Atari Teenage Riot (Contemporary Musicians)
Electronic punk rock group
The German-based, hardcore punk group Atari Teen age Riot rightfully admits to jolting audiences with more than an earful of heavy guitar riffs and samples, thundering drum beats, and screeching shouts. Front man Alec Empire, along with Carl Crack, Hanin Elias, and Nic Endo, make even the popular techno band Prodigy seem timid. In fact, creating as much noise as possible is of primary concern to Atari Teenage Riot. "We wanted to make a statement, and we knew that by using a lot of noise, people would pay attention" Empire told Michael Mehle in the Denver Rocky Mountain News. The band's statement, a primarily political one, calls for an end to the communist and capitalist systems, both of which, according to the band, lead to government control and conformity. Instead, Atari Teenage Riot screams for a society based on self-responsibility, racial and cultural diversity, and tolerance.
Empire explained to Mehle, "We formed Atari Teenage Riot because of the political situation in Europe, especially the situation in Germany. When we put out the single 'Kill the Nazis,' ['Hetzjagd Auf Nazis'] we brought the whole subject of racism to the techno scene. Now the music is being played at demonstrations and has created this vibe where people want to change." Moreover, Atari Teenage Riot attacked such social and political issues like no other band prior. "With phasers set to kill, the band pointed out social injustices and pulled the proverbial trigger to set them right," commented Eric Bensel of Magnet magazine. "Few artists have been this musically volatile and downright shocking." Since the group's explosive start in 1992, they successfully conquered their home of Germany, where most clubs and record stores initially refused to play or sell their music, and then moved beyond Europe to bring their terrifying, cutting-edge sound to the rest of the world.
Before Atari Teenage Riot stormed Europe, Asia, and the United States, the concept for the anti-establishment uproar was just taking shape in the young mind of Alec Empire, the main force behind the group. Born on May 2, 1972, in West Berlin, Germany, Empire picked up his first guitar at age eight. By age ten, he considered himself one of the city's best break dancers, and at age 11, Empire witnessed rap music, the first style of music he really liked. But as rap grew more popular and commercialized, Empire turned to the punk scene already spreading across Great Britain and the United States. At this time still an adolescent, Empire formed his own punk band, Die Kinder, which lasted until the group's breakup in 1988. Disillusioned because "we found that punk was dead," Empire wrote for Digital Hardcore's website, the 16-year-old isolated himself from friends for several months, listening to nothing but classical works by composers such as Debussy, Schoenberg, and Bartók, playing video games, and recording tapes of his guitar effects.
Longed for Alternatives
Looking back on his teen punk days, Empire described this period as both rewarding and tiresome. The downside of punk, according to Empire, comes from its restrictiveness. He told Bensel, "The negative stuff that I learned had to learn it at some pointas that scenes can become a creative prison where certain worlds are created. And it's really hard to step out of that.... A lot of punk is just about fashion or buying a certain product, which is maybe differentfor a lot of other people, but it's the same process." Nonetheless, Empire thought he learned a positive lesson from his experience with Die Kinder. He realized "how to be creative by destroying something," as quoted by Bensel. "Destruction, most of the time, is connected to something negative. But I think for me it's a positive process because it includes the chance of creating something new."
With Die Kinder behind him, Empire longed for an alternative creative outlet. Then, while staying in Nice in the south of France during the summer of 1988, he attended his first acid-rock party, and the new psychedelic sound quickly influenced Empire's next musical direction. When he returned to Germany for the next school year, he immediately started working to earn enough money to buy a sampler. Like many young Germans at this time, after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Empire was drawn to the new music played at the raves, techno parties held in the cellars of East Berlin's condemned houses. The atmosphere and music at the parties reminded him of the energy he found in acid-rock.
However, by 1991 the techno underworld had changed. Many party-goers took to harder drugs like heroin, a substance that often leads to addiction (Empire, who never tried drugs himself, only accepts drug use in moderation); the music itself now seemed lethargic, mainstream, and restrictive; and neo-Nazis and their racist rhetoric had permeated the rave scene as well. One night, Empire witnessed a Frankfurt rave club refusing to admit a group of young Turks, and he concluded that the culture that had previously inspired him had come to accept right-wing behavior. Thus Empire, whose grandfather had perished in a German concentration camp during World War II, decided to create a new type of music, along with other young Berliners who shared his values, in resistance to the current rave culture.
Believed in Diversity
Consequently, Empire formed Atari Teenage Riot in early 1992, a group that, not surprisingly, took strong offense when labeled as "techno." He wanted to express his belief of the importance of diversity, so he made an effort to select band members from different backgrounds. The resulting ensemble consisted of Empire, Hanin Elias, a native of Damascus, Syria, with an aggressive feminist agenda, and Carl Crack, an MC and DJ originally from Swaziland in southeast Africa. Together, the group's music broke off in a new direction from progressive rock, techno, and jungle to include hardcore and punk influenced break beats. By the fall of the same year, Atari Teenage Riot released their first single, "Hunt Down [Kill] the Nazis." Nevertheless, many record shops, especially those specializing in techno music, initially boycotted the single, and most DJs refused to play the record at dance clubs. Refusing to let this lack of support dissuade them, Atari Teenage Riot's uniquely violent sound eventually reached the youth culture of Berlin and caught the attention of record companies.
