Coast-to-coast, nearly 25 million viewers nationwide tuned into the 58th annual Grammy Awards show and caught a provocative performance by one of hip-hop’s most accomplished young stars. Kendrick Lamar stunned the audience at the Staple Center by taking to the stage in prison garb for a three-song show that drew heavily on the modern black experience. The performance incorporated live jazz instrumentals, theatrics and Kendrick’s passionate delivery in what might be this generation’s most important piece of black art. It spoke unapologetically to millions about the thin line between historical slavery and the modern prison system.
If you listened closely, a chorus of thick patois could be heard booming out during the live rendition of the hit song, “The Blacker The Berry.” The voice belongs to dancehall sensation Assassin a.k.a. Agent Sasco. He sings, “they put we inna chains, cah’ we black. Imagine now, big gold chains full of rocks. How you no see the whip left scars pon’ me back? But now we have a big whip parked pon’ the block.”
Born Jeffrey Campbell, Assassin is an accomplished artist in his own right with a career that spans more than 15 years and includes over 300 dancehall singles. He more recently garnered international recognition for his collaborative work with both Kendrick and Kanye West, but his forthcoming album brings something completely different to the table—roots reggae.
The Theory of Reggaetivity is set to release on February 19th and is his first studio album in almost a decade. The project is a distinct departure from his dancehall-driven albums like Infiltration (2005) and Gully Sit’n (2007), but promises to be his most thoughtful release to date. FRANK151 had an opportunity to talk with Assassin over the phone and we discussed the upcoming album and his recent hip-hop crossovers. You can read what he has to say below. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
10 Questions with Assassin a.k.a. Agent Sasco
Let’s start by talking about your roots and backstory. How did your path to the music industry come about?
My relationship with music began way before I became a part of the industry. I was a child of music at a very early age like by three-and-a-half, four-years-old I was already putting words together to make my own songs and it has just been a part of my life ever since then. In the latter part of high school one of my schoolmate’s uncle was a big dancehall superstar and also one of my favorite artists at the time, by the name of Spragga Benz, and through that schoolmate I ended up giving a song to his uncle. And through that I met Spragga and since then it has been a natural segue into the business side of music. But music has always been a part of my life.
Aside from Spragga, who were some of your biggest musical influences growing up and who do you draw inspiration from today?
I was born in the ‘80s so back at that time it was Professor Nuts and Papa San and Screechy and those guys. And as I grew then Shabba Ranks came out and that was an influence. Buju Banton, Bounty Killer, Spragga Benz, but outside of those people who were dominant on the scene the music itself has always been my inspiration. I have always had a passion and fascination with the art form. But as I grew and was exposed to so many other genres, Michael Jackson was a huge influence and then you start to get exposed to rap and hip-hop and so many other things, country music, everything. One of my favorite artists of all time is actually Stevie Wonder. Now in terms of inspiration currently it is just music in general, life and letting the creative process be a free process. You do what you feel you ought to be doing rather than worrying about external things.
Many of your current fans associate you with the dancehall sound, but your forthcoming album “Theory of Reggaetivity” is a departure from that. What inspired you to try your hand in roots reggae?
I wouldn’t call it trying my hand at all because [reggae] has been a part of my formation it just hasn’t been the main offering so to speak. But I’ve done reggae songs before. I grew up doing everything Jamaican as it relates to music so reggae and dancehall are a part of that it’s just that I’ve been focusing on dancehall for quite awhile. Reggae is certainly not foreign. And doing a full reggae album was me making sure that I gave [reggae] it’s own space rather than putting a couple reggae songs on a dancehall album. In order to do it the way I wanted to do it there needs to be space. It is a project I have wanted to do for some time now and maybe it’s personal maturity, but I have been wanting to do more reggae for a while.
As a Jamaican artist how significant is it to you that reggae represents the country globally?
It is incredible. We have a culture and genre that the world cares about and we get to do this music that I love, but also means enough to people around the world that it is more than just a hobby. I consider that to be a real blessing and not something to be taken for granted so it’s fantastic and my main goal as an artist doing reggae and dancehall music is to add to that: to add to the development of the art form and to help the music to continue to grow and to contribute to it in positive ways.
