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!