To hip-hop audiences, Sasco (formerly known as Assassin, then Agent Sasco) is the thunderous Jamaican voice behind the mesmeric hooks on Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” and Kanye West’s “I’m In It.” To Jamaican music followers, Sasco represents a standard of excellence within dancehall reggae, evidenced, most recently, by his exhilarating performance at Red Stripe Reggae Sumfest, Jamaica’s largest music festival held this year July 15-22. Sasco took the stage minutes after 11 p.m., not yet primetime at a festival where the concert nights extend beyond 7 the following morning; nonetheless, in his early slot Sasco displayed the consummate showmanship that has characterized his career — not to mention a dozen previous Sumfest performances — throughout the past 17 years.
Complementing his impassioned delivery of hit songs amassed since 2001, Sasco spoke about the importance of music within his life and his ability to circumvent the squabbles and various controversies intrinsic to many dancehall artists’ careers. “A love of music is my inspiration, I don’t get myself mixed up in almshouse (confusion) or run down certain things. I get my fulfillment by doing music that means something to the people who get up, go out and work to feed their kids,” Sasco told the Sumfest audience in Montego Bay as he introduced his 2017 anthem and biggest hit to date “Winning Right Now,” the first single from his fourth album Hope River.
“People tell me my songs help them when they are down, get them up in the morning, ‘Winning Right Now’ especially,” Sasco mentioned three days prior to his July 20 Sumfest set in an interview with Billboard at his Diamond Studios, located at his Kingston home. “Loving music from as early as I have, I can appreciate using music to get you out of whatever reality you are in and feeling lifted by it.”
Music as a source of optimism is the central theme of Hope River, which drops on Aug. 31 on Sasco’s Diamond Studios label; it’s the first album recorded at Sasco’s home studio, which he opened just six months ago. “I realized after recording my previous album Theory of Reggaetivity that I needed my own space to explore all aspects of the creative process because I couldn’t work on that project as I wanted to. From making the beats and being a part of the process with the musicians, to writing and recording the songs, the kind of music I want to create, the kind of music that our genre needs, is more of a collective effort than an individual one and that is possible for me now.”
Working in his home studio has facilitated the finest, most cohesive album of Sasco’s career thus far. Hope River will undoubtedly be categorized as a dancehall release because of the impact Sasco has had within the genre through such powerful hits as “Almighty Protect Me” and “Day In Day Out.” Yet Hope River boldly blurs genres to include the meditative, subtly electronic “Energy River,” the gospel inflected “Mama Prayed” and the spectacular dancehall/EDM influenced plea for nation healing that closes the set, “All Aboard,” featuring an all-star Jamaican cast. With each style, Sasco’s robust tone and brilliantly nuanced rhymes, alongside numerous collaborators, deliver lyrics anchored in conveying consistently positive vibrations.
As indicated by the album cover, a school registration photo of the artist at 10 years old, Hope River parallels Sasco’s own story. Born Jeffrey Campbell 35 years ago, the album takes its name from the Hope River which runs through the Kingston community of Kintyre where Sasco was raised in very humble circumstances. “The Hope River is a very integral part of growing up in Kintyre. When you want water, you go and catch it from the river, you wash your clothes there, bathe in the river. You would have to cross the river to get out of the valley to get to Papine which is the closest urban hub. The album’s overall theme is hope, so if so flip the words around, it is River of Hope. That’s what I wanted represented, a story of hope,” Sasco explained.
The evocative “Banks of the Hope” implores the younger generation to resist crime and violence as a means of survival, an option taken on by far too many struggling youths in Jamaica and beyond, as Sasco rhymes: “Hear wha… juvenile nuh put no gun inna yuh Jansport/fi collect no banknote, no that a di wrong sport/ Hey everybody want a bus like public transport, but hold the fort, everything curry like goat.” Co-produced by Dale “Dizzle” Virgo and Troy Baker (as the production team DizTroy) and Sasco’s own Diamond Music, “Banks of the Hope” debuts here:
Dancehall veteran Spragga Benz (a mentor to Sasco in the earliest days of his career), upcoming Jamaican sing-jay Kabaka Pyramid and Ghanaian Afrobeat/dancehall artist Stonebwoy join Sasco on “Change,” which also debuts below. Over a furiously paced rhythm track, produced by Sasco/Diamond Music and Dale “Dizzle” Virgo, the trio decries slavery, whether mental or physical, as summed up in Sasco’s chant: “Look around you, a lot of black man inna chain/who nuh have it ’round di neck dem, have it wrap up ’round di brain.”
