Spit Swapping

Dancehall reggae and hip-hop have always been kissing cousins, but lately they've been getting it on in the open. Hybrid releases are more popular than ever, yielding a stunning range of both commercial and underground sounds. The latest generation of ocean-straddling beats and rhymes paints an interesting picture of how each culture reads the other, mixing the best and worst from each genre.

Certainly the relationship is more about finance than romance for some in the yard. Buju Banton "pushing Escalade and rocking Prada" on the aptly titled "Paid not Played" is just the latest example of commercial rap's materialism bleeding into the dancehall. But the reggae-rap connection is a playful ting that's more about juxtaposing sounds than sharing them. Driven by their popularity in clubs, reggae/rap mash-ups are now proliferating on small-run EP compilations by boutique labels like Hip Hop Dubz and Massive Jointz. The former label's latest offering sets Bounty Killer's "Just Dead" vocals to Baby's "What Happened to that Boy" beat; the latter's drops Busta Rhymes and Mariah Carey's "I Know What You Want" lyrics over a ragga riddim. Although the rap tracks used are decidedly commercial, the mash-ups' emphasis is not on turning a profit so much as goofing over the compatibility between two genres.

To still others the relationship runs deeper than just making a buck or swapping spit. On a new compilation titled Nice Up the Dance: Two Worlds Clash, England's Soul Jazz Records, always one to pounce on crossover trends, attempts to capture some of the range and history of dancehall and rap's flirtation. The result is a solid collection of rare grooves, remixed classics, and gritty head-nodders that mostly feels fundamental and fresh.

The thirteen-song set skips the oft-chronicled years when the toast-crazy Jamaican sound-system culture via Kool Herc and others helped conceive hip-hop. Instead it begins in the mid-Eighties, when samples gave way to digital beats. Prince Jammy, best known as the producer of "Under Mi Sleng Teng," which ushered in Jamaica's digital era, here presents Pompidou's "Synthesizer Voice," a churning synth groove on which the singer grinds his gravelly voice down to dust. While not really hip-hop in any sense, it exemplifies the kind of dancehall that was popular on American dance floors a decade and a half ago. Other Eighties selections include over-anthologized standards like Tenor Saw's "Ring the Alarm" and Dawn Penn's "No, No, No," here given "hip-hop" remixes through added drums and vocal chatter.

The songs from the Nineties find the genres mingling more, particularly "Boomin' in Ya Jeep" and "Gunshot," which pair Masters at Work producer Kenny Dope with then little-known New York ragamuffins Screechy Dan and Shaggy, respectively. Like Capleton's "Tour," not included here, these offer a combination of chunky drums and raw inertia, marking an era that never quite came into its own.

If the Eighties and Nineties material captures rap and reggae's shift from mutual admirers to collaborators, the new stuff shows the resulting explosion between the two. Some aren't that surprising. Singer Blue's "If I Know Jah" is essentially a mash-up, with conscious lyrics sung over a slightly doctored version of the Dre beat "Tha Next Episode." It's reggae chocolate dipped in hip-hop peanut butter, simple and sweet. J-Live's "Satisfied" is even simpler: The peppy indie hip-hop track, popular last year, shouldn't count as reggae at all, except that it samples Augustus Pablo's "East of the River Nile."

But other new joints triumphantly find new ground. One is debutante Ms. Thing's "Get That Money," produced by the legendary Dave Kelly (who a decade ago gave Terror Fabulous one of the biggest crossover anthems ever with "Action"). Its tight flows and chanted chorus atop the Me Nuh Know riddim somehow blend dancehall, rap, R&B, and funk into its own gorgeous animal -- one that kicks like a mule.

Another is Ward 21's "Petrol." Produced by Jammy's son, the awkwardly named Jam 2 James, this track literally represents the next generation of hip-hop dancehall. For my money Ward 21 is one of the most compelling crews in music right now because it has found a fulcrum that balances several sounds and influences to devastating effect. Voicing in patois over slowed-down, hollowed-out ragga beats (which it usually crafts itself), Ward sounds as sinister and fresh as the Wu-Tang Clan once did -- as if it knew that its sound is obviously the future. On "Petrol," vocalist Suku's robotic bass voice anchors the riddim, while partner Rumblood's frenzied delivery brings the heat. Supple synth flourishes add a hip-hop texture, discreetly setting Jammy's famed studio as New York's sixth borough. It's a formula the four-man crew (whose second LP is due out at the end of the summer) has been repeating for several years now. And it's enough, or at least it should be, to make dancehall and hip-hop quit using or playing with each other and just fall in love.