MC Shan was an original member of the Juice Crew All-Stars, perhaps the greatest collection of MCs ever to claim membership to the same crew, at the same time. His Queensbridge anthem, “The Bridge” claimed the No. 1 spot on Complex’s list of the greatest Queensbridge rap songs (and No. 16 on our list of the greatest hip-hop beats), and served as the unwitting catalyst in the Bridge Wars, following Boogie Down Production's humiliation at the hands of Juice Crew founder Mr. Magic.
Citing the numerous mentions on Nas’ Life Is Good album as the inspiration for his return to releasing music, last year, MC Shan has released a comeback record of sorts, “Let’s Bring The Hip-Hop Back,” and insists that he’s not interested in pandering to the young audience. With that in mind, we discussed the diss records of his day, his relationships with other Juice Crew legends, and the story behind his classic record, “The Bridge.”
Interview by Robbie Ettelson (@unkut)
What was your first introduction to rap?
I was so lucky that I came from a mecca of hip-hop. Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, and all of them used to come and do shows at the Reece Center in Queens. My window in my bedroom used to face the Reece Center. I was too young to go the jam, but I could open my window and hear Melle Mel and them rocking.
Did you always call yourself MC Shan?
That was my first moniker and that’s the one I stuck with. But if you see the first flyer that I ever was on, you will see that it says “Shando.” I was a Five Percenter at that point. That was a party that was done in Corona, Queens. Me, DJ Polo, and some other local neighborhood guys.
At what age did you get the bug to start rhyming?
I was around 19 or 20. I was hearing hip-hop before that, but that was when I really [got serious]. Roxanne Shante—you know I came up with her? We used to rhyme on the benches and whatnot, so after she made “Roxanne’s Revenge,” I’m like, “That’s my little sister. I’m better than her! If she can make a record, I can make a record!” So she took me on tour with her, while she was singing “Roxanne’s Revenge.” I had a great advantage, ‘cause she had the person who had one of the hottest records out at the time. Next to UTFO, she was the hottest thing smoking.
That must have been a great platform to expose you to the public.
It surely was. I learned a lot going on the road with her at a young age. I’m coming from the projects, now all of a sudden I’m going to other countries and other states. My horizons just got broadened so much more. I went from being a street, hood kid to seeing other things that opened my mind up and seeing there’s more than just the projects out here. “Wow! You mean I can go across seas, I get a passport and I get money when I get there?” It was just a whole different vibe for me, and I love this so much that I just can’t leave it alone.
Your first record was “Feed The World” on MCA. How did that deal come about?
They actually approached me about it. They changed who was head of whatever department, she had the hook-up with certain people and she came and said, “Listen Shan, I want you to do this record with Charlie Cassanova.” And I just did “Feed The World.” You know what? I almost forgot about that record until you just said something. [Laughs.]
How “Beat Biter” came about, it was because LL had took the beat to “Marley Scratch.” In those days we had a lot of pride in being an artist. Be original, don’t copy.
What was the response like?
It did what it did, but it wasn’t enough for MCA. They didn’t understand my music. They wanted me to do the “Feed The World,” but after “Feed The World” here comes the MC Shan. The “Marley Scratch,” the “Queensbridge.” We did a version of “Queensbridge”—I think it was on the B-side of that—that was horrible. It just dissipated because they didn’t know what hip-hop was about at MCA. They didn’t know how to market it, so that relationship kinda soured between me and MCA, so we just started going independent.
Next was “Marley Scratch” with NIA?
I gotta be on point with you, you know what you talking about! [Laughs.] NIA Records, that was with the Aleem brothers. I was doing that off a cassette for like six months. That was the record I was going around, touring with Shante with. It wasn’t even a record yet and I was doing it around the country. So by the time it was my turn, the country already knew “Marley Scratch.” "That’s that guy that used to be with Roxanne Shante!” I already had a following.
So you rapped over the beat from a tape?
Yeah, I used to do shows off a cassette. At one point, Marley wouldn’t go and somebody else would DJ for Shante. I would pop the cassette in and just do it! It was only one song, so it wasn’t like I had a whole set. I mighta did a freestyle acapella or something like that, and then I’d go right into the cassette. it wasn’t like I had a whole catalog to sing, so it wasn’t difficult.
