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Q+A: Idris Elba

In recent years, Hollywood A-lister Idris Elba has turned his hand to DJing at some of the world’s biggest clubs and festivals

  • Sean Griffiths
  • 24 June 2016

Idris Elba has played some of the coolest characters in film and TV. From icy drug baron Stringer Bell in The Wire, to flawed maverick detective John Luther, by way of Nelson Mandela in 2013 biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Elba really has got to play some cool cats in his time. But even with this roster of characters under his belt, in real life Idris gives any of them a run for their money in the kudos stakes.

Whether he’s taking time out from his acting schedule to DJ at festivals like Glastonbury, Creamfields and Snowbombing, heading to South Africa to record a companion album for the Mandela film with British and South African musicians, or giving Liam Gallagher a taste of his own medicine (he upset him by giving his hair a ruffle at an awards ceremony), whatever Elba’s up to, it’s usually got ‘cool as fuck’ written all over it. We caught up with him when he took some time out from filming Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower in South Africa to find out about his plans to take a year out to concentrate solely on music, why he’s more than a celebrity DJ and who from the world of music he’d like to have a go at playing on screen.

You’ve been building a career as a DJ for the last few years. Do you get stressed about it or is it purely fun?

In America I’d just have fun. I’d walk into r’n’b clubs and play a set and just enjoy it. Then when I came back to London three or four years ago, I was doing a lot of celebrity DJ gigs as everyone was still buzzing off The Wire. I didn’t really enjoy it that much as it was a lot of people standing around watching me rather than enjoying the music. In the last few years, I’ve made a bit more of a career choice out of it and really focused in on where I want to be as a DJ. I play house, I play bass house and tech-house. I’ve become a bit more picky, but it hasn’t necessarily been easy. It was a couple of years before Pacha let me do a warm-up set, and I know DJs work their lifetime to get in Pacha.

When did you make the change?

One of the first more high-profile gigs I did was IMS a few years ago. Pete Tong and Hot Since 82 were on the bill. All of the industry were there watching, and I was sweating my bollocks off! I’ve always had good taste in music, but DJing for two hours in front of people who know what they’re talking about – that’s a different skill altogether. I definitely did get nervous then. I’m a lot more confident now in what I’m doing.

You’ve done some big festival gigs since then...

Yeah, I played Glastonbury last year. It was the first time I’d even been down to the festival. That was a massive transition point. At the start, I’d say it was eighty per cent people who had turned up out of curiosity, and twenty per cent who had heard me spin before. The tent holds about 2,500 people and at the start, there were about 4,500 there. By the end there were still 3000 there and we went at it! Winning people over’s half of the fun.

What records are smashing it for you at the minute?

I’m really liking Michael Wood’s ’Take My Love’. At the height of my set, I throw that in because it’s got an old sample in it that people love. And there’s a tune called ‘Ingwenyu’ I’m playing a lot. It starts off really easy and then drops into this anthemic marimba, xylophone lead.

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