Hoping to spread their message to a wider audience, Atari Teenage Riot signed to a major European label, Phonogram, in 1993. However, Phonogram tried to leash the group's political attack and hard-hitting music, and record company executives wanted to turn Atari Teenage Riot into just another marketable techno supergroup. Therefore, Empire and his band mates left the label to strike out on their own after releasing two EPs, Atari Teenage Riot and Kids Are United. Then, with the leftover advance money given to the group by Phonogram for an unreleased album, Empire formed his own label called Digital Hardcore Recordings (DHR).
With the freedom to control their own musical interests, Atari Teenage Riot released their debut album, Delete Yourself, in March of 1995, followed by the Speed EP. Soon thereafter, underground support swelled, and Atari Teenage Riot played for sold out shows throughout Berlin. As their reputation spread across Europe, the group received an invitation from British radio legend John Peel to record a BBC session. Then in early 1996, Grand Royal Records (a label formed by the Beastie Boys) approached Atari Teenage to distribute DHR's records in the United States. Empire accepted the offer, and Grand Royal released a series of seven-inch singles later that fall, which American fans received with enthusiasm. Grand Royal's website reported that "the audience was subsequently confused, amazed, assaulted and won over."
Accepted by American Audiences
By December of 1996, Atari Teenage Riot received the opportunity to perform live in record stores and clubs in New York City, as well as other venues up and down the Easy Coast. The group earned positive press and shocked audiences with their abrasive onslaught, despite the maternity absence of Elias. Empire expressed to Mehle his surprise at how well American audiences had accepted the group and further commented, "Even in America, we thought maybe people are just into us because the music is strange. But we met so many people at the shows who say they've been waiting for a band to have these messages." Other artists took notice of Atari Teenage Riot as well, and Beck asked them to open for his United States tour of 1997. That year also saw the release of Atari Teenage Riot's second album, Burn, Berlin, Burn! In addition, they performed opening stints for rock group Rage Against the Machine that same year and went on to play live with such bands as Dinosaur Jr., Wu-Tang Clan, and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
In the spring of 1999, Atari Teenage Riot added a new member to the band, Japanese-American Nic Endo, and returned with their third album entitled 60 Second Wipeout, considered a more ambitious, yet also more politically and musically aggressive, effort. First, Empire opted to use only original studio sounds and all his own guitar work, rather than including samples, for this record. "Empire's guitar-playing values speed-thrash malevolence, and when paired with Endo's painful skronkage, the album is decidedly denser than its predecessor," concluded Bensel. Second, well-known singer Kathleen Hanna, formerly of the punk group Bikini Kill, added vocals to the track "No Success."
Finally, Atari Teenage Riot asked New York City rappers the Arsonists to contribute to the project after seeing them perform at a show in Berlin. However, convincing the rap artists to accept the offer took some persuading, as Arsonist member D-Story explained to Bensel. "Nicky (Endo) came up to me," said D-Story, "and I thought that she was trying to hook up with me. I didn't know who they were. So the whole night I'm performing, and she's smiling at me, and I'm like, 'Cool, I know what this is about.'" Then, to D-Story's surprise, Empire showed up alone after the show at the Arsonists' hotel room to pick them up. Although puzzled, D-Story, Q-Unique, and Freestyle went with Empire to Atari Teenage Riot's studio. D-Story continued, "So we went to their crib, and it was like a big vampire-setting type shit. If wings had come out of somebody's back, I would've said, 'All right, cool.' We were petrified and ready to expect anything. We all had our fists clenched tight." However, their worries subsided when Atari Teenage Riot played their music. The Arsonists immediately accepted Empire's offer, and the two groups met in New York to record three tracks together, including "Your Uniform (Does Not Impress Me)," "No Success," and "Anarchy 1999." Like Atari Teenage Riot's previous album, 60 Second Wipeout fared well with both fans and critics.
As for the band's future, Empire, now an avid fan of Wilson Pickett and jazz great Otis Redding, told Rodd McLeod in an interview for Rollingstone.com, "Atari Teenage Riot is a spontaneous thing, it could end any day," but added that "We'll [DHR] have a big impact in the coming years." And when asked whether he thought kids who listen to Atari Teenage Riot could possibly feed off the music's violent energy and ignore the group's revolutionary aspect, Empire replied, "A lot of people ask me that, but strangely enough I've never come across people who take the music as just entertainment. In America we met lots of 16-year-olds whose first contact with these ideas is Atari Teenage Riot, so it's a different situation. I don't want to judge people in the audience. But it's not like people are having a nice dance party to a track like 'Start the Riots' or 'Death of a President D.I.Y.!"
Delete Yourself, DHR, 1995.
The Future Of War, DHR, 1997.
Burn, Berlin, Burn!, DHR/Grand Royal, 1997.
60 Second Wipeout, DHR, 1999.
Atari Teenage Riot, Phonogram, 1993.
Kids Are United, Phonogram, 1993.
Speed, DHR, 1995.
Kids Are United, DHR, 1995.
Sick To Death, DHR, 1997.
Destroy 2000 Years Of Culture, DHR, 1997.
"Hetzjagd Auf Nazis," Riot Beats, 1992.
"Raverbashing," DHR, 1994.
Dallas Morning News, March 15, 1997.
Denver Rocky Mountain News, December 5, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, November 15, 1996; October 3, 1997.
Independent, November 6, 1998.
Magnet, June/July 1999.
Washington Post, July 16, 1999.
Digital Hardcore Recordings, http://www.digitalhardcore.com (August 4, 1999).
Rollingstone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com (August 4, 1999).
Grand Royal Records, (August 4, 1999).