Atari Teenage Riot: Two Decades of Riot Sounds to Cause Riots
May 25, 2011 11:59 AM   Subscribe

Atari Teenage Riot is the sound of punk, breakbeat and glitchy electronics, with a message behind the noise, something of the modern version of a riot set to music. The German group was briefly associated with the Phonogram record label back in 1993, but only long enough get a record deal with an unrecoupable advance, piss off the label, cut those ties and form their own new label: Digital Hardcore Recordings. From there, the group made three albums and about a dozen singles and EPs, toured the world, then went quiet in 2000. That is, until last year when the group reformed to tour, and the revised cast of characters recorded a new album, which is streaming online. Step inside for more history and noise.

The story of Atari Teenage Riot started before the 1990s, with the background of front-man Alexander Wilke-Steinhof, better known as Alec Empire. He grew up in Germany near the Berlin Wall, with what he described as "[t]his tension every day that things might go off... It's not fear, it's being alert." Protests and demonstrations, mixed with the new American music brought in by US soldiers. As a youth, he was a fan of rap, but came to feel the genre was too commercial. Then he was in a punk band, but felt that the punk movement had nothing new to say. His next venture into music was the world of raves and electronic dance music.

Initially going by the name LX Empire (mis-credited as LX Emoire on one of his few discography listings for this alias), he signed with Force Inc, along with future band-mate Hanin (Elias), with whom he produced a 1992 EP (sample). While with Force Inc, LX Empire became Alec Empire, and he released a number of singles under his solo alias, including his 1991 take on the acid house/techno style . In 1992, he released three solo singles with a new sonic direction, two of which included some odd notes on the record labels: Warning! Alec Empire is a member of Atari Teenage Riot! and Warning! Never trust a DJ! A.T.R.'s gonna fuck you up!

While the sound wasn't too hardcore quite yet, ATR had formed, and it had a purpose: to provide a response to the neo nazi movement of the early 1990s, who had "declared techno as the 'true German music'" as part of an attempt to appeal to German youth. Empire's reply was to use music "rooted in Afro-American funk music in the late 60ties and 70ties" that was also related to civil rights and radical political groups, sampling and modifying the breakbeats from funk tracks. (Tangent: in recent years, faster beats have been adopted by some neo-nazis)

From this blend of underground techno and political activism, Alec Empire, Hanin Elias and Carl Crack (born Carl Böhm) created Atari Teenage Riot. At the young group's second show, A&R reps from various labels were present, looking to sign the band as a way to cash in on the Dance Craze of such acts like The Prodigy and 2 Unlimited.
"So we went for the deal with the highest unrecoupable advance which was very high in those days. Then our goal was to get out of the deal as fast as possible by sabotaging the whole thing. It worked. A year later we started DHR with that money, pressed up the first 12 inches, John Peel loved those and then it all started to happen..."
DHR, Digital Hardcore Recordings, was funded with the funding that Phonogram gave the group to record an album, but they did everything they could to ruin the deal. In the end, Phonogram released two singles from the group in 1993, and in 1994 the first DHR single was released, and it was getting hardcore (sample: Pleasure Is Our Business (live)). The label was bigger than ATR, and included many like-minded artists.

The next year Atari Teenage Riot released a full album of material, initially titled 1995, then re-titled Delete Yourself! when the album was re-released two years later. Tracklist: 1. Start the Riot! / 2. Into the Death / 3. Raverbashing / 4. Speed (video) / 5. Sex / 6. Midijunkies / 7. Delete Yourself! You Got No Chance To Win! (Live In Glasgow 17.10.1993) / 8. Hetzjagd Auf Nazis! (original version, not Live In Berlin 25.2.1994) / 9. Cyberpunks Are Dead! / 10. Atari Teenage Riot / 11. Kids Are United! (HD video) / 12. Riot 1995

To that point, Atari Teenage Riot had released any music directly to the US, but that changed in 1995 when members of the alt/math rock group Chavez introduced Mike Diamond (aka Mike D of The Beastie Boys) to ATR, and got DHR connected to the Grand Royal label (which closed in 2001; label discography).

