Agent Sasco aka Assassin- The SXSW experience and the Africa Connection
Sista Irie : Sasco, welcome to Austin! How did you feel about last night’s performance at SXSW and what was your main objective for performing there?
Sasco: I always enjoy representing the music. This was my first time in Austin and at the SXSW event. I can’t even call it an event, I would consider it a true celebration of the arts. It was also so interesting to be performing right next to the Afrobeat showcase, where I could assess the growth of that music and think about what we need to be doing to ensure we have a rightful place in this mass spectrum of music.
Sista Irie: When you say ‘we’ are you talking about black people?
Sasco: No, what I meant is reggae and dancehall people from Jamaica. When I saw the Afrobeat presentation, I realized it was only a matter of time to become so popular because Africa is a continent of millions. Once their sound gets out, their continent of millions can celebrate and once it grows outside the core audience, it just has to be incredible in growth and opportunity. I got my first taste of that last night. You can’t help it, you listen and your shoulders start moving. What I find incredible is the similarity to reggae and dancehall. It is all woven up together. I think the growth of that music can also be the growth of reggae and dancehall. It’s all connected.
Sista Irie: Is that why you integrated those beautiful African sounds into your new CD, Theory of Reggaetivity?
Sasco: It’s almost coincidental. It wasn’t for the same reasons, but I want to appeal and service the African market. They have always shown a great appreciation for the music, especially the direction I am now moving.
This has been calling me for quite awhile. We wanted the album to represent the different textures of reggae music as well as the African vibe.
Sista Irie: When I say your new CD has an intellectual component, I think about a track that is reminiscent of old gospel slave music.
Sasco: Ahhh Yes, “The Chain Gang.”
Sista Irie: What made you consider adding that song to the composition?
Sasco: Music can be the soundtrack to life. I remember watching movies and documentaries with emotionally moving soundtracks. That experience communicated at a deep level. As the intro to “No Slave” I wanted an effect that would communicate what modern day slavery is all about. It is no longer working against your will, or working for little renumeration. It is about being a slave to other things like social media, stereotypes, materialism… I wanted to communicate all of that in that little skit.
Sista Irie: That effect gave me goose bumps so it definitely has a soulful message.
Sasco: This album could only come with time. Personally, I have answered some very uncomfortable questions within myself in order to perform music from a very sincere place, It is hard to be sincere when you have unresolved matters inside. I focused on a lot of introspection and have come to a place where I am completely honest. There is not a lot of self consciousness going on, just full expression. When you can express yourself like that, people can feel it.
REGGAE, HIP HOP and White Reggae Bands
Sista Irie: Years ago, reggae music would cross over into R&B and sometimes rock and roll. In more recent years, reggae has integrated and blended more into hip hop and rap. What does that say about the integration of the diaspora, because at one point in time even in Austin, Caribbean people were shunned by African Americans. What do you think is happening there?
Sasco: There are pros and cons in everything. For almost a five year period, from the early to mid 2000s, dancehall integrated hip hop into reggae music. A dancehall hip hop mix may be popular in Jamaica, but may not transcend beyond. Now with the controversial “Tropical House” style coming along, this is how I think the fusion should be done. Basically it is reggae with a sprinkling of pop making it palatable to a wider audience. Not just the beat, but also the writing and composition. This is the approach to be taken when blending influences rather than the inverse of using hip hop with a sprinkle of dancehall. “Tropical House” is demonstrating how we should reach out to many different audiences. For example, Kendrick’s “The Blacker the Berry” feature, had to represent my art form while at the same time be presented so Kendrick’s audience could appreciate it.
Sista Irie: It is interesting to note that hip hop came from Jamaican culture due to Kool Herc. What goes around comes around. When thinking about the integration of reggae with other musical forms, your new cd, the “Theory of Reggaetivity” is absolutely a statement on Jamaican culture, while emphasizing Jamaica as the location of authentic reggae roots. How do you feel when you see white reggae bands like SOJA, Gentleman, Rebelution? What are your thoughts when you see them selling massive amounts of music, vs the struggle Jamaican artists have breaking through?
