April 22, 2009 at 05:46 PM EDT

Nas and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley recorded one excellent single together, “Road to Zion,” in 2005. As much as I enjoyed hearing the N.Y. rap legend and the reggae scion play off each other’s styles on that track, though, I never guessed that they would be following it up four years later with a full collaborative album, Distant Relatives, tentatively set for release this June. Turns out, neither did they.

“I didn’t really plan this,” Nas told me when I reached him by phone recently. “It just feels right.” In a separate conversation, Marley explained that the idea for Distant Relatives originated last year with his management: “The idea was for us to do an EP based on Africa, using one or two tracks that didn’t make my album, likewise one or two tracks that didn’t make his album. Once we started working on the music, though, everyone was so excited that we decided to make this a full-out album.” Click through to the jump for more details on how Distant Relatives is shaping up.

The duo has spent about three months so far recording on and off in L.A. and Miami, splitting vocal duties while Marley handles the bulk of the production. “Damian is an incredible producer, man,” Nas says. “He’s conducting trumpet players, bass players, piano players, drums, background vocals, everything, putting beats together. He’s getting his Quincy Jones thing happening!” Marley laughs heartily when he hears of this last comparison: “I didn’t know [Nas] felt that way, big up. We’ve done so much work in L.A., where there’s a lot of things available — so I’m really making use of the fact that I can get live strings or great keyboard players.” Damian’s older brother Stephen Marley has also done production work for Distant Relatives, and Nas mentions the possibility of getting beats from rap producers like Large Professor, the Alchemist, J.R. Rotem, and DJ Khalil. They’d also like to draft a handful of marquee-name guests — “everyone from Stevie Wonder to Young Jeezy,” Nas says.

There are currently a dozen or so tracks under consideration for Distant Relatives, many of them revolving around the concept of Africa. “We’ve tried to maintain thattheme, whether it be using African samples or speaking about Africa,”says Marley. Both he and Nas hope the resulting material will transcend listeners’ expectations of them as artists. “I hate to say thisphrase, but to me it feels like worldmusic,” Nas says. “It doesn’t feel like hip-hop. It doesn’t feel likedancehall [reggae]. It feels like the world.”

Shortly after putting the final touches on Distant Relatives, Nas and Marley will hit the road as the headlining act on this year’s Rock the Bells touring festival, and they’re both looking forward to continuing to work with each other. “Nas is an artist who I respect,” Marley says, “so to be in the studio and witness someone who I’ve been listening to for years actually do his thing live is like an intimate concert. It’s been a lot of fun.” Nas agrees: “It’s going really good, man. I don’t want it to end. When we finish this [album], I want do do another one!”

More from EW’s Music Mix:
Asher Roth: Are you ready for a suburban rap star?
The Clipse and Kanye West’s “Kinda Like a Big Deal”: Hear it here
Today in covers: The Fray takes on Kanye’s “Heartless”

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