MC Shan ~ Down by Law: Special Edition (2007)

Posted on February 3, 2013

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The Queensbridge Houses, located in the Long Island City sector of Queens, New York, have long been known as the largest housing projects in the United States. But, in the contemporary world of entertainment, the “Bridge” is also recognized as a fertile incubator of talent. From the early 1980’s onward, Queensbridge gave rise to a host of gifted youths that went on to greatness, including rap stars like Nas, Mobb Deep, Cormega, and Big Noyd, as well as professional basketball players Ron Artest and Lamar Odom. But the first generation of phenoms from QB would be its most iconic and illustrious. And included in that crop would be an agile rhyme champ named Shawn Moltke, who went by the stage name MC Shan.

Born and raised in Long Island City, MC Shan was one of the original flag bearers for both Queensbridge Houses and the Juice Crew All-Stars, a formidable rap collective founded by legendary Queensbridge DJ-producer Marley Marl. The Juice Crew grew to become the most talented consortium in rap history; counting QB young guns Craig G, Tragedy Khadafi and Roxanne Shanté among its ranks; in addition to future icons Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Masta Ace, and Biz Markie. But at the core of the Crew were two mavericks from the Bridge: Marley Marl, a sound wizard who’d bring new dimension to rap production through sampling and beat programming, and MC Shan, a skilled mic controller that paved the way for every Queensbridge lyricist that followed him. As legend has it, the Shan saga began in 1983, when Shan was caught breaking into the car of Tyrone “Fly Ty” Williams, a colleague of Marley’s at New York radio station WBLS-FM; and the soon-to-be founder of Cold Chillin’ Records. Strangely, this felonious encounter proved fruitful for both Shan and Fly Ty, as Shan developed an acquaintanceship with Ty, and secured a contract with Cold Chillin’ in 1986. From 1987 thru 1990, MC Shan released three albums for Cold Chillin’ Records, and then chose to pursue a production career, as his music mentor Marley Marl had done. For many years, MC Shan’s catalog has been out of print, and selling for a king’s ransom on the Internet. That is, until 2007, when Traffic Entertainment Group began licensing the rights to Shan’s Cold Chillin’ catalog, and later that year, released a deluxe version of the best album MC Shan ever made: his 1987 debut Down by Law.

This release, Down by Law (Special Edition), is a top loaded, 2-disc edition of MC Shan’s classic 1987 debut. Included among this set’s nearly 30 tracks are the nine cuts from the original ’87 release, along with 12-inch, dub, and acapella versions of many of the original album’s selections, along with several renderings of singles Shan dropped in 1985 and 1986. As with all of the Juice Crew solo releases from the 1980’s, Marley Marl handles the production by himself; and even at this early date, Marley displays the funkiness and attention to sonic detail that made him rap’s first true super producer. MC Shan is mainly known for his battling exploits, through his dis wars with contemporaries LL Cool J and Boogie Down Productions. But Shan is a complete emcee, with diverse song templates, a liquid rhyme flow, impressive storytelling and conceptualizing abilities, and a magnetism that’s felt in every syllable he utters. Shan alternates concepts admirably on this album, and Marley Marl is in perfect sync with him every step of the way, with rhythmic tracks that fit every vibe Shan creates. “Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing”, the opening cut on the album, displays Shan’s knack for storytelling, through a cautionary tale about a hottie that gets hooked on crack, and Marley Marl helps Shan pace himself with an echoing, boom box beat that typifies the New York sound of the mid to late 80’s. Musically, “Project Ho” is powered by Marley Marl’s expert filtering of what became one of the most sampled songs in Hip Hop history: The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President”. And, lyrically, this cut illustrates the earnestness that endeared MC Shan to many a listener, by way of a first-person, sad sack account of unknowingly bedding a promiscuous girl, and getting a gift he never wanted: an STD.

The butter-smooth “Left Me Lonely” melds Shan’s poetic value, storyboarding, and relatability into one cohesive whole. “Let Me Lonely” is a love song that forgoes the saccharine pleas found on many records of this type. This cut is a profound love and loss fable; that is filled out blissfully by Marley Marl, whose serene 808 creep recalls a Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis production, and Juice Crew singer TJ Swan, whose youthful tenor on the chorus is reminiscent of New Edition frontman Ralph Tresvant. The reggae-tinged “Another One To Get Jealous Of” shakes things up a bit, with Marley Marl brewing a little Jamaican rum on the beat; and Shan, rather than adopting a full patois, dipping in and out of a faux Caribbean accent, and bantering with humor about jams he’s rocked, emcees he’s served, smoking bud joints, and myriad other topics that come to mind in just under six minutes. “M.C. Space” is one of the most ingenious concept songs in rap history, thanks to the imaginations of MC Shan and Marley Marl. Marley sets the table with lunar module beeps; and an electro hop track that thumps from here to Andromeda. And MC Shan brings “M.C. Space” home with a brilliant performance; casting himself as a green-skinned mic controller from another galaxy, who comes to the Milky Way to crush every emcee on Earth.

