Royal Studio, Bicep artwork

Our new Label Focus series shines a light on some of the most innovative and visually forward-thinking record labels, tracing their history through their artwork and design. The debut piece focuses on Ninja Tune—the London-based label  founded in 1990 that quickly became renowned for its bold and hugely original approach to unifying sound and vision through videos, VJ-tailored releases, and recently, even fashioned designer-created sleeves that force the listener to physically tear through its fabric outer layers.

What does music look like? Translating a track or an album into a visual experience is never straightforward, but it’s a crucial part of the way we approach and really understand music today. As Theresa Adebiyi, Ninja Tune’s creative marketing manager puts it, “As a listener, you are led by the artwork. And often it’s the first encounter you have with the album. So a good cover sleeve has to be an accurate representation of the feel of the record.”

Understanding that artwork isn’t just an auxiliary add-on but an integral part of the experience of music underpins Ninja Tune’s whole visual ethos: “You have to think about the full experience, the whole 360”, Adebiyi says. When Matt Black and Jonathan More (aka Coldcut) set up the label in 1990 to bypass the creative control of major labels, it allowed them to not just channel and champion new underground sounds but also explore new ways of augmenting the way we encounter music.

Coldcut and Hexstatic Timber video still

An early(ish) example of this is Coldcut’s 1997 release Timber, a track that draws heavily on samples taken from sawmills and industrial logging. The video casts light on the sources of each of the samples, visually deconstructing the track. Crucially, the music and the video were produced in conjunction, and the track was released as an AV piece with wide MTV circulation.

This kind of work takes the marriage of music and film far beyond a means for promotion, allowing for a way more arresting experience. “It’s clear that the samples in timber are drawn from the real world”, says Black. “It is not an artificial pop promo, it’s reality. And reality carries more clout, more power to create a deeper impression.”

Timber became the blueprint for VJing, and the video itself was in fact visually remixed and resampled in different iterations (in 2001 The Guinness Book of World Records granted Timber the ‘Most Music Videos for One Song’, with five versions of the video). VJing is another field that Black and Ninja Tune have consistently advanced: Let us Replay! a 1999 release of remixes of Coldcut classics, came with a free CD-ROM demo version of VJamm, an early VJ software.

It’s this expansive and participatory approach that still underpins Ninja Tune’s creative direction today. Adebiyi explains the process as “always artist-led. We start by figuring out where the artist is coming from in the music: What were you listening to the when you made the album? What have you seen recently that has made an impression on you? What are the textures at play here? We figure out where they were coming from, what their vision is and then look at how we can expand that, take it to new places.”

Adebiyi notes an emerging trend that’s opening up ways of fostering a deeper relationship with new releases. “On the whole, people are no longer buying records just for the music. What’s changing is that we’re thinking a lot more about the nature of the package, the entire experience of opening up a record. We’re always looking at ways we can deepen that engagement. That’s something we’re going to see a lot more of—ways to expand the world that the artist has created, how to make it all the more tactile and tangible.”

“One eye in the microscope, and one eye in the telescope”

It was this process that delivered the artwork for Bicep’s recent debut album, surrounding singles and live visuals. There’s something about the feel of it that’s at once whisperingly delicate and powerfully tectonic; the textures slip between liquid-like closeups and great slabs of rock seen from afar, pushing your sense of scale in two directions. The effect is expansive yet reflective, gentle yet jagged, cosmic yet grounded, much like the album’s sound. Throughout the design process, art direction and design team Royal Studio’s João Castro was reminded of Argentinian author Eduardo Galeano: “Someone once said that he has one eye in the microscope, and one eye in the telescope. That’s how I felt while working on this.”

Royal Studio, Bicep artwork development

Royal Studio (in partnership with AnaTypes Type, Xesta Studio and Lyft Studio) started by collecting samples. “We had this major workshop where we explored textures, played around with different inking techniques, clay, oil. The goal wasn’t to conquer the textures but to capture them in flux. We were taking photographs of that flux.” The photographs of textures were then digitally transformed, modulated, colored, gridded and regridded over and over again in hundreds of different formations.

Royal Studio, Bicep artwork development

The Bicep duo are big into graphic design themselves, and acted as collaborators on the work—Castro would send them arrangements of textures in different colorways and Bicep would select their highlights from each. Interestingly, the entire process kind of echoed the workflow of creating loop-based electronic music, with analogue synth and drum lines recorded onto a computer before being digitally cut up, effected and rearranged in grid formations.

This was no accident. “It was very intentional—textures were just a starting point,” says Castro. “How can you take a sample, a single instrument, modulate it, make it into something different? What we have here are not textures or artworks, they are just inputs. So how do we work with these inputs to make something else?”

Working in this way, Royal Studio produced much more than just some sleeve designs. By laying down a solid foundation of colorway, textures, and gridding structure, they have built a reliable system for generating countless iterations of the same aesthetic. “In the end, what we have—and still have, because this process hasn’t ended—is a very fluid and ambiguous way to create a structure from where you can have one album cover, or variations upon a system that can create a thousand different covers and they’ll all be part of the same whole.” And this is happening: the visual architectural principles they’ve created are currently being used as the basis for generating their live visuals.

A Dadaist design approach

For a new release out on Big Dada, a Ninja Tune imprint, producer Louis Carnell, AKA Visionist, met fashion designer William Francis Green through mutual friends, and when the chance to create a deluxe version of his new album Value, they took it.

