By Steve Brennan
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By New Times Staff
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By the mid-'00s, Berlin digital hardcore outfit Atari Teenage Riot's hard work toward mainstream success had all but eroded. The 2001 death of MC Carl Crack effectively stopped the band's creative growth in its tracks, and all that remained was its too-punk-for-techno, too-techno-for-punk influence. Even mastermind Alec Empire had put the group — also featuring female collaborators Hanin Elias and Nic Endo — in his rear view, to some extent.
"I totally underestimated that Atari Teenage Riot is still relevant for this generation for some reason," Empire explains in perfect English colored with a slight German tone. "I was doing other stuff in the last ten years, like [solo material], a few independent film soundtracks, and things like that. It wasn't really on my radar that people were still discovering Atari Teenage Riot."
Over time, however, electronic music began filling the void ATR left behind. M.I.A.'s anthem of political unrest, "Born Free"; Crystal Castles' noisy chip tunes; and Bloody Beetroots' chaotic beats all hit familiar registers from the group. Today, Empire contends he's not bothered by the familiar sounds.
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"Music is like language. Once it's out there, people can adapt it and do their own things to it," he says. "Sometimes people approach me saying I should be pissed off that these bands are taking my ideas. But I don't really feel like that. All these bands and producers have maybe taken a few elements, but they have their very own ideas and approaches."
Back in 1999, Atari Teenage Riot was riding cult success after the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal imprint released Burn, Berlin, Burn! — a compilation of tracks from its first two heralded European releases, Delete Yourself! and The Future of War. The band then signed to an Elektra Records roster boasting Björk, Metallica, and Ol' Dirty Bastard and worked with Grammy-winning sound engineer Andy Wallace for its major-label debut, 60 Second Wipeout. The ambitious U.S. promotional push for the album included music videos directed by Italian photographer Andrea Giacobbe and Aussie film director John Hillcoat and an opening slot on Nine Inch Nails' 1999 "Fragility" tour.
Things seemed to be going well for an act most deemed too confrontational and virtually unmarketable to succeed. But Elias and Crack couldn't keep up with the demand, leaving Empire and Endo to pick up the pieces. Ultimately, Crack's death in September 2001 — often cited as a suicide, but the band argues because of Crack's diagnosed psychosis it could have been an accident — seemed to mark the end for Atari Teenage Riot's call to "hunt down the Nazis" and for a new world order.
Empire and Endo continued to produce music, but Empire's label, Digital Hardcore Recordings, and all the noisy, chaotic acts it brought on — EC8OR, Lolita Storm, Bomb 20, Shizuo — collapsed as its namesake genre gave way to minimal techno and electro house.
Two years ago, Elias contacted Empire about reuniting the living members of Atari Teenage Riot. The band recorded a new single, "Activate!," to celebrate the return, but things didn't go quite as planned for a May reunion concert in London.
"[Hanin] ran into these vocal problems and then was like, 'Maybe I shouldn't play this show,' " Empire says in reference to his bandmate's years of screaming for ATR. "So that was embarrassing that she didn't turn up, but people loved [Nic Endo] so much, we said, 'Let's do this!' "
Besides needing someone to fill in for Elias, Crack's absence was still felt. Empire says he was hesitant to let anyone fill in, but CX Kidtronik, an MC who appeared on Empire's solo album, called with a proposition.
Empire recalls: "He was like, 'I'm in Europe, and I see you guys are playing; can I come on stage? I love Carl Crack's work, and that would be so awesome.' "
To ease Empire's worries, Kidtronik rewrote Crack's lyrics to make them his own.
"It's almost like remixing a song by adding new lyrics to them," Empire says. "That was the moment that we started thinking of Atari Teenage Riot as a sort of statement of the present rather than trying to re-create something from the past."
That one-time reunion spurred the return of Atari Teenage Riot, including its first album in 11 years, Is This Hyperreal?, out on Dim Mak, and a world tour featuring Empire, Endo, and Kidtronik. Fortunately, the years haven't softened the band's need to confront audiences with political discourse. Within Hyperreal's overall theme of internet freedom, the real standout is the single "Blood in My Eyes," in which Nic Endo confronts sex trafficking head-on.
"Where we are now with the internet, I think, is very similar to what's going on with the nation-state. It's also the danger," says Empire. "I thought that was very interesting, instead of writing about this issue of revolution, which was the theme on 60 Second Wipeout."
Even without Crack and Elias, Empire is comfortable retaining the Atari Teenage Riot name. He argues it was never a band in the traditional sense but more of a collective of artists who came and went.
"Back when we toured in America, we played most of the tour without Hanin," he says. "The John Spencer Blues Explosion tour, the Beck tour, Wu-Tang Clan, all that stuff, Hanin was never on those tours. Even though I wanted it to be some sort of band, because we were coming from techno, you don't really have that rock-band thing with steady members. It's more anonymous."