In 1997, the group released their second album. One reviewer said the album was more diverse, but with less of an impact than the first album, noting that 1995 included a number of previously released singles. Tracklist: 1. Get Up While You Can / 2. Fuck All! / 3. Sick To Death (video)/ 4. P.R.E.S.S. / 5. Deutschland (Has Gotta Die!) / 6. Destroy 2000 Years Of Culture / 7. Not Your Business / 8. You Can't Hold Us Back / 9. Heatwave / 10. Redefine The Enemy / 11. Death Star / 12. The Future Of War. The Japanese edition, as well as the second DHR pressing, included three bonus tracks: 13. She Sucks My Soul Away / 14. Strike / 15. Midijunkies (Gonna Fuck You Up) (Oscillate Mix). That same year, Grand Royal put together a compilation for US audiences, titled Burn, Berlin, Burn!, taking tracks from the group's first and second albums.

The group's third album, 60 Second Wipe Out, was released in 1999 in various editions. The album featured work by Nic Endo, who had previously toured with the group. 1. Revolution Action (video with Space Invaders, or text messages) / 2. By Any Means Necessary / 3. Western Decay / 4. Atari Teenage Riot II / 5. Ghostchase / 6. Too Dead For Me (HD video) / 7. U.S. Fade Out / 8. The Virus Has Been Spread / 9. Digital Hardcore / 10. Death Of A President D.I.Y.! / 11. Your Uniform (Does Not Impress Me!) / 12. No Success / 13. Anarchy 999. The US edition included a bonus track (14. No Remorse (I Wanna Die)), from the Spawn soundtrack.

The studio work is only half of ATR. ATR toured with a wide variety of groups, backing Moby in Holland, Rage Against The Machine and Wu-Tang Clan on a US tour, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. JSBX even collaborated with ATR for a track called Attack.

But the group wasn't always so cordial. Live shows could be a bit intense, as during a show in Brazil, Hanin Elias punched a security guard with her microphone when he groped her, and at another show, Carl Crack had a psychotic breakdown on stage and tried to stab people with his microphone stand because he thought he was a Zulu warrior. In March of 1999, John Peel invited ATR to play at the Queen Elizabeth Hall before the band released 60 Second Wipe Out, and the show sold out, and ended with a riot. In a review of the evening, an NME reporter pondered, "If Atari Teenage Riot can do this in a chamber orchestra hall, imagine what havoc they could wreak with a baying festival mob." People didn't have to wonder for long, as on May 1, 1999 ATR played at the Revolutionary Labour Day event, and were arrested for inciting a riot (context: May Day for Dummies, and an extended clip with commentary by Alec Empire). The band ended with one last blast: Atari Teenage Riot played in November 1999 at Brixton Academy. Instead of performing individual tracks, it was solid sound. The show was less than half an hour, but it was recorded for posterity -- "Live At Brixton Academy is the sound of a riot in progress."

The group was worn from an extended period of touring, and they unofficially disbanded in 2000. Hanin Elias had a child around that time, making an imminent return to ATR unlikely. Then in 2001, Carl Crack died of a drug overdose, at age 30. The remaining ATR members went their own ways - Elias formed a small label and recorded some solo work, and Nic Endo released a solo album, too. Endo's album was released on Geist Records, a short-lived sub-label of DHR. Alec said he was involved in more records than in the '90s, including running a new label - Eat Your Heart Out.

DHR released two compilations of ATR material: Redefine The Enemy!, a rarities and b-sides comp. in 2002, then a broader retrospective titled 1992-2000 in 2006. Alec put his old label on hold in 2007 to focus on his new label.