When you decided to put together a reggae project how did you go about picking producers and the riddims you wanted to work with?
The groove is important. The overall groove of the beat will determine what the mood will be so I try to let the riddim be a soundtrack for whatever I am going to say. I look for a certain vibe. When you hear it, you hear it.
Did you approach the lyrical content and songwriting differently than on your previous dancehall projects?
To some extent, because dancehall can be a little bit more frivolous than reggae. Reggae, I think, is a little more true to life and has more substance to it. That being said, I have always maintained a certain level of substance in my dancehall work and included a lot of social commentary just the same, but there is a slight difference in terms of reggae, I guess, being the “mature brother” of dancehall in a way. So content-wise it is a little bit more substantial.
With social commentary being an important part of reggae music was there anything in particular you specifically wanted to talk about on the album?
I explored on this album, as the name suggests, the “Theory of Reggaetivity” so I am asking, “What is Reggae Music?” Starting right there, what is it? What does it sound like? What are the distinguishing characteristics? How did it get here? So in the title track, which is the intro, I explore a little bit of that. In the following song, “Reggae Origin” I explored what it might have been like when reggae was being born. What are the circumstances around its birth? What was that morning like? When did it change from whatever the guys were playing and started to become reggae? It had to start somewhere. There is that kind of discussion on the album and then throughout the songs I tried to make sure that I represented what I consider to be the different forms of reggae. There is a ska track on there, which features Chronixx. There is a more “tuff gong” Bob Marley-ish kind of vibe on a song called “Stronger” and that song was recorded at Tuff Gong by the way. It has that same vibe and that same soul. Then you have what we would call the more modern reggae where the groove is a little bit different. So we really tried to represent the different textures of reggae on the album and also why reggae is reggae and what makes it.
You mentioned your extensive background in both reggae and dancehall. How important it is for artists to be versatile in Jamaica’s music market?
It is broader than the Jamaican space. If you can satisfy or cater to different audiences then you have a much greater platform to work from and so it is great to be able to have the best of both worlds, to know the two dominant art forms in Jamaica. And even outside of that, to bring reggae and dancehall to hip-hop tracks represents my art form, but at the same time makes it palatable for whatever audience it is that you are trying to reach across. Being featured on the Kendrick Lamar “Blacker the Berry” track and doing work with Kanye and Kendrick performing that song at the Grammy’s with that chorus coming across the speakers really underlines representing an art form in a way that is still authentic, but at the same time can be received by people who might be less familiar with it.
Speaking of Kendrick’s performance at the Grammy’s and your past work with Kanye, can you talk a bit about your broader relationship with hip-hop? Is it something you listened to growing up and do you have plans for cross-genre collaborations in the future?
Definitely. Hip-hop has been a major influence on me. A lot of the music that I have bought over the last ten, fifteen years has been a lot of hip-hop and R&B stuff. We get cable TV so MTV, BET, VH1—we get everything we need and of course whatever song is the #1 song at any given time is very popular here. We get that exposure and influence. The journey of hip-hop I believe and the texture of it, what the genre represents in terms of being the story of a frustrated demographic is very similar to dancehall. There is a natural synergy there. So outside of Kendrick and Kanye I have done work with my bredren Kardinal Offishall, Raekwon, and I have been doing some work with Royce da 5’9” who is a part of Eminem’s camp. And Eminem for quite awhile has been one of my favorite hip-hop artists. Kendrick, J. Cole, Drake and all these guys, the influence is definitely there. It is just as significant here as it is in the States.
To close out, I know you have a big presence on Instagram. How has social media helped you grow as an artist and relate to your fanbase?
I think social media allows people to have a keener idea of who I really am as a person rather than having to put bits and pieces together and then form an impression on that, which is invariably harder to be accurate with. I find that social media, like for example my Instagram, is a small window into who I am as a person. People can understand where you are coming from, get better sense of who you are and by such they can get a better sense of the work that you are doing and why you do your work a certain kind of way. It kind of answers a lot of questions and people just have a keener sense of who you are.