You might want to file this album under “lost classics”. The album Silent Assassin by Sly and Robbie was released in 1989 and was a collaboration between many musical heavy hitters of the time, including, of course, the famous drum-and-bass rhythm section themselves, along with Boogie Down Productions’ main man KRS-One, plus rappers including Shah of Brooklyn, Queen Latifah, Young MC, and Willie D of the Geto Boys. This album blends together reggae, dancehall, and hip hop, and the results are, I think, rather interesting if a big scatter-brained.
What we have here, basically, is an all-star line-up with some of the newest and hottest talent in the rap world back in ’89, with an instrumental backing resembling reggae with elements of dancehall and a bit of funk. Sly and Robbie do a great job using old school hip hop samples (some samples being a bit cheesy, but hey, that’s the ’80’s!) to make some groovy reggae-infused hip-hop instrumentals for the rappers to flow over. With all the talent on this album, you’d think that maybe Silent Assassin would be some kind of hit record, but, as far as I know, it hasn’t received a whole lot of attention over the years. Would I call it a sleeper hit? Umm…hmm…
Let’s talk first about this album’s lyrics. I find them to be somewhat gritty and dark, depicting urban violence and providing socio-political commentary, but, because of the instrumental backing being kind of happy and bubbly, this album sounds more feel-good and fun than hardcore and angry. This album isn’t exactly Straight Outta Compton. More like straight outta Jamaica! In addition to the more politicized tracks, there are also a few tracks that are more leaning towards getting the party started, but they are in the minority here. A lot of lyrics here tackle street life, and the state of things back in ’89. For instance, there’s lyrics about a little girl getting shot, a black guy getting wrongly charged with rape by some cops, and some other dude selling crack.
The proto-gangsta leanings of this album make sense in that we have two of the main progenitors of gangsta rap influencing the sound of this album, with KRS-One on production and rapping on one song (Party Together) and Willie D of the Geto Boys, who raps on two tracks (Dance Hall, Ride The Riddim). Since KRS-One himself is influenced heavily by reggae and dancehall music, as he displays on his legendary Criminal Minded album, it makes sense that he would hook up at this time with Sly and Robbie when he did to make an album like this – ie. some sort of intersection between socio-political rap, and a rather laid back party album done in a reggae style. It’s an odd mix of styles, but it does seem rather logical based on who made it.
I find it interesting that KRS and Willie D, who are generally better known for their harder edged rhymes, were up for some fun on Silent Assassin. KRS turns in what I think is a slightly goofy performance on “Party Together” that takes the melody from the Turtles’ hippy anthem “Happy Together” and uses it as a call for unity. Fair enough, I guess. It’s a bit cheesy, but fun. In the same vein as KRS being on a party track, Willie D sounds pretty enthused and oddly happy on “Dance Hall”, which is another let’s-party type of a song. Just sounds weird coming from Willie D who we all know as being more of a gangsta in the rap world.
Young MC, who was blowing up around this time thanks to his grammy winning mega hit “Bust A Move” (from Stone Cold Rhymin’), is kind of in the opposite position to KRS and Willie D in that he turns a socio-political commentary type of song (“Under Arrest”), when his big hit “Bust A Move” – the song that made him a huge international star – was a fun party jam that appealed to all ages. So here on this album, which apparently not many people heard, Young MC raps about getting mistakenly arrested for rape. I don’t mind the track, but they probably could have better used him on a party track or two of his own – if they wanted to sell more records, that is. On “Living A Lie”, Young MC raps about how people be frontin’, with some cheesy synth horns in the background. I actually like the song, but it all just contributes to the confusing personality of this album.
Lastly, I’ll mention Shah of Brooklyn, who maybe should have mentioned first, since he raps on most of the tracks here. I wasn’t able to dig up much info on this guy. He appears to only have appeared for this album, and then never heard from again. Maybe he thought his work here on earth was done after he did this. Or…maybe he changed his name? His personality makes up the majority of the album in terms of whose voice you hear the most. I think his rapping is great – classic old school rhyming and he actually holds the album together with his flow, so that’s cool. I’d say that Shah’s energy and flows are solid on all his tracks, and he meshes the best with Sly and Robbie. He just seems to be the most consistent one here. I just wish I knew more about him, because I’ve never heard of him before and he seems like a versatile MC. Oh well.
Wrapping up here, I would consider Sly and Robbie’s Silent Assassin to be a lost hip hop classic. I can imagine retailers not knowing where to stock the album when it came out. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t a big hit? I don’t know, but if you like old school hip hop and reggae, with some slightly dated late-’80’s production values, you’re in for a treat. Pick it up if you can find it.