Guide to the Gorillaz: The revolutionary destruction of genre

An album by general consensus is a collection of songs an artist or artists pulling together a variety of instruments, tones, and recordings. I’m sure there are better ways to define an album but you get the gist. That being said, it’s becoming more and more clear that’s it’s not so much the quality of songs in their individual sound, respectfully, so much as it’s the brokered bond between songs, the direction the artist(s) take, that truly makes an album amazing.

For years, artists have continuously pioneered narrative writing into concept albums. Each song complementing another to deliver a holistic message, a statement of virtues an artist molds into verse. Gorillaz is unique because it expands the style of narrative-driven album, creating a virtual image and sound that resembled all of music culture, transcending barriers of genre, with only the passion for expression.

When I was younger, around 11 or so, I managed to snag my first album. I recently inherited my brother’s CD player, a true rarity at the time when he upgraded to the long awaited IPod, a revolutionary device capable of holding around 120 songs.

Lit.

So, I decided to head to the local F.Y.E and scour the racks for an album under $10. I came across Gorillaz Demon Days for a bargain, it being the latter season of 2005, and music stores still having a strict release schedule (obviously still before the heavenly grandiose that is online streaming).

I had heard Clint Eastwood a few times on the radio a few years back, that and my mom was seemingly impatient over my indecisiveness, so I gave the album a shot.

Between Shinedown and Three Days Grace, this was a change of pace to say the least, and I was obviously met with a lot of criticism by my peers, since many of us had never heard anything quite like this before.

Believe it or not, the average youth at the time had never heard the combination of Harlem brass, techno, and alternative roots. This album, un maestro de obra, selectively meshed not just different instruments and tones, but infused cultures together, in a way that was purely empirical, meticulous. This only compounded when I watched a Gorillaz music video for the first time, the video for the track El Mañana.

I was blown away.

Gorillaz did for me what the Beatles did for my grandparents before me, it showed me at a young there are many ways to tell a story, to express a thought. Years later, I heard news of a new album and I was ecstatic, a six-year hiatus from the music world. Yet to my dismay, no one seemed too familiar with their work. So, I set out to gather some for them.

Take it back to 1990, Deadline Magazine, London. An interview with the then Blur bandmates Damon Albarn and Graham Coxton w/ Jamie Hewlett, a writer/cartoonist at the time for the magazine. The two eventual creators, Albarn & Hewlett didn’t quite hit it off (in describing another initially, the word wanker was used a lot.), and collaborated rarely until moving in together into a place in the city in 97′. This is where the idea for “Gorilla” came to fruition, after a mutual verdict that MTV simply lacked the passion to expose youth to talented musicians. (Quote on MTV sucking)

They released their first track “Ghost Train” (later changed to Rock the House on their following EP). As popularity grew around their debut tracks, collaboration with various DJ’s and related acts including Del the Funky Homosapien, their first single Clint Eastwood debuted March 5, 2001 with the signature z added to the name.

Damon handled the music and Jamie handled the artistic scope of the band, their image. This duality of scopes created an eclectic vision that pulled in artists of various regions of the world, holding no banner or face to the band, instead characters, the Gorillaz.

The characters are listed as follows:

  • 2-D (shy, slightly unintelligent, lead vocals)
  • Russel (percussion, drums, inhabited by Del, the legendary musician spirit, always sticks up for 2-D)
  • Noodle (synth, electronics, backup vocals, the OG)
  • Murdoch (original creator of the group, though grotesque and kind of a cynical prick)
  • Evil- Noodle (long story, damn Murdoch)

Varying in background, resembling not only the actual members that inspired them but guest artists, icons of the past and present, and the music star arcs that embody each genre of music, and the stereotypes that come with. They created a different narrative concept behind each album, driven by the arcs of their character’s story and theme as well as the musicians and algorithms of genres used.

They began mainly working with hip-hop artists that meshed with their debut album’s flow, including work with Phi Life Cypher, D12, and Terry Hall. Even in the beginning, while many of the related artists would appear on stage, Damon and a few others would play behind the screen, alluding focus to the sleek four animated characters that were focal piece of the performance, blown up on a large screen for each performance. The group would go on to go platinum (5 times), and double platinum on several records, receive awards for artistic design and album of the year, even receiving the title of Most Popular Virtual Band.

Whether it’s the Britpop Awards or MTV cribs (there was actually an MTV cribs for Murdoch at Kong Studios, even showing him piss on his MTV music award), the group stays true to their focus. This disconnect between putting a face to the music was essential to the Gorillaz message, to deviate from the stereotypes of bands and to only focus on the music, which each album preceding continues to maintain. For example, Demon Days’ contributing artists included De La Soul, Neneh Cherry, Danger Mouse, Roots Manuva, MF DOOM, Ike Turner, Bootie Brown (The Pharcyde), Dennis Hopper, and the London Community Gospel Choir and a widely-known admiration for actor and TV badass Clint Eastwood.

Whether its each band mate coming to terms with personal demons each day, seeking refuge on an island of human’s insurmountable waste on a hill of melancholic success, or irony of the correlation to social media and ease of access to communicate with emptiness, these albums narrate the probing existence of the self-aware. What sticks is the multi-faceted message they try and teach us. Music is beautiful, and just like us, can come in any form, from all corners of the universe. It’s our responsibility to one another and to the music itself to just have an open mind, you might like what you hear.

Word on the block is Gorillaz not only have a new album coming out in the next few days, Humans, but finally their own TV show. They had many unfinished projects on making a movie, but never received enough communal support to follow through, despite a huge fan base for it due to lack of funding and time to focus on the artistic scope more than for the complement of the music. What Jamie masters is capturing the dystopian aspects of our world and makes is neurotic, manic in a Ren and Stimpy fashion that captures the focus of viewers, regardless of age

“The cartoon is a metaphor really for the fact that it’s almost impossible in our celebrity obsessed culture to move around genres and sort of change your ideas, change your face, you know?” Damon continues, “You know, there are many alter egos and Gorillaz is a collection of alter egos, really. I think anyone who gets involved in it has to sort of accept that nothing is really as it seems.”

. In an interview with Exclaim! a few months back, Hewlett released long awaited news on the TV show and future for his eccentric foursome, stating that the episodes will begin airing in 2018, all in the same 2 dimensional illustrations that everyone came to fancy. Which channel it will premiere on, only time will tell. As each album is an adventure the band goes through, it might be wise to review a lot of the music videos and lore before delving into the show. Documentaries such as the release of Bananas in 2008 (the documentary spanned 2000-2006) which gives a great look into the methods into the madness of Damon and Jamie, but also gave a good message on what they hoped to accomplish with their work.

What Damon and Jamie try to show is the faults in obsession over genre categorization, nothing more than a house of cards. Which, honestly isn’t our faults, we’re humanz, often overly judgmental at the expense of our own heuristics. The possibilities one holds in an instrument is infinite, and has always been, we just need to be reminded every once and while.

But think about it this way: Music in regards to sound is eclectic as it is subject to constant change, and life is eclectic as it is subject to constant change as well.

So, shouldn’t music reflect life, not in fragmented playlists based on the instruments used or artists involved, just broken down to fundamentals, only difference is quality.

John Donegan

Author: John Donegan

VCU

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