Forget downloads, Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili are busy making records beautiful again

As Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili designs his first album cover, Chris Mugan traces the history of fine artists collaborating with musicians back to The Beatles

In his colourful career to date, Chris Ofili has won the Turner Prize, outraged New York Catholics with his The Holy Virgin Mary and designed a Royal Ballet set. Now the British artist has reached a new landmark by designing his first record sleeve.

It may not have the same impact as Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but by collaborating with an old friend, veteran electronica artist Dobie, Ofili joins a select band of fine artists that stretches back via Damien Hirst to Andy Warhol and, of course, the designer of that iconic Beatles cover, Peter Blake. Indeed, Blake and Hirst continue to dabble in this area, even though few people will see the finished product in its classic 12-inch form.

Described by Gilles Peterson as “the Ghost Dog of Stoke Newington”, Dobie is signed to Big Dada, the Ninja Tune offshoot also home to Brit rappers Roots Manuva and Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle. So there is bound to be interest in his latest album and some fans are sure to opt for its tempting two-disc vinyl package, yet We Will Not Harm You drops just as the record industry finally achieves a rapprochement with downloads, especially as a means of reviving the once despised singles chart. When punters can pick and choose album tracks rather than buy a whole package, to provide cover art now seems a rather perverse act.

Especially so, given Ofili has long been a passionate music fan and even dipped his toes in the genre's shark-infested waters via his short-lived Freeness project, a means for black music creators to break free of the restrictive “urban” tag.

Dobie, meanwhile, is a key figure in underground dance, who as a DJ and producer worked on Soul II Soul's first albums and as a trip-hop maven remixed the likes of Björk and Massive Attack. While his output has received much critical acclaim and crate-digger devotion, the title of his 1998 debut album, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, predicted the impact he would make as a beat generator in his own right.

So as his recording career takes a new direction under the Ninja Tune umbrella, Dobie could do with whatever support he can muster. And while Ofili may be a rare example of an artist working with an unheralded figure, several of his peers are still attracted by pop and rock. Blake's latest contribution arrives this month – an ornate piece for Paul Weller's Dragonfly EP, the pair reunited for the first time since the veteran pop artist devised the sleeve for the Modfather's 1995 Stanley Road album. In October, his text-heavy cover graced Madness's latest album Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da (the band claim he simply wrote in various titles discarded by them once they had commissioned him – “The Rake's Progress”, “Circus Freaks” and “Men of Steel” among them).

These two recent contributions join an impressive selection, headed by the Sgt Pepper's sleeve, a collaboration with his then wife Jann Haworth. Blake also devised the sleeve for the Band Aid charity single “Do They Know It's Christmas?” and The Who's 1981 Face Dances. In 2011, Damien Hirst came up with his fly-and-capsule artwork for Red Hot Chili Peppers' 10th studio album, I'm With You – his most high-profile cover after having come up with a variety of skull-based works for his mates The Hours and more eclectic covers for Joe Strummer's late nineties releases with The Mescaleros.

It should not be too surprising that British artists have such a strong connection with pop, given the provenance of both in the nation's art colleges. Blake has described himself in the past as a “prototype Mod” and taught Ian Dury at the Royal College Of Art before designing the cover for a 2001 tribute record for Dury, Brand New Boots And Panties. Hirst studied at Goldsmiths College, which gave him a connection to Blur (Alex James and Graham Coxon are fellow alumni) before he directed the video for their No 1 smash “Country House”. Other acts from an art or design background have kept even more direct control over their visual identities, hand-picking images, design houses and photographers for album sleeves, most notably Roxy Music and David Bowie. Roxy's Bryan Ferry studied fine art at Newcastle under pop artist Richard Hamilton (who worked on the design of The Beatles' “White” album), though preferred models, two of whom he dated, on his band's records.

Such a roster gives the cover-art concept a classic feel, as if musicians who seek high-profile designers must be linked to rock's late-Sixties peak or at least cite its influences, as Weller does with mod. This shifts a lot of CDs to record buyers of a certain age.

These points, though, can hardly be the case with Ofili and Dobie, two artists who in their own ways are forward-thinking and constantly evolving. Perhaps, in the download age, a musician's visual identity is more important than ever, as output becomes subsumed into a mass of data on hard drives, MP3 players and smartphones.

While few fans may get to appreciate a physical record sleeve, they probably will see that imagery as the background to an artist's home page or as proudly tweeted by them. As Peterson's description suggests, Dobie prefers the margins and back rooms to taking centre stage, so Ofili's sketchy depiction of two figures playing cards while another serves drinks provides a handy point of reference, something Kevin “DJ Food” Foakes, Ninja Tune's one-time de facto art director agrees with: “Artwork clothes a record, gives a personality to it. If a track is like a naked human being, then a sleeve distinguishes groups from others and helps casual punters identify what the music's like, even what tribe it belongs to.”

Paul Weller's 'Dragonfly' EP is out now on Island. Dobie's album 'We Will Not Harm You' is out on February 4 on Big Dada

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