‘STUDIO 17: THE LOST REGGAE TAPES’: MAKING A MUSIC DOCUMENTARY IN KINGSTON TOWN
The night seems to fade
But the moonlight lingers on
There are wonders for everyone…
The first lines of “Kingston Town,” a song made famous by the British reggae band UB40, capture the excitement of spending an evening in Jamaica’s capital city.
The stars shine so bright
But they’re fading after dawn
There is magic in Kingston Town…
Originally titled “King and Queen,” the song was written by Lord Creator, produced by the late Vincent “Randy” Chin, and recorded in 1963 at Randy’s Studio 17, located in the heart of Kingston town.
Whether the song is sung by Ali Campbell of UB40 or Lord Creator himself, I can always relate to the words about the magic of this city where reggae music was born: “Oh Kingston Town / The place I long to be / If I had the whole world / I would give it away / Just to see…”
For the past several years, I’ve been producing a documentary about Randy’s Studio 17 — and one man’s quest to rescue a vast archive of songs that were lost when Vincent Chin and his family fled Jamaica and abandoned Studio 17.
Last week, the Nashville Film Festival announced that RANDY’S STUDIO 17: THE LOST REGGAE TAPES will be screened next month as part of the festival’s 50th anniversary, ahead of the doc’s UK premiere on BBC television in late October 2019. While my mind processes this news, I’ve been reflecting on the amazing journey of bringing my first feature-length doc to the screen. How did we get here?
It all started when I took a trip from London to the U.S. to interview the late, great Philip Smart at his legendary HC&F Studio in Freeport, Long Island. For someone who’s usually covering the latest dancehall music, the chance to speak with a producer who studied under the great King Tubby and went on to produce classic tunes by the likes of Shabba Ranks, Super Cat and Shaggy was an opportunity not to be missed.
While I was in New York, I attended a session where Clive Chin was DJing. I was already familiar with Clive’s name, which appears in the credits of many classic recordings. Earlier that year I’d written a news piece about the tragic murder of his firstborn son Joel Chin. My first time meeting Clive, I saw a spry man in a Kangol flat cap pulling 45 rpm records out of a leather briefcase. Standing at the turntables he introduced each song with a burst of behind-the-scenes information, rattling off exact dates and studio personnel with absolute authority. The music ranged from jazzy instrumentals by the Skatalites to Augustus Pablo dub cuts and vocal tunes by a who’s-who of Jamaican music royalty.
After his set was over, Clive gave me his card and I noticed the title under his name: “Head Cornerstone.” The words were a reference to a lyric from the Bob Marley song “Corner Stone.” It’s a sentiment to which any underdog can relate: “The stone that the builder refused has become the head corner stone.”
Bob had reportedly written the song after being snubbed by his father. It was recorded, along with the rest of The Wailers’ 1970 Soul Rebel album, at Studio 17 with production by Lee “Scratch” Perry. Clive’s experiences in the studio had made him a witness to music history.
Clive invited me to stop by his office, then located at V.P. Records headquarters in Jamaica, Queens. The Chin family’s U.S.–based label distributes many of the biggest reggae and dancehall songs around the world. Before he was killed on his way home in Kingston, Joel Chin had been director of A&R for V.P., helping bring Jamaican hitmakers like Sean Paul and Beenie Man to an international audience. He was also the father of a baby girl.
Clive’s office was a space he once shared with Joel. His desk was still occupied with piles of paperwork, as if he had just stepped away and might return at any moment. I couldn’t believe Clive had the strength to keep working alongside his late son’s belongings. In any case, I was there to interview him about himself.
It was truly an honor to speak with such a living legend. Clive Chin is credited as a producer on the first dub album, Java Java Java, featuring an ace rhythm section known as the Impact All Stars, which included Clive’s classmate Horace Swaby, a.k.a. Augustus Pablo. With Clive’s support, Pablo had introduced a new instrument to reggae, a plastic mouth organ known as the melodica.
