By Noah Schaffer
Miss Pat, the Sino-Jamaican reggae matriarch, looks back on a life in riddim.
Jamaican popular music has evolved considerably from the ska sounds of the early 1960s, but there has been one constant: the Chin family. In 1958, at small Randy’s Record Mart in Kingston, the family began recording the Skatalites, Alton Ellis rocksteady and Augustus Pablo’s explorations dub. In America, they created the Queens-based VP Records empire, which ruled in the dancehall era.
Matriarch of the Patricia Chin family – known mostly as Miss Pat – recently released her memoir, the coffee table ready Miss Pat: My reggae musical journey (VP Records, 212 pages, $ 55). The volume contains beautifully reproduced photos of reggae past and present as well as many warm memories of reggae greats. But Chin also writes without flinching about the challenges her family members faced when they started from scratch after immigrating to America in the late 1970s. The producer talks about her husband Vincent’s struggle. Randy âChin on the alcoholism that ultimately claimed his life and the way his grandson and A&R Vice President, Joel Chin, was killed in Jamaica.
Recently, Miss Pat spoke with the Artistic fuse about his life in reggae.
Artistic fuse: It is well documented how Jamaican music evolved from the popularity of R&B and country music on the island. Still, it was surprising to see a photo of your first store with records by Pat Boone and Rosemary Clooney on display! Do you remember a song or time when you realized there was a new, more distinctly Jamaican sound?
Pat Chin: Yes, this little shop is how we started, when three people entered the shop it was full! We imported a lot of R&B. It was broadcast 24/7 on the radio, as there were only one or two radio stations. Before Jamaican music appeared, we embraced R&B, jazz and so on. A [major turning point] It was when my husband made a record called “Independent, Jamaica” in 1962. We just got our independence and there were so many people celebrating. The song was a big hit on the streets, so the radio station was forced to play it after a while. Then, in 1964, Jamaica was represented at the World’s Fair in New York: Byron Lee and the Dragonaires brought in young Jimmy Cliff, Prince Busterâ¦ and the world received Jamaican music, ska and rocksteady. And Chris Blackwell recorded “My Boy Lollipop” with Millie Small – in the book there’s a picture of her holding the LP with my husband.
A F: You are of both Chinese and Indian descent. The book mentions that the Sino-Jamaican community was well represented in the early reggae music industry thanks to your family, Leslie Kong, Justin Yapp, Byron Lee and several others. Some have compared this presence to the prominence Jews had in the independent R&B record world during the same period. Do you have any ideas as to what led to the influence of the Jamaican-Chinese community in the Jamaican music industry?
computer: It was a special time and it happened because the Chinese, they set up these little grocery stores, we called them Chiney shops, all around the islands, even in rural areas where people were very poor. Chinese traders and natives became friends: stores were where people gathered to hear the news, meet their friends, and sell fruits and vegetables. They have become community centers. Chinese children and black natives become friends. Many Chinese had money to buy the speaker box [for the sound system or record store]. Many Chinese were musicians, but many Jamaicans went on to become record producers, like Beverley’s and Top Deck. Chin’s Radio Service became the first to record mento, which preceded ska, in the 1950s. But you know all Jamaicans are so talented when it comes to music. We sing when we are happy, sad, when we work, at funerals …
A F: As a woman in such a male-dominated field, did you feel like an outsider? Was working in Jamaica the same as in America?
computer : In Jamaica there was no difference between me [at the record store] and the ladies selling on the sidewalks. There was no classification: a woman in a job was no different from a man. But when I came to America in 1977 we did [phone orders] and I remember callers asking me, ‘Can you put a man on the phone? You wouldn’t know what I would like! Well, I had already spent 20 years on the counter, spinning records and talking to musicians, so I was familiar with all records. Sometimes we had 15, 20 records coming out in a week from different producers. I had to know all the music! Once these callers realized that I knew the music, many of them were very disappointed!
A F: One thing VP Records is really known for is their multi-volume compilations – Strictly the best, Soca Gold, etc. Can you tell us about the first VP compilation and how the concept evolved?
computer : I did the first one in Jamaica in the early ’70s. Every producer had a hit, so I was like, “Why don’t you put all the hits together and we’ll just make one LP.” The name of the first LP in which I put all the songs from the producers was Hits of the Past. I was able to convince the producers that it would create more success if we combined all the hits together. At first it was difficult to convince them that we should put 10 songs on one LP and share the profits – a tenth for everyone. It was a matter of trust; it was a new concept. From there we continued to do Reggae Gold, so Strictly the best, so Soca Gold. We’ve been doing this for decades now: every year we select the songs that were the hits and put them on a single LP.
A F: The book details how you had to adapt during the transition from roots and culture reggae to dancehall. Dancehall lyrics have generated a lot of debate due to attitudes – laxity, gun lyrics, homophobia. Has there ever been a time when you hesitated to release a record because of its contents?
computer : Sometimes it bothered me a bit. Sometimes if the lyrics aren’t nice, we do a clean version. So we have two versions, one rated X for adults and another. Sometimes we produce two different CDs, one without the lyrics and the other with. This is how we deal with this problem. We don’t want to tell artists that they can’t sing what they want. It is their choice of expression. But we still have to think about the kids listening to the songs, so we give out explicit and clean versions.
Sometimes my granddaughter does the graphics for CDs and I feel like she’s going too far. So I’m like ‘I’m 80, what am I telling my 20 year old granddaughter to calm down? It’s the new age, I can’t dictate. [Laughs] It’s a time that changes, that changes the words, changes the images. I saw records go from a 78 to a small 45, then came the disco, where we only had one side, the other side was blank because we didn’t know what to put on it. Then we decided to add a version where we removed the vocals and put riddim on the back. It gave the deejays the chance to come in and do their version of the song, to do it in different ways. When you remove the vocals, it means a lot of different things can be done by mixing the music differently. This is how producer Pablo blew his melodica into the songs!
A F: Yes, the book details far too many artists to discuss, but I’d love to hear your memories of Augustus Pablo.
computer : When I first heard it, it was such a beautiful sound. Drums and bass can get so monotonous. His recording of “Java” created a calming sensation, his Far Eastern sound makes a beautiful combination with drums and bass. It was a wonderful change and it took off, especially in England at the start.
A F: In conclusion, the reggae industry is going through another period of change. Some of the biggest stars of recent years, such as Chronixx and Koffee, market themselves directly to their fans via social media. In some cases, musicians do not rely on any label. Where do you see reggae going in the future?
computer : Well, the reggae business is going to continue because every day we have new artists and new producers being born, so reggae is going to continue regardless of how we distribute it. And now there are young people who want to know what happened 50 years ago. New artists always look back: maybe they’ll use the same riddim, find a way to pair with the old music. To help this, I created the Vincent and Pat Foundation, which supports disadvantaged young musicians and preserves the history of Caribbean music through a variety of programs.
Over the past 15 years Noah schaffer has written about otherwise unrecognized musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, Africa, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over 10 awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.