Why Kanye West And Kendrick Lamar Keep Putting Assassin On Their Songs

Dancehall’s new crossover king is a college grad with the world’s cutest kids. Here’s how he got there.

March 10, 2015

For an artist named Assassin known for signing his songs with the catchphrase "Ah Murda!," Jeffrey Ethan Campbell leads a rather innocuous life. One of the few college graduates working in dancehall, his career is notably slim on the controversies and clashes that litter the resumes of colleagues from Beenie Man to Busy Signal. The main takeaway from from his Instagram is that his three kids are adorable, and he seems like a really great dad.

On his records, though, Assassin's voice cuts through riddims with a force befitting his name. His rugged flow—a big, booming, Buju Banton sort of beast—and pointed, observational lyrics have made him a staple, if not an outright star, of Jamaica's dancehall scene since the early 2000s, when he solidified his status with tracks like "Idiot Ting Dat," a witty commentary on boneheaded behavior.

"Assassin has one of the most amazing voices in music," Toronto rapper Kardinal Offishall, a friend and collaborator, told me by email. "Me and Bunji Garlin always say how his voice is just unfair, because when he opens his mouth, it's like the whole earth shakes."

Recently, that timbre has asserted itself beyond dancehall, thanks to Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, who featured Assassin on "I'm In It" (Track 6 on Yeezus) and "The Blacker The Berry," respectively. For Assassin, an artist who'd labored for years in dancehall's trenches with little recognition from the wider music market, the features have been game-changing, leading to front-page news coverage in Jamaica and interviews in Complex, XXL and The FADER, not to mention other guest opportunities like an appearance on the official dancehall remix of Lil Jon's "Turn Down For What." That's been a boon to dancehall, too, a genre that has only occasionally been afforded mainstream light since its commercial peak (and subsequent decline) about a decade ago. Neither Vybz Kartel nor Mavado, the definitive dancehall deejays of the last 10 years, can boast appearances on projects as high-profile as Yeezus or Kendrick's as-yet untitled sophomore LP.

"He's committed to his work and organized," says Assassin's manager, the influential Jamaican booking agent Sharon Burke, of her client's surprise mid-career come-up. "[When] you are that way, you can take off. And his lyrical content is far superior to a lot of dancehall I've heard. It's a combination of everything."

While the Kanye and Kendrick cameos have doubtlessly raised Assassin's profile, it's worth noting that he is not acknowledged as a featured artist on official releases of either record, leaving it to dancehall fans and astute observers to note and celebrate his role on each. In an exhaustive and otherwise well-informed article offering biographies of Kanye's 50-plus Yeezus contributors and collaborators, Myspace.com overlooked him entirely, surmising that the Jeffrey Campbell listed as a writer on "I'm In It" must be the ladies' shoe designer by the same name.

Curious for his take on his newfound recognition (and occasional lack thereof), I reached Assassin by phone at his home in Kingston. He could only put a positive spin on things as his kids (including two-year-old L.C., already something of a celebrity in Jamaica thanks to this unfathomably cute clip her mom originally posted to Facebook) barged in and demanded high fives. "I can only think about all the good things," Assassin told me. "There is so much great intent in these developments that I can't even see a negative. I go through the YouTube comments and I see people saying 'Mannnn, I don't know that Jamaican dude, but he killed it.'"

Up until now, Assassin's own releases have been almost exclusively dancehall, with few overtures to the mainstream. He made a name for himself releasing countless singles on the so-called "juggling" riddims that dancehall producers put out with numerous featured vocalists, some of which were collected on two albums for VP Records, Infiltration (2005) and Gully Sit'n (2007). But there's always been a bit of hip-hop to his delivery.

"I was born in the early '80s, so my foundation in music was in that time, and that was primarily in straight-up dancehall," he says. "As I grew, my appetite for music grew. When Eminem came out, I became a huge fan of his. Hearing Bounty Killer with the Fugees was cool. It established the idea that you can fuse different genres together, and it can work."

As a teen—"Back when I was still going to the studio in my school uniform," he says—Assassin gained entry into the dancehall business under the tutelage of Spragga Benz. (Assassin wrote "Shotta," the veteran deejay's gangster anthem on the classic Street Sweeper riddim in 1999.) As he set out on his own career, it was his penchant for social commentary that stood out, as heard on "Wah Gwaan" (meaning "What's going on?" in Jamaican patois) a prescient, streetwise breakdown of Jamaican societal ills, circa 2000.

"I got the name Assassin clashing in high school, but I recognized quite early that if I am to contribute to the music in the way that I wanted to, that couldn't be the route," he says of his decision to abstain from attacking other artists in his lyrics, as many others do. "There are a lot of things that people have suggested might advance my career quicker, but if it does not reconcile with who I am naturally, then I am just not going to do it," he adds. "Controversy sells, but I'm not trying to sell controversy, I'm just trying to do the music that I love, and I hope that my contribution to this artform can help it continue to move forward."

