Ever since he featured on Kanye West's "I'm in It" in 2013, dancehall artist Assassin has enjoyed a surge of popularity in U.S. hip-hop. And though he provided one of the biggest hooks on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly—"The Blacker the Berry" peaked at No. 66 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April—Assassin still hasn't met Kendrick, and he only met Kanye about a year after Yeezus dropped. Assassin lives and works in Kingston, where A-list rappers rarely tread, instead sending their emissaries to solicit Assassin's vocals.
Assassin has recently been spending more time in the U.S., however, clocking studio time with Raekwon and refining a synthesis of dancehall and hip-hop that has internationally amplified Assassin's bold, road-cracking voice. As he prepared to take the stage at the Red Bull Music Academy's Yardcore festival set last weekend in New York, Assassin talked to us about his recent, high-profile collaborations, including a few that are scheduled to drop just in time for summer. God willing.
Justin Charity is a staff writer for Complex. Follow him @brothernumpsa.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Kingston right now.
Where specifically are you from?
I’m from Kintyre in St. Andrew, Jamaica. I still operate primarily in Kingston.
Do you spend a lot of time in the U.S.?
Out of all the territories, I think that I travel to the U.S. more than most. I’m there quite often.
What are the key differences between the dancehall scene in Jamaica versus what you see of the hip-hop scene in the U.S.?
Dancehall and hip-hop were born out of being the soundtrack to the lifestyle in urban culture. Most of the proponents are practitioners of a certain socio-economic background. The difference between dancehall and hip-hop is just the scale of it.
If you want to go work with another big dancehall artist, how easy or difficult is that to do?
Kingston is 183 square miles, and everybody is within reach, and everybody knows everybody. Reaching out to someone to get something done is pretty straightforward. It’s simple in terms of finding people. For the most part there isn’t much bureaucracy in terms of getting some work done. You link an artist and say, “Yo, man, I need a verse,” and they say, “Cool.” You send the track, and it’s simple.
Do you spend a lot of time in studios with other artists in Jamaica, or are you mostly sending tracks back and forth?
I started while I was fresh out of high school, at 16, 17. The technology of that time did not allow necessarily for sending tracks back and forth. I learned the industry by being in the studio, working on stuff. I appreciate that part of the process; vibing with other people and exchanging creative ideas would serve the purpose better than sending tracks. I try to do that as much as possible. Logistics-wise it is sometimes easier to just send the track. I try to have the more authentic experience more often than not.
What was the earliest stuff you were doing in the studio when you were a teen? What was your craft?
Just trying to unlock the different fundamentals or basics to music. For example, I remember when I figured out that music was pretty much constructed on a four-count, I was about 4 years old. It was the day after I learned how to count. I was trying to learn songs off the radio, and if I couldn’t, I would fill in the blanks and that is how I started to write at 5 and 6. Up to now, I’ve never written a song on paper. I put the words together because that’s how I learned it. Growing up, just loving music and learning about it, coached me to spend a lot of time doing it and doing it. I saw it as something I loved, even when it felt like a hobby.
Were you messing with instruments, too, or was it all just writing?
If you want to call empty cans instruments. Beating on empty cans, the table, or whatever, and annoying everybody else. About 2009, I started to dabble with the guitar. But before that, no.
What are you working on now?
I have a project designed more with a European vibe in mind, but then I’m also doing some work for the U.S. hip-hop market. I'm trying to do more fine-tuned music; the type of dancehall that the hip-hop market can appreciate, with everything being considered with the language and the patois. I’m really trying to refine what that looks like.
I have a few features, but I don’t want to make mention of it. I like when the music comes out and people get exposed to it then. I have some interesting things ahead. I’m talking about stuff that you’ll hear before the summer is really upon us. Very soon.
What do you think are the key elements of dancehall that resonate with the hip-hop community?
Jamaican culture appeals to people around the world, and dancehall is one of the soundtracks to that culture. Reggae music, of course, has been a staple of the culture, and out of that dancehall was born and continues to grow.
It also has a lot to do with the beat and the texture of [dancehall] music. The response to the Kanye feature and the Kendrick Lamar feature has been incredible. People just really love the vibe and the energy of it. But a lot of times, people do say that they don’t understand every bit of the music. I’d like for people to really understand what is happening from chorus to chorus and from verse to verse. That means striking the right balance in terms of how much patois is in the work, while keeping it authentic just the same.
I also have a feature on Raekwon's new album, on the song “Soundboy Kill It” with Melanie Fiona. That’s another vibe that I’m really excited about and the masses seem to be excited too. Big up Jerry Wonda, the producer on that one.
Were you in the studio with Raekwon when you recorded that track?
I was in the studio for that one. We recorded in New York. They were playing me some stuff, and that song came on, and I thought it was wicked. Next thing I knew, I was in the booth putting down a verse. I appreciate that process. The Kendrick and Kanye features happened a little differently, but I’m looking forward to more opportunities where I can be in the studio and be a part of the process in that way. The vibe was incredible.
When you were in the studio for the Raekwon feature, who else was there?
Raekwon was there. Jerry Wonda was there. My manager was there. They were just mixing some stuff and holding a vibe.
Whereas you weren't in the studio with Kendrick when you laid your chorus for “The Blacker the Berry”?
No. They sent something to Jamaica, and I did what I did and sent it back.
Have you met Kendrick yet?
I’ve met Kanye, but I’ve never met Kendrick. Kanye and I met way after the Yeezus release.
I ask because there’s apparently going to be a music video for “The Blacker the Berry.” What's the status of that? Will you be involved?
I’ve heard talk of a video. I’m not sure. I can’t say at this point if I will be in the video. I don’t know.
Aside from “The Blacker the Berry,” what else did you work on with Kendrick?
There are some things being worked on right now, but I really want them to come to fruition before saying much. I’ve been doing some work with Kardinal Offishall as well. He and I have been talking about—I wouldn’t call it an experiment [so much as I would call it] an interesting project that mixes dancehall, soca, and hip-hop. So far, we’ve been having some wicked vibes, so I’m excited about that as well.
What kind of music are you listening to right now, as you move in this new direction?
A lot of old-school dancehall. I’ve also been listening to the new J. Cole album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. That’s wicked. I like that “No Role Modelz” track, it’s crazy. Outside of that, I’m listening to whatever I can get my hands and ears on. I’m just listening and trying to decode and unlock a lot of things.
I heard someone say that there are no more genres in music. It’s all a matter of doing music with a vibe that people can appreciate. I’m trying that on. But at the same time I represent dancehall, and I continue to grow and reach more people with my art form.
Do you agree with that premise, that there are no more genres in music?
I wouldn’t 100 percent agree with that, but what I would agree with is that there is a lot more flexibility. Music doesn’t have to be in a box with a big label on it. There’s a lot more room for hybrids. As long as it feels good and it sounds good, then you can worry later about what to call it. That's the reality. There’s also traditional vibes and traditional genres that I’m sure people are still working within and still producing work that has reach and value. To say that genres are a thing of the past is maybe not the full story, but I do get a part of the argument.
You’re going to be in New York this month. Are you playing any shows while you’re here?
I’m going to be in the studio a lot. I’m heading to Florida tomorrow, and I’ll be in the studio there before I head up to New York. I’m hoping to get a lot of studio work done while I’m in New York City for a couple of days. I just want to explore some more of the vibes.
Do you have people in mind that you know you’ll be working with?
[Laughs.] I still can’t say too much, but I can just tell you that we’ve been reaching out and hopefully, when the vibes come forward, the masses can appreciate it. I’m excited for it.