It’s only logical that a landmark of musical cut-and-paste would have gotten its start thanks to MTV. In the spring of 1987, the music video network was about to launch in Europe and hired London dance DJ Dave Dorrell to compose music for commercial bursts. He told authors Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton that his job was “to put as many edits into 15 seconds as possible.”
This would be the impetus for one of the most important records of the 1980s: M/A/R/R/S’s “Pump Up the Volume,” a hit in the fall of 1987. Concocted by Dorrell and fellow club spinner CJ Mackintosh along with siblings Martyn and the late Steve Young of Colourbox and A.R. Kane’s Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala, “Pump Up the Volume” wasn’t the first hit record to feature a prominent sample, but it was the first big hit to be made up largely of samples. Instead of a chorus, there’s just the title phrase, sampled from Rakim, over a beat that cribs from James Brown, the Bar-Kays, the Last Poets and the Montana Sextet, not to mention Public Enemy, Wolfman Jack and a fire engine.
M/A/R/R/S’ strutting groove and anything-goes drop-ins make the track sound both fresh and inevitable, a bedrock anthem. (Not everyone agrees: In 2000, a writer for Salon complained the song had “been played so many millions of times that hearing [it] yet again is more painful than nostalgic.”) In fact, “Pump Up the Volume” was essentially the pop crossover track from an era full of similar DJ-oriented cut-ups, many of them issued illegally.
In 1987, long out-of-print seventies funk and soul — known in the UK as “rare groove” — was the hottest sound in London. At the same time, it was beginning to be mined for hip-hop samples. You could walk into a New York record shop and see a wall full of 12-inches devoted to James Brown samples alone, from Afrika Bambaataa’s homemade “Fusion Beats Vol. 2” through Double Dee and Steinski’s landmark “Lesson Mixes” (one, two, three), to T.D. Records’ “Feelin’ James” (whose anonymous editor was the storied New York disco DJ Danny Krivit). In addition, 1987 saw both Steinski’s JFK cut-up “The Motorcade Sped On” given away as a flexidisc with an issue of NME, and the UK duo Coldcut’s debut, with “Say Kids, What Time Is It?“