Miss Pat Chin and the Legacy of a Reggae Dynasty

Patricia Chin is grateful for spring. When we connect by phone, Miss Pat—as she’s known professionally_is peacefully enjoying a bright and sunny New York afternoon, embracing the warmer weather—and what she feels—is like a reawakening. “Everything is budding, and I’m just happy to be in the sunshine.” 

In many ways, Miss Pat has been basking in the sunshine of a successful music business career for over half a century. Extremely thoughtful and incredibly gracious throughout the duration of our conversation, Miss Pat sheds light on the inspiration for her current book, Miss Pat: My Reggae Music Journey, and details how she grew a small record shop in Jamaica into a worldwide, reggae powerhouse.

For those unfamiliar with your story, perhaps you could start by walking us through the formation of Randy’s Record Mart and how that led to the formation of Studio 17, and subsequently, VP Records.

Miss Pat Chin: In 1958, when I was only about 18, my husband used to work with a jukebox company. The jukebox was a big thing for us in Jamaica, since we did not have much entertainment there 60 years ago. The one radio station we had only played R&B! My husband would go around the island—from Kingston to Montego Bay to Cameroon—and change out the jukebox records. After some time, we collected and bought a lot of the rejects, and then created a small store [Randy’s Record Mart] selling used records, and that’s how the record store was born.

Most of the records we received were R&B and were from the States, so there wasn’t much Jamaican music initially. I went to the store and bought one record player, one turntable and one cleaning kit. We kept buying one more thing and one more thing until we started to excel—at which point,in the late ‘60s—we ended up buying the building where we were located. My husband then installed a studio, and we called it Studio 17. We had the recording studio upstairs and the record store downstairs. That’s how we started in the ‘60s. 

Was it always your intent to grow your business into the music powerplayer it became, or was your growth simply a byproduct of the success you were having?

Miss Pat Chin: We didn’t go to business school, so everything we did was organic. When we’d do something, we tried to do it better the next day. Each day, we expanded a little bit on what we thought was necessary to do. When we had the little record store, we expanded to a bigger store, and then we expanded to the studio because we saw the need for the artists to have somewhere to record. I don’t think things were planned like a business plan with projections because I don’t really believe in projections. It was more just finding out what was necessary to do and taking that next step.

You saw the needs around you and took the appropriate actions to address them.

Miss Pat Chin: All of the producers in the ‘50s and 60s—they’d only sell their products. For example, Prince Buster would sell his product; Duke Reid would sell his product; Coxsone would sell his product. What I did was create a one-stop so that when the customer would come to buy, they could buy everything from one store rather than having to go to ten different outlets to buy each record. Creating a one-stop is what really brought us fame because everybody would come to buy from me. At that time, you had about 15 record stores in one little plot, around maybe ten blocks, and all were only selling their records. What I did was sell everybodys’ records.

The studio was formulated the same way. There were a couple of studios around—maybe three studios—but they didn’t rent out much to other producers. We saw the need for the young producers whose studios were out of town, so my studio was right in the heart of town. We made it a one-stop studio where artists could record, mix and cut, then take it downstairs to play and hear what it sounded like.

And you learned that entire process as you went along?

Miss Pat Chin: I was in charge of the downstairs—on the counter, dealing with producers, artists, sound system customers and other customers. I was also in charge of buying and selling records. My husband, on the other hand, was in charge of the studio. We had two totally different roles. The studio upstairs and the store downstairs were operated like their own entities in that we had to make sure the noise from upstairs and the noise from downstairs never interfered with each other.

My husband spent a lot of time in the studio to make sure the walls were padded and that the equipment met the proper standards. I think that’s why most of the foreigners who came through like Johnny Nash and Fats Domino used the studio because they thought it had a good sound. Reggae is based upon jazz, and my husband spent a lot of time bringing that sound to life. He concentrated on the studio and the sound,, while I concentrated on sales and interacting with the producers and artists.

Studio 17 became very popular, in part because of the little place inside the studio called Idlers’ Rest. It was a community of people—artists, producers, backup singers, buyers, sellers_who would gather and hang out. Most were musicians and singers, so when people would record upstairs, they would call downstairs for what they needed: A backup singer, guitars—whatever they needed, people were there on the spot to get the job upstairs.