Was this when Big Daddy Kane was DJing for Shante?
No, this was way before Kane was DJing for Shante. Kane came two or three artists later. We had Polo and G Rap. Biz Markie is the one that brought Big Daddy Kane into the crew. You just couldn’t join the Juice Crew. Somebody in the Juice Crew had to put you down, you couldn’t just come and say, “Yo! I’m nice! Put me down!” It wouldn’t have happened. Someone in the Juice Crew had to induct you into it. It wasn’t like it was an open, free-for-all audition.
I imagine “Marley Scratch” must have had a lot of impact?
It did what it did, for that time. That was the time of bigging-up the DJ. That’s what MCs started out as, so that was just traditional in hip-hop.
Next was “Beat Biter” backed with “The Bridge”?
Right, and that was done through Pop Art outta Philly. That was supposed to be my label.
Lawrence and Dana Goodman—boy, do you know your things! That was on their label, they gave us distribution on it and it was just called Bridge Records. How “Beat Biter” came about, it was because LL had took the beat to “Marley Scratch.” If you was to play “Rock The Bells” and “Marley Scratch” side-by-side? That was the “Marley Scratch” beat pattern. In those days we had a lot of pride in being an artist. Be original, don’t copy, and if you said something that was close to mine it was like, “You a biter and I’ma diss you!” When he took my beat, that was a total violation of hip-hop ethics. We would say, “Don’t bite a rhyme,” but I took it to another level. “Don’t take my beat or we’ll have a problem!”
“The Bridge” was actually a cassette that was circulating in the Bridge for years before it ever came out. Everybody in Queensbridge had the cassette. That was never intended to be a record.
Did LL ever respond?
He never responded. There’s a DVD out called Beef and they tell the story of all the LL battles that he ever had, and they briefly show me but they never mentioned me. It’s like they just tried to look over the fact that Shan went at LL. As far as me and LL having shows together, we used to tour together, that’s how he got my “Marley Scratch” beat. We had one show where we were supposed to battle—it was in Syracuse—and I did that “Beat Biter.” Marley was cutting the record up, back and forth. I went over to the turntable and I snatched LL’s record off and I snapped the record! I still had the microphone in my hand, and when I snapped the record the sound resonated through the speakers, the crowd went crazy and LL never got on stage that night! They tried to turn his limo over, just for that. True story.
The B-side featured the legendary song “The Bridge,” of course.
“The Bridge” was actually a cassette that was circulating in the Bridge for years before it ever came out. Everybody in Queensbridge had the cassette. That was never intended to be a record. We had a festival in the park, so one night we came home from a show, and Marley said, “Yo, let’s do something that we gonna play in the park, about the Bridge.” It was a cassette for longer than people know. That was our anthem—to us, for us, and by us—and we were the only one’s listening to it. Marley Marl was on the radio with WHBI, so whatever I made at home today was on the radio tomorrow night. When it went on the radio and people heard that [mimics the sample], it was just like, “Wow!” It was a new sound. I’m just happy that it was me that recorded it.
How long before the record was it circulating around?
Maybe a year before. A year and a half, maybe. “The Bridge” was just put on the B-side of “Beat Biter” as a filler. Now you see how fate is? A lot of the time you tried to push the A-side and the people would end up liking the B-side better. Like UTFO, that "Roxanne, Roxanne” was the B-side!
It had a harder sound than a lot of records from the era, not to mention schooling people about the old school Queens dudes.
That was the first “rep your hood” record. They had “Boogie Down Bronx,” but the Bronx is a big borough. Queensbridge is just a six-block tenement in Queens. I represented Queens, but I actually was just representing that little six-block area underneath the 59th Street bridge. That was it.
Can you tell me more about the people you mentioned on the song?
Jappy Jap was one of the DJs that used to DJ in the park. Larry Larr was Marley’s older brother. Gas was a DJ. Then I started naming the rappers—Dimples D, Shante, Craig G—so I went through the history of Queensbridge. Then at the very end the message was “Go to school and do the right thing,” music had a message back then. Now the message in music is “Sell drugs, get big money.” These artists don’t have the staying power that we had back in the days. The impact that we made on this music can never be made again. You can never do the first thing twice.