William Frances Green, Visionist artwork

They went with a 100 editions, featuring a heavyweight gold vinyl and a zine with images from Belgian artist Peter De Potter. This was packaged in a screenprinted fabric case, each hand printed by Green, with the album title on the outside and prints of the album imagery on the inside. These can only be seen by cutting open three sides of the sleeve. As Green notes, the entire package is an extension of the underlying album concept of value. “When you have the case, its completely sealed on all edges. So the only way to access the content is to destroy the case in the first place… To access the content inside, you have to change the value of the product.”

With a booming industry in online vinyl resales through platforms such as Discogs, this act takes on new dimensions. And there’s something kind of Dadaist about it, a nice echo of the name of the imprint its released through. “It’s interesting how people will project their own value of how much they think a certain record or whatever is worth. And everyone will have a completely different view. What’s interesting about this is that once you’ve opened it, its worth is going to be totally different, and once you start cutting the thing apart and playing the record then the value’s going to change again.”

Participating in this process of destruction also changes your own personal relationship with the album: “the way you interact with it is also going to give it a value to yourself, of how much the object means to you.” Forcing listeners to participate in an act of irrevocable destruction changes their relationship to the content inside, and this inevitably augments the relationship listeners will have with the music.

William Frances Green, Visionist artwork

This is all good news for Carnell: “By having this more involved way of accessing my album, it makes people want to give it more attention… I’ve actually been able to control the way that people interact with my album. Rather than just having to do things because they have to be done, it’s more like we’re given all these opportunities to do more interesting things, so why not? It’s fun and creative, and expressive of all of us, and when that adds extra involvement from listeners, that’s great.”

Rather than simply decorating an album, this kind of compelling and considered design work actively augments our reception and experience of it. This is something that resonates deeply with Carnell’s attitude to work: “You shouldn’t just do things for the sake of it. Never. You should do it because it’s something that you want to do, and it’s something that you’ve considered, and feel like it allows people an extra experience into your work. If it doesn’t do that, then there’s no need for it.”

Expanding worlds

Music videos allow for a certain level of freedom in which ideas or moods from a track can be pushed in new directions in their own right. Following the death of MTV there was a lull in video, but the rise and rise of YouTube has brought about a renaissance. It’s a breeding ground for short film directors, combining the freedom for conceptual experimentation of short cinema with the mass exposure of advertising.

One director currently making waves is Oscar Hudson, who directed the award-winning video for Bonobo’s No Reason, from his latest album Migration. “He wrote the album on the road feeling detached from space and place. So I had these ideas around place and detachment, feeling alienated from your surroundings.”

While there may not be an ostensible connection to the single, the video brilliantly carries forward the mood of the track and taps into a familiar urban domestic unease. “The best music videos are the ones that tap into something in the track that harmonises on a visual level. When a video does that well—and I think there are a lot of ways to elevate a track— you find yourself returning to it again and again, and the two things become inseparable,” says Hudson.

The production is meticulous, and the video is peppered with easter eggs that nod to the lyrics of the track: one room features a Japanese version of the album cover, for instance; but perhaps the most discreet—one that even 2.7m eagle-eyed YouTube viewers are apparently yet to spot—is a specially designed Japanese version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, from which the phrase “neither rhyme nor reason” allegedly stems, that comes into the frame just as Nick Murphy sings it [note: I can’t take credit for this; Oscar admittedly told me].

Not just sound and vision

Mr Scruff takes a different direction altogether for expanding the environment his music. A world of cartoon fish, walruses, bacteria, and ‘Extra Bass’ lever-pulling waiters inhabit an outrageously fun dimension that stretches across his videos, cover art, live visuals, event flyers, and everything else the Manchester DJ and producer touches. His marathon six-hour live shows are accompanied by animated VJ sets immaculately timed to the drops and sonic developments, and their impact on the crowd is palpable: the sheer silliness of them encourages people to leave their egos at the door and dance. He even rolled out a line of Mr Scruff branded tea, sold around north west England and at stalls at his shows.

Scruff isn’t alone on Ninja Tune for building and continually expanding an interconnected cartoon world: Iglooghost (signed to Brainfeeder, a label with which Ninja Tune have a close working relationship) also makes it a core part of his work. Engaging other senses than just hearing and sight, such as the roll-out of the tea, is also an emerging pattern: some copies of the new release from Nabihah Iqbal (FKA Throwing Shade) come with an incense she chose, to light alongside listening. It’s exactly these multisensory experiences that deepen our engagement with music and allow for more involved, awoke experiences of music.

What’s next? The migration of music from being predominantly physical to digital and the advent of streaming may have dealt some serious blows to the music industry, but it’s also opened new design-led avenues where we encounter music in deeper and more visceral ways. Ninja Tune is undoubtedly one of the labels taking a lead on this: physical copies of albums are becoming much more of an involved experience, and the explosive rise of live AV sets is blazing a new path for mesmeric collective experience.

Iglooghost, Chinese Nu Yr

Castro is certainly looking ahead with excitement. “You can stream a ton of different things and that’s just as emotional as having the album. So I think the future of everything is about both consuming the music but also, when it comes to a live act, experiencing the performance in deeper ways. In the future, it needs to become more immersive. I can see much more stages and acts where the musicians are in the build of the audience or scattered amongst them, where it all becomes more collective.”

This could have huge ramifications for how we experience music, and the effect that music has on us. Whatever direction things take, its clear that the sonic and the visual are set to get more tangled up in each other. As Black puts it, “Watching AV work requires more focus of attention than just listening to music, and designing effective AV relationships is a powerful approach for remixing human consciousness.”

Iglooghost, Neo Wax Bloom