Jamaica got its independence in 1962, so we were just excited to make music and show what we do best. Everybody sings. When we’re happy, we sing. When we’re sad, we sing. When we work, we sing. When we go to church, we sing. Weddings we sing, funerals, we sing. Jamaica is really a gifted country for singing, musicians and creativity, and it was a very exciting time there in the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

It sounds like your success, then, really came from you and your husband each leaning into your individual strengths that together helped move you forward.

Miss Pat Chin: My husband was very good with the equipment and knowing what to buy to get the right sounds. I was more interested in the artists, producers and the buying/selling of records. I spent 20 years on the counter, so I knew all of the music. Sometimes you’d have 12 to 15 records come out in one week, and I had to know who produced them, who the singer was, what version the record came from… I had to know everything about the music. It was my skill, and the artists trusted me.

I remember when Chris Blackwell came through after he’d just put out his new Bob Marley record in the early ‘60s. At that time, Bob Marley’s records didn’t really sell because everybody sounded like Bob Marley. But, when Chris Blackwell took him to England and was his manager and helped promote him, his records became hits, after which the records began to sell in Jamaica. 

How did that impact Studio 17?

Miss Pat Chin: We were always very happy when an artist would make a hit, and it seemed the songs would be hits in England before they were hits in Jamaica. Usually, we didn’t even know we had a hit until orders for certain records would start flooding in.

When my husband made ‘Independent Jamaica’ in 1962, the radio station didn’t even want to play it. But the people were singing it in the streets because they’d just gotten their independence from England, and the stations were forced to play it. The hits are born in the street, not in the boardroom. It’s why people abroad always find our music to be very special because we make songs as we go along in life. We make songs about how we feel; we make songs about what’s happening in the country; we make songs if we want to curse another person, but we don’t do it with guns; we do it with words. We are very creative people and very creative in how we show emotions.

Speaking of boardrooms, you mentioned how you don’t believe in projections. What about them do you not subscribe to?

Miss Pat Chin: We have to look at what we’ve done in the past in order to do it better in the future, but if you go too far with projections, so many things can happen that you lose sight of what’s happening today. I usually try to do better each day than what I did yesterday. If I know I did something that didn’t work, I try to do it better the next time. Projecting too far out, you lose your focus on today and what you should do today.

You mentioned that a lot of music from Jamaica addresses elements of struggle. How was cannabis perceived there in the ‘60s, and how did it play a role in both music and society?

Miss Pat Chin: We knew from an early age the artists would smoke. In Jamaica, the record store didn’t sell weed; there were other shops where they would buy from. When I came to America in the ‘70s, they asked me if I sold weed, and it had a negative effect on our business. Jamaica had such a bad stigma that if you were doing business, you had to be selling weed. We knew the artists would smoke, but that’s their business. When they were in the studio, they would do what they wanted. Peter Tosh would be up there; Johnny Nash and his crew would be up there. People would come and do their thing, but that was their personal business. Again, in the stores, we did not sell weed, and yet at times, I would feel ashamed I was in the business I was in [music]. But I’m not ashamed anymore. Cannabis is worldwide and now legal in a lot of areas. Ultimately, I’ve never been for or against it, that’s the artist’s prerogative.

When you moved to the States in the ‘70s, how did that impact your business and your marriage?

Miss Pat Chin: As I said, it was negative initially because everybody believed that because we were selling the type of music we were selling, people assumed we must also be involved with weed. That was something challenging we had to overcome.

As for my husband, he did his business, and I did mine. We kept it very separate. We were fluid, but we weren’t intertwined. I know what he did with the musicians up in the studio, but I didn’t interfere. I kept things strictly business.

Did the popularity of Peter Tosh, Johnny Nash and Bob Marley help destigmatize reggae music in some way?

Miss Pat Chin: I think the foreigners thought Jamaica was a haven not only for music but for weed. But weed was illegal in Jamaica as well. Everybody would say, “In Jamaica, weed grows wild; it’s everywhere”—it’s not everywhere; we didn’t sell weed in the store in Jamaica.

When I came to the States, they asked me if I sold weed, and I said, “No, we don’t sell weed; we sell music.” We’ve definitely overcome the negativity over the years.

I remember ten years ago when Snoop Dogg released his reggae LP, Reincarnated, and he chose my store—VP Records—to release it. They went upstairs,and they were smoking, and there were a lot of cops who were there for protection and security, even though—at the time—weed wasn’t yet legal.

Pretty crazy how times change and the status quo on certain things evolves.