That, says Assassin, was his mission with his appearance on Yeezus. As with many unexpected link-ups between Jamaica and the broader music world, the seeds for "I'm In It" were sown at Geejam, a luxury resort property and commercial recording studio in Port Antonio owned by former Gee Street Records owner and music producer, Jon Baker. This is where No Doubt made "Hey Baby" with Bounty Killer in 2001, where Snoop re-branded himself as Snoop Lion a decade later, and it's where a crew of G.O.O.D. Music producers descended in 2012 for sessions initially meant for that year's Cruel Summer compilation.

"They were reaching out to some of the local artists to lay some stuff down, and they would take it back to Kanye," Assassin recalls. "I did some verses here and a chorus here, and I was helping other local artists who were there put verses together. I was looking at it as an opportunity for dancehall, and all music, and not there trying to represent me."

That approach paid off. Though Yeezus had a noticeably Jamaican slant, pulling samples from Capleton, Beenie Man, and Popcaan, Assassin was the only dancehall artist whose original vocals were selected for the project. He says he never communicated directly with Kanye during the process, though they did meet this past December when the pair were introduced at an event by producer Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins. "Rodney said, 'Yo, this is Assassin, who was on that Yeezus record. I'm not sure if you met,'" Assassin recalls. "And Kanye was like, 'Oh yes, nice to meet you.' We took a picture, and that was that."

He's yet to meet Kendrick Lamar, but Kendrick fans who haven't journeyed down the YouTube rabbit hole to watch Assassin's videos for "Anywhere We Go," "Talk How Mi Feel," and last year's superb "Sekkle an' Cease" may soon be able to put a face to the voice on "The Blacker The Berry." For a track that's been been discussed, dissected, debated, and annotated as much as "The Blacker The Berry"—an explosive statement on race relations and personal hypocrisy sure to be relevant for years to come—a proper live performance with the artist from the hook can't be far behind, and Assassin's manager says Kendrick's team has indicated plans to include him in the song's video.

With two career-shifting collaborations under his belt in the last two years and nearly eight years gone since his most recent album, Assassin is in a unique position among veteran dancehall artists to rebrand himself, and, perhaps, his genre. And his occasional use of the more SEO-friendly alias Agent Sasco alias could afford him some freedom to find his place. "Assassin is still very much up and running and operational, and so is Agent Sasco," he says. "I want to use it to do a bit of brand separation. You have Coke and you have Diet Coke, you know what I mean?"

In the 21 months between "I'm In It" and "The Blacker The Berry," Assassin contributed vocals—with proper credit—to a number of non-dancehall tracks, including "Sound Bwoy Kill It" with Raekwon and Melanie Fiona, and the aforementioned remix of Lil Jon's "Turn Down For What." Island Boy Cartel's "Pretty Paper" is one of several songs he's appeared on alongside Kardinal Offishall, who was also responsible for connecting Assassin with "The Blacker The Berry" producer Boi1da.

"To me Assassin has the potential to do what Sean Paul did for dancehall, with the right music behind him," says Kardinal.

Whether Assassin could possibly duplicate the sort of massive crossover success Sean Paul enjoyed in the early 2000s with a mix of authentic dancehall ("Gimme the Light," "Get Busy") and savvy commercial collabs (Busta Rhymes' "Make It Clap," Beyoncé's "Baby Boy") is an intriguing thought. Like Sean, Assassin is a nice guy with a clean record—a valuable asset in dancehall, where so many of the top artists (Busy Signal, Popcaan, Aidonia) are not currently cleared for U.S. travel—and he's shown a willingness to be a team player. But it's also hard to imagine Assassin, whose style is more rigidly dancehall, inserted into some of the same opportunities that have allowed Sean Paul to continually transcend his genre. (Take Paul's goofy cameo in the video for Enrique Iglesias' globe-spanning hit "Bailando," for instance). The present reality is that Assassin has merely been called upon to play a role, adding a tough dancehall texture atop tracks shaped without his input. That's a role he's excelled at, but which others including Popcaan (Pusha T's "Blocka") have also been called on to fill.

Now that he has a track record of success on hip-hop records, and a Rolodex of influential new friends in that arena, it will be interesting to see to what extent rap shapes Assassin's next project. (Kardinal Offishall says that he, Assassin, and Bunji Garlin are at work on "a massive secret ting right now that combines hip-hop, dancehall, and soca.") True to form, Assassin offers a measured summation of the task ahead of him, as he looks to represent himself and his genre on a bigger stage while keeping his footing within dancehall itself. "There's a balance that I need to strike, and I really look forward to pursuing that."

Lead image: Wade Rhoden

Why Kanye West And Kendrick Lamar Keep Putting Assassin On Their Songs