Another record I enjoyed was “Cocaine.”
That was a true story. One day I was getting high and I just thought, “Wow!” I was high, in a zone—I don’t have any shame in my game, it is what it is—and I’m sitting there thinking, “Dang! How can I make this into a song and freak people’s minds out?” So I made it as a metaphor. I was talking about a girl all the way through the song, and then at the end I said, “Don’t you know by now that her name was cocaine?” And the crowd was like, “Whoa!” 'Cause cocaine was the "in" drug at that point. Everybody was getting high, but they want to put it on Shan like I was the only one smoking crack and doing cocaine in the business, and that’s fine. I’ll take that! But that was the drug of the time.
On the live version you hear the whole crowd bug out at the end.
That was taped at the Red Parrot. There used to be a club in Manhattan on 57th street, and it was just one of them nights that we did that. It was a ‘BLS party and ‘BLS used to always have me on their parties. When I got to that “Cocaine” part, it was like [imitates crowd scream]. I can still hear the screams. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was wearing a denim suit, it’s so clear to me. I wasn’t high that night. That’s why it’s clear!
We were already together—Magic, me, Ty, Marley, Shante—and we were doing such numbers as an independent that Warner Bros. had took notice. They wanted to get in on that. We were the first label to get a major distribution deal out of what we were doing. It was a blessing and a curse at the same time. They signed us on a good note, but then all of a sudden, the upstairs people didn’t have faith in hip-hop. You would always hear, “That’s not an art form. That’s not real music. It’s never gonna last.” This is what prompted me to do Play It Again, Shan. I took it totally to the left. When they seen that, it was like, “Oh my gosh!” I would take a bassline and play the bassline over, or I liked the strings from this song so I’d get the keyboardist to play it over.
So you were trying to demonstrate the versatility of hip-hop with that album?
I was just trying to be an advocate for hip-hop at that point in the game. They pumped so much money into the video for “It Don’t Mean A Thing.” They got a movie producer to produce that video. They took over the whole first floor of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to do that. They put so much money behind it because, “Okay, we’ve got something that we can down to!” They had Carol Davis, who was one of the Warner Bros. executives' girlfriend at the time, singing on it.
My main regret on that little hip-hop battle thing is that Marley didn’t let me make another song. I was that artist back then that you couldn’t say nothing about me...and I gotta live with that stigma to this day that I didn’t come back with another song.
What set off the problem between you and Craig G? I took that “Even If I Tore It” as a response to him.
Hold on...Craig G? That was never done. “Even If I Tore It” was in response to the crap people were saying. That was just me being braggadocious.
What about the songs Craig G did about you? “Ripped To Streads” [sic] and “Goin’ For The Throat”?
You can’t believe everything you read in these publications. Craig G was called “The Son of Shan” at one point in the game. He was the next one up, he came in behind me, so Ty and Magic, they claimed him as that.
What about Cool C’s “Juice Crew Diss”?
Steady B’s first record—I wrote that for him. “Take Your Radio.” Lawrence and Dana couldn’t get their hands on me, because we broke off from them. They couldn’t get Shan to write no more stuff for Steady B. I was probably one of the first ghostwriters ever! They wanted the spot that Shan had so bad that they went and found a dude that sounded so much like me. When I hear a Cool C record I have to sit back and listen to it twice. “Hold on. Did I say that? Is that me?” That’s how close Cool C sounded to me!
Can we talk about “Kill That Noise”?
My main regret on that little hip-hop battle thing is that Marley didn’t let me make another song. I was that artist back then that you couldn’t say nothing about me. Make a record? I’ma do something about that. Marley would not make another beat for that, and I gotta live with that stigma to this day that I didn’t come back with another song. Marley thought, “It’s gonna make Kris famous!” “He already famous off the first joint!” To this day, if I’d have known what I know now, I would have said, “Screw Marley!” went and got another producer and did what I wanted to do in the first place, and it wouldn’t be a thing of, “Oh, you never came back with another record!” 'Cause it makes me look like an LL. LL didn’t respond to me, and then it looks like I didn’t respond to Kris, but that was Marley’s fault, and I gotta live with Marley’s bullcrap to his day. I wanted to do something else! I was writing things dissing LL through Steady B, and this was after I did “Beat Biter”! Any artist that was in the game at that point of time knew Shan was that dude that will keep on coming at you! But the world don’t know it like that. “Oh, you never made another record about Kris. Kris destroyed your career.” It doesn’t go like that.
