How Idris Elba is rising to the top of the DJ world amid his demanding acting career [Interview]
Idris Elba is a commanding figure in any setting which he graces with his presence.
The British actor has made his mark on a broad variety audiences through roles such as ruthless detective John Luther in Luther, revolutionary leader Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and his iconic portrayal of the pragmatic drug lord Russell “Stringer” Bell in The Wire. He even managed to lend a rare tone of stoic gravity to The Office during his tenure as Michael Scott’s no-nonsense boss, Charles Miner, in the show’s fifth season.
Elba has become an internationally recognizable actor in the past two decades, however, his dominion extends far past the big and small screens.
In today’s society, where “anyone” can become a DJ and the profession commands larger fan bases than ever before, the recent paradigm of the “celebrity-turned-DJ” can hold a stigma of sorts. Any time an actor, athlete, or similarly famous figure steps behind the decks, there is an automatic temptation to dismiss them as yet another Paris Hilton. And, while this tendency may be subconsciously driven, it’s unfair ― and often inaccurate ― to assume that DJs who have pre-existing fame in other arenas are simply riding on the coattails of their primary careers.
Any notion that Idris Elba is an unskilled or bandwagon selector could not be further from the truth. While most fans may have only learned of his second career through his increased festival and club bookings over the past several years, the 44-year-old renaissance man began mixing before the majority of festival-goers were even born. “I’m definitely what you might describe as a ‘vet DJ’,” Elba remarks. “I started when I was 14, and I had two years in my life where DJing is all I did.”
Indeed, the prolific leading man’s passion for music is tantamount to his love for acting. When asked about his favorite songs to feature in a set, Elba’s excitement is palpable. His formidable exterior melts away as he endearingly offers to grab his laptop and run through his setlist gems before his manager channels her inner Avon Barksdale and reminds him of the interview’s time constraints.
Indeed, a look at the performer’s prolific music history amid the rigorous schedule that his acting career entails further indicates his fervor and dedication. Since honing his DJ chops in the hip hop scenes of Atlanta and New York, he’s left his mark on some of the globe’s most coveted venues, gracing stages from Glastonbury to Ibiza. Elba’s musical leanings also cross into the studio. The actor has remixed Skepta, been remixed by Pete Tong, and collaborated with the likes of Fatboy Slim.
Idris Elba spins at Ibiza’s Pacha nightclub.
Additionally, he’s lent original music to the soundtracks for Luther and Mandela ― shrewdly channeling the themes for each ― and plans to do so again in his forthcoming directorial debut, Yardie. “I’m definitely, definitely going into the studio to make an album which is similar to Mandela and Luther, surrounded around reggae and Yardie,” Elba notes of the lattermost. “My head is to make a sonic album that sort of represents that era which is going from reggae to sort of dancehall and that electronic sound that was born in the early ‘80s. I reckon that my album for that is gonna just span across… and be a homage to that [sound].”
Out of all of Idris Elba’s inclinations, however, perhaps the most telling of his musical passion is his Hiatus project, wherein he intends to take a substantial amount of time off of acting in order to produce an album, go on tour, and develop a TV show that will apparently focus on the DJ world.
“Unfortunately, it’s really almost impossible for me to take a year out of my [acting schedule] at this stage of my career,” Elba laments of his inability to dedicate more time to his music. “It’s ironic that I’ve definitely reached a pinnacle in my acting space, which is amazing, but it means that I can’t really take time out to concentrate on music. But next year, the whole of the spring through April, is dedicated to touring and putting out this Hiatus album alongside a string of tours.”
With his Hiatus album, Elba intends to further merge his passions for underground and mainstream music culture. He’s in talks to collaborate with A$AP Rocky, and has expressed interest in working with a broad array of people, ranging from Justin Martin and Hannah Wants to The Weeknd.
Photo by Andrew Whitton.
Inarguably, the actor’s musical ambitions far exceed that of the casual celebrity DJ; rather than a hobby, his is a full-fledged second career. To be known as a great DJ that walks into a room of any size and kills it. That, to me, is where I see myself at the pinnacle. Elba’s ambitions for his alternate career include a promise to put out a rap album before he dies and to be known as a great DJ that walks into a room of any size and kills it.”
“I don’t imagine that i’m gonna be at the height of Calvin Harris or anything like that,” he quips. “But I would like to be known as a fucking good DJ that comes and kills it across festivals and smaller rooms.”
This weekend, as his most recent film, Dark Tower, continues the fourth week of its theatrical run, Idris Elba will once again perform at Creamfields. On Sunday, he’ll take the stage at MK Area10 alongside the likes of his tech house and deep house-inspired colleagues Gorgon City, Claptone, CamelPhat, and, of course, MK.
