BY TRONE DOWD
At age 77, spry Jamaica-born music aficionado Patricia Chin has cemented her legacy as one of the most knowledgeable individuals on the planet regarding the history and stylings of Caribbean music. Founding her world renowned record store VP Records in Jamaica in the 1970’s, Chin’s story is a quintessential tale of the type of opportunity awaiting immigrants who come to America determined and hungry for change.
Chin’s success in music expertise didn’t happen overnight. Growing up in the capital city of Kingston, Jamaica, Chin said that she always loved the music of her native country and found a way to make a living out of it. In 1959, she opened a record store in Kingston.
Building a base of loyal patrons and supporters, her small company enjoyed 20 years of lucrative goodwill, eventually expanding into music production and recording some of the biggest acts of the time. Unfortunately, much of what was built over the years would be put on hold after she and her husband decided to move to the United States in 1977.
“My brother-in-law came maybe 10 years before I did,” Chin said. “He said that New York would be a good place for us.”
Deciding to take a chance on the idea of a fresh start in a foreign land of promise, Chin and her family traded in Kingston, Jamaica for Jamaica, Queens.
“He thought it was a good place to be. We knew there was a lot of migration of Caribbean people in Brooklyn and Queens,” she said. “We chose Jamaica because it reminded us of our hometown.”
Despite having a connection in Queens via her brother-in-law, she said that she personally had a difficult time adjusting.
“It was hard,” she recalled. “The money, the language, the place. The way things are done on a little island like Jamaica, everyone knows each other. Not the case here. Coming to America, we had to start all over again.”
Despite the hardships of assimilating to the American lifestyle, Chin decided to cut out a niche market for herself, one that would help fellow immigrants like herself remember the soothing tunes and rhythmic sounds of their native countries. Thus, in 1978, VP Records was born.
Applying her passion for music to creating a lucrative business, however, proved to be more difficult in America. She said that while there was a market for selling Caribbean music in New York, exposing new audiences to the genre was the key to keeping VP Records alive.
“We had to develop clientele and educate the people on the culture,” Chin said. “We would encourage people to expand their horizons and try new things. A lot of times when I would do telemarketing, they would say to me, ‘put a man on for me,’ not realizing that I knew the music outside in. I was living the music 24/7 behind the counter in Jamaica. I’ve sold the music, I knew all the rhythms, I knew all the singers and producers. It was only of my biggest obstacles. As a woman and a Chinese woman at that, I was [asked], ‘How did I know about reggae music?’”
Despite the subtle sexism, Chin pushed on, breaking down preconceptions along the way.
Now, 37 years later, VP Records and Chin are known around the world as the source for reggae music. Chin said that the most rewarding part of the company’s growth has been bringing the sound to a new audience.
“Some people think that success comes with money,” she said. “Sometimes that’s not the case. It comes from us educating the people. We are all around the world now and are one of the largest reggae distributors.”
In addition to their Jamaica location, VP Records operates out of London, Japan, South Africa and, of course, in Kingston. VP Records also played a crucial role in the transition to selling music digitally. Chin and her family worked with artists and producers to help educate them on the rampant music piracy that impacted the industry in the early 2000s, finding ways to entice listeners into buying music, rather than losing potential sales.
“We want artists to get their royalties,” she said. “There was a learning curve, but I’m so happy that I have my children in the business where they can adapt to the changes and the new ways of selling.”
Chin is just one of the many success stories coming out of the borough’s immigrant community. She said that she is happy that she can bring such a vital piece of her culture to the states and around the world.
“The one thing we Jamaicans never forget is our food and our music,” she laughed. “I’ve been doing this since I was 18. Next year, we celebrate 40 years in this business and we don’t have any plans of stopping.”