Sasco: It only makes sense. If you are a white band appealing to an audience that buys music, then chances are they will buy your music. It is generally your direct audience who purchases your music. A lot of people in Jamaica ask every day how to get my album on iTunes but there is no Jamaican credit card or Jamaican store to grow the purchasing numbers. We have a great Jamaican diaspora in the millions. If we sell to 1% of that group, our numbers would start to look decent. I am interested in engaging that direct audience more than a California white audience. The growth builds out naturally. When my album came out, Rebelution had a CD in the top five. If you see Theory of Reggaetivity also in the top ten, someone might say let me check that out too, and so it grows. It can be a spin off effect. Let us get our people to support our music and others can follow. If we aren’t buying our own music, why should others?
Sista Irie: Absolutely. So are you getting airplay in Jamaica?
Sasco: Oh yes, let me tell you, there are many things that can be different that improve the direction of the music. I have done a lot of introspection and answered many questions. My new perspective is to take responsibility for everything. When you take control, you have a say in how things play out. I am referring to all stakeholders. With the understanding that artists, producers, fans, and DJs play a part and better serve the culture of the music. Sometimes lines get blurred when artists think their roles are more important than others. I have been very observant, for example, sometimes the sound man is never recognized by the artist and may even be abused.
Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar
Sista Irie: Tell me how you came about the collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. Not just everyone walks into an opportunity like that.
Sasco: The Kanye West feature came about very randomly. I have a friend who used to work at the Gee Jam studios, and also an engineer who I recorded a track with years ago. This goes back to the fact that there is no big food chain going on.
Some guy just reached out to me on MySpace and wanted to do a collaboration. I drove to Portmore, went to a little studio and made the song. Six or seven years after, the same producer and engineer were at Gee Jam when Kanye’s team came through asking for Jamaican artists. I am now on the list because of my previous work with them. So I went to the session and put together five verses including writing verses for a few others including Lexxus and Ce’Cile. I was thinking it would just be great if anyone gets selected, I just wanted whoever was included to represent the music well.
Months later I received a message from Dizzy, the same engineer, saying ‘Kanye is looking for you.’ I did not know it was for the album, I just knew it was something I had worked on and would be used somewhere. I heard the end result when everyone else did. I try at all times to be ready to take advantage of opportunities when they come. I say keep your skill sets up and stay aware that things can always lead to other things. Understand when opportunities come your way and how best to approach them. When recording for Kanye, I made sure there was enough content for Americans to appreciate a few lines, if not every line. Not everything in music is about your name.
The Kendrick Lamar project was more direct. Kardinal Offishall was a good friend of mine. He is known as Canada’s ‘hip hop’ ambassador. I received a contact from the producer for the record Boy Wonder, who needed some Jamaican flavor on the track. Kardinal Offishall said you need to put Sasco on there. I was on the Kanye project so that added a little resume and credibility. The end result was the Kendrick Lamar song “Blacker the Berry.” (note by Sista Irie: ‘Blacker the Berry’ received rave reviews and was performed at the 58th Grammy Awards.)
Sista Irie: Oh that song is wicked…wicked!
Blacker the Berry, Reggae Music and Racism
Sasco: And what Kendrick did with it… I am looking for reggae and dancehall to be included in that kind of content. Especially dancehall. Its not just about the vibe and the beat but a strong lyrical representation with a dancehall influence.
Sista Irie: ‘Blacker the Berry’ represents a very heavy perspective on racism something America is experiencing right now as a major wake up call. As a country, we thought we were further along than we really are and suddenly too much police action with racist attitudes comes to the surface. Do you believe that music can influence people to get past their prejudices?
Sasco: That is a very deep question. I think music can be a place where we can all forget our prejudices. That being said, I also believe prejudices are a natural thing. Until we can ‘unlearn’ what we are taught, prejudice will exist. Music allows people to share in a common experience. When you think about the very nature of a prejudice, it is about all the things we don’t have in common. Even this argument about white bands doing reggae is a way of establishing prejudice where it doesn’t belong. You shouldn’t do that. Music is supposed to be that sacred escape. It’s about how we decide how it is going to be. SXSW, for example, is a good indication of how music can bring people together. Music is a very uniting force.
Where it all Began
Sista Irie: You have accomplished so much in such a short time. You were identified in High School as a great lyricist and dubbed Assassin. What was it like growing up as a little boy in Jamaica, how did you develop your lyrical skills and how did your education support where you went from there?
Sasco: I was born in December, 1982, and fell in love with music from as far back as I can remember. In other words, my earliest memories include just being fascinated with music and trying to understand everything including how music is counted in fours. By 1986, when I was four, I was trying to absorb all I could. Influences at the time were Professor Nuts, Lt Stitchie and Papa San.
