By Brad Lopez
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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.
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-