Clive is a great storyteller, and if he opens up to you, he can really share some history. I couldn’t tell if it was the recent tragedy he’d been through, but he was holding nothing back. While we were speaking, Clive played me a song with Dennis Brown on vocals. When I told him I’d never heard it before, he replied with a smile, “That’s because it’s never been released.”
I was confused but also super excited to be hearing new music from the Crown Prince of Reggae. And that was just one of the never-before-heard songs he played, explaining that these were some of the lost tapes he’d discovered in the vaults of Randy’s Studio 17.
“I unraveled pretty close to 600 odd tapes that were buried in the studio during the exodus,” Clive told me excitedly. “Whole heap of good tunes! When I say good tunes, solid tunes, authentic tunes. Some of them have never been released. Tunes from Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Max Romeo, a of couple Wailers, too. Just to let you know, there is plenty arsenal in the Randy’s vaults!” Clive said with a laugh.
Randy’s Studio 17 was one of the most important recording studios in Jamaica, a handful of sacred places where reggae music was born. Vincent Chin and his wife, known as “Miss Pat,” ran the place, a bustling record shop with a recording studio upstairs. Nearby was a spot known as “Idlers rest,” where some of Jamaica’s greatest musicians would congregate in hopes of getting work in the studio.
Clive’s stepmother Miss Pat used to test the latest sounds by playing them in the shop. If she got a good reaction from the crowd inside Randy’s, she would have the song pressed up. These were exciting times in Jamaica as the music of this tiny Caribbean island was being heard around the world. Even international artists like Johnny Nash and Fats Domino would stop Randy’s to catch a vibe.
During the late 1970s, there was political turmoil in Jamaica and the Chins fled to New York like many other business owners. Vincent and Pat went on to found V.P. Records and Clive’s half brothers and sisters eventually took a leadership role in the new business.
The studio and shop on North Parade were left unattended with the dusty old piano and equipment still in place along with stacks of vinyl and original session reels. This precious musical archive survived many years despite looting, extreme heat and even Hurricane Gilbert. When his father, Vincent “Randy” Chin passed away, the property was left to Clive.
Clive invited me to an event hosted by Pat McKay of SiriusXM where he would be sharing music from the Randy’s vaults for the first time. He spoke about the painstaking process of restoring and digitizing all the master tapes he’d rescued from Jamaica. No other journalist had ever sat in during these transfer sessions, but I really wanted to tell the story. I was fascinated by this chance to explore the roots of reggae. Somehow I convinced Clive to let me into those sessions.
Many of the boxes were jumbled up so you might think you were about to hear some Dennis Brown, but here comes Peter Tosh! The tapes were so old and fragile that every so often they would snap. These were the original master tapes — straight from the recording sessions before being mixed down. That meant that you could hear everything going on in the studio, from the banter amongst the musicians (“Pass It Nah Man!”) to the false starts to engineers shouting “Go again!” It felt like you had stepped into a time machine, transporting you back to North Parade in the 1970s.
I never got to meet some of the greats of reggae, but here I was listening to the Wailers, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs while they were talking, rehearsing, smoking — it was unreal. You could also hear the musical styles changing. The earlier tapes were all ska, then came the rock steady stuff followed by the birth of reggae.
Living in a time where so much culture gets recycled, it is very rare to discover something truly new, which is why Clive’s lost tapes are such a big deal. The opening of the Randy’s vaults represents a major event in the history of recorded music on par with Berry Gordy’s Motown Records or the famous Alan Lomax recordings at the Smithsonian Institute.
As soon as I returned to London I contacted BBC Radio 4’s main arts program, “Front Row.” Host John Wilson had me on the show to talk about it. With the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence and Usain Bolt running in the London Olympics, there was a lot of excitement about Jamaican music in the air.