Last year, Atari Teenage Riot announced a reunion tour and released a new single (A side, B side on Soundcloud). Except the new ATR was only half of its former self, with Carl Crack dead, and some weirdness/ugliness between Alec Empire and Hanin Elias (posted on Facebook, to boot). Nic Endo took on some lead vocals, and the group now includes Atlanta-based veteran of the underground hip-hop scene, CX KiDTRONiK, who wasn't intended to replace Carl Crack, but to provide a new voice and sound in ATR.

ATR was backwith an extended tour and new US label, Steve Aoki's Dim Mak Records. The touring went well, and one single lead to a video and another single (MP3 on RCRD LBL), and finally a whole album (track-by-track review, streaming online without track breaks, and on YouTube as single tracks).

More Bits and Pieces
* There used to be a detailed Alec Empire fansite, but it's now reduced to a semi-functional copy on the Wayback Machine.
* Another Alec Empire interview, this time with talk about his new gear and studio set-up
* ATR still has troubles in/with Germany: the 1997 ATR album The Future of War was banned in Germany in 2002 (Wayback Machine), and the German branch of the iTunes Store doesn't like part of an ATR app, called "Riotsounds Produce Riots," an audio player that features sounds that ATR used at a May Day protest in 1999, at which the band members were arrested, noting that the app feature generates "very low sub basses, square waves, noise sounds which trigger hysteria and panic within the audience."
posted by filthy light thief (45 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
And EVEN MORE: lots of ATR/Alec Empire videos from YouTube account THVStudios, which is an account held by Alec Empire and Nic Endo. The account name is an abbreviation of The Hellish Vortex Studios, their current HQ in Berlin.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:10 PM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Huh. I thought they were gone for good. Great post!
posted by a snickering nuthatch at 12:13 PM on May 25, 2011

Nothing makes me feel as old as nostalgia for music when I was in my early/mid 20s.
posted by DigDoug at 12:19 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another bonus link: 1995 interview with Joel Amaretto, in the Berlin branch of DHR about what DHR means, and how it founded (the money from Phonogram).
posted by filthy light thief at 12:20 PM on May 25, 2011

great history lesson thanks!
posted by pucklermuskau at 12:21 PM on May 25, 2011

posted by en forme de poire at 12:22 PM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Great post. This brings back memories. I used to study for exams with ATR blasting on my headphones.
posted by Pendragon at 12:24 PM on May 25, 2011

wow, great post.

I saw them 1. mai 99 on the revolutionary 1. may demo, when they got arrested after one of the usual brutal berlin police hooligan riots, a legendary gig.
posted by ts;dr at 12:26 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by oddman at 12:28 PM on May 25, 2011

As always with filthy light thief's music posts, this is good.

Also, I am loving the multitude of interesting music posts in general on MeFi lately.
posted by mysterpigg at 12:35 PM on May 25, 2011

This post HAS THE F---ING POWER! Excellent post.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:37 PM on May 25, 2011

I saw them a few times, but the most memorable was at King Tut's in Glasgow, where an audience member challenged one of Mr. Empire's between-song assertions, and they ended up having a fierce debate over the whether music is an effective force for social change, and whether extreme music could be seen as inherently against the status quo, for at least ten minutes. Marx was quoted, as you'd imagine.

The crowd cheered or booed after each one made their point, and the atmosphere got really charged as more folk started arguing with Empire or the audience member, until... I dunno, I was pretty drunk, but the music started up again and ATR and the crowd went collectively nuts.

More gigs should have impromptu angry debates, I think.

That said, if I want to be shouted at by angry men over power electronics that make my body hurt, I'll take Whitehouse over ATR any day.
posted by jack_mo at 12:47 PM on May 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

I was wondering what they were up to lately and this is really fantastic.
posted by fuq at 1:02 PM on May 25, 2011

This post is so meaty & excellent, thank you!

