By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
According to Alec Empire, a key part of Germany's incendiary Atari Teenage Riot, the act's songs are "not like popular music, which is there to entertain. We want to destroy the fake harmony that's created by the music and the entertainment industry and the government."
That's hardly the only revolutionary opinion espoused by Empire and his cohorts (Syrian-born Hanin Elias and Swaziland native Carl Crack). For instance, "Start the Riot," the first track on Atari's new disc, Burn, Berlin, Burn!, suggests that the fastest way to affect social change is through violence--an argument that makes perfect sense coming from Empire, a man who praises extremist organizations like the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof terrorists. "I think without them, everything would even be worse in Germany," he insists. "I want every mainstream teenager to respect terrorism and risking one's life for change. I think that's the most important thing anyone can do--to die for change."
So far, the only bombs Atari Teenage Riot has thrown have been musical in nature. But that doesn't mean that Empire, whose socialist grandfather perished in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, thinks the trio's work is inconsequential. In his words, "Riot sounds produce riots."
The combo's roots can be traced to the late Eighties, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. "I met Hanin Elias in Berlin in 1989," Empire remembers. "She was in the punk scene, and I was, too. But we both thought we wanted to do electronic music, because punk--maybe not the energy, but the music--was always repeating itself. It had become boring. So we played underground raves in 1990 and 1991, and that was the time we met Carl Crack. He was emceeing shows when all the racist attacks were happening and the skinhead neo-Nazi movements were rising."
Soon, however, Empire, Elias and Crack became frustrated by the constraints of the techno genre, as well as by the conservative, reactionary attitudes of its participants. They believed that the rave subculture was playing a part in the rising tide of hyper-nationalism that swept Germany in the wake of reunification, in part because of the growing perception that techno was for white people, while hip-hop and house music were for blacks. To Empire, this was a distressing turnabout.
"In the beginning, techno was sort of political," he explains. "All the parties were happening in illegal places in the former East Berlin, and the police tried to close them down. It just seemed that this music was euphoric and that this new sound was going to destroy the old dinosaur-rock kind of major-industry thing. But then it developed into the same thing--DJs with huge lasers--and the whole scene changed totally. It had been very aggressive and powerful, but then it turned into something nice--different from the militant stuff. Plus, a lot of the techno kids were going against the minorities and attacking Jewish churches."
The increasing number of racially motivated attacks and examples of intolerance by Caucasian ravers toward anyone who didn't look exactly like them ultimately inspired the three to start a group with specific ideology that went beyond complacency and "going to parties on weekends," Empire says. "We wanted to move away from being an instrumental techno band and make tracks with lyrics that actually meant something."
The culmination of these goals was Atari Teenage Riot, which was born in January 1992 and released its first single, "Hunt Down the Nazis," that fall. The cut firmly established the players' confrontational politics and was subsequently banned from a handful of record stores that specialized in techno. In addition, skinheads began attending live appearances solely to taunt the musicians. Empire and company responded by beating them up.
Such belligerence extended to the Riot's music, a turbulent hybrid of electronic music, hip-hop and punk. The provocateurs looped live beats from Seventies punk-rock records and sampled sources as varied as the Stooges, Wilson Pickett, the pioneering Detroit techno band Underground Resistance and even old-school video games, yet they did so in a manner that obliterated the original context. "In America, sampling is like a reference point," Empire claims. "You take something people recognize and you put in another beat or meter, like in hip-hop. But when we use sampling, we take maybe a second out of something else and manipulate it so you don't even recognize where it came from." This approach resulted in a chaotic aural barrage of anthemic noise that, Empire feels, "sounds very alive compared to most techno productions."
The originality of the Atari Teenage Riot style initially confused as many listeners as it converted. "Techno labels didn't understand it at all, because they thought we were punks," Empire recalls. "And the punks thought it was like house music."
Representatives from Sony, Virgin and Phonogram UK may not have fathomed what Atari Teenage Riot was doing, either, but they were sufficiently curious to attend the combo's second-ever club date en masse. The Rioters weren't much interested in signing a contract with any of the firms; instead, they wanted to start an imprint of their own, and they saw the attention as a means to that end. They subsequently inked a deal with Phonogram and released two EPs, Atari Teenage Riot and Kids Are United, under the company's auspices. But because their contract included a non-refundable advance, they purposefully wasted as much studio time as they possibly could and ran up costly expenses; once, Elias, while on acid, made a cab driver wait for hours while she had extensions put on her hair, then sent the bill to Phonogram. "It was getting so expensive that by the end of the year, they were happy to get rid of us," Empire notes with a laugh.