Q&A: VP Records' Patricia Chin, Olivier Chastan, And Neil "Diamond" Edwards On Running Their Queens Reggae Powerhouse

Categories: Interviews

vprecords_offerings.jpg
A selection of VP Records releases.
VP Records is the Jamaica, Queens-based powerhouse of the international reggae scene. It owns and distributes a score of other labels including its longtime rival, Greensleeves. Founded by Vincent "Randy" Chin (who died in 2003) and his wife, Patricia—children of Chinese immigrants to Jamaica who met and married in Kingston in the early '50s—VP began after the couple moved to New York in 1979, and has just issued a three-CD box, Out of Many: 50 Years of Reggae Music, featuring one track per year from 1962 (the year of Jamaican independence) to the present.

For this week's Voice's profile, I went to the VP office complex and spoke with label co-founder Patricia Chin; head of marketing Olivier Chastan; and A&R man Neil "Diamond" Edwards." Below are extended outtakes with each.

Patricia Chin, VP Records co-founder

How long were you and Vincent in Jamaica before you came to New York?

Twenty years.

Why New York?

Well, my country was going through a lot of political problems: At the time, [it was Michael Manley's] government. Thirty years ago we came here—my children were still small at that time. Actually, we were planning to go to Florida; we didn't think of coming here to live. We were doing business by exporting to my brother-in-law in Brooklyn. So when we came, and decided to settle here, we didn't have a retail store. We were only coming to sell distribution and wholesale. But eventually we got a little retail in. But 95 percent of the business was wholesale distribution.

Was the idea always to stay in the music business once you came to the US?

Yes. I guess we didn't know anything else. It was a progression from selling the music, to making the music, to distributing the music. The more we got into it, the more we realized the artists didn't have any distribution [in the U.S.]. So we came in as the business to help them. [Musicians] used to walk around with a couple of records under their arm and they would go from house to house to sell [them], but there was no one center that people would come in and buy the record wholesale. It was a service to the community first, and then after it developed, we started to make our own music and sign artists.

Do you feel that the company might have grown in the similar way that it did if you had stayed in Jamaica?

Looking back, thirty years ago, the records we exported a lot to England, Europe and America. I don't know if I had stayed there if reggae music would be more widely spread. The artists would get to travel, would have more exposure. They didn't go to England. What it's like is, a lot of businesspeople come to America and Canada, and by so doing, whatever trade they took with them just expanded to a bigger audience and a bigger part of the world. Reggae music [was] planted everywhere, but being here we can see a wider view.

You also came to new York at a time right after Bob Marley's success in being sold to the American audience. When you got here did you sense that there was, beyond the community of ex-Jamaicans, that there was an audience right for what you might have to get?

White people knew Bob Marley. They didn't know anybody else. When I told them about Burning Spear and Lee "Scratch" Perry and all these other people, they didn't know them. It was a little hard for me to tell them, "Yes, there's Bob Marley, but we have so many other artists that are very successful over there." We tried a lot with the roots music because I thought Bob Marley had opened the door. The white people knew Bob Marley and loved his music, but the other, younger people wanted the reggae dancehall.

I guess it's similar to the hip-hop: more lively for the younger demographic. As they get a little older they would gravitate more to the softer roots music. It's a beautiful cycle. Age means a lot of difference in the music. A teenager would go for the hip-hop or for dancehall. Then when they get a little older, they go for the roots music, because it's more soothing and it tells you about reality. That's why dancehall [artists] don't last long. The older people don't buy as often, but they buy and it lasts because they will play it over and over. The hip-hop or the dancehall [fans], they play it one time, they get tired of it, they move on. They have to have [it] new, new, new, new, new.

Does VP have a systemic way to develop talent the way that Motown or some of the older Jamaican labels did?

Yeah, that's what we do. I think that's one of our biggest assets, that we spot them and we try to develop them. Some fly, some don't, but that what we do: Develop the artists and give them an opportunity to expose their talent. We have the managers, the producers that work with the artists, to guide them. For example, we just signed Romain Virgo, who is a new singer. We're trying to get the right songs for him, get the right producer to produce him. We are with them every step of the way, building relationships, see how we can expose them on tours. For me, this is the best part of the music business, to see them develop and grow and do well.

The middle of the 2000s was obviously a big time for big reggae crossover hits, and there are several on the new box set. That arrived around the same time digital kind of really started to exert its pressure on the business. I know that you signed to iTunes early. Were you yourself always kind of keeping your eye on digital, or was that a company-wide thing?

My sons do that part of the business. They really have to be up-to-date with it. I don't do too much. Mine is more charity work, community work. I do a lot of that. I know all those things, [but] I'm not that age. But I am very fascinated and blessed to be a part of this age that we're going through, because it's marvelous. [claps] Everything is instant.

How important to VP's bottom line are crossover hits? Are they nice bonuses to get like a cherry on a sundae or do they sometimes make the difference in terms of year to year?

Yes, of course. When you have a crossover hit it really helps. You get more sales than just the core.

But the company isn't dependent on those?

No. We love when we have a hit crossover because then you'll be just narrowing it. We do it for the core, but if we make a hit crossover we're be happy. We just have a core base that loves the music. If we get one or two hits we love that, but we don't really try to do that.

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