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Saxon Baird: The Dying Days of Vinyl in Reggae’s Capital

February 28, 2014

While foreigners buy up the relics of Jamaica’s musical heritage, reggae culture lives on in Kingston.

By Saxon Baird

“A national culture is not a folk-lore [but] the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence.”
—Frantz Fanon

Dodging down power lines, fleets of taxis, speeding buses, and a seemingly endless throng of people, I wove my way through downtown Kingston last winter in hopes of seeing the remnants of Randy’s Records, the legendary recording studio and record store firmly planted in Jamaican musical lore. On Love Lane, I stepped into a nameless open-air bar and asked if anyone knew where Randy’s was. A tall, lanky man stood up from a crowd of people playing cards and drinking and proclaimed, “I am Randy’s!” Carl runs what’s left of the store, and for a small fee—a bottle of rum—he agreed to give me a tour.

Vincent “Randy” Chin was the son of an immigrant Chinese carpenter and spent his teenage years repairing jukeboxes in Kingston. In the late 1950s, Chin began to record local artists around town and in 1958 he opened the studio that would become Randy’s Records above a downtown record mart. Throughout the ’60s it was known as Studio 17, and Chin put together a studio band—Randy’s All-Stars—that included some of the major musicians of the era, including Sly Dunbar, Wailers keyboard player Aston “Familyman” Barrett, and a young Augustus Pablo. Randy’s All Stars backed some of the biggest names in Jamaican music throughout the ’60s and ’70s. They played behind Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Burning Spear. Randy’s was ground zero for the “golden age” of reggae until Chin closed the studio in 1979 and moved to New York City.

Carl led me around the corner to an unmarked door and up a narrow flight of steps that opened into the record store, which is still semi-operational. A man sat languidly behind a counter while a woman slept on a piece of cardboard on the floor. There were a few other people sitting around, and I saw quickly that there wasn’t much work to do. The place looked like it hadn’t been touched in decades. Advertisements for records that came out in the 1990s hung from the ceiling. Large pieces of poster board were propped on tables with CD-R cases of bootlegged mixes taped to them. The cases, in turn, had handwritten track titles composing an inventory of one-time hits. Seven-inch vinyl singles, coated in dust, covered almost every inch of counter space.

“Bob Marley cut ‘Mr. Brown’ on this,” he said, pressing a few silent keys on the organ.

Carl pulled a random record from a shelf behind the counter, put it on the turntable, and invited me to take a picture of him as he pretended to scratch like a hip-hop DJ. It soon became clear that he was drunk. His scratching destroyed the record, and I wandered into a back room where the original studio sits.

The studio was in the same tattered condition as the record store. The floor was lined with reel- to-reels, 24-track recording machines, and a vinyl presser, all sitting idly between two pianos and an organ, piled with even more stacks of 7-inch vinyl. Carl stopped scratching and joined me. “Bob Marley cut ‘Mr. Brown’ on this,” he said, pressing a few silent keys on the organ. A faded yellow piece of legal paper attached to the side of a reel-to-reel machine read “Recording Fees 1978.” The cost was $48 per hour. For an additional $40, you could get a voice-over and mixing.

The rundown state of Randy’s Records is not unique for old music studios in Kingston. Up the road a couple of blocks, on Orange Street, colorful painted signs advertise Prince Buster’s Record Shack, which has been shut for a few years now. A Rastafarian sitting on a wooden pushcart out front told me the owner moved to Florida a few years back. Two more blocks up is Techniques, another major label of the ’70s and ’80s, now in a disarray similar to that of Randy’s, with boxes of vinyl scattered across the floor, infrequent hours, and a defunct studio upstairs that is off-limits to most visitors.

Tourism is a main source of revenue for Jamaica with an average of 1.3 million visitors a year, but the major destinations are the spring break zones of Negril and Montego Bay on the western end of the island. Kingston attracts few tourists apart from reggae aficionados and record collectors. And even for those visitors, there isn’t much in the guidebooks apart from the privately owned Bob Marley Museum.

In most countries, governments are guardians of cultural history. But Jamaica is poor—in 2012 the World Bank ranked it 114 of 192 countries in terms of GDP—and the government is often at odds with reggae culture, particularly its promotion of ganja use and the politically-charged lyrics rooted in reggae’s storied relationship with Rastafarianism. Marijuana is still very much illegal in Jamaica and the first dread-locked politician elected to Parliament—Damion Crawford, the current Minister of Tourism and Entertainment—took office just two years ago.

