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R.I.P. Steve Young of Colourbox and M/A/R/R/S’ “Pump Up The Volume”

Photo: Alastair Indge/Photoshot/Getty Images
Photo: Alastair Indge/Photoshot/Getty Images

Steve Young—who, with his brother Martyn, founded both the early electronica band Colourbox and influential dance music flag-bearers M/A/R/R/S, both of which turned sampling as important a pop instrument as any guitar—has died of an undisclosed causes. The label 4AD, where Colourbox was an outlier during its short five-year run, made the announcement on its social media, calling Young a “true pioneer.” The cause of death was undisclosed, and it’s not certain how old Young was.

Colourbox launched in 1982 and almost immediately proved confounding. Its first single, “Breakdown”—recorded with vocalist Debian Curry, then re-recorded in ’83 with Lorita Grahame—mixed soul and electro-funk. A subsequent, self-titled mini-album released later that year (popularly known as Horses Fucking, for its cover image of horses fucking) brought in deeper hints of dub and reggae amid the new wave dance-pop, a direction the group would further explore with a cover of Jamaican artist U-Roy’s “Say You.” But more importantly, it featured the group’s first genuine experiments with sampling and scratching, which it would explore to greater effect on its sole full-length, similarly self-titled, released in 1985.

A thrilling, stylistic car crash of a record, Colourbox careens from the beautifully somber piano piece of the opening “Sleepwalker” headlong into tracks like “Just Give ‘Em Whiskey” —a propulsive, dance-rock number that frenetically piles up snatches of dialogue from Westworld, 2001, and The Prisoner—and “Edit The Dragon,” which splices and dices Bruce Lee action scenes and punchy synth hits into a dizzyingly panned head-trip. A club-banger cover of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On” and the straightforward soul of “The Moon Is Blue” helped make Colourbox commercially successful, but it was the sample-heavy tracks that would prove most influential—and point toward the direction that the Youngs would head next.

At the behest of 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell, Martyn and Steve Young would become the “M” and “S” in M/A/R/R/S, a collaboration with labelmates A.R. Kane that would produce, collectively, their most lasting hit single—even if they couldn’t stand working with each other. Left to work separately on their respective tracks, the Youngs turned out the A-side, “Pump Up The Volume,” its title and hook derived from a sample of Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul.”

Built on nearly 30 bits and pieces taken from other artists like Public Enemy, James Brown, Kool And The Gang, and the Bar-Kays, and overlaid with scratching and other bells and whistles from London dance DJs Dave Dorell and C.J Macintosh, 1987’s “Pump Up The Volume” became an inescapable hit, bridging the divide between the burgeoning house music scenes and hip-hop and taking them to pop radio. It topped charts worldwide, turned up on the soundtrack of the Michael J. Fox movie Bright Lights Big City, and earned the group a Grammy nomination. And it would be the group’s last.

With the members of A.R. Kane bristling at being all but shut out of M/A/R/R/S’ sole success, and the Young brothers balking at paying them for the rights to the name, the group broke up, becoming yet another ’80s one-hit wonder—albeit one of unusually lasting influence, as the sample-heavy acid house sound it popularized spawned legions of imitators, and their own acolytes in turn. Meanwhile, the growing numbers of lawsuits over sampling saw the Youngs soon shutting down Colourbox as well.

Steve, who had previously played in 4AD’s all-star ensemble This Mortal Coil, made occasional appearances on records by Moose and Kid Congo Powers, but more or less disappeared from the industry. In 2012, Martyn helped oversee a new Colourbox box set (again self-titled), while its music was also the subject of the 2014 compilation Music Of The Band (1982 – 1987) tied to an exhibit by German photographer and dedicated fan Wolfgang Tillmans.

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