Some time later award-winning director, Mark James who had made music and art films for the BBC, asked me if we should make this into a movie. Of course I said yes, but we needed permission from Clive. Studio 17 couldn’t be more personal for him. He’d made a deal with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to have the tapes transported back from Jamaica to his New York home. But for some reason Clive had been putting off doing anything with the tapes. His son Joel used to nag him about it all the time, but Clive never got around to it. Only after Joel’s murder did Clive plunge into the digitizing process, honoring of his son’s life and their shared love for music.
Beyond music history, this was a human story about a man keeping a promise to his son. I realized that this film could be made on trust and trust only. I reached out to Clive to discuss the idea. Before you knew it, we were booking tickets to Jamaica to start filming. It would be an emotional journey for Clive, returning to the place where his son had been killed.
There were so many people we wanted to speak with. Many musicians from that era were old and some had passed away. It was a challenge tracking down retired artists like Lord Creator, who rarely gives interviews. His song “Independent Jamaica” was Randy’s first hit, but the singer fell on hard times until royalties from UB40’s cover of “Kingston Town” helped him turn his life around. We found him living in a huge house in the countryside being cared for by his devoted wife.
We continued to film over a period of years, shooting in the U.S., the UK and a few more times in Jamaica. Clive and Miss Pat blessed us with first-hand accounts of Studio 17 as well as musicians like the legendary Sly Dunbar. We traveled to Maryland to speak with Carl Malcolm, who sang hits like “Fattie Bum Bum” and “Miss Wire Waist.” We had to travel to the British countryside to catch up with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Other highlights included hanging out with Chinna Smith at his yard, Ernest Ranglin showing me his guitar collection, visiting King Jammy’$ Waterhouse studio, and speaking with Jimmy Cliff who turned up in a red snakeskin outfit!
Halfway through the production, we learned that Clive was having a dispute with V.P over the rights to the Randy’s archive. We had to sign NDAs and were forced to wait for a resolution of the case before finishing our film. A lot of time and resources had gone into the project already, so the waiting was difficult.
On our final trip to Jamaica, we were joined by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. The British rock star is also a reggae fan, and had found out about our film and expressed interest in working with us. At the time, he was developing an artist called Hollie Stephenson. There was an unfinished Dennis Brown track in the Randy’s vaults and the idea came about that we could finish the song as a duet with Hollie. She was just 16 years old, about the same age Dennis had been when he recorded his vocals back in the 1970s.
After a few days of swimming in a Jamaican lagoon in the mornings and long studio sessions at night — finished with martinis at the close of each session — the duet was finished. Dave played guitar on the track, produced by him and Clive. Voilà, an entire new song that can be heard in the film! With inspiration in the air, I suggested that Hollie also should also sing a cover of “Kingston Town,” the famous Lord Creator track. Dave loved the idea and the vibe was sweet.
With a few years worth of footage, editing all those multilayers into a cohesive story was not easy. Months of sending notes back and forth went by, and this year I got a call from Mark to say the film was finally submitted to the BBC and would be airing in October 2019. During the time I had worked on the film I continued to write, produce and cover this exciting music. But now it was finally ready and as the saying goes in Jamaica, “Nothing before the time.”
Joel’s murder remains unsolved. Clive hasn’t seen the documentary yet, but he did share the trailer with Joel’s mother. She was happy to know it would be released. I truly hope this film will give Clive and his family some comfort in the knowledge that Joel and his father’s contributions to the culture have been honored.
It’s been an incredible and emotional journey. I’ve learnt so much from first-hand experiences with the people who created a genre of music that I love so much, and that has influenced so many people around the world. It’s no exaggeration to say that there would be no hip-hop if it were not for reggae. Jungle, Grime, whatever it rolls into next — all these diverse musical styles have been influenced by Jamaican sound system culture. That’s why these stories are so important.
I am very grateful to everyone who spoke with us for this film and to all who supported it. And shout out to Widestream Films, Iambic Dream Films and the BBC who helped get it this far. We’ve lost some along the way. RIP to the great trombonist Rico Rodriguez. What an honor to have spent some time with him before his passing.
And as Snoop would say, I (also) wanna thank me!
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