Musician Damon Albarn and comic book creator Jamie Hewlett met in 1990 when guitarist Graham Coxon, a fan of Hewlett's work, asked him to interview Blur, a band Albarn and Coxon had recently formed. The interview was published in Deadline magazine, home of Hewlett's comic strip, Tank Girl. Hewlett initially thought Albarn was "arsey, a wanker"; despite becoming acquaintances with the band, they often did not get on, especially after Hewlett began seeing Coxon's ex-girlfriend Jane Olliver. Despite this, Albarn and Hewlett started sharing a flat on Westbourne Grove in London in 1997. Hewlett had recently broken up with Olliver and Albarn was at the end of his highly publicised relationship with Justine Frischmann of Elastica.
The idea to create Gorillaz came about when Albarn and Hewlett were watching MTV. Hewlett said, "If you watch MTV for too long, it's a bit like hell – there's nothing of substance there. So we got this idea for a cartoon band, something that would be a comment on that." The band originally identified themselves as "Gorilla" and the first song they recorded was "Ghost Train" which was later released as a B-side on their single "Rock the House" and the B-side compilation G-Sides. The musicians behind Gorillaz' first incarnation included Albarn, Del the Funky Homosapien, Dan the Automator and Kid Koala, who had previously worked together on the track "Time Keeps on Slipping" for Deltron 3030's eponymous debut album.
Although not released under the Gorillaz name, Albarn has said that "one of the first ever Gorillaz tunes" was Blur's 1997 single "On Your Own", which was released for their fifth studio album Blur.
In March 2021, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the album's release, a vinyl box set was announced. The first edition of the boxset, which was exclusive to the band's webstore, was released on 10 December 2021. The boxset includes previously released material, including the original album, the B-sidescompilation albumG-Sides, and the remix albumLaika Come Home (which received its first reissue since its initial press) and previously unreleased material, including live performances from the 2001 London Forum concert and five demos. Additionally, it also includes notes and early sketches by Jamie Hewlett during the making of the album. Later editions will also be released in 2022.
All editions of the Gorillaz album feature an enhanced section that included screen savers, wallpaper and an autoplay, featuring a short movie which opens the user's Internet browser to a special section of the Gorillaz website, which gives the user full access to Murdoc's Winnebago.
Del the Funky Homosapien collaborated on two songs on the album, "Clint Eastwood" and "Rock the House", both of which became singles and videos and achieved chart success. Del was not originally slated to collaborate on these songs. By the time Del came onto the project, the album was already finished, and Phi Life Cypher had recorded verses for "Clint Eastwood"; but when Del finished making Deltron 3030 with Dan the Automator, Automator asked if he could stay in the studio a little longer to record new verses for the Gorillaz songs. For the purposes of the music videos and the Gorillaz storyline canon, Del performed as Gorillaz character "Del the Ghost Rapper", who was said to be a spirit that was hiding from death within the band's drummer, Russel Hobbs. Del later commented in an interview on the success of "Clint Eastwood" by saying that he actually wrote his rap for the song using the book How to Write a Hit Song, a book that he bought with a coupon his mother gave him. After the song went platinum he gave the plaque to his mother. As part of Russel Hobbs' back-story, the character of Del was one of Russel's friends that was gunned down in a drive-by shooting, whose ghost possessed Russel.
In 2004, the album was packaged with 2002's Laika Come Home in a limited edition box set as part of EMI's "2CD Originals" collection. Other saw a release such as the reggae-dub "Dub Dumb", which features British-Jamaican artist Sweetie Irie; it is available on the PlayStation 2 game MTV Music Generator 2 rather than on G-Sides or the album itself. Other tracks include "Gor Beaten", which was another track that didn't make the album; however, elements of the track's instrumental were once available on one of the Gorillaz member's computers in Kong Studios.
Gorillaz received generally positive reviews from critics. It was ranked sixth in both Spin's and Kludge's end-of-year lists, 48 on NME's 2001 year-end list and Q ranked it among the 50 best albums of the year. The album was nominated for the 2001 Mercury Music Prize (Gorillaz was bookmakers' favourite before the nomination was withdrawn at the band's request).
"Tomorrow Comes Today" was released as an EP before the album was released. A video for the single was also released.
"Clint Eastwood" was the first single from the album, debuting on 4 March 2001. The single peaked at number four on the UK Singles Chart, number 57 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number three on the Billboard Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart.
"19-2000" was the second single from the album, released in June 2001. The single peaked at number six on the UK Singles Chart and number 23 on the Billboard Hot Modern Rock Tracks.
"Rock the House" was the third single from the album, released in October 2001. The single peaked at number 18 on the UK Singles Chart.
"Tomorrow Comes Today" was the fourth and final single from the album, released almost a year after the album, in February 2002. It peaked at number 33 on the UK Singles Chart.
"5/4" was repeatedly considered for a single but was edged out by "19-2000" and "Rock the House". A video was considered for this, but never got past the storyboarding stage.