The real story is after all of these years of dealing with Cold Chillin’, they jerking you. I produced Snow! So at that point I really didn’t have to deal with Warner Bros. dropping me. I went and found another artist so I didn’t have to deal with Cold Chillin’. They still had me signed for more albums—although Warner Bros. dropped me, Cold Chillin’ still had me. I wasn’t outta the noose. Before I was going to make more records with these characters here, I’m gonna go on tour with Snow. Screw that! I got out of the rap game for reasons other than people think.
Was the Livin’ Large label part of Cold Chillin’?
They couldn’t put it on Cold Chillin’ 'cause Warner Bros. still had Cold Chillin’ underneath their wing. So what they did is they made Livin’ Large—although Warner Bros. wasn’t doing nothing with my music, I’m still stuck with these bums. Why go through the trouble?
Did you record a whole album for them?
No, I just did “Don’t Call It A Comeback,” “Peenile Reunion,” and “Hip-Hop Ruffneck.” They gave me a video budget, and I did two videos for $15,000. I did “Hip-Hop Ruffneck” video and “Peenile Reunion” video with a student at a school. I can’t even find those videos anymore.
Have you heard all the remakes of “The Bridge”? There have been at least seven.
Wow, that’s another bootleg that Marley and Ty probably did. Nah, I thought there was just my version and then “The Bridge 2001.”
What was the story with the Juice Crew 3rd Generation?
That was Tyrone’s son. Fly Ty using the Juice Crew moniker to try and push his son into the game. But it’s too late! You done already crossed a whole bunch of people in this business, Ty. Russell and them take your calls on the strength, but none of them are gonna do nothing with you. It just didn’t work. Here we are 2012 and you don’t hear nothing about Juice Crew so-and-so. I was the last standout. Tyrone and me? Shan was his partner. Marley didn’t hang out with him. It was me, Magic, and Tyrone. Now it’s at the point where Tyrone stands alone.
Marley Marl was a crab. I already knew the steelo that when Marley makes a tape, it’s gonna become a record, and you’re not gonna get paid.
What can you tell me about TJ Swan?
He came into the crew through Biz Mark. Swan was the first crooner in hip-hop, and my record was the first hip-hop ballad to ever come out. After “Left Me Lonely” and “Nobody Beats The Biz” and all of that stuff, Marley was getting Swan a deal, and Swan’s deal fell through ‘cause of all the sucker stuff Marley was doing. Marley blew TJ Swan’s whole career. I don’t even know where he is to this day! TJ Swan right now is like “Where's Waldo?”
Why weren’t you on “The Symphony”?
Marley Marl was a crab. I already knew the steelo that when Marley makes a tape, it’s gonna become a record, and you’re not gonna get paid. After we was doing that photo shoot, Marley was like, “Yo, let’s go make this tape!” I’m lookin’ at them like, “Y’all can go make the tape! I’m not going ‘cause I already know what it is. It’s gonna become a record.” Ask any of them how much they made off the record? I actually think I won on that one, I get asked about “The Symphony” more than I would if I was on it.
What are your best memories of Mr. Magic?
I don’t look at Magic like everybody else does. Magic was my partner, he was my friend, he was a dickhead, he was an asshole, he was a fuck-up—excuse my language. Magic was running partner when we was on tour. Me and Magic bunked together all the time. Magic liked it hot in the room, I liked it cold. We were like night and day. Magic was the the craziest person I know. You give Magic a Budweiser? Magic was known for cursing people out. Magic was known for telling an artist, “Your record sucks, punk!” Look at it like this—the king can walk through the kingdom and smack everyone in the head and no one can say nothing to him. He wants a piece of your bread? He can get it. Magic was the king in this kingdom, and whatever he said goes and that’s the way he carried himself. But to me? He was a dickhead! [Laughs.]