First Kardinal, Then Kanye and Kendrick—Assassin Is the Go-To DJ for Dancehall Features.
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: Kanye West’s “I’m In It” off the Yeezus album, and Kendrick Lamar‘s latest single, the lyrical tour-de-force “The Blacker The Berry,” Although Assassin was not properly credited for either feature, word gets around and the DJ is very much in demand. Boomshots caught up with him by telephone to hold a reasoning, and wrote a piece for NPR about it. The full transcript is right here. Interview After The Jump…
ASSASSIN speaks on KENDRICK LAMAR “Blacker The Berry”
How long ago did you make that record?
I recorded the chorus and the verse about June of last year, so it was a considerable time ago. The truth of the matter is that until it comes out there’s not much to speak of so I prefer to do it that way.
With Kanye, you were pretty much just working off of the riddim, and you didn’t have any idea what else was going to be on the record. Do you know this producer a little better?
No, well I know of him, but I still haven’t spoken to Boi Wonda. The communication was done through Kardinal Offishall. I understand Boi Wonda has been reaching out to him saying he wanted a Jamaican voice for the record. And Kardinal suggested that Sasco definitely killed something like this so you should send it to him.
And so I got the track and they sent a demo pretty much with a feel for what the subject matter would be about. So I was able to write to that. This time I wasn’t flying blind but I didn’t hear Kendrick’s lyrics or anything. I was working with what they gave me.
So what did they say the topic of the song was?
Like I said I got the demo. It wasn’t Kendrick on the demo—I don’t know who was on the demo—but based on the demo I wrote my chorus. The subject matter was apparent from the demo that I got.
Initially I was supposed to do the chorus that was on the demo, but it just didn’t fit in terms of. It more served like a hip-hop or a rap perspective. And if there’s one thing I’m gonna do on a record, I’ll try things but I need to be me. If it doesn’t feel like me then I can’t do it. So I had to go over the chorus and just put me in it. And so I had to rewrite it. And I did a verse as well. That verse was kind of like just pushing it like, Why not?
People come to you for a reason.
Why do you think people are coming to you? These are some of the biggest rappers in the world.
Man, it’s a blessing and I really just—I’m very grateful for these opportunities. And at the same time I realize how important it has been that I stay ready. I stay working on my craft and pursuing continuous improvement and just trying to always get better and review the process, what I can do better to be more acceptable. To get these opportunities and be able to nail them. So far you can call it two of two, so that’s not a bad strike rate. Cause people love what I did with the Kanye record, and the response to this “Blacker the Berry” thing has been incredible.
To me that’s the important thing, to stay ready and make sure that when these opportunities come and when you go in the booth you put something down that people would want to mess with. It’s encouragement of course. It’s the ultimate encouragement to continue to work hard and even work harder.
When you go in the booth to put down some bars for a Kanye project are you DJing differently than when you’re working on a Kendrick record or even a Jamaican dancehall record? Do you think about what your vocals will be used for?
All right, here’s what I consider whenever I’m recording, for whatever the project is. It coulda be Kanye, Kendrick or Kardinall Offishall—there’s something with me and these K’s. [Laughs] But anyway—I did some work also with Jerry Wonder, for a Raekwon and Melanie Fiona track. But whatever it is, I try to let the music dictate where things go, first and foremost. So if I’m given no direction, if somebody just create a track I try to let the music determine what happens. If there is some direction, like“Yo, I need something, Sasco gimme something gangsta,” then I try to get in that zone to do that. But what I can tell you different about just going in the booth and recording for a straight-up dancehall track versus doing something let’s say for a Kendrick or a Kanye. I immediately think about what their audience is, and the fact that their audience might not necessarily be keen on dancehall. Some people might be familiar with it but not to any great extent. And then there are some who might be totally just oblivious to dancehall.
And I have to bear in mind that, OK whatever I’m going to do has to strike that balance of being dancehall but at the same time being palatable to people who might be new to the genre. Especially with the strong dialect and things like that. So there’s a balance to be struck in terms of: I don’t want to be rappin’, but at the same time I want to be understood. So I try to strike a balance. And of course I have not perfected the technique. As I say I really believe in continuous improvement. So there’s a lot more work to be done. And I’m excited about getting more opportunities to fine-tune that.
Both Kanye and Kendrick are not just popular but also very high quality artists, with loads of awards and critical respect.
Listen, I have the ultimate kind of respect for these guys. I love music first. So the sincere love and respect I have for music, it’s automatic that I respect these two dudes at a certain level. It’s just incredible… I don’t know how to say it, but it’s just incredible to get these opportunities. Cause I buy these guys’ records. And I’m listening from the perspective of trying to learn how to bridge that gap between dancehall and what their audience is.
