Jamaican vocalist Assassin, aka Agent Sasco, is the modern link to dancehall’s granite-voiced giants of the 80s and 90s.
Blessed with a thunderous delivery that draws comparisons to mentor Buju Banton, the man born Jeffrey Campbell is now a 15 year veteran himself, following his elders Buju and Capleton in a reggae direction.
This month sees the release of Assassin’s new album, Theory Of Reggaetivity. But one-drop rhythms aren’t his only areas of expansion. He’s become rap’s undercover guest of choice, making a show-stealing appearance on Kanye West’s Yeezus album and playing a crucial role in Kendrick Lamar’s single ‘The Blacker The Berry’. Speaking to FACT while on tour in Munich, however, Assassin explained that he’s been voicing reggae a lot longer than people realise.
You’ve been involved in dancehall since you were very young. How old were you when you first touched the mic?
Maybe five! Growing up in Kintyre, people a few doors down had what we’d call a little set – a very small sound. At the weekend, people would plug up the microphone and guys from the community would try to do their thing.
I could hear it from my house, so when my mum wasn’t looking I would sneak out of the yard, go down and hold the mic. I could really ride the rhythm at five because I realised it was 4/4 counts when you had big guys jumping on at the third or fifth bar. So I guess I earned the right to hold the mic at five.
You come from a military family – could you have gone that way?
My grandfather and father were soldiers. So I grew with that rigid discipline in terms of certain principles I hold on to and the way I carry myself. You’re not going to catch me with my pants hanging down. I have no piercings or tattoos.
I’m 32 and up until 28 – which is [the last age] when you can join the army – I would still speak of it and my wife and brother would be like “No, please, just relax!” I really thought about joining the military up until the very last drop.
Two of your early supporters in dancehall were Spragga Benz and Buju Banton. How did you link up with them and what did you learn?
I met Spragga in the summer of 99 through his nephew who was a schoolmate. He actually performed a song [‘Shotta’] that I wrote. I gave it to my friend who gave it to him. I wanted to continue, but he was like, “If you write that well maybe you should consider doing it [for yourself]”. So meeting Spragga bridged that gap for me in turning it from a passion to something I could pursue as my career. He was very influential in terms of introducing me to people, bringing me on shows and when I didn’t have a place to stay he gave me a place to stay. So I can never discount that.
For Buju it was just from being in the same management for quite a while with Penthouse Records – I was introduced to Donovan Germain by Spragga. Just being around Buju and learning from him by observation was one thing. But after a while he really took the time to point things out, show and teach me things.
When you perform your song ‘Idiot Ting Dat’ (on the ‘Steppz’ rhythm) you often go into Capleton’s ‘Or Wha?’ Capleton’s last two albums have been reggae and he’s working on a third. Is this your new lane or will you mix it up like Buju?
Over the last few years I’ve been really finding what is in my heart where music is concerned – don’t do a song because it might be successful. Do the song that you really feel. I’ve been committing to that a lot more, and right now that commitment is to exploring and developing this reggae side. So for now it’s very much reggae and the Theory Of Reggaetivity, and I really want to do that.
But in the future will I be 100% reggae? I don’t know. I think Buju struck the perfect balance in terms of spanning the two – dancehall and reggae. I fell in love with dancehall music at four and that love is going nowhere. I can’t forecast a day when I wouldn’t want to do dancehall, but I think I’ll develop on the reggae side a lot more.
What was the first reggae rhythm you ever voiced?
Being at Penthouse I did a bunch of reggae stuff. You might never hear them but we recorded them. I did one on the rhythm that Zumjay did about the cricket [‘Courtney’] and many other reggae rhythms. At the time I would get frustrated because of course I wanted to hear them come out but I think Donovan Germain was just concerned with my development and that was all part of that process.
The album features input from members of Jamaica’s new reggae movement. Two tracks are produced by Protoje, who only produced his first track this year.
Protoje is one of the people who from day one told me he had great respect for the work I was doing, so we hold that mutual respect from early on. I’ve watched his career grow over the years so I’m proud of him. So as I’m working on a reggae album I reached out to him saying, “You guys are really leading this charge of reggae in this new generation and I’d like some help”. I didn’t know it would be in producing. I just needed help to put the album together. He produced one track and one track led to two tracks. We had fun putting it together.
I’ve produced a couple of tracks for other people too and I find that being a lover of the music and an artist you’re a natural producer, because you’re very much a part of producing your own tracks when recording for other producers. You’re a big part of the process so you’re a better producer than you might know.