Many of the artists featured on Hope River have been instrumental to Sasco’s musical odyssey. They include Toronto based rapper Kardinal Offishall, responsible for Sasco’s feature on Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry,” who trades rhymes with Sasco on “Legacy.” Jamaican singer Wayne Marshall, who helped Sasco receive radio play early in his career, provides the hook on “Journey” and singer Chevaughn Clayton, also from Jamaica, who worked on the vocal arrangements for Hope River, is featured on “Grateful” and “All Aboard.” One of Sasco’s most significant mentors, Buju Banton, who was arrested in 2009 and will be released in December, is heard on an interlude leading into “Journey.” In the snippet from a 2004 radio interview in Nairobi, Kenya, Buju says Sasco (then Assassin) “has a great future, a lot of potential, he just has to master certain things and it will come with the passage of time.”
While still attending high school, Sasco got his very first recording opportunities at Buju’s Gargamel Studios. As an adult Sasco’s roaring, gravel-tone delivery has earned comparisons to the Gargamel’s signature roar. “Having that sample on the album means more than the listener will ever know. Buju taught me so many things that have been critical to my development, from how to hold a microphone to spacing out my lyrics so they can be heard better. These are things that I am appreciating 17 years after the fact,” Sasco shared.
The artistic maturation and musical triumphs of Hope River evoke Buju’s move into a similarly heightened sphere with his 1995 album Til Shiloh, a merger of his deft dancehall toasting with roots reggae’s Rastafari sensibilities; Shiloh is still regarded as a benchmark for Jamaican artists’ releases. “For two and a half decades my ears have been exposed to serious reggae offerings and Sasco’s Hope River solidifies, deepens my faith in my career path,” comments Bobby Clarke, President and CEO of New York City based, Jamaica/reggae focused IRIE JAM radio. IRIE Jam featured Sasco as part of their star-studded reggae lineup for the station’s 25th anniversary concert earlier this month. “As Til Shiloh showcased Buju’s greater musical awareness, Hope River is that album for Sasco; it’s one of the best reggae albums I have heard in years,” added Clarke.
Whether Hope River will elevate Sasco into the realm of dancehall reggae superstardom, a position many feel he has long deserved, remains to be seen as such prominence is too often determined by hype and scandal rather than artistic merit. Whatever the outcome, Sasco says his “attitude of gratitude” allows him to remain focused. “I understand that nothing is owed to me in music. I give thanks that I have a career that has spanned 17 years and I had my biggest hit last year, that says to me continue to apply yourself, keep your mind right. Still, I am very excited by the results of Hope River and I am looking forward to people sharing and experiencing it.”
Hope River Track Listing
1. ENERGY RIVER
2. BANKS OF THE HOPE
3. SO BLESSED FEAT. DRE ISLAND
4. MAMA PRAYED FEAT. GLACIA ROBINSON
5. MY SONG
6. WINNING RIGHT NOW
7. THEY WILL ROB YOU FEAT. SEVANA
8. PASSAGE OF TIME (BUJU BANTON INTERVIEW 2004)
9. JOURNEY FEAT. WAYNE MARSHALL
10. GRATEFUL FEAT. STEPHEN MARLEY
11. CHANGE FEAT. STONEBWOY, KABAKA PYRAMID AND SPRAGGA BENZ
12. LEGACY FEAT. KARDINAL OFFICIAL
13. NEW DAY
14. ALL ABOARD FEAT. CHEVAUGHN, TONY REBEL, BAY C, JAH VINCI, QUEEN IFRICA, TOSH ALEXANDER, TESSANNE CHIN, ROMAIN VIRGO, WAYNE MARSHALL AND MAJAH HYPE