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The first thing you notice when you walk into the Jamaica, Queens, headquarters of global reggae powerhouse VP Records is the chasm in the middle of the room. VP's offices are on two floors at the end walls, a setup reminiscent of a motel or a taxi hub. To the left are stacked moving boxes full of CDs, vinyl, T-shirts, and flyers; to the right, seven-foot shelves are filled with the same. But there's a lot of space in between—more than the two sides' inventory combined.
"You couldn't walk there," recalls French-born VP project manager Olivier Chastan of the day he began working for the label and distributor full-time in 2005. "It was literally wall-to-wall of vinyl and CDs, nonstop." Today, he says, "We've moved the main distribution business to Florida. It's symptomatic of what's going on."
But that chasm is misleading. VP still thrives in the digital era—it signed onto iTunes early, and today it's practically the last big reggae indie standing. "We've been sustaining ourselves with digital income for the past 10 years," says Chastan. "We derive 60 percent of our income from digital nowadays."
Still, VP's new Out of Many: 50 Years of Reggae Music is a definite throwback to the CD era. Timed to celebrate a half-century of Jamaican independence, Out of Many's three discs serve up one big Jamaican hit per year from 1962 (Lord Creator's "Independent Jamaica," whose 2012 cover by Peetah Morgan & Hollie Cook ends the set) to 2010 (Gyptian's "Hold You"). 2011 is represented by a remix of Yellowman's 1983 "Zungguzungguguzungguzeng" by U.K. dubstep pioneer Horsepower Productions—just in case you forgot where pop's trendiest new commodity got half of its name and a good percentage of its low-end theorem. As Chastan proudly points out, everything on the box comes from the VP catalog.
"I'm showing how Jamaican music was shaped by this [company]. Obviously, [Shabba Ranks and Deborahe Glasgow's 1990] 'Mr. Loverman' has been caned to death. Sean Paul's 'Get Busy' was probably the most popular track of 2003, to the point where you just don't want to hear it. But we put it out, and I think everybody's proud, knowing we're a small label out of Queens. There's not a lot of staff and not a lot of resources. I mean, shit—it ruled the world."
VP began in New York in 1979, but its roots go back much further. The company's owners are Vincent and Patricia Chin, both Chinese immigrants to Jamaica in the late '50s. "His parents and my grandparents came on the same boat," says Patricia with an island lilt. "So there was a relationship, but I didn't meet him until I was 18 and he was 20."
At the time, Vincent supplied new records for jukeboxes in Kingston for a living. The company he worked for couldn't decide how to discard the used discs. "So we decided, 'Why don't we buy them all and sell them back? Let's open a little store,'" Chin says. The shop, Randy's, sold Jamaican patties as well as records.
"[I'd] play records all day," she recalls. "That's how I developed the interaction with the artists and the producers. Staying on the counter helped me a lot to communicate with them. The sound system also had a big impact on me. Because the sound system was so tied up in politics, where they use the sound system on the trucks, they would drive around the neighborhood and announce that they're going to have a meeting at the square, and play the music so that they would march up. Music really draws people together."
Politics, though, can pull them apart. In 1979, amid a rising tide of political violence, the Chins left Jamaica for New York, where they found a hospitable home in Queens's large Jamaican community—as well as further opportunity. "When I first came here 30 years ago the [local reggae] people did not communicate with each other," says Chin. "You would have a shop here, and I would have a shop, but they don't trade. Being an outsider, I was able to. If you have a hit, everybody needs to have a hit, but if this [shop's] not selling it, everybody loses."
VP has kept up with prevailing trends ever since, starting with dancehall in the mid-'80s. "We jumped on it," says Chin. "The public said they want it. You have to know the trends. If you have five softer hits, you got to stay with that trend. When it changes to a different, faster beat, or a dub beat, we change to that beat."
VP's itinerary has other stops, as well. "The biggest investment we've made in the past few years is really getting into that whole California reggae scene: the Rebelution, Slightly Stoopid," says Chastan. "We put out the latest Groundation album. We're in the process of signing Catch a Fire. We're putting out the Soul Jah [Family Band] in Europe. We are looking at that as being a cousin, in a sense, of what we are doing, not as a replacement in any way."
That sounds parallel to Island Records starting out as a reggae label before moving into rock in the late '60s.
"If you have U2 on your hands, just give me a call," says Chastan with a laugh. "We've got to sign them."