“Down in Jamaica: 40 Years of VP Records” is a revelatory 94-track, multi-format limited-edition box set filled with four CDs, 12-inch “disco” vinyls, 7-inch singles of collectible songs, art cards and a 24-page book outlining the history of the world’s largest independent reggae label.
The set, released Friday, was musically curated and designed not by a Jamaican or a native New Yorker, where VP is located.
Instead, it was assembled and designed by Lincoln native Carter Van Pelt, who has gone from playing reggae on KRNU and KZUM radio to VP Records' director of catalog development.
So, how did a guy from landlocked Nebraska, 2000 miles from the Caribbean, become an internationally known writer, archivist and DJ of Jamaican music?
“For me, it’s been a lifelong thing,” Van Pelt said by phone from New York. “It was a slow process that started in the post-punk teenage years with reggae coming up in The Police, The Clash, Blondie and then buying Steel Pulse and Bob Marley records when I was finishing high school.
“That stuff really stuck with me. I built on that, kept learning. I went on the radio at KRNU and KZUM and learned I could comfortably talk about the history of the music. Then I started going to Jamaica.”
There, Van Pelt said, he found the key to understanding Jamaican music -- and it’s more cultural than anything.
“Jamaican music as a dance hall music, a DJ-driven music, has long been singles oriented," he said. "American/European pop music has been album music. That changed my view as to what the music is about. Bob Marley is an amazing album artist. But in the culture, it goes from single to single, by a lot of artists.”
His first trip to Jamaica was in February 1996.
“I’ve been maybe 20 times since then, I’d have to check my old passports,” he said. “In the last three years, I’ve probably spent a year there, I’ve been living there off and on over the winters.”
Moving to New York, Van Pelt started a free, outdoor concert series he called Reggae on the Boardwalk in 2010, setting up a Jamaican-style sound system on the Coney Island boardwalk and inviting the New York Caribbean community to listen to real Jamaican music for free.
“That’s become the singular most important event in my reggae life,” Van Pelt said. “It wasn’t planned. I just wanted to play music on the boardwalk at Coney Island. It turned out to be the perfect place to play.”
Reggae on the Boardwalk, performed once a month in the summers, now draws thousands and is a widely noted New York City cultural event. But more importantly, for Van Pelt, it’s been embraced by the city’s large Jamaican community.
“As an outsider to the culture, to be able to be accepted by the community it comes from has validated it," he said. "That's the ultimate achievement. As much as I like playing reggae for white hipsters, I love playing it for Jamaicans.”
The feeling is mutual for the Jamaican/Carribean community, said DJ and former VP Records executive Fidel Luna, who has been part of Reggae on the Boardwalk since its inception.
“Carter is beloved in the community, just for his contributions to Reggae on the Boardwalk,” Luna said. “Reggae on the Boardwalk is incredible. The Jamaican community wants to come out and listen to what we play. We play music from the various decades. But we concentrate on the older sounds, the vintage stuff. They get to listen to the music the way it was intended to be heard.”
And, he said, on the most important level, Van Pelt isn’t a Jamaican music outsider.
“It’s funny, I’m the same way,” Luna said. “I’m a kid from the Dominican Republic. My name is Fidel, so they call me Mr. President. It’s really no different, a kid from Nebraska, a kid from the Dominican Republic or a kid from Jamaica. The music is a vibe. It catches your heart. It doesn’t matter what your background is. It’s a soul music.”
Van Pelt moved back to Lincoln in 2014 to work at the Lied Center for Performing Arts. But he continued to do Reggae on the Boardwalk, returning to New York for the shows and maintained his connections in the Jamaican music world.
Van Pelt returned to New York after the death of his father in 2017 -- “there was no reason to stay in Lincoln after that,” and again immersed himself in Jamaican music, working as a DJ, doing some projects with Luna and compiling the reggae “Essentials" playlists for Apple Music.
