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M.C. SHAN (Buy CDs by this artist)
Down by Law (Cold Chillin'/Warner Bros.) 1987
Born to Be Wild (Cold Chillin'/Warner Bros.) 1988
Play It Again, Shan (Cold Chillin'/Warner Bros.) 1990

Unstylish but top-notch, Queens free-styler Shawn Moltke supposedly got his career break in 1983 when the future chairman of Cold Chillin' caught him attempting to steal his car. (Having Marley Marl for a cousin probably helped a little, too.) With Marl's minimalist production and Shan's dynamic B-boy raps, the fine Down by Law includes an amateurish pre-LP single, "The Bridge" (about the Queensbridge housing project), as well as the anti-crack "Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing!" and the classic bad-girl story of "Project 'ho."

Leading off the ambitiously sampled Born to Be Wild with "I Pioneered This" (actually, he tempers the claim in the lyrics), Shan doesn't cope very well with sonic competition, coming through best on the relatively spare cuts, like the historical "They Used to Do It Out in the Park" and the autobiographical "Back to the Basics" ("One day when me and Marley Marl was playing in a ditch/We made this jam that we knew was slamming/Someday it would make us rich"). Answering John Kay in the title track is a neat idea that fails; the sax line running through "Words of a Freestyle" effectively draws attention away from the words.

Moving out from under Marl's production umbrella, Shan swapped his Kangol hat and Puma sweats for a swanky white suit and an adult outlook on the moderately dull Play It Again. In good-sounding tracks that seem to go on forever, Shan attacks police injustice ("Time for Us to Defend Ourselves"), expounds on musical theory ("It Ain't a Hip Hop Record"), disses dope pushers with help from Richard Pryor ("Death Was Quite a Surprise"), quotes Fats Waller ("It Don't Mean a Thing") and even sings one ("I Want to Thank You").

[Ira Robbins]