They were a great influence and each one was very lyrical. Professor Nuts is a great storyteller.
He had this incredible ability to just weave everyday life into rhymes and have the story flow exactly how it would be if we were just sitting down and talking.
Last week, I gave a presentation at the University of the West Indies reggae talks series, and the topic was “ How I Discovered the Theory of Reggaetivity”, with that title sounding very worthy of the institution… (laugh), and I was explaining how everything contributed to where I am now. My mother and father separated when I was two. My mother lived in Kintyre Valley near Papine (East rural St Catherine) in a little one room board house, my mother and the three of us children. I was the youngest.
My dad lived way out in rural St Catherine. I grew up between both places but primarily with my mother. There were little sound systems in Kintyre called ‘sets.’ A ‘set’ is a man with two little sound boxes and a few records. In a community like that on a Friday evening and sometimes during the week, a little sound ting would happen, and I would be there listening. By the time I was six, as soon as my mother turned her back, I was down there. The guys used to DJ a little set called Silver Line. I was the youngest in the yard and would act like big man by picking up the mic and DJ’ing, I was soon welcomed and in the rotation. So there I am at five and six being exposed to the DJ thing and at the same time began exposure to the business of music.
As I was DJ’ing, people would drop money and I would get enough to buy a bag juice. I cared less about the money and more about making music. So that is where the formation happened. It was part of a natural passion. I remember beating my desk at primary school and winning my first DJ contest at seven or eight years old with a Prof Nuts song “Tan so Back.” The prize was to perform at a school barbecue. This was my first performance in front of an unknown audience. It was INCREDIBLE…
My interest for most of that time was very innocent, not because music makes you rich, famous or promotes stardom. It was learning the craft. When we DJ at the set, some guys come out on the wrong bar. You have to know when to start and stop. Big guys would jump in at the wrong place on the riddim. Some were not able to figure that out. Clearly they loved the music, however, I was forensic about my own interest. I wanted to know everything. And it still is.
BALANCING MUSIC WITH FAMILY LIFE
Sista Irie: There is a little girl on your CD, is that your little girl?
Sista Irie: So she’s picking up the mic just like her daddy?
Sasco: Interesting that you said that. Now that I have children I am beginning to understand more about my own development. There is Alianna, Lauren, and little Joshua and I am watching their little personalities develop. Lauren will be sitting there with her headphones on listening to Bob Marley and singing along before she can even speak properly. What two year old do you know who listens to Bob Marley and cares enough to reproduce what they are hearing. It’s broader than music, it’s just full expression. She says she wants to be an actress.
Sista Irie: She is going to give you a run for your money. (laughing)
Sasco: As a father I am going to try to facilitate their dreams and not force any of mine on them.
Sista Irie: Most musicians and singers are married to their music. How do you balance family life with your career?
Sasco: When I was coming out of high school, music looked like it was going to be a career more than a passion or hobby. As a matter of fact I wasn’t even sure I was worthy.
It seemed like people who made music were sent from the heavens to do this thing. At the end of high school I got a link to Spragga and things started to happen. One of the things I observed is that a music career can be a very constructive or destructive influence. I grew up in the eighties when Michael Jackson ruled. We saw the pinnacle of what stardom can bring. I observed his journey and all of his situations. You don’t get bigger than that. I decided at the time that my relationship to music should still resemble what it has always been. it is just this thing I love and I do but it doesn’t rule me and it is not my identity. I am Jeffrey Campbell and I happen to love music and that’s how I want to express myself. I am so in love with music but it shouldn’t change who I am or represent who I am. When I am walking around Kingston, it is just me with no entourage. I am not trying to be a star.
I also avoid any of the prescriptions like piercings. I was told to pierce because the girls would like it. That is not in alignment with my natural way. I have never had a draw of cigarette or weed – ever. People say if I began to smoke weed when I am already writing such tuff lyrics, everyone would have to run away… because I would get even greater lyrical inspiration. However, it was just not a part of my formation. I just remain true to myself and my art form.
Sista Irie: What I am hearing you say that your family comes first. It is a spiritual thing but music is such a part of you, it is just woven in.