Putting together the essential songs of Marley, Peter Tosh, and others, under the guidance of Gary Stewart, the late former head of Rhino Records, Van Pelt learned the compilation system he’d use for “Down in Jamaica.”
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And doing the “Essentials” gave him the chance to craft a giant, multi-artist compilation.
“It’s called Classic Reggae Deep Cuts,” he said. “There are 100 tracks. You call that Carter’s box set of Jamaican music across the board. The only thing that is different (than a chronological box) is they insisted I have A-list artists, like Marley and Tosh, at the top of list.”
In July 2018, Van Pelt got hired by VP, essentially doing Luna’s old job. And he had a good idea what he’d be doing as his first major project for the label.
“It (the box set) was something they wanted to do for their 40th anniversary,” he said. “I knew it was a strong possibility that it was going to happen. So I worked on it immediately. I put together a preliminary track list before I stepped into the office on my first day.”
In the midst of putting together the set, Van Pelt got an unexpected invitation to go to Jamaica last November to spin some records.
“One of the coolest things that’s happened to me is I had the opportunity to DJ for Diplo’s 40th birthday party. That’s one of the highlights of my reggae life. It was happenstance. I got a call at the last minute asking if I’d want to DJ that weekend.”
Van Pelt flew to Jamaica, where he was to DJ for a Friday-night party to celebrate the birthday of the acclaimed DJ/producer who has worked with the likes of Madonna, Shakira, Beyonce, Justin Bieber and Snoop Dogg.
Diplo and the crowd liked the job Van Pelt did so much, he was invited to work Saturday’s party, which was held in the Frenchman’s Cove resort where the beach was equipped with one of the best sound systems Van Pelt has used.
“The manager kept coming up to me, saying 'Keep going/ Keep going,'” he said. “I ended up doing four hours on the beach. There were a lot of big-timers at that one. It was bananas. That’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had DJing."
Diplo liked Van Pelt’s set so much that he broadcast it on his Sirius/XM satellite radio channel and on his “Diplo and Friends” show on BBC Radio. That show began with this introduction:
"Right now, we’ve got a close, real friend of mine,” Diplo said. “You might not have heard of him … The DJs are the ones with the skill, the ones with the acumen to mix and create moods. Tonight a very special DJ, an unsung hero on Diplo and friends, the man behind the scenes, one of my favorite DJs, right here, right now, Carter Van Pelt.”
Returning to New York, Van Pelt continued to work on the box set, putting the story of the label together chronologically, choosing the 94 songs from 25,000 possibilities while aiming at a pair of audiences.
The three CDs contain a sampling of the hits released by VP, which began as distributor Randy’s Records in Jamaica. It then moved to New York where it became VP Records and started producing its music as well as distributing work brought to it by producers and small labels.
Among the artists on those disc: Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Yellowman, Foxy Brown, Buju Banton, Wayne Wonder and Sean Paul -- all Jamaican music stalwarts and known outside the Caribbean music world.
For the 12- and 7-inch singles, Van Pelt selected some VP rarities, some which had been released on tiny sublabels and have become collector’s items over the decades.
“He’s got a couple tracks, like Junior Reid’s ‘What Do You Know” that I wanted from the VP vaults,” Luna said. “Every time, we’d bid on these, they go over for $100. Now he’s got them in the box -- all this collectible material we’ve had a hard time getting our hands on.”
The set, which Van Pelt also designed and wrote the liner notes and selected the photos for the book, has been widely praised from those who have received a copy before its release. It, Luna said, perfectly captures the label and its history with some of the best music VP has released in four decades.
Van Pelt hasn’t yet started a new project. He’s too busy launching “Down in Jamaica.”
On Nov. 1, Public Records, a New York City venue where Van Pelt and Luna are regular DJs, will host a “Down in Jamaica” release party with Luna spinning the original vinyl of songs from the box.
On Wednesday, he was getting things together for a trip to London, where “Down in Jamaica” will be celebrated with a couple days of events at the Jamaican consulate, including panel discussions that will include a kid from Lincoln who’s now an internationally known Jamaican music expert.