I realize that dancehall has never had, to me, the kind of lyrical representation. Like in hip-hop they say “boy he’s really dropping bars.” We haven’t had that sort of representation. And I really think it’s an opportunity to pursue that and to represent that. I remember when I was recording one of the verses for the Kanye project and there was two guys from his production team in the studio, in Gee Jam. And I remember like 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 “Turn badman / Thugs den a move / Come in like benchwarmers / Cause we don’t play.”
And they looked at each other like.
So that kinda wordplay and whatever… 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.
Looks like you have that going on already. You’re standing next to some giants of the rap game right now. Do these features say anything about the listening habits of Kanye and Kendrick?
Well, here’s the thing. Both of these tracks came out of I would say 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. What it was, it was 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.
Same thing with the Kendrick thing, when I sent it back, a few days after I sent the files back, 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. Cause if I’m on a record and I don’t like the chorus on it I’m not gonna put it out. So the ultimate stamp of approval then is putting the track out. And it says to me that I’m moving in the right direction. And it says to me that I think they’re listening and they’re liking what they’re hearing. And that’s great.
Were you expecting to see yourself credited more prominently for the feature? When we put it on Boomshots we wrote “Kendrick featuring Assassin.” because that’s only right. Are those conversations that come up ahead of time? How does that happen?
At this point, so far—and I’ve explained how these records come together—there was no prior discussion of things like that. Now things are not yet 100% ironed out in terms of what makes it to the album and what the credits will say then.
At the same time I’m wearing a new attitude and it’s called gratitude. I understand that these opportunities will take care of that credit situation moving forward. I’m sure that whatever opportunities come from here on, we’ll have the discussions and that situation will sort itself out. So 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.
Well doing these hot features is only gonna increase your leverage. Will there be a music video?
All of these things. There are a lot of plans. This is just a really great opportunity. It already is. Like I said, it’s a great look. From then on, whatever else comes along, and whatever else develops out of the situation, I am just happy with it. And once again I am happy to be able to represent my music and to represent my craft and to have people listen and take notice. That’s just so exciting to me, it’s impossible for me to see anything else. Like I said, it’s just so important to stay ready and to stay in the sort of creative space that will allow me to continue to go in the booth and do things that will have people appreciating it and just love it and wanting to do more.
What did you think of what Kendrick did on the record when you finally got to hear it?
WHOOOO. MAAAAN. To use some hip-hop jargon, “Man he went IN!” [Laughs] Nah, he bodied it. So here’s the thing, what’s powerful about the record—and I keep using the word “Powerful” to describe it—is that you have songs, you have tunes, you have tracks, you have this and that, and you have works of art. And I think this is really one of the pieces that just demonstrate how powerful the art form is. The fusion of all the different perspectives. As somebody said to me, Kendrick is kinda speaking from the African-American perspective and then when the chorus comes in it kinda broadens it. What he did on that record, and the type of discussion he’s having and how timely that is, especially for America what has been happening over the last year to two years. And the way he handles the discussion, in terms of it’s not just a single perspective—just incredibly done. That’s just lyrical mastery.
And you hold up your end of it too. I have to say. Just the wit and the way you use certain wordplay.
After going to Jamaica and listening to the song maybe for two days I start to really appreciate the wordplay in the chorus and what’s going on in there. I’m just happy to be able to represent my craft in that sorta way. And I’m just terribly excited at what happens when I just get in the studio with these producers and these artists. I can just imagine what a writing session would be like if I’m in the studio sitting across from Kendrick or a Kanye or Drake or J Cole or whatever. I’m really just looking forward to those kinda experiences. The massive would be interested to know that I’ve never written a song like that. I don’t do the pen-to-paper writing. For me it’s more of a discussion. And so I would just really love to be in the studio to create with these guys.
That’s only right for all you artists to be together mixing it up. You mentioned you also did a song with Kardinal?
He came to Jamaica at one point and we went to the studio together working on different things. That track has not been released. Before that he sent me a “Pretty Paper” song—Raekwon was on that too, and I put a verse on that. And we cool so we stay workin’ and we have interesting things in the pipeline. As a matter of fact we have an idea for a song featuring Bunji Garlin as well. Explore what that might be— dancehall meets soca meets the dancehall hip-hop that Kardi’s doing.
Yes I have another hip-hop feature, pretty much, if it gets to come out. I’m excited about this track. 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. I’ll just say that I am a student of the music and I just absolutely love and respect the art form. And I just want to continue to work to enhance it.
What was the best hip hop and reggae collab you remember?
Oh, one of my all-time favorites for sure was Bounty Killer x Fugees [sings the Wyclef hook “Michael Jackson brought you Thriller…” ] Murder! I remember the video [sings “Try nuh jump inna we chest Mr Punk…] That was crazy. If I had to pick one that would be it. Straight up.
Assassin Speaks on Performing with Kanye
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