Suffice it to say, Elba’s ability to gain access to any room and kill it has already begun to manifest itself. With Hiatus still on the horizon, he’s well on his way to reaching his ultimate musical ambitions.
Read our full interview with Idris Elba below.
I know that a few years ago, you started to play a lot more festivals and things like that. But, you’re not new to DJing whatsoever.
No, I’m definitely what you might describe as a ‘vet DJ,’ but I started when I was 14, and I had two years in my life where DJing is all I did. And I think over the last 10 years, I’ve sort of made it more of a career…a second career. And over the last [four to five] years I’ve started to see some real sort of headway into the dance arena. So yeah, I’ve been DJing a long time, yeah.
Do you think that your global recognition as an actor has helped your DJ career or made it a bit more difficult?
It’s made it more difficult. Now, that said, in New York when I was working on the sort of hip hop party scene I’d say – when I lived in New York and then I lived in Miami and Atlanta – I would get gigs based on the duality of being a DJ and an actor. And, when I decided to really stop doing that sort of party circuit where you kind of played everything, I made headway to work in dance and house, which is a big love of mine. It was difficult to sort of be taken seriously in this arena because of my acting, for sure.
In ‘Mi Mandela’ you had this one line about when you were visiting South Africa and the whole town was wondering ‘how Mandel could be played by a Strung up bell.’ Do you think that the whole Stringer Bell recognition applies to your DJ career as well?
Well, the actual line is ‘How Mandela could be played by Stringer bell,’ not ‘Strung up bell,’ but that’s even better actually. But, I think that weirdly enough, the people that watched Stringer Bell – the hardcore fans – I found more of those people within the dance circle than I have in any other. You know what I mean, I’m pretty much known for that character by a lot of the dance DJs that I fuck with and that fuck with me. They all love Stringer Bell. But, again, it didn’t really get me in the door. It was just like a kudos factor that they knew Stringer Bell and the actor that played it. And then, eventually, when they saw how serious I was in this space then I felt like they gave me a little bit more love, you know what I mean? Sort of for that reason.
In a Mixmag interview you did, you noted that being on the same lineup as Hot Since 82 and folks like that was intimidating for you. Did you ever find that they felt a bit intimidated by being on the same bill as someone like yourself?
Nah, not even! Not even. You know, when it comes to DJing and house and that arena, it’s a crowd that’s been so…You know, DJs that have come up take years to come up. And I felt a little bit, like, not worthy sometimes being on those bills, you know what I mean? I remember playing Ibiza at a festival there and I was playing at el Vista, which is this massive castle. And I was on the same bill as Pete Tong and (I think) Fatboy Slim as well, and I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m supposed to be here.’ Throughout the time that my current management, Anglo, sort of took me on and they put me through the test, and that was one of the first gigs I got. It was a real hard one for me. I felt privileged to be there, but I didn’t feel like I’d earned that yet, you know?
But I was just listening to your Radar radio mix the other day, and – it sounds like you’re talking about really respecting HS82, Pete Tong, Fatboy – that mix really showed off your chops in that brand of kind of soulful house. Is that what you plan on bringing to Creamfields?
Well, I don’t play soulful house. I sort of play techy, progressive sort of almost bassy house – that’s where my heart’s at. That proper bass sound and then some of that groovy, techy stuff. And Creamfields – you know, at festivals, you have to play slightly more magnified, I’d say. I do an hour and a half of big tunes, I start off pretty hot and then I take on a little journey, and then I finish hot – I try to, anyway. And so, you know, ‘soulful’ is a bit more for smaller rooms. I love soulful house, but I wouldn’t say I’m a soulful house DJ. I’d say I’m sort of a bassy, techy house sort of guy.
What would be, in 2017, some of the tunes that have been really resonating with you? Ones that you couldn’t leave out of a set?
I can send some names, but there’s been loads of good songs that I go back to. I’ve been playing songs here that… I get songs pretty early because I’ve got a really good source for getting new music. And I get music that ends up never really making it, but I love them. And then they end up sort of staying in my sets. I play a lot of songs that I’ve been playing for like two years in fact that no one’s heard of, but they fit in my set really wicked. I love doing that. I love sort of breaking stuff – not breaking it, I’m not saying I’m a record breaker or anything, but I love records that no one’s heard, and people go ‘What is that? What is that?’ I get that a lot in my sets – ‘What are you playing, what is that?’ – because I don’t really have to play the format, I don’t have to play this shit. I can play new stuff because people don’t know what to expect. Sometimes that’s an advantage, sometimes a disadvantage, but if I’m playing a festival, I’m playing a lot of new stuff. It’s not always gonna be good, but people will be like “I don’t know this song, I don’t know this song.” But it’s a young crowd now. They go for it, they really go for it.
