Telekom Electronic Beats

“Music is a weapon” – Alec Empire on Digital Hardcore

For the eighth volume of EB’s Berlin Experiment series, Alec Empire recalls the genesis of Digital Hardcore, from William Burroughs’ Electronic Revolution to East Berlin’s post-apocalyptic wasteland, to burning refugee camps and his iconic Low on Ice release, which is now being re-released in extended form as The Complete Low on Ice Sessions in a triple CD box set on Milles Plateaux.


In The Electronic Revolution (1970), William S. Burroughs describes how cut-up tape recordings turn sounds into political weapons. He sums up this approach in a powerful image: “Riot sound effects can produce an actual riot in a riot situation. Recorded police whistles will draw cops. Recorded gunshots, and their guns are out”.

Atari Teenage Riot is based on this idea. Sampling has replaced the actual cutting of tape, but the subversive goal remains the same. The first productions started in late 1991. They were an immediate reaction to political developments in Germany. While the western lumpenbourgeousie claimed the east with promises of green pastures and waving German flags, in Rostock and Hoyerswerda racists set fire to refugee asylums, which, as the perverse result, brought about severe legal restrictions of the basic right to asylum. Theses incidents shocked me deeply. Right wing ideas even started spreading in the music scene. All of a sudden, the male was once again the hunter and the female’s place the kitchen—notions I thought long overcome by my parent’s generation. It was obvious we had to take a stand.

Atari Teenage Riot sought confrontation with the audience from the start. The constant hugging and “we all love each other” attitude that defined the techno scene did not reflect the political reality. Our first single “Hetzjagd auf Nazis”, published on Force Inc. in early 1992, was a direct response to the racist attacks of Hoyerswerda. It basically sounded like Underground Resistance with breakbeats. We considered the sound of Detroit the only aspect worth maintaining within techno music, which became more and more chart-orientated. This hard, minimalist style accurately conveyed the way we felt. Our vision was finding our own voice, based on this sound.

Atari Teenage Riot, “Hetzjagd auf Nazis”, 1992


With Atari Teenage Riot, we always thought in terms of cinematic concepts. We saw ourselves as film characters and tried to translate those into music. We never jammed. We never just met in the studio to make music. We meticulously constructed our music from the very beginning. We wanted to turn emotions into sound and we wanted people to understand these emotions. This can only be achieved through deliberate musical translation. By building an atmosphere. For one thing this meant that, thanks to Atari, Berlin’s image abroad resembled a setting for Blade Runner, Mad Max, or 1984. Americans and Japanese thought of the reunited Berlin as a bizarre projection, a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by carnival characters in fantastical uniforms. And Atari Teenage Riot provided the suitable soundtrack..

The breakbeats kept getting faster and harder. “Tötenposse Rides Out” from my 1992 EP SuEcide already had 172 bpm, a quantum leap compared to the usual 120-130 bpm in techno or 140 bpm in British breakbeat. We also started dissecting the breaks, slicing them up and changing them around so we wouldn’t always have to set up shop with the same old loops. People thought it sounded like a cross between breakbeat and hardcore and started calling it breakcore. I didn’t like that term. It didn’t sound good and it didn’t get the point of a digital, sample-based production process across. From these considerations the idea for Digital Hardcore emerged as a name for both the genre and the label.

Alec Empire, “Tötenposse Rides Out”, 1992


At first we were still mixing the breakbeats pretty far behind the 909 kick drums, close to how UR did it when using a breakbeat. It might have sounded a bit trashy with UR, but nowhere near as distorted as became our habit. As a former punk rock guitarist I knew we could turn up the energy this way. By distorting digital sounds with analogue effects they gain more overtones and become fatter and more extreme. It seemed like trashy garage recordings, similar to how punk bands traditionally mixed their music. That’s what distinguished ATR from the usual techno productions of the time. To attract attention, you have to focus on a frequency range between  1 and 5 kHz, the mid-range. The more bass, the less attention.

On my 1995 album Low On Ice, the mid-range is very subdued. That’s what causes this meditative effect. No matter how much you crank it up, it will never scream at you. Looking back, the sounds of Low On Ice have always reminded me of John Carpenter film scores. But unlike John Carpenter, I created those sounds by manipulating reverbs. And I did it with the kind of equipment traditionally used in acid house productions. A lot of people thought Low On Ice to be a techno album, but there’s actually not one straight bass beat on it, nothing you can directly associate with techno. No euphoria or high energy, but quite the opposite: deceleration and isolation. Imagine skating on thin ice and breaking through. You can’t find the hole anymore and slowly drift with the current beneath the ice. The sun is still shining but there’s no way back, all sounds are muffled, the situation is claustrophobic. That album is still valid for me to this day as a commentary on the techno euphoria back then. In 1995 it was obvious to me that techno was over.

Alec Empire, Low On Ice, 1995


At first, techno meant exploring a new musical world nobody knew yet. And that is still my basic idea: there is a goal which is not clearly defined, and we want to get away from things being defined and predetermined, anyway. To get out of that, we have to create soundscapes that are no longer based on last century’s pop music principles. I consider pop and mainstream music strategies of exclusion: minorities have to adapt if they want to participate. Pop advocates like to claim that pop is for everyone. I disagree. Pop forces thought patterns on people. But they can be dissipated by a new kind of music. Music is a weapon. ~


Read our evolving archive of Berlin’s musical history by visiting our Berlin Experiment page.

Published August 12, 2014. Words by robertdefcon.