You may know him from his role in the hit US television show The Wire, where he played Stringer Bell: the Machiavellian drug dealer who everyone loved to hate. Or you may know him as DJ Driis, the reputable DJ with a dedicated following, but britishiphop.co.uk is about to introduce you to IDRIS the rapper.
Originally hailing from Hackney East London, Idris Elba’s journey has been an interesting one. He began acting in Secondary School and has continued to do so but he actually began his musical career in pirate radio and even had a studio in his house. His move to the States to pursue acting meant that the music got pushed aside as a hobby. Hollywood soon came a calling and his path took a different turn. Several television and film roles later Idris Elba has become a well known name is America but still remains relatively unknown in the UK, however it looks like that is about to change with the release of his debut EP Big Man.
Idris’ surprising debut is a fusion of all his musical influences. Idris cites that his musical sound is a result of having listened to over 5,000 records (and counting) from his DJ collection. Big Man displays Idris’ detailed story telling ability and his clever word play over flawless production from UK super production duo: The Insomniax. Tracks like the epic sounding ‘Johnny Was’ and the hypnotising ‘The Burn’, demonstrate that Idris is serious about his music and is definitely a force to be reckoned with. Britishhiphop.co.uk caught up with the big man himself in Atlanta to talk about music, repping the UK and his third alter ego: DJ Driis.
So how did you get into music?
Idris Elba: I started in pirate and I always kept a studio at my house, I was always into little productions here and there but because of acting I obviously had to push it aside as a hobby, I never really wanted to pursue the two at the same time. So when I got to the States now, it was really a matter of survival because I came out here to act. The first three years I suffered, I couldn’t get acting work because basically my American accent wasn’t strong enough and I was going up against actors out here who were getting their dues. So basically I brought the turntables out to survive-make money.
I disk jockeyed in New York, Down Town New York, at all these little spots and in fact when garage was hot I used to play it. You know that record by the Architects, ‘Make your body move’. I used to play that in some little bar in Manhattan and they were like ‘what the hell is this!’ For real though, I played about twenty garage records in this one night, before you know it, it became every Wednesday they just wanted pure garage! It was me and this DJ called Greg Paul and basically he was like a real nerd DJ and he would fly to London and get the records. So I ended up being the MC, I ended up MC-ing for him and that’s when it started, that’s when I was like the mic thing I have to bring that back up again.
Do you see yourself as a musician first and then an actor, or both?
Idris Elba: Honestly I just say I’m an artist period. Really my strengths are and I’m gonna be honest, is my production. I have a great ear for it and I hear when someone’s doing it good and not. Djs need to rely on that. Living out here and playing out here, I’ve learnt how to make a record, there’s such a science to it and I think UK producers are only now starting to get a hold of it.
So how did your EP Big Man come about?
Idris Elba: I messed around with these boys called The Insomniax out in London, the Insomniax crew they’re like these young cats from South London, and they’re heavy producers. To cut a long story short we got together, I spent like a few months in their studio and we knocked out my EP. We knocked out eight songs but those on the EP are the strongest ones and I honestly wonna work with them for the rest of my life (laughs) ‘cause they’re just dope. We had great chemistry and they’re not followers, they’re not copy cats, they are just doing their own thing, making their own sound and they’ll tell me like ‘Idris that line is wack’ (laughs).
What was the creative process behind Johnny Was?
Idris Elba: ‘Johnny Was’, is based on a real character, he’s a good friend of mine in fact he’s a DJ now. He basically was just a bad boy, a smart kid, had a lot of personality but like I said in the song he sees everything around him and he wants every thing around him, so he gets in trouble. Basically DSV he’s in the Insomniax hit me with this beat and I was like damn, it’s a big beat. I lived with that record that was the last record we cut because I lived with it for so long; I was like I can’t just spit any rubbish on it. So I had to really dig in. So basically you know one session we were just chatting and that’s how the story came up.
The way I write is scary, if you said to me now spit a 16 bar I‘d be like, erm nah, but if I’m in the studio at the last minute literally, the beat has to be knocking in my head and something starts to come. Then I asked Shaun (Escoffery) Shaun and I grew up together. He’s got a great voice and he came up and blessed the hook for me and obviously the Bob Marley records on it, I took the melody off that and planted it on the track and that’s how the record came about. It’s funny cause over here (US) that’s the record that they love.
What can we expect from the album when it comes, any collaborations?
Idris Elba: A solo album from me is not in the pipeline right now, I wonna do another EP which is probably gonna be solo. My first album is probably gonna be a DJ album. I’m looking at an album called The Allies, which is basically UK and US but done officially. I’m trying to get the best of the best out of the UK and the best of the best out of the US and I’m honestly in a fortunate position, just virtue of the fact that my acting career here means I have the relationships on both sides of the water. I know a lot of DJs and mans in London and I know a lot of DJs and mans in the US. So if anyone’s gonna do a allies album it’s gonna be me.
I’m not saying I’m an ambassador for England but I know the streets out in England and I know the streets here. So im just someone bringing the synergy together. Its gonna be heavy im looking at bringing people like Sway, Asher D, Kano, Baby Blue, Chammillonaire, Lupe, Papoose and maybe some bigger heavy weight acts but its gonna be a DJ album and I’m gonna produce some of it and I’m gonna get some UK and US producers.
Why do you think there is such a gap between the UK and US markets?
Idris Elba: It’s a cultural thing; we understand each other when we speak, you know we come from the same mother earth but it’s a cultural thing, it’s different. The thing is everyone understands what it is to come up in a system like this, where we are the minority and we have to go out of our way using music, using speeches etcetera or using whatever means to get our voice across. So if we both understand that, why can’t we make music that reflects both worlds?
Americans respect what’s coming from the UK. As far as fashion is concerned everyone knows you go to London and Paris to get your stuff and now they are starting to hear that some of our beat makers are heavy. Some UK producers have been doing it well out here, like Neo’s last two records were done by Swedish cats but what’s missing is that sexy, that stamp like nah, it might sound American but it’s actually British or European.
It’s missing someone who’s got the nuts or the ‘je ne sais quoi’ to say it’s the UK here and if you ain’t giving us no respect then peace. I’m proud of what we’ve done in the UK and I’m proud of where we are going. Now Sway is here and getting the BET Award, I’m proud that me and him are gonna walk on red carpet at the BET Hip Hop Awards: two London mans – that’s a move forward.