Though he has a full tool kit as an emcee, MC Shan seems at his most natural when he’s primed for either battling or crowd moving. “The Bridge”, the song that sparked Shan’s feud with Boogie Down Productions, is the timeless anthem for Shan and Marley Marl’s stomping grounds, where Shan lays a timeline for Hip Hop’s evolution in the Queensbridge Houses, from QB foremother Dimples D to himself, Roxanne Shanté, and the Juice Crew’s then-newest member Craig G, while Marley summons “Impeach The President” once more, and applies wind tunnel effects to its drum line. “South Bronx”, the Boogie Down Productions answer to “The Bridge”, leads to “Kill That Noise”, a cocksure rebuttal set to a loop of KC & the Sunshine Band’s “I Get Lifted”, where Shan throws jabs at BDP members KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock, and helping fuel the infamous Bridge Wars. And Shan gets in his B-Boy stance for the last two numbers from the original release: “Down By Law”, a trunk rattler with thrusting drums and lithe snippets of 7th Wonder’s “Daisy Lady”; and “Living In The World Of Hip Hop”, the thundering finale devoted to the power and lure of Hip Hop, that forewarns of the global phenomenon it would become in the years that followed.

In addition to the nine tracks from the ’87 edition of Down by Law, this release has more than 20 additional tracks, including four dope singles MC Shan cut in 1985 and 1986. “Marley Marl Scratch”, Shan’s very first single from ’85, is organic and heavenly, even with the passage of more than 20 years. This cut has no melody; just glorious drums that pound with attitude; and as its title suggests, this song centers on the mixing prowess of DJ Marley Marl, who Shan lauds with tightly woven verses, and then allows to strut his stuff on the 1’s and 2’s. “Beat Biter” is another sublime banger from ’85; this one a dose of ether dispensed to Queens great LL Cool J, who Shan accused of doctoring the instrumental for “Marley Marl Scratch”, and re-using it for his 1985 hit “Rock The Bells”. “Beat Biter” is inspired and ironic; inspired due to Shan’s lyrical combination punches and Marley’s Looney Tunes soundbites, and ironic due to Marley Marl’s impending collaboration with Uncle L, for L’s multi-platinum 1990 release Mama Said Knock You Out. The 1986 burner “Cocaine” rocks the mind and body simultaneously, through Shan’s painting of cocaine as a ball-busting temptress, and an undulating digi funk track from Marley Marl. “He Cuts So Fresh” is another ’86 entry; this one an avenue shaking sequel to the previous year’s “Marley Marl Scratch” , where Marley Marl gets loose on the wheels one more time, at the poetic urging of his cousin Shan. This deluxe edition of Down by Law is filled out by several alternates of Shan’s first generation heaters; including 12-inch mixes of “Marley Marl Scratch”, “The Bridge”, “Beat Biter”, “Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing”, “Cocaine”, and “He Cuts So Fresh”. This release also has a few unearthed gems from live performances; including “Live Routine”, a track from the radio show Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack, and featuring excellent interplay between MC Shan and the diabolical Biz Markie; Shan with the masterful verses, and Biz on the beat box, replicating LinnDrum sounds with his voice. And on “Cocaine” (Live), Shan has an attentive crowd hanging on his clever fable, and makes them shout when he reveals the metaphor.

MC Shan would not rock the main stage for much longer after Down by Law (the original version) dropped; delivering two more albums – 1988’s Born to be Wild and 1990’s Play It Again, Shan – before retiring from recording. MC Shan would not enjoy the commercial success of his Juice Crew teammates Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie, nor would he bask in the critical light shone on Kool G Rap. But Shan’s legacy in the game would be cemented nonetheless, with many of his successors from Queensbridge Houses – particularly Nas – counting Shan as a direct influence on their careers. M.C. Shan and Marley Marl constructed a consummate heat rock in 1987; and to their credit, Traffic Entertainment Group did sweet justice to it with this re-issue. For a thorough viewing of a Golden Era gem, check out Down by Law (Special Edition), and witness one of QB’s Finest in action.

To listen to Down by Law (Special Edition), click here.

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