Miss Pat Chin: A lot of things have changed. There’s now so much controversy because of COVID and where it came from and all of the folks who are taking it out [through violence] on others. It will pass. Most people are good people and are good hearted. I find it’s 1 percent of people who want to take out their anger on others and blame others. Throughout my life, I’ve found most people are good people.

Let’s talk about your recent book, Miss Pat: My Reggae Music Journey. What inspired you to put this project together?

Miss Pat Chin: It started about four or five years ago when I wanted to create a scrapbook for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren so they could see who I am and to know what I did in my lifetime, mainly because my parents never talked about how they reached Jamaica.

My mother’s parents came from China, and my father’s parents came from India. They landed in Jamaica and had children and created a business—but they didn’t talk about their journey or the struggles they faced, like how they were on a ship for six months before they landed in Jamaica. I wanted to break the cycle [of not talking about our lives] and make sure my great-great grandchildren knew who I was. So, I started the scrapbook, which turned into some text, which turned into some artwork and eventually, it became my autobiography.

What prompted your move from Jamaica to the US?

Miss Pat Chin: [In Jamaica] we were experiencing a lot of political unrest, and it became very dangerous for us to live there. During the day, there were so many riots that we had to bring in the people from the sidewalk and close the shutters. We’d watch through the peephole to see when the riot had passed so we could open again. That would happen two, maybe three times per day. Our kids were young, and we were scared, so we just said, “You know, life is better than any business,” and just packed up and moved. And it wasn’t just us; a lot of music producers and other business people left Jamaica, too. Living is better than running a business or having your life be in danger.

We came to the States in 1975 or 1976, leaving a community of friends and relatives to start over in a community we weren’t used to. We had to learn the culture, understand the people, send the kids to school and worry about where we were going to live and where we were going to set up shop. We started again in a small store, a 10-by-10 space, going 20 years backwards. We didn’t even have a name to register the store because my brother-in-law was using the name “Randy’s.” We just looked at each other and said, “You know what, put Vincent and Pat together and it becomes VP.” VP Records was born out of our initials.

Initially, it was hard for us to sell a lot of roots music because people only knew Bob Marley at the time. It didn’t really take on until dancehall music, which became a hit for us. Yellowman, Shabba Ranks, Beanie Man, Bounty Killer, Sean Paul. I guess it’s similar to hip hop in that the younger people flow more toward music they can dance to. When you’re young, you go for dancehall; when you get a little older, you go with the roots and culture, and when you get really old, you move on to the lovers rock.

How was it existing—and succeeding—as a woman at that time in a predominantly male industry?

Miss Pat Chin: Back home [in Jamaica], everybody in Jamaica—including women—work. I was no different than the people selling fruits and vegetables on the sidewalk; I was just selling a commodity. It wasn’t until I came to the States that I realized I was doing a “man’s” job.

When I came to America, we didn’t have computers, so we had to write our orders by hand and have all of the records in our head. There were three of us on the phones—me, my son and another employee—and sometimes, the callers would say to me, “Miss Pat, can you put on a man for me? I don’t think you know what I need.” And I’d say, “Why would you say that? I know what you want; just hum it for me and I’ll tell you which song it is and which LP it’s on.” Remember, I’d spent over 20 years on the counter in Jamaica and knew every song, the artists, producers, the rhythm, the musicians on the album and when it was released. I knew the music, but they didn’t think I knew the music because I was a woman.

You’ve been in the music business for over 60 years. What’s been the greatest gift or lesson from it all?

Miss Pat Chin: Music is really the thing that unites people together. After traveling the world, I was able to see how much my music has been loved. I met a gentleman in China who teaches culture at university, and he said that seeing Bob Marley singing ‘Buffalo Soldier’ on TV when he was 14 inspired him to learn all about reggae music and how many great artists and producers have come from the tiny island of Jamaica. We have our slogan, “Out of many, one people,” and I am blessed to be born in a place where diversity reigns supreme and music is such a gift to us.

It’s also very important to me after my 60-plus years in the music business for people to know that VP Records has been helping the community from day one. Last year, I started my foundation—The Vincent and Pat Family Foundation—for supporting musicians and to preserve the history of Jamaican and Carribean music. The proceeds from my book will be going to the foundation, so I encourage everyone to buy a copy and help give the underprivileged youth a voice and help them make music. 

Follow @vprecords and @misspatchin and check out her new book, “Miss Pat – My Reggae Music Journey” now available everywhere

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