Sasco: It is a natural balance. I love music to the depths of how you can love, but it doesn’t mean it will erode my other responsibilities, first to myself. Before I fulfill any other role, as a father, husband, friend or whatever. There are dynamics you have to deal with like time itself. I am in Texas now, on a Sunday and the kids are in Jamaica. It has to be like that but when I am there and present, the two are not competing. It is not music here and family there, it is a level platform.
Cancer and the Death of Sasco’s Mother
Sista Irie: On a personal note, your mother died of cancer. It was a major turning point in your life. How would you describe the impact of losing a family member to cancer and how that affected you?
Sasco: It has always been this thing you hear about. Cancer research, run for cancer, ladies get your mammograms and public service announcements are everywhere. We all treat those announcements without much thought until it becomes relevant to your life. I was 21 or 22 when she was diagnosed. I was the last one for my mother. We had a very close relationship and she would spoil me. I was still sleeping on her bosom when I was 16.
Sista Irie: What did you learn from that experience that helped you the most?
Sasco: The experience was being hurt for myself. I knew I was going to lose my mother when I want her to be a part of my life forever. She died at 52 when I was counting on her being there longer. My career had just started and I wanted to fulfill the dream of buying her a house. Maybe it was one of the things that allowed me to grieve in a functional way. When I bought her a house, I did not have one of my own. At the time I bought it, I did not know she had cancer. If I hadn’t bought her a house, it would have been much more difficult when she died.
So there was me dealing with losing my mother and also with the understanding that it was she going through it. She is the one faced with the diagnosis and what it meant. What really broke me was when I realized she was more concerned in her last three weeks about being strong for us. She was that kind of person. There was also closure and acceptance because she was a devout Christian. She died on a Friday evening. We were trying to get an oxygen mask due to fluid on her lungs. As I was trying to find the oxygen mask she told me “It’s ok, I know you are trying, don’t worry yourself.” When I left that evening, my sister called to say she had passed and was singing as she went. So here she is with fluid on her lungs, could hardly breathe, and yet singing and accepted the end. The time came when I recognized the inevitable. I wanted the end to be quick as the hardest part was seeing her ill. I came to appreciate just how final death is. That’s just it.
Sista Irie: Thank you for sharing those personal thoughts. It is a beautiful thing that you had so much love for your mother and did so much for her. I hope you can keep that in mind as you go forward.
Sasco: It is a part of the healing. I am still learning from that experience, a humbling experience knowing there are things in life that have no prejudice. I was talking to someone the other day about cancer and we spoke about Steve Jobs and his death. When you have the kind of resources and still can’t fight the inevitable, you know it is a real bad boy. It is one of my fears…CANCER…with HIV you know you have a part to play. You feel you have some power in not getting that disease but when you hear all day long what you should and shouldn’t do to prevent cancer, it’s not always in your control.
Sista Irie: Some of it is genetic and healthy life choices can lower your risks. You will feel your mother the rest of your life. They leave us in the physical sense but they are right there with you all the time.
Sasco: I do, I do, I do. And dreams are fantastic for in the moment you don’t know the difference.
Entertainment Advisory Board and going forward
Sista Irie: Are you still a member of the Entertainment Advisory Board for the government of Jamaica and what is your perspective on the reggae music industry development in your country?
Sasco: I was a member of the Entertainment Advisory Board with the last administration. There is a new government and not sure if they will continue with it.
Sista Irie: I believe Babsy Grange (Minister of Culture) says she wants to.
Sasco: Babsy has always been a part of the industry and I am confident that she will. It was a very forward thinking initiative and I commend Minister Damion Crawford who initiated the move to have me on the Board, along with the Senior Minister Wickham McNeil and the folks in the ministry doing all of the legwork. I appreciate that we got a lot done. We made moves and I was happy to serve and be a part of that. It is a good platform to build on and to challenge the system. We must take full responsibility, its not just the government, but what are we the stakeholders doing. Buju used to hold a meeting at his studio to develop this sort of vibe but two weeks into it people were saying Buju was trying to control this and that. We have so far to go to understand the bigger picture, the need for a collective movement where we were to work together and not to have the attitude all for themselves. The government can only do so much. A lot needs to come from the practitioners and the stakeholders. In fact, the government’s work would have been wasted had they rolled out many programs. If you are not engaged in those programs, they do not succeed. In fact, you mention the Grammys. Even I have not engaged in that system properly.
Sista Irie: Do you think the government realizes the amount of financial stability that can come to Jamaica by being more proactive? Not just the government, also with a large community of people in support and even combined with the legalization of marijuana.