He worries that the foreigners buying up Jamaica’s musical heritage will come to frame reggae’s image around the world, and in this process he perceives echoes of the island’s colonial past.

Today reggae vinyl records are largely bought and collected by people like Ras Bass, a Polish DJ I met at Rockers International Records Shop, arguably the last fully functioning record store in Jamaica, located a few blocks from Randy’s. Bass has blond dreadlocks and a wispy beard to match. He spends a month every year in Jamaica searching for original vinyl records to bring home to his reggae “sound system”—a mobile group of DJs and MCs that specialize in dance parties sound-tracked by Jamaican music. In broken English, accented with a slight Jamaican inflection and the occasional word of Patois, Bass told me he had collected more than ten thousand records since his first trip to Jamaica, in 2001. But these days, he said, the choices are slim.

Mitchie Williams, who has run Rockers since the famed Jamaican producer Augustus Pablo passed away in 1999, agrees. He worries that one day, Jamaica will run out of records. “Jamaicans don’t buy vinyl,” Williams explained. “When you go the dancehall, it’s all CDs and mp3s.” Williams sells mostly to tourists and DJs from Europe, the United States, and Japan, who want obscure reggae and dancehall vinyl for personal collections or to spin in their clubs back home. Rockers’ reliance on visiting fans and collectors like Bass also concerns Williams. He worries that the foreigners buying up Jamaica’s musical heritage will come to frame reggae’s image around the world, and in this process he perceives echoes of the island’s colonial past. While Jamaica became independent from the United Kingdom in 1962, the two countries are still tightly linked. Jamaica’s economy relies heavily on remittances from the Commonwealth diaspora.

Though Jamaica has clearly moved on from its vinyl-heavy days, it still remains just as prolific musically, with new releases from the living reggae and dancehall stars coming out yearly. And beyond the physical objects of the reggae’s vinyl era, the music of that time is also kept alive through covers and “versioning,” in which a singer puts a new melody over the rhythm of an older track.

There are also civically sanctioned efforts to preserve reggae’s place in modern Jamaican cultural history. February is officially “Reggae Month” in Kingston with free concerts across the city. Additionally, the University of the West Indies hosts the International Reggae Conference biannually. And last year the popular Star Time concert series found a new sponsor and re-launched. After a six-year hiatus, the series brought the likes of Derrick Morgan, The Mighty Diamonds, Marcia Griffiths, Big Youth, and others to a spacious tree-lined concert venue outside the Liguanea Club. Despite the pricy ticket and a light rain, a well-dressed uptown crowd filled the place and imbibed well into the early morning.

As long as reggae continues to actively engage the Jamaica people, then perhaps the power to shape the music’s legacy will remain on the island regardless of where the records may go.

Yet these events lack much needed support. The Jamaican Reggae Industry Association, which organizes Reggae Month, has struggled to find and maintain financial backing. In 2012, the association reported that it was $9 million in the red, while last year, according to the Jamaica Gleaner, the free Dennis Brown tribute concert, a cornerstone of Reggae Month, was canceled twice at the last minute due to a lack of funding. It was finally held in March of that year.

As I left Randy’s and traversed downtown Kingston, I was reminded of Frantz Fanon’s contention that a national culture, more than a folklore, is the ongoing collective effort of a people to justify its own existence. Reggae is that effort embodied in Jamaica and its social and cultural significance can still be felt across the island. It’s in the way Jamaican music blares ceaselessly from the speakers of taxis crisscrossing the capital. It’s in the persistence of the Rae Town street party that’s taken place every Sunday in East Kingston for over forty years. It’s in the debates that go on in newspapers and the halls of the University of the West Indies. And, maybe most importantly, it’s in the Jamaicans who continue to play, listen, comment on, and participate in this music that is such a defining aspect of their culture.

So maybe preservationist handwringing over lost vinyl misses the point. As long as reggae continues to actively engage the Jamaica people, then perhaps the power to shape the music’s legacy will remain on the island regardless of where the records may go.

Saxon Baird is a freelance writer and radio producer located in Brooklyn, NY. His latest audio documentary, Dread Inna Inglan: How to the UK Took to Reggae, is out now via PRI’s Afropop Worldwide.

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