Classic Albums: 'Down By Law' by MC Shan

Classic Albums: 'Down By Law' by MC Shan

Published Mon, August 8, 2022 at 11:00 PM EDT

By 1987, MC Shan had ghostwritten underground Hip-Hop hits and released a string of his own singles that were pivotal in ushering in what is considered the "Golden Era" of recorded rap.

His 1985 MCA Records release "Heal The World" would mark an early relationship between a major label and a Hip-Hop artist. It would also become the subject of one of KRS One's infamous jabs thrown the next year on his break out hit "South Bronx." Also in 1985, Shan's "Marley Scratch" would introduce a cadence that was new for the time (for context Run-D.M.C. released "King of Rock" the same year) and his DJ Marley Marl's drum programming, along with his cuts and scratches were just about to usher in a new norm. It was 1986's "The Bridge"/"Beat Biter" single that caused a literal paradigm shift in the genre.

American hip hop and R&B musician, MC Shan (Shawn Moltke), circa 1988 American hip hop and R&B musician, MC Shan (Shawn Moltke), circa 1988

"The Bridge" was originally crafted as music for Queensbridge Day, which was an annual festival in the Queensbridge housing projects where Shan and Marley lived. But it ended up playing a much more pivotal role in the landscape of late 1980s Hip-Hop. Lyrically, "The Bridge" was an important catalyst in the legendary "Bridge Wars" that followed; and sonically, it opened up a new lane in Hip-Hop production, due to Marley Marl's isolating of the kick and snare drum from "Impeach The President" by The Honey Drippers and reprogramming it on his sampler. This technique of "sample chopping" would become a staple in Marley's productions and a mainstay in Hip-Hop production, which is still heavily utilized today.

The success of "The Bridge" created demand for a full album, which would be Down By Law. For the 35th anniversary of the album, MC Shan sat down with ROCK THE BELLS for an exclusive interview about the making and impact of a classic.

When speaking of the journey from "The Bridge" to Down By Law, Shan credits Juice Crew member Roxanne Shanté giving him exposure on tour. "'The Bridge' was a tape in the Queensbridge projects for two years before anybody (outside of QB) heard it," he explained. "Down By Law just progressed because I was on tour with Shanté. Now I gotta come up with an album because i'm going here and there with the hottest girl in the whole game. Shanté was Beyoncé back then. I'm on tour wit' Beyoncé."

Shan says that his association with Shanté gave him clout and caused him to be remembered as "that little skinny boy" that was running with her, and that his popularity from his independent singles got the attention of Warner Bros Records. "Because I was doing so well as an independent artist, Warners approached us," Shan recalls. "Cold Chillin' was one of the first independent (rap) labels to get a major distribution deal, but that was like the start of us messin' up again. It's like we sold it back. it looked really good at the time, the checks were bigger and everything."

The name 'Cold Chillin' Records' came from MC Shan. I needed a name for the label and I called Shan one day and asked what he was doin.' He said that he was 'cold chilllin,' and I said 'That's it!'"

- Tyrone "Fly Ty" Williams (co-founder, Cold Chillin' Records)

Shan had written singles previously, but now had to write an entire album with no guest appearances. "Nowadays, you have artists get to make a album and they get two or three friends and all these guest appearances, they're only writing 16 bars a song. I'm writing 48 bars and nothing is structured. Listen to 'The Bridge'—the first verse might have four bars, the next one has 38 bars the last one has 67 bars. The record is 7 minutes long."

Describing his process for writing, Shan is brutally honest. "I got high. I mean who else would come up with a record like 'Cocaine'?" "Cocaine" is the B side of Shan's single "Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing." In the song Shan refers to the drug as "this girl" using the poetic technique of allegory, like Nas did a decade later with a gun on "I Gave You Power."

As far as drugs go, perhaps the first time that the term "gettin' blunted" was used on a rap song was 1987's posse cut "Juice Crew Allstars." On Shan's verse he says: "write one rhyme and for years you run it, I sit and write a rhyme when I'm done get blunted". Shan says that he made the reference on "Another One To Get Jealous Of" as well, which is a dance hall reggae/rap mash up from Down By Law. "Yard music was definitely an influence. My upstairs neighbors played it a lot!" Shan explained.

I should get credit for writing all the early diss records. 'I'll Take Your Radio' by Steady B, The Frost Run-DMC diss, I wrote all that..."

- MC Shan

Shan explains the process for writing "Kill That Noise", his response to KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions' "South Bronx."

"I went and got high", Shan says. "What do you want me to say? People would ask why I didn't make another response after 'The Bridge Is Over,' but back then it wasn't like today where you can just make a quick beat on your computer. Marley felt like Boogie Down Productions were gettin' too famous off of us. My MC integrity was like 'They are already famous!'"

Shan did address BDP and KRS again in 1988 on "Juice Crew Law" from the Born To Be Wild album.

Down By Law as an album covered a myriad of topics and "Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing" was timely at the height of the crack era. "'Jane' was about a girl I knew. That was a real story. 'Jane's life story was a tragic one, she started gettin' high 'cus she thought it was fun.' Hanna Barbera, the animation company made us remove the hook of that song. We used George Jetson's voice, and they made us remove it, and I put my voice in saying the same phrase."

Not many MC's had approached the subject of love. Shan flipped the subject on "Left Me Lonely" and rapped about lost love. "That's a true story too," he reveals. "Everything except the part about me reaching for the 9 to commit suicide." "Left Me Lonely" was a hybrid of keyboardist Andre Booth’s melodic keyboard lines and Marley's sampling/drum programming. Shan says that the video for the song was Video Music Box host Ralph McDaniels' first video production under his Classic Concepts production company.

MC Shan was a bridge (pardon the pun) from the drum machine era to the sampling golden era. "The Bridge" and "Eric B is President" represented a paradigm shift in the music and Shan had a hand in both recordings (he mixed "Eric B. Is President.") Down By Law was a special album that was full of the energy that was about to define the sound of an era.

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