Sasco: Of course. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand there is a huge economic benefit to music and the industry, far and wide. It is not just about the artist and promoter. It is about the people selling clothes in the store, the hairdressers, the caterers. We have started capturing these numbers in the ministry and taking a statistical approach. It is easier to go into a meeting with the support of the numbers. Other industries have always had needed support by using numbers.
The music industry must find a way to get more formal. The informal attitude is part of the vibe, but the business people of reggae need to find a way for the business of reggae to go as it should and not disturb the vibe.
Sista Irie: You think that is possible? It seems that many artists are afraid of the business structure.
Sasco: Of course it is. Once again, it is just one thing feeding the other. My first experience with the music business was awful, people taking advantage of the little crumbs. The more that happens the more paranoid you get. There is just so much work to be done.
For example, with the marijuana industry, there is so much more at play. I have come to understand that not everything is black or white. I get my information about it casually. To me, I see you can have in the United States decriminalizing or legalizing but in Jamaica, they cannot just say we are totally free to engage in the industry. Why can that only happen when the United States opens the door first? I have a song by the way, “What’s the Story.” (sings phrases relating to freedom to smoke marijuana). When can we really know the concerns of the relevant authorities and what are the metrics they are using to arrive at their decisions? Jamaica has a huge brand in marijuana, it has been such a major part of the culture, it would be tragic to watch this opportunity come along and then have super companies set up factories selling Jamaica branded marijuana and the financial benefits not be shared properly.
Assassin and Agent Sacco
Sista Irie: Assassin and Agent Sasco…tell me, why do you keep two names and why hold on to Assassin. Is the song Mix Up related directly to the two names.
Sasco: It is really a collaboration between Assassin and Agent Sasco. The Agent concept started in 2005 after my mother died. It was an emotional time for me. The day after she died, I cut off my cornrows. I began looking for ways to motivate career wise while I was grieving. At the time, there was Agent 2006, or Agent 006 and I was going to be this person, the agent with no braids. That helped as a transition between the two names but when 2007 came, you can’t be agent 007 as it belongs to James Bond. I was maturing ten fold and also after becoming a father in 2005, my ideas were changing. My convictions and artistic influences moved from a fifteen year old Assassin to a twenty five year old Assassin and then into the future. There is also the problem with the name Assassin. If my name was Agent Sasco to begin with, there would be no AKA. The name Assassin had a bad connotation especially after 911. People were more sensitive to it.
Sista Irie: So why not drop it?
Sasco: People have not dropped it. I dont really have an issue with the name but other people did. I remember the government, JAMPRO, was creating a campaign while I was getting my online degree. They decided to market Jamaica as a business destination. So we made a presentation, Courtney Walsh (International cricket super star from Jamaica) and myself, but in the end they pulled the plug because of the name Assassin. There are times when the name overcomes what you are actually trying to present. It becomes abrasive. I have no problem with it. If some people want to still call me Assassin, it is ok. However, Agent Sasco, thinking about technology, has a certain value in term of uniqueness.
Sista Irie: Where does Sasco come from?
Sasco: It is just another name for Assassin. Jamaicans don’t call any word more than two syllables. Spragga may have been the first person to call me Sasco. I am glad Assassin is still a part of it. Agent Sasco has good ‘googability.’ Then there are no issues with it. Another thing. Content wise, my new album “Theory of Reggaetivity” is an Agent Sasco album. I am feeling now more of a conviction to express myself this way. The more work Agent Sasco does, the more there will me a natural transition. The single ‘Stronger’ could break through big and bring forth Agent Sasco.
When I was thinking about the concept of making a connection between the Theory of Relativity and Theory of Reggaetivity, there is a strong example of the universe communicating when you find out each have the same letters…Einstein is E = MC squared and Theory of Reggaetivity is E= CM#. A friend and musician also pointed out that this formula is also part of the relative (music) scale. I ascribe great significance to things like this. The Theory of Reggaetivity alongside the Theory of Relativity, there is a corresponding equation. Come on, man!
(note from Sista Irie: taken from Wikipedia) In music, relative keys are the major and minor scales that have the same key signatures. A pair of major and minor scales sharing the same key signature are said to be in a relative relationship. (Benward & Saker (2003). Music in Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.33-35. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
Agent Sasco is performing on Friday, August 5th at Reggae on the River