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Baker's Dozen

Bon Appétit: James Acaster's Favourite Albums
Emma Garland , February 9th, 2022 10:36

From the tiny emo scene of noughties Kettering to a love of underground hip-hop and the undying appeal of a cult classic, comedian James Acaster takes Emma Garland through the albums that have defined his life


Madvillain – Madvillainy

I know probably a lot of people put this, but that’s because it's one of the best albums ever, so that’s fine. I literally discovered it seven years ago or something, when I was trying to broaden my horizons with hip-hop. When I was a little kid, I got into really poppy hip-hop. I liked De La Soul and a lot of bands like P.M. Dawn and would rent rap compilations out of the library. Then I went away from that and into nu metal, which at the time I thought was rap, so I’ll forever have that on my conscience. Then I got really into indie rap – bands like Why? and a lot of stuff on Anticon. But I didn’t really go beyond Anticon. Then I was like, ‘why have I not explored alternative and underground hip-hop more when I clearly like it?’ I was getting quite complacent with what I was discovering, so I think I literally Googled ‘best underground hip-hop albums of all time’ and Madvillainy was at the top.

Again, I remember listening to it for the first time and being like ‘OK, yeah, it’s fine, I don’t see why it’s at the top’. All the songs are so brief that, on first listen – especially if you’re like I was at the time and don’t listen to much rap music – you kind of go, ‘where’re the hooks?’ But there was something about the production and the sound of his voice that kept making me want to go back to it. And the more I’d listen, the more I’d find a new favourite [thing] each time.

It was also the first time I got into lyrics properly in terms of analysing them, and realising there was a lot more to it. Stuff like The Get Up Kids was just like ‘I relate to that and I like it’, whereas this was like ‘He’s saying that, which can also mean this’ or ‘He’s actually talking about himself on this song, but it’s an alias’. Obviously with MF Doom you can really get lost in his rhyme schemes and his word play. You can find really exhaustive videos of people online analysing everything that he’s said. But for me, just the sound of his voice and his flow are the things that really draw me to him. I love the tone of his voice and the way that he raps. It’s really tight but it sounds loose, and I find that more human. When someone’s exceptionally tight I respect it a lot, but don’t often get caught up in it. And when someone's so loose that they’re not good obviously no one likes that. But MF Doom is able to sound so comfortable, he’s effortlessly a genius. Then Madlib, obviously – it was just the perfect point in both of their careers. I’ve listened to interviews with them since, where they say they were just drinking and getting stoned and then they’d try and do a song and then get stoned some more. It’s not like Refused, where they’re like ‘we’re going to write the best album ever’. It was just: we’re two people who, right now, are exceptional.

I think if you're an artist who’s making hip-hop in the present day and engaging with what's going on around you, then you’re always going to sound like you're on the cutting edge of music, because hip-hop is constantly evolving and constantly getting better. You have to almost deliberately go ‘no, we're doing old school hip hop’ to not evolve with it. I think MF Doom and Madvillain were just rolling with everything. They were at the peak of their careers, and it was perfect timing. There was a real clarity of vision for it, with all the different clips from Hanna Barbera cartoons and the kinds of songs they were sampling. Again, that was probably just because that was what they were obsessed with at the time. I don’t get the sense that they were like ‘this is going to be the thing for the album’, even if that’s what they were doing. It [comes off] more like ‘I really like these cartoons and these samples and we’re gonna do them short because we can’t be bothered to work on the song for a long time’. It’s one of those albums where every time you listen to it it gets better, and it hasn’t stopped yet.