VP Records - light in the tunnel
Carolyn Cooper, Contributor
Last Sunday, VP Records celebrated its 35th anniversary at the sizzling Grace Jerk Festival in Queens, New York. The showpiece of the event was a vibrant pop-up exhibition on the history of Jamaican popular music. It was brilliantly designed by Michael 'Freestylee' Thompson, founder of the International Reggae Poster Contest. Huge banners, featuring iconic Jamaican musicians, attracted thousands of visitors to the VP tent.
One of the most powerful images in the exhibition highlighted a vivid quote from Shaggy: "The good thing about VP was that they was our outlet. Because now all the majors are buying into our music. But back then, VP was our only outlet. They was that little candlelight at the end of the tunnel." For many Jamaican artistes in the early years, the music business was, indeed, a dark hole in which they were trapped by unscrupulous producers. Remember The Harder They Come!
From the town of Kings to the borough of Queens, VP Records has remained the independent label of choice for reggae music. Named after Vincent 'Randy' Chin (the V) and his wife Patricia (the P), VP Records is a classic Jamaican-Chinese family business. And it's become an extended family. Randy and Miss Pat recognised the economic power of Jamaican popular music and went into the business of culture. Not dry goods or groceries but food for the soul.
'Miles ahead in reggae music.' That's the VP slogan. And it's been quite a journey. Believe it or not, the VP record label started life in a jukebox. According to the website, "Mr Chin received his first taste of the music business maintaining the jukeboxes at bars around the island. This led his creative and enterprising mind to recognise the opportunity to sell the old records that would otherwise be discarded for new ones. The entrepreneurial couple quickly learned hands-on the business of music merchandising."
Randy's Record Mart was soon established at 17 North Parade, downtown Kingston. Then a production studio was added. The record shop is still there but it's rented out and is now a haberdashery. Upstairs, a family member, Carl Lauder, keeps the musical legacy alive, selling 45s. Like so many other buildings in Kingston that house our culture, Randy's ought to be acknowledged as a heritage site. But the National Heritage Trust does not seem to appreciate the value of these musical landmarks.
As far as I can tell, the list of heritage sites in Kingston does not include one single building honouring our music. There are buildings of architectural and historical interest; churches, cemeteries and tombs; statues and other memorials; forts and naval and military monuments; historic sites; and public buildings. Whose heritage is all that? Jamaican popular music must be put on the map of the National Heritage Trust. And that task should be a high priority of the Jamaica Music Museum.
As part of VP's exhibition on Jamaican popular music, I was invited to do a book signing for Global Reggae, which I edited. The 17 contributors, all experts in their field, tell the fascinating story of the movement of Jamaican popular music across the world. VP is now the biggest distributor of reggae, dancehall and soca music. The company has recently established an office in Johannesburg to capitalise on the African market. So Miss Pat and her sons Randy and Chris completely understand the reach of Caribbean popular music. As did the late Vincent Chin. Some of us in Jamaica still don't appreciate how far our music has travelled.
Last Thursday, the 1978 film Rockers was screened at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington, DC. Rockers was directed and written by the Greek filmmaker, Ted Bafaloukos. Musicologist Dermot Hussey, who was the assistant production manager, introduced the film. He revealed that a lot of the lines were actually improvised by the actors who played themselves: the star, Leroy 'Horsemouth' Wallace; Burning Spear; Gregory Isaacs; Dillinger; Jacob Miller; and many more. Like Robin Hood, 'Horseman' and his accomplices rob the thieving rich to help the poor.
During the Q&A, a distressed woman questioned the moral of the film. Weren't the thieves just as immoral as the crooks they stole from? I told her about our proverb, 'Thief from thief, Massa God laugh.' And I explained the logic of divine justice that approves of seemingly immoral acts, all in good humour. She wondered aloud if I had understood her question. I concluded that she had not understood my answer.
Like music, Jamaican foods have gone global. And they have attracted imitation. That may be sincere flattery. But it's not good economics for us. Jerk seasonings, for example, now come from strange places. You do have to read labels if you want to get the authentic taste of Jamaican culture. At the jerk festival, I got a beautiful steamed snapper from Gwennie's Jamaican Jerk Chicken. Mr Francis and his team came all the way from Winter Haven, Florida. And they certainly represented for Brand Jamaica.
By contrast, Grace, the title sponsor of the event, let me down. I simply could not finish drinking the can of Grace coconut water which described itself as "the ultimate thirst quencher". It sweet so til! I checked the label and saw that the ingredients were "coconut water, water, sugar, coconut pulp, sodium metabisulphite". I was relieved to see that the coconut water is not a product of Jamaica. It comes from Thailand!
Grace is no longer an exclusively Jamaican brand. According to the GraceKennedy website, the company "comprises a varied network of some 60 subsidiaries and associated companies located across the Caribbean and in North and Central America and the United Kingdom". What GraceKennedy needs to learn from VP records is that you don't need to water down and sweeten up Jamaican culture to sell it the world.