new music infiltrating the island, suggested that they start buying the extras from the jukebox company and sell them directly to the public.

‘When I came to America and we were making calls, sometimes the male on the line would say, ‘Can you put on a man because I don’t think you’ll know what I want.’’

Artwork by Michael Thompson aka Freestylee Artist Without Borders
Image by Michael Thompson

“I used to go down to a big department store to take my kids to see Santa Claus,” she recalls. “I stood on the sidewalk before the store opened and as the shutter went up I saw people rushing into the store to buy. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I wonder if I could ever have a store like that?’” At the time, record shops would only sell tunes by their own producers, so Miss Pat took the department store model and applied it to her product. “What I did was buy the records from each of the producers and sell them all in my store. So when people come to buy they have all the music they want under one roof. I made a one-stop.” It wasn’t long before people were waiting outside Randy’s to rush inside once the shutters rumbled open. “My store became that store.”

Storefront of Randy’s Record Mart
Image by Ted Bafaloukos

As sales rocketed, Vincent was able to realise his dream of opening a studio above the shop: Studio 17. The stories are mesmerising. “All the artists and musicians, the buyers, the sellers, people who wanted to know about music, they’d all come right there,” Miss Pat explains. “Out front people were selling fruits and vegetables, cooking corn… All the while the studio was running, so if they needed a backup singer or some percussion they’d call out to the street: ‘Come upstairs Delroy Wilson!’ There was a lot of bartering and a lot of things going on right there. We had a loud speaker on the sidewalk, and people would be dancing in the street.”

Together, this power couple created a place where the sounds of Jamaican independence could flourish. Miss Pat loved having the musicians around the store — Bob Marley popping in to record some vocals before seeking out his friends to play football, chats with Lee Scratch Perry, watching the burgeoning talent of Dennis Brown in action — but she was at her happiest with her customers. “Randy’s doing his thing and I’m doing mine. It was a competition,” she says, chuckling at the memory.

‘As the business slowly found its feet in a brand new country, the mission became crystallised. In service to their nation’s culture, they would make the moves necessary to keep it relevant to the world’s ears.’

The strength of their partnership steeled them against tough times. As Kingston grappled with the complexities of new-found independence, political violence was being written into the daily routine. “We had to be closing the shutter three or four times a day. We’d open again when the riots stopped,” she recalls. By 1977 Miss Pat had four children. “Every day, our life was in danger. Life means more than the business, so we packed up and decided to leave for New York.”

VP Records retail store on Jamaica Avenue, Jamaica, Queens
Image by Unknown Photographer “All Rights Reserved”

It was in New York, Miss Pat explains, that she first became conscious of the fact that she was a woman trying to get by in a man’s world. They were back to square one, selling records out of a small space in Queens that acted as both shop and wholesalers. This meant hard graft: simply picking up the phone to call potential buyers. “When I ran Randy’s, we were just working. The ladies on the sidewalk, they’re selling fruits and vegetables and I’m selling music,” she explains. “When I came to America and we were making calls, sometimes the male on the line would say, ‘Can you put on a man because I don’t think you’ll know what I want.’” These moments served as the perfect opportunity for Miss Pat to blindside them with her knowledge of the music. She prides herself on being able to find any reggae or dancehall track for a customer by them merely humming it to her.

As the business slowly found its feet in a brand new country, the mission became crystallised. In service to their nation’s culture, they would make the moves necessary to keep it relevant to the world’s ears. Other shops were focussed on peddling a more nostalgic kind of ‘classic reggae’, so Miss Pat returned to her one-stop shop formula: “serving our community for all things Jamaican and Caribbean music.” This included platforming the evolving sounds coming from the island, including ‘hardcore reggae’. Meanwhile, the Jamaican government had banned record exports - “because we were keeping money for artists” - so it made sense to build a holistic business that could allow Jamaican music to exist beyond its shores.

Miss Pat's book cover, 'My Reggae Music Journey'

The VP Records label was launched in 1993. “When I came here I thought the kids would gravitate to roots music. They all knew Bob Marley, but the younger generation were really onto the dancehall,” she explains. “Dancehall is similar to hip hop, so they could identify with it.” I’m reminded of something Miss Pat mentioned about the early days of Randy’s when they, bizarrely but very effectively, introduced a car accessories section in the shop. Think air fresheners and fuzzy dice. “It was a new market craze with a demand we couldn’t ignore. That’s how we Chinese were - hard-wired for business.” If the people wanted dancehall then VP would give them what they wanted.

With roots in Jamaica, Miss Pat and her team worked arduously to find new talent, making copious phone calls to everyone they knew in search of potential breakout stars. A 1997 signing of Beenie Man gifted top ten hits in the UK and US with the absolute banger “Who Am I”. Discoveries of Spragga Benz, Shaggy, Gyptian and Bounty Killer all followed. Then, in 2000 came Sean Paul - a heady mix of shiny handsomeness (“he had such great looks and hairstyle”) and pop marketability. ‘Gimme The Light’ hit the top spot in the Billboard charts and charted in countries across the globe. For years the label had struggled to get their artists placed in major outlets like Best Buy or Walmart Records. Now the same stores were desperate to stock VP’s sounds.

‘The money will come...You have to love people first’

Miss Pat was across all areas of the business. She prides herself on artist development, describing the host’s shock the day she accompanied Gyptian to a Manhattan television interview (“‘You’re Gyptian’s manager?!’ They are so surprised when they see me.”). She pioneered the compilation format in a largely singles-based market. She also acted as a wise savant of the Jamaican scene for majors looking to mine the growing popularity of sounds they knew little about. This saw the staunchly independent VP help transition artists like Sean Paul, Beenie Man, Wayne Wonder, Elephant Man, and Beres Hammond when their success necessitated it. Miss Pat was always in service to whatever it took to get Jamaican music the respect it deserved.

In 2003 Sean Paul released the Dutty Rock album, selling six million copies around the world. What followed was a major distribution deal between VP and Atlantic Records. In 2007 they acquired their main competitor, Greensleeves Records and its catalogue of 12,000 songs, becoming the largest independent reggae company in the world.

VP celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2019. As Miss Pat slowly shapes the business’s future into something she can pass on, she continues to put together a family team, both figuratively and literally. In the New York Office, pre-pandemic, they would still have lunch together every day and Miss Pat would still bring the soup. “The money will come,” she says, pensive for a moment. “You have to love people first and love what you do. We’re in this culture and we have to be in it, whether we make money or not. We have to do what we have to do and at the same time, we love it because it’s our culture.”

The Short Stack

Miss Pat’s formula for success: passion, people and a knack for spotting a gap in the market.

By Clare Considine

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