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Interview: Assassin

Interview: Assassin

Interview: Assassin

By on - Photos by Franck Blanquin - Comment

"Music is all inclusive"

Sampler

In Jamaica, some are born with music and some have music thrust upon them. Both situations could describe Jeffrey Campbell, AKA Assassin or Agent Sasco, who picked up the mic when most children start school.

Encouraged in his teens by elders like Spragga Benz and Buju Banton, the grainy voiced lyricist has grown into one of his generation’s more respected dancehall deejays. He’s also become the go-to collaborator for America’s biggest rappers – guesting on songs by Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar.

In February 2016 Assassin put out his third album, and the first to feature reggae rhythms, Theory of Reggaetivity. Not just a change of direction, it represents a new era for Assassin as an independent artist, following his own creative compass.

Angus Taylor spoke with this soft spoken college graduate and family man on the phone in Jamaica. He was just preparing to visit England for the More Life concert at Brixton Academy, alongside Tarrus Riley, Spice, Mighty Crown and Metro Media on 30th April. Here is what he had to say…

Assassin

How did it feel to finally get your Theory of Reggaetivity album out in February?

Oh man, it’s amazing. I last released [an album] almost a decade ago so it’s a good vibe to have another project out. Especially it being the kind of project that it has been, in terms of getting into the studio with musicians and banging out some tracks that we really feel from core. It’s not about a commercial attempt – it’s just a real sincere project.

Why the long gap between this and your last album, 2007’s Gully Sit’n?

Well my last record came out when I was with VP Records so I had a lot of obligations with them and I took some time to get that situation unravelled and sorted out. So finally, after getting off the label it took another few years to figure some things out personally and professionally. I got a lot clearer in terms of musically which direction I wanted to go in and what I would like my next project / projects to be like. That’s how we ended up with Theory of Reggaetivity, what I consider the first in a series of projects I’m going to be releasing.

I fell in love with reggae and dancehall as a toddler

Why was the first instalment in this series a reggae rather than a dancehall album?

I have always been heavily influenced by reggae and dancehall music. It just happens that dancehall has been the way I have been expressing myself for most of my life but reggae was still a part of that expression. So this time I felt like reggae would be how I feel to express myself right now and who knows if you’re going to be seeing a lot more of that in the future?

Spragga Benz mentored you in the business early on and took you to Donovan Germain at Penthouse. Buju produced your first 45. Who were the reggae artists that influenced you growing up?

I fell in love with reggae and dancehall pretty much as a toddler so that would have been mid-80s. So from that time it was people like Papa San and Lieutenant Stitchie and then as I grew the music grew with me. People like Dennis Brown, Barrington Levy and Half Pint – all the music that was playing in the mid to late 80s would have influenced me. Of course Bob Marley is a part of that conversation as well. Then you move up to teenage and people like Buju and Shabba, Spragga Benz and Bounty Killa, so many difference influences. But over time what I found was that the music itself, as an artform, is my main motivation/influence. I have a sincere love and appreciation and respect for the artform of reggae/dancehall.

What are the challenges and what are the rewards of putting out an album independently without a big distributor behind you?

The challenge is, of course, that I am the one doing the legwork in terms of the financial support for the album when my pockets aren’t as deep as the labels! (laughs) So it has that impact. Then there are the challenges that come along with that. A label has certain channels and certain relationships they are able to leverage.

But at the same time one of the most important things when doing this project is the creative freedom and so many other freedoms that come along with doing something exactly as you want to and how you want to. For me as an artist and where my mind is at this time, it was really liberating to do a project where you didn’t have to get approval from an A&R who is thinking “Maybe you want to sing some more songs for the XY or Z” or “Maybe you should do this because this demographic really likes you” and “Why you want to do a reggae album when people know you as a dancehall artist?” I didn’t have to answer to any of those questions and that was key in getting this album done.

The music itself, as an artform, is my main motivation

You chose to work with a variety of different producers on this album. How did you choose those particular rhythms?

Just the vibe. Over time I got clearer in terms of what I wanted the album to sound like and in the midst of recording it I started to fine-tune that sound. When I heard the Feel Highrie track done by Protoje and Drumkeys I realised “I like this texture so I want a couple more things to feel like this on the album”. Then of course, The Mix Up has always been there as a song I did from 2013 but the type of response I’ve gotten from the song and just how I felt recording it, I knew I wanted that kind of vibe to be represented on the album. So it’s a combination of what I was feeling and how things started to shape up once we got to recording.

The variety of rhythms on the album really demonstrates the broadness of reggae. You have a traditional classic lick over like Shaun Pizzonia’s Heaven Bless rhythm for the Mix Up and then you have the productions of Majah Label who really push the boundaries…

When we figured out the title for the album and the approach for the team in the Theory of Reggaetivity in terms of covering the full spectrum of the music – we also wanted to make sure that the different textures of reggae were represented.

