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Solid Gold: How Gorillaz' self-titled debut ushered in a new era of pop music

Gorillaz’ 2001 self-titled debut laid the foundations for Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s animated outfit. With a rotating cast of collaborators and a genre-merging style that took in elements of hip-hop, dub, son Cubano, punk rock and more, the album displayed a boundary-breaking musical fluidity that has since become the norm in modern pop. Ben Cardew looks into the history of the game changing album: a founding text of pop liberation

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. 

‘5/4’, the second song from ‘Gorillaz’, was apparently scheduled as a single, despite the fact that the guitar and drums are playing in different time signatures. ‘Clint Eastwood’, a global hit, is perhaps even odder, combining haunting dub melodica with guest vocals from California rapper Del the Funky Homosapien, manifesting as “Del the Ghost Rapper”. That it succeeds is tribute to Albarn’s songwriting, the song’s ruinously sticky chorus overcoming any concerns about tangled generic combinations. If the idea of Damon Albarn as reggae crooner seems just about acceptable in 2021, in 2001, just two years on from Blur’s darkly psychedelic sixth album ‘13’ and seven years after ‘Park Life’, it was downright preposterous. And yet, ‘Clint Eastwood’ took off.

Perhaps the real genius of ‘Clint Eastwood’, however, lay in inviting Del the Funky Homosapien to contribute two verses to the song. British hip-hop group Phi Life Cypher originally added vocals to ‘Clint Eastwood’, with this version released as part of the single package in the UK. But at the moment of truth they were sidelined at the suggestion of Dan The Automator, who had worked with Del the Funky Homosapien on the Deltron 3030 album. 

Inviting any rapper onto a Damon Albarn project was an unlikely move back in 2001, when musical tribalism was rife. Getting Del — a highly respected, if not entirely commercially successful, artist — to contribute opened up Gorillaz to the global market, helping to make the song into a success in the US, where Blur had yet to make much of a mark (‘Song 2’, perhaps, excepted.) It also opened up the floodgates for Gorillaz to work with a who’s who of US rap, from MF Doom to Snoop Dogg, on future albums. Inviting Del on board looks, in fact, like a very modern move, almost a curational success.

Today, musical collaboration is demanded, with artists routinely reaching out to acts from outside their musical spectrum in the name of mutually expanding their commercial appeal, a move facilitated by the rise of streaming’s musical smorgasbord. Gorillaz, consciously or not, were making these pan-generic footsteps 20 years ago, when Spotify was not even a glint in Daniel Ek’s beady eye.

The various versions of ‘Clint Eastwood’ also reflect Gorillaz’ open attitude to the finished artistic form, another very 2021 trait. Songs, for Gorillaz, are living beasts to be fed, watered and put out to pasture, rather than digital archives that mark a milestone. ‘Clint Eastwood’ exists in both Del and Phi Life Cypher forms; but it has also been performed live by De La Soul and Bootie Brown (this version was later released on the CD single for ‘Dare’), Tinie Tempah, Kano and Bashy, Snoop Dogg and Lebanese-Syrian rapper Eslam Jawaad — each rapper forging their own take on the song. 

Even better is the bumping UK Garage remix of ‘Clint Eastwood’ by Ed Case and Sweetie Irie, which became a British radio staple and which Albarn even performed at the Notting Hill Carnival. Today this remix appears as part of the band’s debut album on streaming platforms and it feels like an integral part of ‘Gorillaz’, conclusive proof of the album’s beating heart in the UK’s ever-evolving musical culture.

Later Gorillaz’ albums would feature an avalanche of guests, as the band’s fame rocketed. On their debut, however, Gorillaz were more restrained, with only a handful of well-chosen invitees lending a hand. Junior Dan, a legend of Jamaican music, contributed bass guitar; turntablist Kid Koala added scratches; Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori lent her vocals and the Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club duo of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz contributed vocals and percussion to the sneak-attack funk of ‘19-2000’.

In each case, Gorillaz carefully picked their guest to expand the band’s elastic universe, a lightly utilitarian, pick-and-mix attitude to pop that is reminiscent of the way Drake scouts local rap scenes to breathe life into his own sound. You might consider it musical vampirism — Albarn sucking the sonic lifeblood out of his invitees to guarantee artistic immortality — if the guests didn’t sound like they were having so much fun, with Albarn coaxing exquisite performances out of his collaborators.

Perhaps the most unlikely guest on ‘Gorillaz’, in a work of impressive lateral thinking, was Ibrahim Ferrer, a veteran Cuban singer then riding high off the success of Buena Vista Social Club. He contributed his gorgeously velveteen tones to ‘Latin Simone (Que Past Contigo)’, a song that had initially appeared on Gorillaz’ debut EP, ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’, with English-language vocals from Damon Albarn. Again, the move looks incredibly prescient: the last decade has seen an explosion in Latinx pop, as global pop markets open up to the vast array of talent from Latin America. But in 2001, songs in anything other than English were still largely considered a rarity in the Western World of pop.

Later Gorillaz albums would yield bigger hits than their debut, as the band toned down the dub and ratcheted up the hip-hop. But by then we were expecting them. The beauty of ‘Gorillaz’ was how unexpectedly organic it all sounded, even as the record broke new ground; this was the sound of Damon Albarn picking musical flowers rather than digging back-breaking sonic trenches. Inviting Del the Funky Homosapien, Ed Case and Ibrahim Ferrer to contribute to Gorillaz’ music could, on paper, look like cynical moves, designed to pull Albarn free from Blur’s indie rock lockup. But ‘Gorillaz’ never once sounded like hard work; it is a record of astounding musical fluidity that innovated as it seduced, equally at home on Radio 1 as the post-club stereo. 

Gorillaz’ arch collaborative skills, cross-generic manipulations and flexible attitude to songwriting make them the archetypal pop group for a 21st Century of collapsing musical boundaries and arch poptimism; that makes their debut album a founding text of pop liberation.

Want more? Read our Solid Gold feature on how Daft Punk's 'Discovery' reshaped dance music for the digital age

Ben Cardew is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @bencardew