Growing up in rural Jamaica, Agent Sasco AKA Assassin used to lie in bed at night listening to the walls and roof of his home shake from the pressure of the local reggae soundsystem clashes. That pressure is what drew him to the music, and made him want to get on the mic as a dancehall DJ. Decades later, Assassin has become one of the most recognizable Jamaican voices of the past few years: his thundering presence on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 ode to the pain and power of blackness, “The Blacker The Berry,” and on Kanye West’s 2013 dancehall-inflected “I’m In It,” saw him climb the charts and break into mainstream US rap culture.
In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat with Lauren Martin on RBMA Radio, the dancehall veteran talks about the genre’s recent appearance on the US charts, his musical beginnings and artistic evolution.
We didn’t have a radio in our house. But in Jamaica you’ll find you cannot not be close to music, because you’d have your neighbors blaring their radios or, if it’s not the neighbor, it’s the soundsystem down the road. Without owning a radio, I was still getting all the exposure I needed to fall in love with music as early as I did.
I was listening far more intently than any two year old. By the time I’m learning to count a figure by myself, I realized the music is counted in four beats. It was like discovering a new universe. Just imagine loving something and being so awestruck by it and so fascinated by it, and the magic of it, also. You’re seeing this thing as mostly something magical and then you decode a very basic part of it, which is the counts. 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.
There was a soundsystem – it was more like a set. A soundsystem is a big, established thing that has a lot of speakers and a lot of records. Then you have a set, which would be like some guy who owns a couple of records, like a small community thing. There was a set down the road from where I lived in Kintyre. (I hope they don’t hold it against me for calling them a set.)
They would play music on Friday evenings straight to Sunday on the weekend, and sometimes in the middle of the week, too. In my house, a bassline from the soundsystem would rattle the boards and the zinc roof. I always used to lay there and just observe all of those vibrations. It was incredible.
Then it moved from hearing sounds being played and trying to learn some other songs to hearing guys from the community take the microphone. As soon as my mom was doing anything, I’d sneak out and head down wherever that was happening. Of course, it moved from observing to desperately wanting to get the microphone for myself.
Pretty soon, at five years old, the guys were doing them thing and they put the mic down. The mic is there and I just... I think there was a rhythm playing when I took the microphone, and I started to DJ over the beat. Everybody in the yard was so shocked to see this little man staying on beat and everything. But, like I said, I had figured it out by that time, how to start. A lot of guys were getting on the beat on the wrong bar. To them, it was fascinating that I knew exactly the beat to be on.
After that, I earned my right to the microphone and the rotations. I’d be there at five years old getting the microphone from big men going, “Your turn.” Of course, until my mother would hear and come down the road to grab me.
Professor Nuts, Lieutenant Stitchie, Papa San. One of the first artists I really admired, and still do to this day, is Professor Nuts. He’s a great storyteller. The rhymes are always perfect, and he is saying it in a way that is very similar to how you would be telling a story to a friend or to a family member. I really fell in love with the storytelling and the rhyme schemes and just making sure it’s a composition rather than rhymes thrown in together.
As I grew, I started to admire different artists for different things, because at the base of it the art form is what I really admired. So, you might find that you have an artist that’s not necessarily a great lyricist or songwriter, but delivery-wise it’s just amazing.
There’s Shabba Ranks. How can you love dancehall and not be influenced by Shabba? Something I learned from him in particular is how to skip between the different patterns in the rhythm. When Buju [Banton] came out, Buju started to use words that you’d never normally hear. In the early ’80s, a lot of the material was very simple writing-wise. It’s not incredibly deep stuff. But when Buju came out... I used to hear a lot of words that I heard for the first time on Buju records, you know what I mean? The writing was also very, very sharp. There weren’t a lot of clumsy lines thrown in.
When we’re seeing this resurgence of the dancehall feel – do not say tropical house – it’s a good time for us to really assess what we’re doing and really try to make something of it.
That’s Buju Banton / Dave Kelly, because Dave Kelly was very instrumental in all of that and became instrumental further on writing songs for Bounty Killer. There was also the impact that Buju had when he came out, and then on a next level, being able to seamlessly go between reggae and dancehall. That’s another element that I recognize and admired and definitely wanted to pursue. Spragga Benz is also lyrically one of the people who was just a grade above everybody else.
But I think I’m more a fan of the art form than individuals. There are just so many different textures to the art form. Sometimes I compare it to kung fu or karate. You have the drunken master style, the crane style, the tiger style, and you need this certain style to defeat that style. I try to be a master of all the styles, and, of course, that’s still a work in progress.
There are, I guess, some natural barriers there, like the language in terms of hardcore dancehall. I mean, how many suburban kids are going to be able to understand all of what’s going on? There’s always been that, and then here comes Sean Paul with, “Just give me the light and pass the dro. Pass another bottle of moe. Gal dem inna mi sight and I got to know which one is gonna catch my flow. Cause I’m inna di vibe...”
Sean Paul didn’t go recording that song talking about, “Oh, you know what? I think this song can be the crossover to suburban America, so let me do it like this.” No, Sean Paul was recording a song for recording a song’s sake, on a dancehall rhythm, but as it so happens the melody was sweet and there’s enough English in there for people to follow what’s happening. I think it was a combination of things just coming together timing-wise. Of course, we can’t discount the look of Sean Paul. He’s looking like a Latino, singing dancehall.
