By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Using Phonogram's cash, the triumvirate founded Digital Hardcore Recordings in 1994. To Empire, the moniker has dual significance. "'Digital Hardcore' is the name we used for our direction, but I think it's the best definition of our sound. It's electronic music, and most of the stuff is digital, but it's the opposite of the typical techno production, which usually uses the old analog equipment."
In 1995 Digital Hardcore launched its first salvo: Delete Yourself, an Atari Teenage Riot full-length that included a graphic of model Claudia Schiffer with a bullet in her head. Like Speed, an EP that followed it, the album caused a sensation in Germany thanks in large part to its lyrical content. The band became a favorite of squatters in Berlin and, Empire boasts, "a soundtrack for the new left-wing movement in Germany. We view ourselves as anarchists. We don't believe in any power structures."
Such talk soon landed Atari Teenage Riot in trouble with German authorities, who charged the musicians with "making undemocratic statements that instigated violence" on a television program. "They ended up suing the TV station because they couldn't find us," Empire says, adding, "If you can't even criticize the government anymore, then it's fascism already."
Instead of quieting Empire, Elias and Crack, the government's efforts only motivated them to spread their messages more widely. They received a considerable assist from Beastie Boy Mike D, the head of Grand Royal. "I was DJ-ing in New York on New Year's Eve in '95-'96, and when I got back to Berlin, I had Mike D on my answering machine," Empire says. "He was like, 'Yeah, I really like your stuff. Do you have any ideas about releasing it in America?'"
A distribution pact between Digital Hardcore and Grand Royal followed, as did a slew of seven-inch singles from Atari Teenage Riot and label mates Schizuo and EC8or. But the alliance's biggest achievement to date is Burn, Berlin, Burn!, Atari Teenage Riot's second long-player, which was issued earlier this year. A collection of old and new tracks, the album is a superior introduction to the outfit's unique mix of speed-metal guitars, hip-hop offshoots and polemical caterwauling. Typical is a live version of "Delete Yourself! You've Got No Chance to Win!," which combines Public Enemy-like siren howls with words that depict society as an Orwellian nightmare come to life ("1984 is a joke/When you see where we are ten years later").
"This is addressed to two parties," Empire says about the song. "It's addressed to ourselves and to our enemies, but both with different statements. In Germany, they have these ID cards where the police can run it through a computer and know where you're staying and what you've done in the past. So 'Delete Yourself!' means 'Delete yourself from this controlling society.'"
Another track, "Deutschland Has Gotta Die," reflects Empire's distaste for all things German. He accuses the current regime of peddling phony nationalism at a time "when unemployment has reached its highest levels since probably the 1920s." Because of the economic decline, he goes on, "a lot of young people agree with certain stuff Hitler did. It's not like when I was fourteen and everyone was totally ashamed of German history and the Third Reich. Now it has changed completely, and I think that is a very dangerous direction." Empire has no intention of exacerbating this situation. He recently fled Germany because of his refusal to register with the National Army Service, an infraction that is punishable by a mandatory two-year prison sentence.
In the meantime, Atari Teenage Riot is on the road in America, and although its harsh agenda might seem to be a difficult sell, Empire says that many of those who saw the band open a tour for Beck earlier this year were sympathetic to their cause: "After the shows, we talked to people, and we were totally surprised how important our political aspect was to them." They may receive even more support of this type during their current jaunt in support of Rage Against the Machine, arguably the most radical U.S. band on a major label.
Because of the size of the venues in which Atari Teenage Riot will be performing, Empire concedes that "a great percentage of those there won't understand what we're doing." But that's not the case with several prominent performers, who are trying to hitch their wagons to Atari's star. The band collaborated with Slayer for a number on the soundtrack to the film Spawn: "When we talked, they told us they bought our first German import a year and a half ago," Empire reveals. Also, he goes on, "we've been asked to do remixes for bands you would never think would be into Atari. Bjsrk called me up, which was very good, and Shonen Knife."
In other words, the members of Atari Teenage Riot are being embraced by prominent participants in the very industry they wish to demolish. And that's just the way they like it.
Rage Against the Machine, with Wu-Tang Clan and Atari Teenage Riot. 7 p.m. Monday, September 8, Fiddler's Green, $16.50, 830-