NPR logo Assassin: Rap's Best Kept Secret Weapon

Music Articles

Assassin: Rap's Best Kept Secret Weapon

Assassin poses New York in 2006. i

Assassin poses New York in 2006. Kristy Leibowitz/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Kristy Leibowitz/Getty Images
Assassin poses New York in 2006.

Assassin poses New York in 2006.

Kristy Leibowitz/Getty Images

He's your favorite rapper's favorite dancehall artist. But chances are you've never heard his name. That's because Assassin aka Agent Sasco — his secret-agent alter-ego — has basically gone undercover for his two biggest records. On Kendrick Lamar's latest single, the lyrical tour-de-force "The Blacker The Berry," Assassin supplies an eight-bar hook that repeats twice in the song.

"I said they treat me like a slave, cause me black / Whoi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cause we black / And man ah say they put me inna chains, cause we black / Imagine now, big gold chains full of rocks ..."

YouTube

But for reasons known only to Lamar's label, Top Dawg Entertainment, Assassin's name does not appear on the Soundcloud, iTunes or the official YouTube post for the song. For fans of Jamaican dancehall, there's no mistaking the raucous roaring voice that's been heard dominating tracks since he first broke out in 2002 with the hit song "Ruffest and Tuffest."

But for the rest of the world, including the name would be helpful.

That same voice can be heard cutting through Kanye West's 2013 masterpiece Yeezus like a chainsaw — once again without credit. Midway through track No. 6, a steamy sex tune called "I'm In It," Assassin pops up with a barrage of Jamaican bad-man patois, chatting about spraying up the block like an aerosol can.

But you won't find the name Assassin anywhere on the Yeezus track listing. You have to read deeper into the liner notes and know that Assassin's government name is Jeffrey Ethan Campbell to figure out that he got songwriting credit for his contribution to the track.

The Jamaican artist's gangsta verse isn't exactly on topic in the middle of a sex scene. But there's no denying it just feels right. The raw aggression of dancehall vocalists like Assassin was a perfect match with the harsh aesthetic of Yeezus. Kanye's dancehall obsession showed itself again onstage at the Brit Awards in February, during which he brought giant flaming torches onstage in a facsimile of a Jamaican dancehall fire salute, the next best thing to a "legal" gun salute when showing appreciation for a big tune in the dance.

There's something just a little bit more menacing about the dancehall sound, like when KRS-ONE flipped into his Jamaican accent on his ultimate battle record "The Bridge Is Over." Call it weaponized wordplay. When it's time to get down and dirty, Yeezy knows yard style is hard style. That's why he sent two of his best engineers down to Gee Jam Studio in Port Antonio, Jamaica, and had them voice a few "Jamaican dudes" to see what they could come back with. Assassin was not the only artist invited to spit over Kanye-selected tracks, but his verse was the only one that made the cut. (Elsewhere on Yeezus, Kanye used samples of existing songs by Beenie Man, Capleton and Popcaan.)

"I remember when I was recording one of the verses for the Kanye project," says Assassin when we got on the phone last month. "There were two guys from his production team in the studio, in Gee Jam. And I remember when I said a line, the two of them kinda looked at each other like 'Whoooo' — you know, like rappers do, and that whole kinda thing. I think the line was 'Come in like benchwarmers / Cause we don't play.' And they looked at each other like 'He killed that.' To have a Jamaican dancehall/bar-dropping lyrical assassin thing going on. I'm excited about that. It would be cool to pursue that a little further."

If Assassin is unhappy that his big looks have been very much on the DL, he's doing a good job of concealing his disappointment. Maybe that's because these collabs are a very big deal back home in Jamaica. Assassin — who has never performed with Kanye or Kendrick — refuses to carry bad feelings about the lack of props he's received. "I'm wearing a new attitude and it's called gratitude," he says, pointing out that Kendrick Lamar's album credits have not yet been finalized. "Right now I'm just being grateful for the opportunity to be on the record, and I'm being grateful for this opportunity to represent my craft. I'm sure if I continue to do that the way I am doing, and if I can improve on that, then being credited will sort itself out, it will take care of itself. It's all a matter of leverage, so right now we want to increase our leverage. And we want to just stay working."

When Assassin speaks about leverage, he's talking about power and money and fame and all those showbiz forces that come into play when you're recording with two of the biggest rappers in what has become a multimillion-dollar game. It wasn't always this way. The reggae-rap collab is a time-honored tradition, starting when rap was a humble upstart ghetto music just like reggae. From Run D.M.C and Yellow Man to Super Cat and Biggie Smalls to Damian Marley and Nas, rappers and reggae artists have been joining forces over the years to show mutual respect and perhaps add some creative spice to each other's musical recipe. When it works well it's the best of both worlds — two great lyrical traditions strengthening each another and pushing the envelope creatively. But like anything else it can be overdone and feel forced, cliched, or slapped together.

Assassin's all-time favorite reggae-rap collab was the Bounty Killer's 1996 "Ghetto Hip-Hopera" featuring The Fugees. They shot the video in an opera house. He can still sing all the words. "That was crazy," he recalls. "If I had to pick one that would be it. Straight up."

YouTube

Of course that record was made for Bounty Killer's album on TVT Records, which proudly advertised the fact that they had some of the biggest rap artists of the day on their single. That's not how it happened with Kanye or Kendrick.

"Well, here's the thing," says Assassin. "Both of these tracks came out of a process based off merit. So it would be one thing to say 'Kanye was calling down the place trying to find Assassin,' but it didn't happen like that. His team came to Jamaica wanting to record some stuff to take back to him, and out of all the recordings, he decided to put this verse on his record. Now what that says to me is that he was impressed with what he heard. And that's not surprising to me based off the reactions of the guys that were in the studio recording. So it's purely merit-based what was put down on the track."

The Kendrick feature went pretty much the same way. The Canadian dancehall-rap artist Kardinal Offishall, a mutual friend of producer Boi-1da and Assassin, put the two together when the producer was looking for some "Jamaican flavor" on the track. "A few days after I sent the files back," Assassin recalls, "Kardinal hit me up to say 'Man, Boi-1da said Kendrick heard the track and he loved it.' And then of course the ultimate show of that appreciation is by putting out the record. That says to me that I'm moving in the right direction. And it says to me that they're listening and they're liking what they're hearing."

Assassin has another hip-hop feature in the works, but he can't talk much about it right now. "I'm excited about this track," he says. "If it gets to come out. I hope we can get everything done and get it released. I think it's gonna be massive. I'm just looking forward to having all of that come together. But I prefer the route of having the music come out and letting it do the talking."

In other words, actions speak louder.


Rob Kenner is the founder of Boomshots.com and Editor At Large for Mass Appeal.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.