Why we haven’t seen a repeat of that kind of success? I think there are a lot of things that we need to answer and we need to pay attention to. When I say “we,” I mean the dancehall community locally, because there’s been some dancehall success since then, it’s just not been Jamaicans. Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” is a dancehall record. I’m sorry, but that’s what it is. I think after Sean Paul, in Jamaica we felt like, “Okay, if dancehall is getting this success in America and all over the place, let’s try to make watered down hip-hop.” That’s what happened. We were trying to make crossover records and the biggest mistake, I believe, was we started to not make dancehall.
Sean Paul’s successful tracks, from “Gimme the Light” to “Get Busy” to “Temperature,” all of those were on 100% dancehall juggling riddims. It wasn’t “Sean Paul is getting some buzz in America, let’s try to soften it up.” No, it was the real deal. I think that contributed to our inability to capitalize on that success that we had with Sean Paul and Elephant Man and all of that that was out there in that time.
Right now, here goes Rihanna on a dancehall beat sounding like she’s slurring some words, but the vibe is incredible. Then you have Drake coming on and giving a verse at the end. Don’t make no mistake of it: Rihanna, Justin Bieber, that kind of machine, that kind of access, can get things done.
The truth, and the real question, is: Are we ready to take advantage of opportunities like that? How many of us are preparing ourselves for that kind of thing, to be truly ready for that kind of access? What we can’t afford is for majors to come knocking, for them to say, “Alright, come inside sis, come whoever. Here’s a major label kind of budget, let’s see what you can do,” and then have it not work. That we can’t afford, because that’s going to be like “Alright. See, we tried it. Moving on. Boom.”
[Then we’ll] wait 25 more years before they’re ready to take a chance again. When we’re seeing this resurgence of the dancehall feel – do not say tropical house – it’s a good time for us to really assess what we’re doing and really try to make something of it.
Girls, Guns and Ganja
They say sometimes that you have the three G’s in dancehall, which is girls, guns and ganja, and in the ghettos, so it’s all G, right? There’s that aspect.
But there’s everything that exists in real life – there’s love and hate and anger and frustration, but there’s happiness and joy and inspiration. There’s a full spectrum. I think we have departed from a lot of those other things, and it has been reduced to a core few topics that make it to the popular aspects of the genre. Someone from the outside might feel like that’s all there is. It’s certainly not the case. There’s the full spectrum of emotions going on in there. It’s certainly not just girls, guns, and ganja and dancing. It’s a lot deeper than that. I think what we can also do for the genre is get back to more of those topics and a wider kind of expression.
Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” like I said, is a dancehall song in all its glory, but when you really think about the topic, it’s not one of the three G’s. It’s a girl song, but at the same time, it feels like an R&B kind of topic: “Is it too late to say sorry?” When you really think about it, we can all relate to that.
Kanye, Kendrick and Keeping It Real
Kanye’s production team came to Jamaica, recorded a bunch of stuff for a compilation album. I guess they were going through whatever they recorded and he heard this thing and went, “Yo, I got just the thing for this.” Then he throws it on “I’m in It” as a sample.
I am at the stage where I can appreciate the experimental aspect of music. Without that experimentation, you would have no genres being born. It’s a very important and functional part of music. I fully embrace that. You find that within that there is a certain uniqueness that you couldn’t duplicate. Where else are you going to find that kind of beat and with that flow? Then have me the middle of the record? Like, what is that?
Having someone from the US do the verse for Kendrick, I think wouldn’t be as effective and as profound as it was. It’s now turned into a global message. It’s different people sharing this message from slightly different perspectives and clearly different experiences, but the message is the same. I can’t take the credit for putting that together. We have to give the credit to the producer who reached out knowing, “You know what would be great on this? Some kind of Jamaican vibe.” That kind of foresight, it’s incredible.
Look at Bob Marley, Dennis Brown or Peter Tosh. They were able to communicate to such a wide audience. The first thing is just to be 100% honest on the record. What I find, when I talk to people who are not black or Jamaicans or from the Caribbean that love the music, is that it’s incredible how many similarities there are. There’s that aspect of it where, “I can totally, 100% get what you’re saying. Even though you’re from Jamaica and I’m from Sweden; we can agree on what’s happening on this record. I can share on this kind of vibe and these emotions.”
Then there’s the aspect of, “OK. You’re from Jamaica. I’m here in the UK. Let me learn a little bit about what your experiences are.” As the audience grows, I find that what’s important is that I represent the culture at all times, even if I’m going to do that at different doses. If I’m doing a song with Kendrick, in that chorus I use words that I wouldn’t necessarily use if I was just considering it a dancehall audience track. “Whip” is not a Jamaican word, in the terms of relating to a car. Understanding Kendrick’s audience, I figured, “Okay. If you use that term, [you can] bring it a little closer to that audience.”
It’s interesting to understand different cultures and try your best to communicate with those cultures while still keeping a level of authenticity. If not, then what’s the use?
The Evolution of Assassin
I think at this stage of my life and career, I have a new perspective, where I’m trying to take responsibility for everything, eliminate excuses and fully own my direction and my destiny.
A major step in that direction was this album, The Theory of Reggaetivity, just allowing myself to forget about anything external and do a project based on what I’m feeling musically and creatively, and to do it in a truly free way. Free of a label telling you what you need to do and how to make your creativity commercial; to separate that totally from, “Oh. The girls would like you. You need to take your shirt off and rub some oil on your abs. That should work.”
To find real freedom in doing music from a place where you are totally disconnected from all those external influences is very powerful. I would just like to encourage artists and musicians to pursue what you need to. Trust that there are people just like yourself who will care and appreciate it.
This album has been so much of a blessing. It allowed me to do what I really wanted to do. Enough people appreciate that. It’s incredible. It only serves to motivate you and inspire you. It’s very important. Respec’.