Protoje said your voice has its own inbuilt compressor.
[Laughs] I hear that a lot. Like “Yow, what kind of voice this? Don’t waste any time with a double track. Just leave it as it is!”
“It’s all about the music as far as I’m concerned. If I’m doing work that somebody like Kanye can hear and say “I want this on my album” then I’m doing a lot right.”
I want to ask you about your verse on Wayne Marshall’s ‘Stupid Money’ where you say “Buy a million pound residence and spend 40 million pon de- fence” – are you saying “defence”?
It’s actually “the fence” as in a million pound property and the surrounding fence is worth 40 million. It was really about just finding ridiculous ways to spend money.
I thought it was a comment on how superpowers spend more money on defence than domestic things like housing!
You know what? That’s an interesting way to look at it. Sometimes it’s better to not to explain lyrics. As a listener myself sometimes what I get is different from what the writer meant and sometimes it’s better to go with my interpretation. It might work against you when people think you’re saying something terrible when that’s not what you mean. But if that’s what you hear then go ahead man!
I used to have this real problem in school when we did literature and they said “What did the writer mean by so and so?” I always thought that I was being mischievous or maybe I was stupid for not thinking what the teacher would think. And I would get really angry: “But that’s what I get from it! Why can you tell me what I interpret from something shouldn’t be?” So you know what? It’s defence.
There’s been a lot of discussion about you appearing uncredited on your features with Kanye and Kendrick Lamar. But then that’s what an Assassin does: creeps into a track unseen and delivers a killer blow…
And then I’m out! The Kanye one came when they were working on a compilation and wanted some Jamaican material to pick from. Kanye works with a lot of samples and I guess they were looking for sample-worthy content or at least that’s the interpretation I went into the session with. It wasn’t supposed to be for his album but I guess he was working on Yeezus and figured, “You know what? I like this – let me put it on there”.
To get that merit-based recognition was all the meaning for me. It’s all about the music as far as I’m concerned, and if I’m doing work that somebody like Kanye can hear and say “I want this on my album” then I’m doing a lot right.
The Kendrick feature came, I guess partly from that – in terms of more people being aware of what I could do. Boi 1da reached out to a friend of mine Kardinal Offishall saying “I need a Jamaican vibe on this record”, and he was like “Yo, put Assassin on it”. So they sent it, I did it and people loved it all over again.
The US hip hop scene is not easy to break into. But instead of the fans hearing a foreign name and thinking “Who’s that and why is he on this tune with my favourite artist?” they’ll hear your voice and think “It’s that guy again!”
That’s been my experience so far. People try to make it into a bad thing “Aw, you didn’t get credited”. I didn’t have to be on the track. OK, fine, it would be great to have my name there, but also it’s great to be there. And like you say, now people are saying “Who is this guy? You can’t be some run of the mill dude to end up on those collabs. Why are these top flight hip hop artists picking out some guy we never heard of?” So it’s all about perspective man. You could choose to look at things any way you want.
We still have a lot more to do in terms of the world knowing exactly who the Assassin is next time, but we’re working on that. And there was a lot of coverage stemming from the Kanye and Kendrick thing, so there is a momentum building. I think my responsibility is to stay ready for opportunities like this. When the next big thing comes and they say “He was on Kanye and Kendrick, let’s see what he can do on this”, I need to be ready so I can deliver. It’s not just about being there – it’s being there and killing it.
You’ve also been in Trinidad recording with soca artist Bunji Garlin and Kardinal Offishall on something called the Suit Of Black project…
How could I forget? Suit Of Black is dancehall and reggae mixed with soca and hip-hop. Kardinal Offishall, Bunji Garlin and myself. We were in Trinidad last week for a couple of days in the studio. Just craziness man. Just imagine what it’s going to be like when you put all those together and mix it up.
You’re crossing all these borders right now. Where else would you like your music to take you?
Wherever it is to be received. Being in the industry for over a decade now there are certain things I’ve learnt and decided to shape my perspective around. One is the humility you need to be able to do what you love and have people receive it. To understand that nothing is owed to anyone. Just be being here to do this interview is me being grateful for that.
From here, when I’m in the studio it’s just about me trying to put what I’m feeling on a record and let it be. So if that’s going to take me to Jupiter then great. If they all want to see me in Germany 12 months of the year then that’s where I’m going to be. I just want to give the music to the world and let the chips fall where they may.