When Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz loped onto the scene with their self-titled debut album in 2001, this virtual band looked like it might be the future. They were, it turned out, but not in the way that most people envisaged. In 2021, two long decades on, the idea of the virtual pop star has yet to take off, with the upper reaches of the charts still resolutely dominated by works of flesh and bone. But Gorillaz’ free-form approach to music making, which combines pop melodies with hip-hop production and an ever-rotating cast of special guests, essentially is the pop blueprint these days, a remarkable achievement for a band formed by the brains behind Blur and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett.
Looking back on Gorillaz’ early videos — ‘Clint Eastwood’’s simian zombie apocalypse or ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’’s hallucinatory cityscapes — it is remarkable how crude they look today, in a world of slick digital animation. It’s like watching an old Scooby Doo cartoon from the 1970s — simultaneously reassuring in its nostalgia and vaguely dazzling in its roughness. The idea of Gorillaz as virtual stars became extremely wearing early on in their career, however. Well drawn out as the characters might be, the idea of another interview in which the band’s four animated members -— 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel — sketch out elaborate tales of prison escape/being swallowed by a whale/brand hook ups is, frankly, nauseating.
This can be forgiven, though, for Gorillaz’ music. Unlike the band’s videos, that has aged extremely well. Albarn — who handles Gorillaz’ music, while Hewlett oversees visuals — started the band as an outlet for his interests outside of indie music, notably in hip-hop and dub, with the use of virtual characters freeing him up to indulge his inner pop fan. (Liam Gallagher once referred to Gorillaz as “music for 12-year-olds”, which was both entirely right and very much not the insult the younger Gallagher considered it to be.)
This might sound like a recipe for quickly retired side-project disaster. But Albarn was savvy enough to invite producer Dan the Automator, who he had previously worked with on the Deltron 3030 album (and who was perhaps best known for his work on Kool Keith’s hallucinogen space sex opera Dr. Octagon), along for the ride. Dan’s production knowhow anchored Gorillaz’ eponymous debut album in boom-bap hip-hop beats and funk ambience.
This wasn’t exactly the cutting edge of hip-hop 2001, a year dominated by DMX, 2Pac and Jay-Z. But it was close enough to sound credible when blaring out of Radio 1 and worked surprisingly well with Albarn’s downtempo musicianship — he’s credited with keyboards, melodica, guitars, bass guitar and drum programming on the album — as well as his melancholic vocals, part little boy lost, part world-weary old man, part rebel-rousing punk. The combination of talents produced music that was similarly bursting in pop allure and devastatingly weird, its fundamental strangeness hidden in plain view.