A look at Chinese contribution

A look at Chinese contribution


Sunday, February 23, 2020

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Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the second presentation, last Sunday, in the 2020 Grounation Symposium series (being staged during Reggae Month) at the Institute of Jamaica in downtown Kingston.

This year, the series (staged by the Herbie Miller-led Jamaica Music Museum) is dedicated to the contribution of the Chinese to the development of Jamaican music. It is being held under the theme 'Blackhead Chiney Man: The Chinese Contribution To Jamaican Popular Music'. Last Sunday, the presentation was devoted to unpacking the musical legacy of the Hoo Kim family.

I am terribly disappointed that I was unable to witness my friend, the legendary Lowell “Sly” Dunbar in action as he was both a panellist and a performer last Sunday. Though I have yet to secure independent feedback, I am confident that with Dr Dennis Howard moderating the panel, there was a lively and informative discussion on the important contribution the Hoo Kim family has made to Jamaican music. I am also sure that the performances were of the highest standards with Sly and other top-flight musicians in the mix.

The Hoo Kim brothers were engaged in entrepreneurial activities prior to their involvement in musical endeavours. Like some of their colleagues of Chinese descent, they decided to parlay some of their earnings from these ventures into the recording business. The Hoo Kim brothers also owned a sound system bearing the Channel One emblem, which was attached to their other music-related ventures.

One name that is prominently associated with Channel One is Sly Dunbar.

Channel One was responsible for churning out some of the great roots rock classics such as Ballistic Affair (Leroy Smart) and Right Time (Mighty Diamonds). Channel One also provided us with such instrumental hits as Angola and MPLA, which featured their house band the Revolutionaries. The titles of these tracks seemed consistent with the ethos of that period.

The Hoo Kim story fits the pattern of the typical Chinese involvement with Jamaican music. They operated businesses which enhanced their levels of contact with the the Afro Jamaican population and then made a foray into the nascent music.

Today, we will be looking at the contribution of Randy's and VP Records to the development of Jamaican music. I will be part of a panel (moderated by Wayne Chen) discussing the role played by Vincent Randy Chin and his family in the international popularisation of Jamaican music. The panel will include Pat Chin (Vincent's widow), who is the “P” in VP. Miss Pat (as she is affectionately called) will be supported by Clive and Chris Chin, sons of Vincent, who not only helmed the famed Randy's studio and record store but whose initial provides the other half of the VP name.

There is hardly any doubt that VP filled a breach left by most of the leading international record labels which had signed a slew of Jamaican acts during the '90s and then abandoned them. It was during that heady period when consumer electronics giants such as Sony and Phillips were acquiring content creators which included film studios and record labels.

These consumer electronics giants decided that in order to ensure that their gadgets were being sold they needed to have ownership of the underlying content so they could determine the formats on which the films and music would be delivered. They went on a buying binge and the record labels which were a part of their acquisitions, and even those which were not, were gobbling up artistes from various genres which included reggae acts such as Super Cat and Shabba Ranks.

Island Records which had been responsible for signing many of the major Reggae acts (including Bob Marley and the Grammy Award-winning Black Uhuru) seemed out of touch with the realities of the emergent dancehall genre and Chris Blackwell admitted such in an interview with me and Dennis Howard on IRIE FM more than two decades ago.

VP Records stepped in and filled the vacuum. The fact is that the traditional record labels in the United States did not really have a solid understanding of how to market reggae/dancehall and forced the Jamaican acts to make creative compromises which did not meet their ultimate objective of crossing over. Most of the acts ended up creating music which alienated their core constituency and did not appeal to the crossover market.

VP Records did not try to change the artistes. It simply set up the marketing arrangements which allowed the Jamaican acts to reach their core market (with media partners such as IRIE Jam and Hot 97) and provide Jamaican hits, with potential for crossover, on their own terms.

VP would corner the US dancehall market starting with the infectious Who Am I taken from Beenie Man's Grammy-nominated album The Many Moods of Moses. This I believe was an inflection point for VP as it signalled to the market that the Queen's, New York-based record label, which had traced its origins to North Parade in Jamaica, was now a major force to be reckoned with.

This was followed with the success of Everyone Falls in Love by Tanto Metro and Devonte. What was interesting was that despite the fact that VP was enjoying crossover success onradio and with their records this reality was not being reflected in retail.

VP would resolve this challenge with Dutty Rock, the Sean Paul project which, to date, would be the most commercially successful VP album. Gimme The Light with the video shot by Little X and featuring the unforgettable dancing of Pony Tail was definitely one of the highlights of this project.

What is clear is that Jamaican music does well internationally when it is marketed by those who have a granular feel for it. This has certainly been reflected in the phenomenal success enjoyed by reggae and dancehall with the Chris Blackwell-led Island Records and the Vincent and Pat Chin-founded VP Records.

* Clyde McKenzie is founding general manager of reggae radio IRIE FM and a principal of Shocking Vibes Production. He can be contacted at clydepmckenzie@yahoo.co.uk

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