So you have ska, which would represent one of the founding sounds of the music – the transition from ska to rocksteady to reggae – and ska is represented on the track [Slave No More] featuring Chronixx. And then we have, the Heaven Bless which is [when reggae was] also shifting gears to give birth to dancehall and that kind of vibe is represented in that rhythm. Then you have the more traditional reggae in the song Stronger – which by the way we did a video for yesterday – and it really feels like one of those Bob Marley, the Wailers and the I Threes kind of vibes. As a matter of fact that rhythm and song were recorded at Tuff Gong, so on another level you’re feeling that Gong mode on that track.

Then you have a song like Crazy which would sound the least “reggae” but when you really examine it, it is representing that aspect of reggae that has been the influence behind so many pop songs. The blending of genres and the blending of cultures. That song was recorded with Alesia Iimura from Australia which is the next side of the world and it really represents the global appeal of the music.

Now we are able to blend genres and find new genres. They start to talk about Tropical House and all these things - I guess controversially so! (laughs) I think this song also represents that aspect of reggae where it gave birth to genres. There is reggaeton, and one could even argue that hip hop finds its DNA in reggae and dancehall. So, yeah I think we really covered the full dimension of the music – or a full share of it, let’s put it that way, in terms of the textures of the rhythms.

You must have had a huge choice of songs and of course, some didn’t make the cut. Two big reggae songs you put out around the time the track-list was being finalised were Rebellious Nature and your collab with Romain Virgo, Fade Away.

Yeah, Fade Away came into consideration, indeed, but that was for Romain’s EP. So we said “Let’s leave that song as it is”. I didn’t want to get greedy and so I said “That’s fine, let it remain exclusive to his project”. Then, Rebellious Nature, I didn’t want to have too many songs already released on the album. I didn’t want it to feel like just another compilation of songs.

So after putting The Mix Up on there and Country Bus we said “Bwoy to put another one on there…” Even the song Day In Day Out, although it has never been released, it was a song a lot of my fans would be familiar with because it was being played on the radio in Jamaica and I did an acoustic performance on a programme and it was on YouTube, so I still felt like that was another release. So to have one more just would have felt like too much – and that’s why any other pre-released track didn’t make the cut.

Let’s talk about your early career. You started jumping on rhythms in your community of Kintyre St Andrew at the age of five…

Yeah man, growing up in Kintyre I was going down to this yard where they used to have a little sound – well I wouldn’t even say a sound system, it would quality as a set. Young men in the community would be deejaying and big men too! I was the youngest one to set foot near the sound, and to make it worse I was deejaying alongside the men. That’s where it started from.

You must have taken music pretty seriously at a young age to know how to do it in a way that some older people couldn’t…

My love for the music has always been very sincere and in depth and 100%. I figured out that the music is counted in fours – one two three four. I figured that out on my own. So when I would go down to the yard and deejay with the big men I noticed some of them would jump on the third bar and the fifth bar. I really couldn’t understand how they never figured that out that after you count then you start. Some of the rhythms are designed with some kind of mark around the fourth bar so that you could hear a drum roll or something – and I just couldn’t believe that those men never figured that out. The thing is I was just paying keen attention to some details that maybe somebody who casually loved it just wouldn’t pick up.

Where do you think that seriousness about music comes from – in terms of your family lineage?

AssassinWell, my father and grandfather were in the military but at four and five I’m not sure whether I would have been influenced by that consciously. Maybe we can go into a different argument about what exactly is passed down between generations but I think all I can really chalk it up to right now is when you fall in love with something so young it’s a very innocent and sincere situation. Because, clearly, at that time I wouldn’t understand how these things would be my career eventually and how there was money to be made or not to be made or there was fame. None of that was a part of me falling in love with music. It was just the music itself so that means it was innocent and sincere and true.

I discovered later on that I used to see big sound system looking boxes at my father’s house and he used to have a collection of LPs. He had this cabinet with loads of LPs and two giant boxes. But I guess by the time I was old enough, I never saw him actually play the music. So I never made the connection “Hey, this man love music too”. Outside of that I can’t say that I am from a musical family so to speak.

One of the common criticisms of today’s generation of dancehall artists is that they can’t replicate what they do on record, live on stage. You seem to carry that same sincerity and seriousness into trying to get your live performances just right…

Performing is one of the most powerful aspects of being an artist because it’s the part that is most direct. You’re doing music for people. On a record you are in a studio singing through a microphone and it’s recorded and then people get to experience it through their different mediums - on the radio, CDs, mp3s, whatever. But when you’re on stage it’s you and the people one on one, face to face – you don’t get more direct than that. Also, there is less chance of it being perverted by so many of the not so great aspects of music – from payola to politics to, like I mentioned earlier, leverage of the record company. On stage it’s just you and the people. I really love that. It’s so pure. I take it very seriously to be one on one communicating with the people.

That being said, I have an approach to life in general but also to my music which is continual improvement. Because nobody was born on a stage. Every great performer has to learn somehow how to perform great. So I try to learn from everyone – from great performers to not so great ones in terms of what to do and what not to do. I’m always considering myself a student of the music so I’m always trying to grow and learn a little bit more in order to communicate better with the audience. Because that’s all a performance is – communication to the people. I just want to learn how best to communicate with different audiences. It’s an ongoing process.

