Revisit the Art of 90s London Rave Culture with the Underworld

Underworld created a classic 90s album but they also established a whole art movement.

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Sep 4 2016, 11:50am

All images courtesy of Tomato

This article was originally published on November 21, 2014 but we think it still rocks!

As a visual and sonic document of London's early 90s rave culture and artistic ferment, Underworld's Dubnobasswithmyheadman remains matchless. In fusing punk and other artistic and musical forms, Underworld unwittingly lit the way to the multimedia future of music in the internet age.

When Underworld's Karl Hyde and Rick Smith reissued Dubnobasswithmyheadman, it didn't come as too much of a surprise. Underworld and Tomato—the art and design collective formed by Hyde, Smith, John Warwicker, Simon Taylor, and others—also threw in new artwork for the five-disc super deluxe edition, including a 50-page large format enhancement of the original's album booklet.

Images from the Dubnobasswithmyheadman album booklet

Looking back at early 90s, Tomato's communal artistic approach empowered Underworld to handle creative tasks that are now quite commonplace for musicians in the internet age: art, graphic design, music production, live projections, videos, a personal record label (Tomato Records), and so on.

As Hyde told The Creators Project, the 12 or so members who founded Tomato came together in the anything-goes London Soho of the time. Dance clubs and club nights were popping up left and right, as were pirate radio stations illegally broadcasting rave music to masses in the throes of chemical rapture.

“I grew up with pirate radio stations that played the best music from America,” Hyde said. “I was hearing this fantastic music that was from my youth, early German music like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Neu!, and Can re-processed by these London kids making illegal broadcasts from their apartment blocks.”

Tomato's ranks were filled with musicians, artists, graphic designers, filmmakers, and even business people. As Hyde said, everyone had a profound influence on one another. 

Left to right: Underworld's Karl Hyde, Darren Emerson, and Rick Smith.

For the album sleeve, Warwicker assumed the role of “mixmaster” in a process that was both technologically analog and digital. One of Tomato's favorite tools at the time was a fax machine. These old Canon machines no longer accepted faxes, but if they were fed a message with an image to copy with Warwicker holding the sheet of paper back, the machine would start to draw lines and stretch words.

“Guys were making these huge, long artworks made out of fax elements,” added Hyde. “It was like subverting technology at the time, which was what was going on in the studio with Underworld, too.”

Tomato members would also place big sheets of paper on the floor, according to Hyde, and then “jam on top of it, making marks, handprints, and splashes and then cut it up and scan it into the Macs.” The collective would incorporate Hyde's impressionistic text, which he was creating on a typewriter.

“It was a very physical process in those days at Tomato,” said Hyde. “The computer was just a way of tying it together. This [method] expanded into images that became part of the advertising culture of the 90s that Tomato was part of creating.”

Karl Hyde in New York City.

While Tomato's process was technological subversion, their artistic touchstones were more historical. At the time, computer-generated art was de rigueur, but Hyde was and still is inspired by New York-style abstract expressionism, especially Franz Klein's black and white paintings, where canvases were large and dynamic. For him, that sort of immensity equated to dance music.

“It was movement rendered in paint, which is a form of music,” Hyde said. “Dance music is about physicality, about exuberance. I said, 'Let's make art that reflects that.'”

Tomato and Underworld undoubtedly succeeded on that front. The album sleeve and booklet swirl and dance with amorphous black and white shapes, textures, and Hyde's impressionistic urban poetry.

Hyde and Warwicker might downplay Dubnobasswithmyheadman's impact on dance music artwork, but it brought a nice dose of futurism to the culture and times. 

Original handwritten lyrics courtesy of Karl Hyde.

Click here to visit Underworld's website.

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