Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes Documents the Wild Story of the Birth of Reggae

Clive Chin probably should have expected a little bit of turbulence when he caught a flight from Kingston Jamaica to New York City with Peter Tosh as his traveling companion. The weather wasn’t a problem, but when the captain turned off the No Smoking sign and the reggae legend sparked up the ornate ganja pipe he’d been photographed puffing on the cover of his classic album Legalize It, the flight attendants became deeply concerned. The story of what happened when their jet landed at JFK airport is one of many priceless anecdotes woven throughout the new film Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes, which recently had its worldwide premiere on Tidal and is now available on Qwest.TV, a new video-on-demand platform dedicated to jazz, soul, funk, and world music founded by Quincy Jones.

Produced by the London-based music journalist Reshma B, the feature-length documentary tells the story of Clive Chin, the Chinese-Jamaican producer who played a key role in the birth of dub in the early 1970s, producing early work by Bob Marley and the Wailers and Augustus Pablo at the recording studio established by his father, the late Vincent “Randy” Chin, in the heart of downtown Kingston during the 1960s. Along the way, it also chronicles the birth of Jamaica’s music industry, tracing its evolution from the ska and rock steady eras straight through roots reggae and the dawn of dub as a humble homegrown scene became a force to be reckoned with around the world. Fortunes were made and many pioneers were ripped off, a sticky topic that few reggae films have dared to address previously.

Studio 17 also confronts the still unsolved murder of Clive’s son Joel Chin, who followed his dad into the music business—becoming director of A&R for the family-owned label V.P. Records, where he signed dancehall stars Sean Paul and Beenie Man—and was shot to death August 16, 2011 outside his home in Kingston as he was returning home to his wife and baby girl.

Hailed as “a magical piece of work” by esteemed reggae DJ David Rodigan and "one of the finest reggae documentaries ever made" by acclaimed author John Masouri, Studio 17 was something of a departure for Reshma B, who“represents cutting-edge dancehall all year long” in her role curating reggae and dancehall for Tidal. “I grew up in West London with Notting Hill Carnival at my doorstep,” Reshma B told GQ. “My mum was always playing Maxi Priest and UB40 in the house.” One of her favorite UB40 songs was “Kingston Town,” which she learned was originally written and recorded by a Trinidadian singer named Lord Creator. Reshma B tracked him down while making Studio 17, and also got to hear never-before-released Lord Creator music from the “lost reggae tapes” that drive the action of her film.

During the late 1970s, the Chin family fled Jamaica’s political violence and started a new life in NYC, leaving over 1,000 tapes behind in their haste. Clive salvaged them over a decade later, and Joel would always encourage his father to do something with the treasure trove of unreleased audio. Clive didn’t start restoring and digitizing the lost tapes until after Joel’s death, as a way of honoring his son’s memory. Some of the musical riches he discovered—including a never-before-heard Dennis Brown track—are revealed in Studio 17. Shot in Jamaica and New York, the film took several years to complete, in part because the filmmakers didn’t want to accept money from a music label or other sponsors who might seek to control the narrative. GQ spoke with Reshma B about all the twists and turns of bringing this story to the screen, the importance of telling the truth, and why reggae runs the world.

There are lots of movies about reggae artists. Yours may be the first about a reggae studio. Why did you take that approach?

Remember how reggae was born. Even in Jamaica, none of it was allowed to play on the radio. Everything depends on the connection between studios and producers and sound systems. That’s how poor people could listen to this music. It was a free party but it had to get produced in specific studios by specific producers, who then took it to specific sound systems. It’s a very, very sophisticated process.

The concept of a studio is a little different in Jamaica than in America. It’s not just a place you go to make a record, it’s a whole lifestyle. What was so special about Studio 17?

The sound. When you watch Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes you hear why Scratch Perry decided to make most of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ records there after he left Studio One. He needed that Studio 17 sound.

Studios in Jamaica were a whole vibe, it was like being a member of a club. You knew exactly what sound was gonna come out of the studio—not just because of the quality of the equipment, but also because of the people associated with that studio. At Studio 17 Peter Tosh was one of the in-house musicians. Erroll Thompson was a brilliant engineer, and that’s who was going to be mixing your records.

There was a place outside Studio 17 where all the artists used to hang out, right?

Right, Studio 17 had the advantage of being located next to “Idler’s Rest.” All the musicians would hang out there in hopes of being hired to play on a session and maybe get paid for the day—or not. It’s like those places where workers gather in the early hours of the morning to see if they can get a job on a building site for the day.

So who would be hanging out at Idlers’ Rest?

You’re talking about some of the greatest musicians in Jamaica. In my film you hear from a group who had a session at Studio 17 and forgot to book a drummer. They step outside and there’s Carlton Barrett, who played drums on all of Bob Marley’s records. “Hey Carlie—can you play on our record?” He wants ten dollars and they only have five. And Carlie’s like, “Okay then.” It’s unbelievable. He’s a fuckin’ genius. That particular record was not a big hit, but many of the pioneers worked this way, and looking back they weren’t properly compensated for their brilliance.

Inside Randy's Studio 17 record store.
Inside Randy's Studio 17 record store.
Courtesy of BBC Music, Widestream Films, and Iambic Dream Films.

What can be done about that?

Well, the new generation is learning that they’ve gotta own their masters and do their paperwork. But in those times musicians were creating what they saw as local music and they didn’t have a manager or a lawyer to review their agreements. In the film you see the artist Lord Creator say he only got enough to buy one patty for a session. Reggae grew and grew and it was never an organized thing—just like hip-hop, I guess. People were trying to survive and nobody spoke about royalties and publishing.

Jamaican artists never imagined that their songs would be on the radio in England.

Or on “Top of the Pops.” Just think, you’re a youth from a humble background in Jamaica, and somebody sends you a ticket to fly to London and play on British TV. In the film you can see that happening to Carl Malcolm, who sang “Hey Fattie Bum Bum.” Just try to imagine what that felt like.

Who knew that this music would become a worldwide industry?

No one knew. But unfortunately some of the people who figured it out used their knowledge to gain an unfair advantage. Those are the sticky things that people don’t want to talk about.

But sometimes people do the right thing, like UB40, who recorded a cover of Lord Creator’s “Kingston Town” that became a huge hit.

Well UB40 were some kids from Birmingham, England who were on the dole and decided to start a band. The name of the band comes from the form you fill out to get Unemployment Benefits. Lead singer Ali Campbell’s father was a musician, so he understood the importance of giving the correct credits to songwriters. He instilled that in his children, which in turn helped an artist like Lord Creator to survive and to change his life. That’s what it means to do the right thing.

The exterior of Randy's Studio 17 on North Parade.
The exterior of Randy's Studio 17 on North Parade.
Courtesy of BBC Music, Widestream Films, and Iambic Dream Films.

When you listen to “Kingston Town” by Lord Creator, he sings “If I am king I must surely have a queen and a palace and everything.” But he didn’t have that when he sang the song.

No, he ended up on the streets. And then he was in hospital with serious health problems. When UB40 covered “Kingston Town” his life changed. But why should a person who was basically a star end up on the streets in the first place?

So where can people see the film now?

It’s been on Tidal for the last week and had great engagement. Now you can continue to watch it on Qwest TV for the time being. As filmmakers we are open to offers of course. The response has been great so far. Studio 17 surpassed the expectation for music documentaries—not just reggae documentaries. Reggae music comes from Jamaica but this music is listened to worldwide. As such, it deserves to be represented on a mainstream level with the same quality and the same care as every other genre. If it wasn’t for Jamaican sound systems, there wouldn’t be hip hop. Remember that Kool Herc was a Jamaican kid who strung up some speaker boxes in the Bronx and threw a party that changed music forever.

And February is Reggae Month, so what better time to celebrate this culture?

What better time? And I wanna shout out Tidal because this year they decided for the first time ever to pay homage to Reggae Month on the homepage. That’s why we showed Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes as part of the first week of that campaign, which ties into playlists from Jamaica’s legendary studios and producers. We started from the beginning, from Ska to Rock Steady to Roots Reggae—going all the way to ’90s Dancehall.

That’s a long way from Studio 17.

I represent cutting-edge music all year long. I feel privileged to have worked on Studio 17 because I wasn’t around to hang out with legends like Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, and Peter Tosh. Reggae Month is about paying homage to history, so I hope everybody gets a chance to go through the playlists we’ve been rolling out.

For me as Tidal’s reggae curator, the inspiration for all that came from doing Studio 17. It’s obvious that the music starts from the studios. Everybody loves Studio One, but there are so many others. We’re talking about Channel One studio, the Black Ark, Penthouse, Madhouse. Each has its own sound and its own musicians and legendary producers like King Jammy and Bobby Digital and on and on and on.

Reshma B during the filming of Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes, 2019.
Reshma B during the filming of Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes, 2019.
Courtesy of Reshma B

The UB40 song “Kingston Town” is on an album called Labour of Love. Isn’t that a good way to describe reggae music—and your film?

Yeah, I guess so. Sometimes you just have to do the thing. When I came across this story I had no idea it was going to evolve into all of this. As you can see in the film, there’s a point where I have to sign an NDA and I’m not exactly ecstatic about it. We had already been shooting for a few years at that point and we had no idea what was about to happen. But when you look at the success of the film I have to be thankful it all went the way it did. I want to shout out all the people who supported this project, the production company to the legends who agreed to be interviewed, and the respected journalists who continue to shine a light on it. Big shout out to Pup Daddy for holding me down through the pandemic. And especially to all the females who have reached out to me and all the kind words everyone has said. It means a lot to me as a girl in this industry.

Originally Appeared on GQ