ATR recently did a session at Daytrotter.
posted by atlatl at 1:09 PM on May 25, 2011

Atari Teenage Riot always had all the elements (politics, hardcore punk and gabber style electronic music) that I enjoy separately, but they never quite came together for me. Perhaps I had already mellowed by the time I heard them. My loss, I'm sure.
posted by Hutch at 2:39 PM on May 25, 2011

Besides ATR, Digital Hardcore reminds me of Bomb20. It actually surprises me that there aren't more bands that have followed the ATR blueprint. Samplers don't cost much more than guitars.
posted by drezdn at 2:57 PM on May 25, 2011

drezdn: It actually surprises me that there aren't more bands that have followed the ATR blueprint. Samplers don't cost much more than guitars.

There are a lot of ATR-like bands, but the aggressive sound doesn't seem to get much publicity, unless you make it (which ATR did, to a degree). For more of similar sounds (including Bomb 20), check the Digital Hardcore Recording label (Discogs link, some videos linked on release pages). If you're looking for a lot of different artists on one compilation, check Don't F**k With Us a 3CD comp. of (North?) American artists who sent their demos to the US DHR office. It's all old now (circa 2002), but it's a start.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:11 PM on May 25, 2011

Holy crap this is an awesome post. I love ATR! Saw them in like '97 at the Masquerade in Atlanta. And now I know they're going to be in LA this year... tempting, will have to check out the stuff from the recent tour.
posted by wildcrdj at 3:43 PM on May 25, 2011


Alec Empire did some good non-ATR stuff too, of course.
posted by Decani at 4:00 PM on May 25, 2011

Delete Yourself! is and will always remain one of my Desert Island Top 25 records.

I fucking love me some ATR.
posted by namewithoutwords at 4:03 PM on May 25, 2011

Wow, I saw them in 1997 at the Masquerade in Atlanta as well. Small world. EC8OR opened for them - they compose all their music on an Amiga 500.
posted by ChrisHartley at 4:13 PM on May 25, 2011

I know Atari Teenage Riot as the last track on the "MTV's Amp" compilation album. This was my first real exposure to electronic music as a teenager and while I loved all the other tracks on the album, I found that one unlistenable. I must have played that album over and over again during the summer of '97 while playing video games, walking across my room to skip that last track every time.
posted by demiurge at 4:21 PM on May 25, 2011

It was a long, arduous process to learn to love ATR to win the affections of Some Girl back in high school. By the time I climbed out of my Emo Cave and figured out how that staticky, shouty mess was something worth listening to the Girl was gone, but hell yes ATR.
posted by soma lkzx at 4:22 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

July 31 at the Fuji Rock Festival.
posted by ctmf at 4:23 PM on May 25, 2011

Decani: Alec Empire did some good non-ATR stuff too

I was thinking of covering some of Alec's solo work and other projects, but that's a huge post unto itself, and worthy of a trek given the variety of productions involved.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:24 PM on May 25, 2011

True enough, flf, true enough.
posted by Decani at 4:29 PM on May 25, 2011

Flf? Flt, even.
posted by Decani at 4:30 PM on May 25, 2011

I saw ATR a fortnight ago at the Bang Face weekender festival. They were AWESOME - one of the best gigs I've ever been to. I remember agreeing with my partner that we'd stick around for the first 15 mins or so of the set before going home, since we'd both seen Alec Empire several times before and we were both quite tired at that point. Then.. ..something happened.. ..and the next thing it's an hour later and the set had just finished and were just sort of staring at one another going "wow" and "ouch" and wondering if our feet were going to fall off from being danced on so hard. ATR were fucking relentless. GO AND SEE THEM.
posted by doop at 4:48 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Carl Crack's album Black Ark is one of my favorites to come out of Digital Hardcore.
posted by muta at 5:05 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

This post is amazing.

Destroy 2000 years of culture.