I want to discuss your Hiatus project. You wanted to take a whole year off of acting to just focus on touring and making music. Are you on the other side of that now?
No, my Hiatus tour – my Hiatus ‘season’ – starts next year. Unfortunately, it’s really almost impossible for me to take a year out of my career at this stage of my career. It’s ironic that I’ve definitely reached a pinnacle in my acting space, which is amazing, but it means that I can’t really take time out to concentrate on music. But next year, the whole of the spring through April, is dedicated to touring and putting out this Hiatus album alongside a string of tours. And I’m developing a TV project which I can’t really say too much about, but it’s centered around this world and I’m gonna be shooting that at the same time I’m doing my tour – which is really, really, really bonkers, but I think it’s gonna help people understand what I’m about when it comes to DJing, and how serious it is to me. It is a career to me, you know?
You’ve worked with many high profile names such as Pete Tong and Skepta. With the album that’s coming out down the road, who would be some of your dream collaborators?
There’s a group of people – Justin Martin, Chris Lorenzo, Hannah Wants, that group of people – who are dope, and I would love to work with them because I really love their structure and all of that. But also I feel like I’ve got an opportunity to work with more mainstream artists and put them on songs that are way more underground. I like the fusion of hip hop and house at the moment, and I think there’s some really interesting work to be done there. A$AP Rocky and I are definitely planning on getting a record out… I really like some of the vocals from people like The Weeknd and those types. They’ve got amazing vocals that I think would really work on top of the records that I produce. But I’m talking about original records with these people as opposed to remixes of their stuff. And there’s a real small collection of DJs and underground people – My Nu Leng, DJ SKT – that know how to make a big record but also know how to remain true to their sound. And you know, I’m learning, I’ve got big ambition. But the hip hop/house space is a really interesting space for me because I love both genres, and I love what trap is doing at the moment, but I feel like there’s a little bit of work and I think I can find unique sorts of ways to bring that fusion together. Like, in my sets at the moment, I love dropping into a vocal that comes from a sort of trap sound or hip hop sound. But, that four to the floor still rocks ‘em and the bass still rocks ‘em. So, for me, it could be quite a widespread set of artists. Some that are really underground, some that are more mainstream, and some that come from the hip hop/R&B world where I can put a nice fusion together.
From My Nu Leng to A$AP Rocky, that’s definitely a broad spectrum. Did you say that you have a confirmed plan to work with Rocky on a song?
Any more details you can give us on that?
I haven’t really got his permission to put that out there, so not really. But, we’ve passed through ships a couple of times, and I know that there’s a collaboration that’s gonna happen. But I only can imagine the sound it’s gonna create. So I can’t really say “Yeah, it’s confirmed that me and A$AP are gonna rock a record and it’s gonna be like this,” because we’ve got to sit in the studio. But it’s definitely in the cards [for us] to get in the room.
You have, as you’ve said, a duality between being an actor, and being a DJ/musician. You’ve worked on the soundtracks for projects like Mandela and Luther. Do you have plans to go back into the studio for future seasons of Luther or any other upcoming acting projects.
Yeah. You know, I’m going back in to make some more TV on that, but as far as the music project for that, I think I’ve covered that. I’ve released something that was close to that show for me. I want to revisit it, but I just finished a editing my first feature film, which is called ‘Yardie.’ And I’m definitely, definitely going into the studio to make an album which is similar to ‘Mandela’ and ‘Luther,’ surrounded around reggae and ‘Yardie’. And both those albums that I have done are fusions of ideas where the theme of the film sits right in the middle of it. So with ‘Yardie,’ you know, it centers around the ’70s and the ’80s. My head is to make a sonic album that sort of represents that era which is going from reggae to sort of dancehall and that electronic sound that was born in the early ‘80s. I reckon that my album for that is gonna just span across that and be a homage to that.
You’ve mentioned that it’s hard for you to take time off your career as an actor at your current pinnacle. What do you see as being the ultimate pinnacle that you could achieve as a DJ and musician while not neglecting your acting career?
There’s a few. To be known as a great DJ that walks into a room of any size and kills it. That, to me, is where I see myself at the pinnacle. I don’t imagine that i’m gonna be at the height of Calvin Harris or anything like that. But I would like to be known as a fucking good DJ that comes and kills it across festivals and smaller rooms. From a musician’s point of view, I’m always going to try to make albums that are themed to my films. And, you know what? I’m gonna make a rap album before I die. [Laughs]