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Yap places quality ahead of quantity

Published:Sunday | July 8, 2012 | 12:00 AM

To the conscious lover of Jamaican music, whenever the name Top Deck is mentioned, it immediately conjures up images of meticulousness, quality, and music of the highest order.

The name belonged to a record label, owned and operated by Justin 'Phillip' Yap, another in a long line of Chinese Jamaicans who have made immeasurable contributions to the development of Jamaican popular music in various fields.

As a record producer, he didn't record many sessions or many sides, but he made sure that every note of music count.

With that as his driving force, and placing quality ahead of quantity, Yap developed a catalogue that, even to this day, is one of the most sought-after commodities by music collectors in Jamaica's music history.

Labelled as collectors items, foreigners have been known to travel thousands of miles from countries such as Japan, China, South America, and parts of Europe, paying in excess of US$300 to secure one vinyl 45 from Yap's Top Deck, Tuneico and Top Sound labels.

The rarity and quality of such music, inspired by Yap's instinctive meticulousness, has contributed in no small way to these astronomical prices.

It was between 1962 and 1966, when Yap was just barely out of his teens, that he operated his Top Deck and subsidiary Tuneico Records from a family residential-and-business premises in the Barbican area of St Andrew.

In that short period, encompassing very few recording sessions, Yap amassed a stockpile of master tapes and stampers that is still considered to be numbered among the all-time best ska recordings to emerge from Jamaica's busy recording Studios at the time.

The total number of sides he produced surely didn't exceed 50, yet his reputation with many music collectors, rank alongside the more colourful producers like Clement Dodd and Duke Reid.

high standard maintained

The question that is constantly being asked is: How did Yap manage to maintain such a high standard and be regarded so highly, despite his small catalogue? The answer lies mainly in his performances, his close attention to detail and the utilisation of the best musicians in the land, taken from the nucleus of the Skatalites band formed in 1963.

The band was, indeed, the backup band of choice for almost every producer of ska music at the time. The fact that Yap paid them handsomely and on time, unlike many others, was given as an explanation as to why he was able to coax from the group, some of the very best ska performances by anyone in the annals of Jamaican music.

Instrumentals were his speciality and he received the cream of the crop from the Skatalites, while concentrating his efforts on capturing as many cuts as each recording session would allow.

Here the Skatalites demonstrated in unequivocal terms, why they were regarded as masters of the ska genre.

With saxophonist and leader Tommy McCook accompanying fellow top-notch saxophonists Roland Alphonso and Lester Sterling, along with world-rated trombonist Don Drummond and his partner Roy Wilson; trumpeters Johnny Moore and Baba Brooks; bassist Lloyd Brevett; drummer Lloyd Knibbs; pianist Jackie Mittoo; guitarists Lynn Taitt and Jerry Hines, the group provided the real ammunition that Yap needed to execute his plan.

One of the first pieces that Yap recorded on his Top Deck label was the calypso-flavoured instrumental, Distant Drums, by Baba Brooks (1962-63).

It was a minor hit, but its insistent drumming and sweet horn accompaniment made it the first of many recordings from the Top Deck catalogue that collectors yearn to put their hands on.

By 1964, Yap was introduced to Skatalites members by Allan 'Bim Bim' Scott, a close friend of Dodd.

Scott was also instrumental in making arrangements for the use of Studio One.

In one incredible 18-hour stint of rented recording time in November of 1964, the Skatalites did for Yap, some of the best instrumentals ever made, including Confucius, Ringo Rides, The Reburial, Smiling and Chinatown.

Interestingly, the first three of those cuts also appeared on the album, Best Of Don Drummond, for Studio One.

dodd's contract

My curiosity, having been aroused by this abnormality, I approached Dodd for clarification and he explained that the Skatalites were contracted to him and so he had the right to.

Other brilliant cuts recorded by the Skatalites for Yap, included Yogi Man, Ska-ra-van, and Red Is Danger, featuring trumpeter Johnny Moore, A Shot In The Dark, taken from the Peter Sellers movie of the same name, Determination, Lawless Street, and Non-Stop featuring Roland Alphonso, Tough Talk, Scattered Lights by Tommy McCook, Tipi Tin featuring the inimitable trumpet of Raymond Harper, Five O'Clock Whistle featuring Trenton Spence and his orchestra, South China Sea and Ska-ta-shot.

Tracks like Ringo Rides, China Town, Return Of Paul Bogle and Love In The Afternoon brought out the best in trombonist Don Drummond and were counted among the last the mentally troubled mega-legend genius recorded in November 1964.

Yap also recorded a few vocals which included Ska Down Jamaica Way and War And Strife by Ferdie Nelson; Ambition Of Men by Reuben Anderson, and two excellent pieces by the very revered diminutive Barbadian Jackie Opel, Valley Of Green and The Lord Is With Me.

Lovers' rock vocalist Larry Marshall, and Gaylads frontman Horace 'Bibi' Seaton also worked for some time with Yap.

Yap migrated to the United States in late 1966, seemingly with no further interest in music production.

Fortunately, he was farsighted enough to have preserved his session tapes, which he had taken along with him. That meant three decades later these gems are still available to be enjoyed.

In the 30-odd years he was out of the music business, up to the time of his passing in about 2001, Yap became an American citizen, served his adopted country in the Vietnam war and pursued a career in computer programming.

Musicologists have long speculated on the masterpieces that might have emerged had Yap not left the Jamaican music scene at that crucial stage when ska was changing into the slower-tempoed rocksteady beat.