14 August 2016
Day one of the Reggae University opened with a lively conversation between two lyricists in their chosen fields. Rockstone deejay Assassin AKA Agent Sasco, dressed in signature black, debated content vs hype in dancehall with UWI academic Professor Carolyn Cooper, her close cropped hair dyed parrotfish blue. Riddim magazine’s Ellen Koehlings and Pete Lilly led the discussion, supported by fellow panellists, Italian journalist Pier Tosi and author David Katz.
It became clear that the two speakers had subtly different definitions of hype. Assassin gave the example of Chronixx who had “got a lot of coverage but it was deserved” to predictable applause. Cooper differentiated between coverage and hype, asking if hype could be positive.
Assassin described how hype benefitted him when Spragga Benz used the then unknown teenager’s lyrics for the tune Shotta on the Street Sweeper rhythm. “It wasn’t a commercial hype but it opened the door”. He explained that hype happened in increments: once he built a local following, “international hype came from the Diwali rhythm and the song Ruffest and Tuffest”. “I love the concept of incremental hype” said Cooper, “It’s not a one shot thing”.
Koehlings recalled Assassin’s early hit Girls Gone Wild and its suggestive video, complimenting him “You could have been a deejay of girl tunes but you chose another path”. He said his mother initially wasn’t happy with him hanging around recording studios which made him think carefully about the business. A lot of people in his community of Kintyre, St Andrew “had been deejaying since the devil was a boy and not getting anywhere”.
“Why did you choose the name Assassin?” asked Cooper. “It was pre 9/11 so it wasn’t as sensitive back then,” he clarified “I was a lyrical assassin in high school”. This set up Cooper to make a vital point from her writing. “Dancehall lyrics are not meant to be taken literally. Why are these poets not allowed to use metaphor?” Assassin concurred “At a soundclash no one calls the FBI”.
The biographical segment gave way to the core topic when Koehlings gave a defence of hype within dancehall. “Hype can be positive. It can create energy in the audience. It can be cathartic.” “You can’t take hype out of the dancehall” said Lilly. “Just don’t BELIEVE your own hype”.
“My old manager Donovan Germain said ‘Don’t believe your own PR’” agreed Assassin. “’Mi the baddest deejay’ That’s what you’re selling – don’t buy it”. “But what if you are the baddest deejay?” teased Cooper. “To be true to the craft you have to have humility” he replied.
Ellen then moved from dancehall to Assassin’s critically acclaimed third album Theory of Reggaetivity. Why did he do an all reggae record? “I always wanted to do reggae” he explained “It was more and more what I felt”. “You’re getting old” jibed Cooper, demonstrating the banter of two Jamaicans in conversation that had enlivened the debate thus far.
“How do you approach the challenge of doing reggae?” asked Katz who had left the dancehall centric panellists in charge until this point. “I disconnected myself from any outcome” Assassin responded “I didn’t care if it would sell. But it went to number two on the iTunes reggae chart and number three on the Billboard chart. My dancehall albums never achieved that.”
Seeing some hesitance from the audience when Koehlings opened questions to the floor, Cooper solicited input from her UWI colleague Dr Dennis Howard in the front row. Howard had no such fear, stating “You can’t look at hype as negative. Hype is an essential part of the industry.” He then asked both guests which was more important – the hype or the hit factor? “I would say substance”, said Cooper “Hype can be manufactured but talent cannot”. “My goal is substance”, stated Assassin “I make music for my great grandchildren to hear”.
“Are you saying a tune like Girls Gone Wild has no substance?” pounced Howard. “Girls Gone Wild is content!” pressed Cooper “Don’t devalue sexuality in dancehall!”
Assassin conceded that the song had “a significant place in my foundation” but “I’m talking about music that can free up a nation”.