Behind every virtual band, there are real producers and engineers. In the case of Gorillaz, they were Anthony Khan and Stephen Sedgwick.
Blur frontman Damon Albarn has spent the last two decades working on a dazzling variety of musical projects and collaborations, the most famous of which is inarguably Gorillaz. A collaboration between Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, with Albarn responsible for the music and Hewlett for the visual representation, Gorillaz are a virtual band comprising fictitious musicians 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs. For something that was initially seen as a novelty act, Gorillaz have been both long-lived and remarkably successful. Released this Spring, the fifth Gorillaz album Humanz instantly went to number two in both the UK and in the US, and topped the iTunes charts in almost 60 countries around the world.
Albarn’s lyrical and musical starting point for the album was the “dark fantasy” that Donald Trump would win the US presidential election — this was the beginning of 2016, well before Trump had even secured the Republican nomination. Conceived as a “party for the end of the world”, Humanz features an enormous number of guests, including famous names like Grace Jones, Mavis Staples and Carly Simon giving it, as one critic wrote, “the wildly entertaining feel of a circus show”.
All the disparate musical influences on Humanz are held together by a modern-sounding urban hip-hop/R&B sensibility, which has a lot to do with the impact of Albarn’s main musical collaborator on the album, Anthony Khan. Better known by the moniker The Twilite Tone of D/\P, Khan is a Grammy-nominated American beatmaker, musician and producer who has worked with Kanye, Big Sean, John Legend and many more. Together with Albarn, Khan improvised, played and programmed much of the music on Humanz. In addition, the two co-produced the album with Remi Kabaka, a producer and drummer whose previous involvement with Gorillaz consisted of him giving voice to one of the characters, Russel Hobbs, and founding the Gorillaz Sound System DJ Project and works with Albarn on his Africa Express project.
Khan, who is related to singer Chaka Khan, is originally from Chicago, but has lived in New York since 2007. Talking from his home studio, where he has a battery of Akai MPCs, Yamaha HS7 and Event 20/20 monitors, and DAWs like Ableton Live, Logic and Pro Tools, he recalls that he was first approached about a possible collaboration with Albarn by Miles Leonard, chairman of Parlophone, who was looking for a producer for Gorillaz’s next album.
“I guess he had done his research and seen how I morphed and mixed so-called deep house, electronic music and dance music from a Chicago perspective with underground rap and hip-hop, and managed to create something new from that. The next step was for Damon and I to connect via Skype, with him being in Mali, and while the conversation was cryptic, we laughed and the vibrations were right. It was in tune. They then flew me out to London in February to work with Damon at his Studio 13...
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