On stage it’s just you and the people

You’re going to be on the Welcome To Jamrock Cruise this year. One of the advantages that event has is that it allows reggae and dancehall artists to perform without the need for visas. However, you don’t seem to have any problems travelling around yourself!

(laughs) Well knock on wood! So far I have managed to stay clear of anything that would render me ineligible and I definitely hope to keep it that way!

In February of this year, as well as releasing your album, you also finally got to meet Kendrick Lamar in Jamaica after he had performed your collaboration The Blacker The Berry at the Grammys.

I met Kendrick in Kingston a couple of weeks after the Grammys. I congratulated him and I also thanked him for performing the track and giving our artform that space. It was cool and great to be included in that whole vibe and performance. He was like “Yeah, nice to meet you finally!” It was his first time in JA so I told him to make sure he got some ackee and saltfish and some proper jerk chicken! (laughs)

I told Kendrick Lamar to make sure he got some ackee and saltfish and some proper jerk chicken!

You’re coming to England this weekend to perform at the More Life concert in Brixton with Tarrus, Spice, Metro Media and Mighty Crown. Do you have good memories of England? You performed there with Buju for example…

Yeah, I’ve been coming to the UK over the years and had wonderful experiences. I first went there with Spragga and Redsquare, learning so much and experiencing London for the first time. Then subsequently coming alongside Buju, that’s right, and even a couple of concerts on my own. Last time I did a writers camp with BMI at Abbey Road studios and then shortly afterwards I was at a Red Bull concert at Notting Hill Carnival alongside Kranium. I’ve had many different experiences of London. I’ve also been on the Smirnoff Nightlife Exchange which was an incredible vibe – the different sides of London I would say! So this time it’s going to be alongside Tarrus Riley and Spice and Metro Media and Mighty Crown so it’s sound system/reggae/dancehall. It’s the full coverage and I’m excited about it.

Another connection to England you have is that you did your business degree by correspondence with the University of Sunderland. Have you ever been to Sunderland?

Yes so I have experience of that side of the UK. But I’ve never been to Sunderland, no!

You mentioned the More Life show has reggae and dancehall, singers and deejays, live show and sound system, Jamaican, UK and Japanese performers. Like your album it shows the broadness of this music.

Oh it certainly does man. We could talk for days and find so many ways to substantiate that. Like Bob Marley – album of the century. Just what Bob Marley was able to do. Bob Marley is like the poster child of reggae and it’s an easy example, but come on, you have so many others who have represented this music and continue to represent this music. All over the world you can see the influence of this music in so many places. Personally, we just spoke about Kendrick Lamar The Blacker The Berry at the Grammys the other day. The examples are numerous and what I challenge myself to do and challenge my community to do as well is to make sure we are continuing to do things to help the music to develop and move in the right direction.

We need to do a lot more work in terms of how we document our music

You also mentioned the controversy over Rihanna’s dancehall influences being called “Tropical House”. Do you think dancehall doesn’t get its due abroad? And is reggae now moving away from Jamaica to foreign places as some pundits fear?

What I think of that debate is we here in Jamaica need to do a lot more work in terms of how we document our history of our music, how we represent and acknowledge the people who have gone before us, and challenge ourselves to really operate in a first world kind of way. When we have answered all the questions of ourselves then we can get into the conversation of what kind of justice or injustice we think is being meted out.

We have done a less than perfect job in terms of representing our music and developing our music, developing our industry and developing our talents and developing the level of management coming out of Jamaica. There are so many things that we can work on and I really feel like once we work on those things and get those things correct then it is automatic that we will get to whatever level we need to get to and have access to the opportunities that we need to have access to. We have a lot of work to do and that’s just the truth.

Assassin

In his interview with Winford Williams, Protoje talked about the need to engage with new markets rather than being critical of them. Isn’t this exactly what you have been doing with your collaborations with Kanye and Kendrick in the last few years?

But of course! I mean, what kind of music can you have or growth can you expect if you want the music you do to have appeal outside your marketplace but not to artists in those marketplaces? That’s just a culture of fear and doubt. That’s not a forward way of thinking. Music is all inclusive, man. Just as I want people all over the world to love and appreciate the artform then it’s also free for those same people to want to do it as well. Just as artists in Jamaica are free to do whatever music calls to their hearts then so it shall be for everyone else. I don’t share that view that the music should be reserved for any set of people to do or to appreciate.

Finally, the show you are appearing at is called More Life. What does More Life mean to you?

(pauses) That’s very interesting. It’s a good question. I never really thought until just now. Life is the ultimate man. It’s the ultimate gift and of course there is the inevitable other side of life. So what “more life” means to me is more appreciation for what is, so just give thanks and go through more life, more prosperity, more positivity, more music, more fun, more happiness. In the context of the show More Life means more enjoyment, let’s go out and have fun and enjoy life as it is now.

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