But please leave this one alone.
posted by four panels at 5:45 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I saw ATR at the Big Day Out some years ago, where they played mid-afternoon. They were good, but Alec telling the crowd "WE ARE HERE TO INSPIRE VIOLENT REVOLUTION AGAINST YOUR GOVERNMENT!" on a glorious, sunny Australian afternoon invoked a little bit of dissonance for me.
posted by Jimbob at 5:46 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I saw ATR open for Beck on his Odelay tour in '97. The crowd wasn't particularly impressed; when after a few songs Alec screamed, "Do you want more?" the entire audience screamed back, "NO!"
posted by Rangeboy at 5:49 PM on May 25, 2011

'Hey! Nice t-shirt! Atari Teenage Riot, yeah!'
'Yah, cool, huh!'
'So, do you actually listen to them, or do you just think it's an awesome band name?'
'Awesome band name.'
'Yeah, me too. But let's not tell anybody.'
'I'm pretty sure everybody else already had this conversation.'
'Let's not risk it. Ready?'

'Yeah, Pitfall was so awesome!'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:50 PM on May 25, 2011

Thanks for this post.

ATR was, and still is, the perfect mixture of noise + beats + a bit of pop. Still get goosebumps listening to 'Destroy 2000 Years of Culture' or Alec's solo work with Curse of the Golden Vampire or when he went into the ring against Merzbow. Alec Empire and Atari Teenage Riot's work was, for me, one of those few times you find a musician who matches your personal aesthetic nearly perfectly.
posted by honestcoyote at 6:16 PM on May 25, 2011

Atari Teenage Riot shows also got the best hecklers.

At a show in Lawrence, Kansas, Alec and the gang were screaming "Fuck the police! Fuck the government!" and some clean-cut drunk political science majors were yelling back, "Yeah! You got it man! Fuck Alexander Hamilton!"
posted by honestcoyote at 6:23 PM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Man, I don't know why I never got into these guys as a kid. Thanks for this post! Now do one about Refused!
posted by Existential Dread at 8:10 PM on May 25, 2011

en forme de poire: "WHAT DID YOU SAY?!"

posted by symbioid at 8:21 PM on May 25, 2011

namewithoutwords: "Delete Yourself! is and will always remain one of my Desert Island Top 25 records."

What the fuck are you gonna rage against on a Desert Island?

posted by symbioid at 8:26 PM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Existential Dread: Now do one about Refused!

Fuck that, Refused are fucking dead (at least, that's what the cover says).
posted by filthy light thief at 9:23 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I saw ATR open for Beck on his Odelay tour in '97. The crowd wasn't particularly impressed; when after a few songs Alec screamed, "Do you want more?" the entire audience screamed back, "NO!"

I remember similar crowd clash seeing ATR open for John Spencer Blues Explosion.

Also, when you play riot sounds effects at a riot situation, and the police come, I'm pretty sure it's because of the riot situation, and not because of the riot sounds effects am i rite
posted by eddydamascene at 12:30 AM on May 26, 2011

Oh man, I found ATR in the late 90s through my dad's copy of "Burn Berlin Burn" and loved it.

MIDIjunkies... are gonna fuck you up.
posted by autoclavicle at 1:17 AM on May 26, 2011

While watching the video for "Speed," I discovered that the song had been featured in one of those "The Fast and the Furious" movies via the comments. That's a little hard to wrap my head around.
posted by autoclavicle at 4:09 AM on May 26, 2011

autoclavicle - Alec mentions that in a recent interview, when talking about the audience at recent US shows. He said that "80 percent or so" saw ATR for the first time this year, and he cites the song's inclusion in the Tokyo Drift soundtrack as a possible reason. The interview was back in January, so there were only one new song released.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:49 AM on May 26, 2011

Amazing post, thank you.

I think that time may be right for a new generation of ATR fans
posted by J0 at 10:50 AM on May 26, 2011

Refused are fucking dead

great fucking song

I have a soft spot for rabble-rousing leftist-marxist punk and hardcore. Which means that now I'm part of that new generation of ATR fans.
posted by Existential Dread at 5:57 PM on May 26, 2011

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