As the fab foursome of 2D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle embed themselves ever-further into the public consciousness, it is easy to forget that there are actual people behind the incomparable musical sensation that is Gorillaz. There is of course Damon Albarn, veteran Britpop troubadour, and artist/illustrator Jamie Hewlett, but there are dozens of other humans responsible for bringing the world’s preeminent animated band to life. One of these, who deserves a great deal of acclaim, is Remi Kabaka, a multi-talented producer, percussionist and art director who also happens to be the voice of Russel.
Remi played an instrumental role in bringing Gorillaz’ latest opus Humanz to life, serving as co-producer on the record and chasing down a large amount of the album’s incredible list of guest artists. But that’s but the tip of the iceberg for the musician, who can add working with Banksy to his list of accomplishments (though on that front, he remains tight-lipped). We caught up with Remi to chat the making of Humanz, his longtime partnership with Damon Albarn and creating the indelible persona that we know as Russel.
So to begin, how did you and Damon first meet?
Because of his partner Suzi. Suzi and I used to live together back in the ’90s and she left us alone one night and we got on like a house on fire. We spent the night watching rockers and talking, and we haven’t stopped since.
Tell me a bit about creating Humanz, I understand you had a hand in orchestrating some of its huge list of guest features?
Yes! Well Damon and I always talk about music, old and new, and that helped inform the choices and themes around the album. He said he wanted a Chicago flavor to it hence getting Peven Everettt, Twilite Tone and Jamie Principle. The others were people whose sounds we liked and thought they would be good voices or characters for the album. It’s a pretty organic process, we chose people who have something to say at that time, like Danny Brown, Vince Staples, Kali Uchis and Zebra Katz. The record was about the future in that sense.
Was there anyone you were surprised you were able to nab? Anyone you had to work particularly hard for?
Grace Jones, but worth every minute when she finally delivered. She was and is incredible.
You also serve as the voice of one of the Gorillaz, Russel. how did that come about?
Yes, Russel. I had to do an audition and got the part. It wasn’t nepotism. I also had to have a language coach from the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). I think I ended up doing six weeks of coaching.
Did you feel during that time you got to know your character?
Yes, extremely well. The characters came full formed in 3D, and Russel had a full back story to where he came from, what school he went to and how he even inhaled a ghost.
You’ve also worked with Banksy, what was that collaboration like?
I don’t know what you’re talking about…
How would you say your own music relates to your work with Gorillaz?
I like clashes in styles, I like soup and one pot dishes that are full of many flavors. I also quite like tapas and never say no to Lebanese.
Looking back at your whole career, what is something that you think has been the most rewarding? The most challenging? The most surprising?
Rewarding has been working with friends and good people and seeing something come out of nothing. Most challenging would also be working with friends and trying to make something out of nothing. And as for most surprising, it would be working with friends and trying to figure out how something came out of nothing.
What’s something you think most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m like the Hulk. I don’t know? I’m me so I’m not sure what is surprising, even though I do surprise myself and think ‘why did you do that?’ By that time it’s too late and already done.
Music runs in your family and you’ve been surrounded by it your whole life, what do you think you would be doing if it wasn’t?
I like passing on information, so maybe a teacher? Or a traffic warden.
For more of our interview features, read our chat with rising emcee Dave East right here.