Gorillaz in the midst

Damon Albarn joins Beck in the pan-cultural playground
By MATT ASHARE  |  May 17, 2006

CHAMPS: And you thought Prodigy were a cartoon.

Remember the great electronica gold rush of ’97, the year Madonna’s Maverick label won a massive bidding war over long-ignored rave mystic Liam Howlett, a/k/a Prodigy, and we all grooved to the electropunk clash of “Smack My Bitch Up”? Howett had wisely spiced up his space jams with a veritable Village People’s worth of caricatures — the snotty punk and the heavy-metal guitarist are the two I remember most clearly from the circus surrounding Howlett at his control console at Avalon. But rave culture was as uniquely British as treacle and tube-station fruit machines. And, as hard as we may have tried to create something similar in the US, it just didn’t have the air of subversive danger that characterized it in the UK. Sure, there were late-night loft parties in most major US cities. But those had been going on since heaven knows when. And if the soundtrack suddenly changed to something more ecstasy-friendly, with chill-out rooms and all the rest, it certainly didn’t amount to the sea change we’d been promised.

Or did it? The sprawling States are very different from our island-bound ally across the Atlantic. It takes a lot longer for cultural shifts to embed themselves here. And, by the time something that exploded in the UK — from punk rock to electronica — has been given a chance to sink in, it’s usually undergone all kinds of shifts in shape and form and purpose. Like a long game of telephone, what you end up with bears very little resemblance to the original. Just like American punk — a diverse underground that counted bands as stylistically divergent as the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, the Minutemen, X, Hüsker Dü, Mission of Burma — electronica in the US was bound to look and sound very different from its counterpart in the geographically concise UK.

So what did happen to the electronica that fueled British rave culture? Take a quick look at the big winners on the national side of this year’s Best Music Poll, and the answer jumps right out. Because this is the first year in the Poll’s history that it even made sense to nominate the same artist for Best DJ/Dance Act and Best National Act and Best National Album and Best National Song. Gorillaz didn’t win all four. But they won the two that mattered — Best National Act and Best DJ/Dance Act. It’s hard to know exactly what to call a “band” who are more of a project based around Blur frontman Damon Albarn, an illustrator (Jamie Hewlett) responsible for creating the cartoon images of the imaginary band’s members, and — most important — a celebrity DJ with the skills to match his renown. And you thought Prodigy were a cartoon.

With Gorillaz, Albarn’s touched a cultural nerve by placing all the electronic trappings of DJ culture and dance-club aesthetics in the context of a fake pop band who make real music. For the first album, a 2001 homonymous caper on Virgin, Dan the Automator was the behind-the-scenes star, while Albarn, Kid Koala, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori, among others, collaborated on a cut-and-paste collection of songs that found common ground for hip-hop beats, rockist guitars, pop piano lines, and even a little detour into Cuban son courtesy of a cameo by the Buena Vista Social Club’s Ibrahim Ferrer.

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