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. ~
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It was in 1993 that I first witnessed Adrian Sherwood using the mixing desk as an instrument. He was in the room next to us at London’s Roundhouse Studios where we were working on tracks for Atari Teenage Riot. I remember so clearly how he was artfully layering sounds and using old delays and phasers to create this wide-open space—dubbed-out sonic landscapes is one of his specialities, of course. If you listen to seventies dub like Lee Perry’s “The Good, the Bad and the Upsetters” it all sounds very compressed, compared with Sherwood productions, where you can clearly hear each element. It’s sound as vision. Listening to him work that day, it became obvious that Sherwood came from a generation for whom experimentation was crucial. You see, in the pre-sampling eighties, everyone seemed to be thinking about how to create not only weirder, unexpected sounds, but also one’s that aren’t so easy to replicate—individualized sound design. For example, there’s a credit on the new album that lists legendary jazzman, Skip McDonald, as a “tuning consultant”. The explanation is that while working on Survival & Resistance, Sherwood and his collaborators went to Brazil and recorded traditional instruments, with Skip tuning them so low that they sound like synths. Tuning was always one of the first parameters that musicians could really play with: take a guitar, tune it down and the frequencies become more rhythmic and drum-like. That’s Sherwood’s organic approach to synthesis.
After I got about halfway through Survival & Resistance, I began to wonder why it is I love Adrian Sherwood, but find dubstep and new generations of dub-influenced subgenres so characterless. I guess one of the reasons is that so many dubstep producers use the same software, which naturally limits their imagination and sonic capacity. I don’t just mean the sounds themselves, but also their conceptual wherewithal that supports the pure music. In contrast, the expansive, scorched landscape of Survival & Resistance courses with a real sense of dread, particularly on “U.R. Sound”, where ominous chords are buttressed by currents of electrical interference. This is balanced out by a kind of spirituality that is specific to Sherwood dub—exemplified by the meditative vocals of Rastafarian preacher Ghetto Priest on “Trapped Here”. That’s not to say that there aren’t dubstep elements on the album, like “Two Semitones and a Raver” with its wobbly bass line and quick drops, but as usual Sherwood’s music is much broader than genre-specific categorization, which of course is the result of all the people he’s working with: Lee Perry, Skip McDonald, Doug Wimbish . . . You just can’t recreate that in the studio with one artist and some software.
Like Atari Teenage Riot, Sherwood is a political artist and through his On-U Sound label he has championed and produced music with a black Jamaican heritage; a political agenda for a postcolonial Britain. There’s no doubt it influenced ATR’s Bass Terror Soundsystem, although people might argue that what we did was harder and noisier. On-U is all about creating a sense of unity, but one loaded with social criticism; bringing people together without compromising the political message. If we as listeners are happy to merely stand back, the music says nothing and we will find ourselves left behind. Sherwood has a direct and critical political message, and this is something the dubstep scene urgently needs. Releasing Survival & Resistance amidst the global financial crisis and in the wake of a first wave of Occupy, Sherwood reminds us what soundsystems were, and what they should still be about. I hope young people listen, because music as a medium of political critique is perhaps more relevant now than ever. ~
Alec Empire is a founding member of the Berlin-based digital hardcore band Atari Teenage Riot. He currently runs two labels, Digital Hardcore Recordings (established in 1994) and the more recent Eat Your Heart Out. Aside from being a prolific solo artist, he is also an avid remixer and DJ. Empire was featured in the Spring 2011 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine in conversation with Wired staff writer and hacker-ethicist Steven Levy.
This text appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 31 (Fall 2012). Read the full issue on issuu.com: