Gorillaz: Virtual hip-hop pioneers

A musically and visually ambitious project, Gorillaz is the brainchild of Damon Albarn, frontman to alternative rock band Blur, and Jamie Hewlett, creator of cult comic Tank Girl. Conceived of as a virtual band, the Gorillaz project consists of experimental hip-hop music and an animated, fictional universe which is explored through music videos and the band’s website. The virtual hip-hop group consists of four animated members: 2D, an adorable frontman/singer/keyboardist, Murdoc Niccals, a spooky and intimidating bass guitarist, Noodle, a 10-year-old Japanese guitar/keyboard prodigy, and Russel Hobbs, a funky percussionist. Musically, Gorillaz has had several members – including Mike Smith (keyboard), Simon Tong (guitar) and Morgan Nicholls (bass guitar) - who have contributed to recorded albums as well as played live with the band, though Damon Albarn is the only permanent member.

The band was an instant success upon the 2001 release of their debut album, Gorillaz, selling over seven million copies and capturing a worldwide audience, as well as earning them the honor of “Most Successful Virtual Band” in the Guinness Book of World Records. Gorillaz hit the stage for the first time in March, 2001 at the Scala in London before embarking on Phase One, a tour that took them across the UK and ended in North America. During this tour, a giant projector screen displayed the virtual Gorillaz members as the live band played behind the scenes.

The success of their debut album was followed up with the release of Demon Days in 2005, which outperformed Gorillaz, entering the UK charts at No. 1 and the U.S. charts at No. 6. The popularity of Demon Days was propelled by hit singles "Feel Good Inc.", "DARE", and "Dirty Harry," achieving double platinum status in the U.S. and 5x platinum in the UK. Demon Days is a darker departure from the sunny and entertaining Gorillaz, focusing on global themes including the destruction humans are causing worldwide, each track representing a confrontation with a personal demon. “Feel Good Inc,” despite its name and jovial melody, discusses depression, loneliness and escapism.

Gorillaz' third album, Plastic Beach, was released in 2010 and features guest appearances by several artists, including Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack and more. While Plastic Beach did not perform as well as the first two albums, it was generally positively received by fans and critics alike. Plastic Beach is musically a pop-centric album, pushed to new heights through extensive outside collaborations and lyrically continues the conversation about environmental degradation started on Demon Days.

It’s no secret that Albarn and Hewlett have had a strained relationship since the idea of Gorillaz was conceived, one that increased in intensity over tensions experienced during the creation of Plastic Beach. Both artists have cited interests in pursuing other projects, leaving the future of Gorillaz “virtually” unknown at this time.