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

A selection of VP Records releases.
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.

 

Olivier Chastan, VP Records head of marketing

You're not from New York, I'm taking it?

I'm French.

Did you come here for school?

Yeah. I went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Then I went to Columbia Business School.

When did you join VP?

2005. I was working with them as an independent contractor before, in 2004. I had a video production company. I used to do music videos for Arista Records and Jive, and VP was one of my clients. I was in music for a long time—I was a band manager, and took a break and then was doing videos. I was exhausted, especially the management side of it. At the time DVDs were getting extremely popular, so it was sort of a large demand I was oh, maybe I'll do something different.

I produced [VP's] 21st anniversary concert DVD. At the time I was thinking of going back into the music side of the business. My original mandate really was to create some sort of film video division of the company. I ended up doing the marketing and then doing the acquisition when we bought Greensleeves Records in 2008.

How long were you in talks for that deal?

For a year: We knew they were in trouble and looking to do something. The initial approach from them was saying, "Why not partner with us?" We just turned around and said, "Why don't we buy you?" We knew that they were not doing well. They were bought the first time in 2006 or 2007. They had been purchased by an investment fund, and the investment fund didn't do very well with the company, so we knew that there was something to do.

You come to VP around the time that digital is really starting to change things. Was that something that you were looking at kind of in a hard-nosed way when you came aboard?

No, VP was one of the first reggae labels on iTunes. I think we signed up with them in 2001. It was really early. I think for the major labels like Universal and Time Warner it [was] different when you're looking at digital. It was a much simpler decision than the majors'. You know, Trojan [Records] got on there a few years later. Jet Star, which was a more—how can I put it?—pirate kind of label, not as legitimate. They got destroyed by digital: They went bankrupt, and actually got sold in bankruptcy court.

I know people love to bash the record business for not being forward-looking. But the reality is, we're the first industry to actually work with digital and to face a transition—before the film industry, before the press. They're not making money from digital. They're just starting now. We've been facing that for the past ten years. Napster was the first legitimate popular platform where people migrated to that actually comes from digital media. I don't know of any other industry where that's been the case.

Have things remained steady say for the past eight years you've been at VP?

No. It's not just here—it's every label. It's crazy. We've seen Tower Records go out of business. There are no physical, mainstream record stores in New York City anymore. You go to Best Buy—it's not even Top 40. It's Top 5. We've seen Napster come and go, Rhapsody come and go. It's been nonstop. From the iPod to the iPhone, it's streaming now. It's the first year I think now where we actually feel like it's sort of leveling off.

Putting Out of Many together seems like it comes from the same sort of curatorial impulse that might have been behind you wanting to do the video archiving.

Correct. I think it comes partially from being European. I don't want to make it sound super-intellectual, but [Europe] is a really strong market for catalog, and they care about packaging a lot. You don't do crystal jewel boxes. You do a digipak and the artwork has to be very fine.

The difference with this package from, I would say, any other ones coming out whether it's Universal [the 8-CD Sound System: The Story of Jamaican Music] or the ones from Demon Music in the U.K. [the four-volume Bass Culture: Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, and Vol. 4], is that this is all VP catalog. You may have Bob Marley and Burning Spear and a little segment of history—which is very important, obviously—which is the Island years, which cover probably like five, six years: 1975 to 1981. It's not a lot of time. You can stretch it a little bit with Black Uhuru, but not that far. There, VP's not as important. But the rest of the timeline, it's VP. The idea was really to say, "Let's put VP, not reggae, in context." I'm showing how Jamaican music was shaped by this place.

There's another compilation, which we have not finished, unfortunately, which is being done in conjunction with Edwin Seaga, the ex-prime minister of Jamaica. That one is going to be much more comprehensive. It's four CDs and it initially goes through the entire history of reggae, picking stuff that is unknown and stuff that's very famous.

I'm curious about licensing tracks out to other labels.

We do it in a very discriminate matter. We don't pimp the catalog. We decline more than we license, to be honest.

Do you do much co-releasing with major labels anymore?

We did for a while. We had a joint venture with Atlantic Records for a while, with Sean Paul and Elephant Man. Even so, we were quite small. We're pretty large independent in the U.S., so we have our own distribution. We also are distributed by Universal. We don't really feel the need to have a major. The only time we really would approach or be approached really by a major is when we start getting a lot of traction on a single and it looks like you're going to break mainstream pop or urban radio.

 

Neil "Diamond" Edwards (VP Records A&R man)

So this office has no AC?

No. The AC's broken.

Does it help your work?

You know what? It does. Because when you listen to music it's like, you try to take your mind off the fact that there's no air! So you can just focus on the music more.

How did you get into the record business?

I was a DJ first—matter of fact, I was an apprentice for a sound system. I moved the speaker boxes, originally. I did that was I was, like, 13 years old. This is in New York. Then I graduated to be an apprentice selector for a sound system. I did that for good couple of years. A friend of mine, who was actually a friend of the sound system—she was into journalism. She told me about an opening available at a record label in Brooklyn, East Coast Records. They did "Benz & Bimma" by Bounty Killa. That's my first job behind a record label. After that I went to another company called Mixamation Music, and then from Mixamation music to VP in 1999.

1999 was the apex of the music biz. Everything was riding high. Was that true of Jamaican music as well?

Yeah, especially in New York—beyond New York, but especially in New York! You could sell so many albums of one artist, just in five stores. You could sell so many units because you have popular stores in all the boroughs. In the Bronx you had Drambuie's. In Brooklyn, you had Superpower Records. You had Music Ambassador, who was a distributor for wax 7-inches. You had so many different outlets you could sell music in—and music was actually selling. People were buying vinyl. You had a lot of sound systems in New York, too, so that contributed to it. It's [been] a drastic change from days of vinyl and tapes and CDs.

What was your first inkling that digital was going to be the future?

I was always a computer kid. When I realized they had this thing called "streaming,' where you could actually go log onto a website and listen to something that was going on, I thought, "Damn—what if you could actually listen to music online? Would you, do you need to, buy a record?"

To be honest with you, I never knew that it would get as far as it did. Everything was just turning so quick. They'd have these minidisc players, the Sony MD's: "You can put X amount of hours of music on it." That was my first introduction to compressed audio. I said, "How the hell they did that? Wow." Everything just started turning from there.

Some people hate on the digital movement. I give thanks to it because I'm a collector. I'm a digger. I used to spend most of my time at record stores. It's easier now where I can just turn on my computer. I can sit there all day. Especially now, with technology, man, you can even be on the toilet [laughs] and have your iPod and surf the web and find music and find interesting things to listen to.

Has digital altered the way you do A&R? Have you made any signings via YouTube or SoundCloud?

No. Basically, the entire dancehall reggae thing is a very closed circuit. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody who I've signed yesterday and today has been because of what we notice.

Dancehall has tended to be very producer-driven. Is that breaking apart a bit?

Yeah, that's started breaking down. Now, anybody can become a producer. Back in the days when you had [labels like] Penthouse [Records], with Bobby Digital, most people, if they wanted to be heard, had to go to these studios and record something. Nowadays, you open your laptop, and you just put a loop into GarageBand, and do something on it. Then you put it up on SoundCloud, and, automatically, if it connects, it's a hit, and everybody knows it.

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