At Radio City Music Hall, A Happy Reggae Birthday
By Alona Wartofsky
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 10, 2004; Page C01
NEW YORK, May 9 -- Twenty-five years ago, Jamaican immigrants Vincent and Patricia Chin opened a tiny music shop here in Queens. Their store, which catered to the city's growing population of West Indians, eventually evolved into a distribution company, and then a record label. Now VP Records, which is run by their sons, dominates the reggae industry, with offices in New York, Miami, Tokyo, London and Jamaica, and annual grosses in excess of $5 million.
Saturday night the label marked its silver anniversary with a festive concert at Radio City Music Hall. The evening's backup band, Dean Fraser and the VP All-Stars, wore tuxedos, and some women in the predominantly West Indian audience dressed for the occasion in sequined evening dresses with corsages.
There was much to celebrate, and not just a quarter-century in the business. The past two years have seen unprecedented success for the up-tempo reggae style known as dancehall, and VP has led the charge. Two years ago the label signed a deal with Atlantic Records that resulted in the crossover triumph of Sean Paul, as well as mainstream recognition of Elephant Man and Wayne Wonder.
Though originally advertised as one of the evening's performers, Sean Paul was not present, but the lineup was remarkable nonetheless: Rarely is such an array of reggae stars seen outside Jamaica's annual music festivals.
Perhaps the most flamboyant of those stars, Elephant Man is revered in Jamaica as "the energy god" for his hyperkinetic stage shows. He lived up to his reputation, cavorting around the stage, climbing onto a speaker and running through the aisles as he worked through the hits off his recent VP album, "Good 2 Go." But he was at his absolute weirdest in a seemingly sincere rendition of "We Are the World." Overcome by emotion, he dropped to the stage floor, bellowed and writhed around, causing his baggy jeans to work their way down.
No less riveting was Beenie Man, who has left VP but whose hit singles regularly appear on the label's "Strictly the Best" compilation series. His latest crossover hit, "Dude," set to an infectious rhythm track known as "fiesta," is the first cut on "Strictly the Best 31," and is looking to be this summer's jeep anthem. It's already at No. 3 on the playlist of influential New York hip-hop station Hot 97, and is climbing the Billboard charts. Beenie Man's set was all too brief -- he joined Tanto Metro and Devonte at the end of theirs, and was gone just a few short minutes later -- but when he got to "Dude," the roar of the audience nearly drowned out his vocals.
The introduction of Lady Saw as "dancehall's Lil' Kim and then some" failed to express the respect she has earned in the male-dominated dancehall scene. She, too, has crossover aspirations, and recently appeared on No Doubt's Grammy-winning single "Underneath It All." She performed a snippet of that song, as well as "Man Ah Di Leas," also set to the fiesta rhythm.
Downstairs after her set, Lady Saw talked about what VP Records has accomplished. "VP has contributed a lot to reggae music and the dancehall fraternity: For instance, Sean Paul. He's now major, and VP played a big role in that," she said. "For me, they've helped to put me out there. I was in Jamaica, and I performed in all 14 parishes, and still I tried to break out. Now Americans know who I am. I'm getting major fans."
Nearby, a singer known as Sasha who duets with Sean Paul on his latest radio hit, "I'm Still in Love With You," talked excitedly about her upcoming debut album on the label she calls "an icon of reggae."
"VP planted the seeds for reggae music, watered it, and it became a plant," said Sasha. "Back in the day, reggae was Bob Marley. Now because of VP Records, reggae is not just Bob Marley anymore. It's Sasha, it's Sizzla -- it's all these artists. Now people can see that we definitely have that crossover potential."
Others weren't so effusive. "VP has been one of the giants in distribution of the music," said singer Luciano, grandly dressed for the occasion -- and for his one song -- in an oversize beige suit accessorized with a red, yellow and green scarf, a matching hat and a wooden staff. "But I think they have lost focus. They give more emphasis to dancehall."
Luciano may complain about VP's emphasis on dancehall's digital sound rather than on traditional reggae, but his upcoming album, "Serious Times," will be released by the label.
And the evening wasn't strictly dancehall. The program opened with a moment of silence dedicated to legendary producer Clement Dodd, who died last week. (Dodd, known as "Sir Coxsone," presided over the influential Studio One record label, whose roster included Bob Marley.) Marcia Griffiths, one of the original backup singers for Bob Marley and the Wailers, performed a brief set. Also on the bill was Morgan Heritage, consisting of the children of reggae singer Denroy Morgan and favoring the classic "one-drop" reggae sound. The band's set, which included a luminous "Don't Haffi Dread," was one of several marred by a sound mix that was so bass-heavy that the vocals were barely audible.
Other performers included onetime crossover sensation Shaggy and T.O.K., a quartet that VP hopes will be the next one. Buju Banton and Sizzla were slated to appear but did not.
Midway through the evening, the audience was shown vintage clips of early dancehall artists chanting on microphones in crowded Kingston halls. The footage, which included Supercat and Nicodemus with the Stone Love sound system in 1980, was mesmerizing and served as a reminder of the richness of dancehall culture. The evening could have used more of this kind of thing, and a lot less of the local radio deejays who acted as emcees and wasted precious minutes of the 21/2 -hour event working the audience -- and its patience -- with banalities of the "Are you ready to go home?" variety.
By the time the evening's final performer, singer Beres Hammond, arrived onstage after a lengthy introduction by hip-hop celebrity Wyclef Jean, the show apparently was running behind schedule. Hammond's set, much of which was also drowned out by the adoring audience, was unceremoniously interrupted by someone who abruptly escorted him offstage.
And just like that, the show was over. More than a few audience members grumbled on the way out, suggesting that given VP's considerable accomplishments, the evening could have offered a little more.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Beenie Man, above, performed his crossover hit "Dude" at VP Records' Radio City concert. He joined Tanto Metro, at far left, and Devonte (on the video screen) near the end of their set.
(Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)