Idris Elba's Top 10 Contributions To Music

It's not rare for actors and musicians to crossover into each other's fields, but few do it as well and seamlessly as Idris Elba.

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Best known as the entrepreneurial-minded gangster Stringer Bell in The Wire, and as the man constantly linked with being the next James Bond, Idris Elba is something of a phenomenon. A critically-acclaimed actor, who has worked with directors such as Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro, Guy Ritchie and True Detective's own Cary Fukunaga, Idris has never been one to settle for just one craft. He's made numerous documentaries on everything from hip-hop to his love of motor racing; he has a fashion line coming out with Superdry, and most of all, he has a great passion for music. A DJ that plays to crowds of thousands in Ibiza, a producer that's worked with Jay Z and a rapper and soul singer who's collaborated with the likes of Mr. Hudson and Maverick Sabre, Elba is a Jack of all trades. A modern-day renaissance man, if you will.

Not one to do things by halves, Elba throws 100% of himself into everything he does so that none of his side-projects actually sound like side-projects. Music is playing an increasingly prominent role in the Luther star's career; he's just completed another season DJing with the legendary Pete Tong out in Ibiza, along with an increased output led by the mi Mandela album he released last year. It's not rare for actors and musicians to crossover into each other's fields, but few do it as well and seamlessly as Idris Elba.

Words by Sam Moore

Driis – "2 Black 2 Strong"

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Idris Elba's unmistakably deep voice lends itself perfectly to rapping. He's clear, smooth, and in this black empowerment anthem that tackles internal spiritual conflict, aspiration, and the pursuit of success, he's the best he's ever sounded on wax. With references to the Million Man March and his own personal rise from the streets of Hackney to the top of Hollywood, "2 Black 2 Strong" is an intrinsically intimate portrayal of the inner-thoughts of Mr. Elba.

Jay Z – "Intro" (American Gangster)

The Milk – "Picking Up The Pieces" f/ Idris Elba

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Elba's hook-up with indie group The Milk was a surprising success. The boys from the band were big fans of Idris and thought his voice would be perfect for a monologue/rap they had planned; and after hearing and liking the song, he recorded his cameo whilst on the set of Prometheus. The funky number has a great, thundering guitar riff and led by the powerful vocals of Rich Nunn, the song is energetic and stands out drastically from other guitar-led indie fare. Idris doesn't come into the track until near the end, delivering a short rap of nice rhymes that only emphasize how great his voice sounds over a beat. 

Idris Elba – "You Give Me Love" f/ Maverick Sabre

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Having been inspired by Nelson Mandela and South African music after his portrayal of the late statesman in Mandela: Long Road To Freedom, Idris set about to make an album based on what he learnt from Mandela and the music he encountered during his research. One of the tracks off the mi Mandela LP was the Maverick Sabre collaboration, "You Give Me Love". With its heart in the blues and soul, Sabre's supremely powerful vocal is the focus and is accompanied by minimalist production and a backing choir. Like much of the album, "You Give Me Love" was co-written by one-time Kanye West protégé Mr. Hudson and features an outstanding hook, further proving Elba's talent for blending genres, but this time as a writer and producer.

'How Hip-Hop Changed The World'

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A journey through the history of hip-hop presented on Channel 4 by Idris Elba, How Hip-Hop Changed The World provided a reminder of how the genre was formed and developed, and how it helped forge modern pop culture as we know it. We see Public Enemy at their militant greatest, Salt-N-Pepa telling men to step it up in the bedroom, and Eminem bringing rap to the suburbs. And with the talking heads ranging from Nas to Snoop Dogg, pretty much all bases feel covered as we get taken on a trip down memory lane to when we first heard the iconic beats to tracks like "Nuthin' But A G Thang" and "NY State of Mind".

For some reason, Wham get a mention for their 1982 song, "Wham Rap", and far too many minutes are wasted on Vanilla Ice but it's a great way to spend a couple of hours and revisit how hip-hop entered the mainstream and took over the world.

'How Clubbing Changed The World'

Idris Elba – "Nothembi Jam" f/ Nothembi Mkhwebane

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On no other track from mi Mandela is Elba's enthusiasm for South African music more present than on "Nothembi Jam", featuring Nothembi Mkhwebane—a virtuoso singer and musician who is as well known for her fashion sense as she is her artistic talents. Known as the Queen of Ndebele music, a style that can be defined by its use of clapping, Nothembi is the most prominent performer in the genre which is most common in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Here, Idris enlists her talents on the guitar to create an infectious groove that blends so well with James Blake's piano, to create a beautiful mash of styles that reflect the ambition behind the album. Elba's intention with the project was to blend British and South African sounds and cultures and never was that more apparent on this gentle track that stays with you long after it has finished.

King Driis – "Hold On" f/ Shadow

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Back when he went under the moniker King Driis, the Golden Globe-nominated actor collaborated with acclaimed producer (and professor of music) 9th Wonder, who has worked with everyone from Mary J. Blige to Kendrick Lamar, and Sierra Leone MC Shadow for his debut track, "Hold On". Before the release of "Hold On", nobody really took Elba's musical aspirations too seriously; it was known he liked to DJ and was a huge hip-hop head but rarely do dreams come to fruition. But when this track dropped, attitudes towards Idris changed as he proved he deserved to be taken seriously as a rapper.

Driis – "Best That I Can"

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Straight off his mixtape, High Class Problems, a project that sees Idris experiment with hip-hop, jazz and reggae, "Best That I Can" is an early example of Elba's wide musical pallet that incorporates the sound of his youth with contemporary styles. It's the smooth growl in Idris' voice that really wins you over, as well as its banging bassline. The laid-back flow and feel of the song is typical of Idris' earlier style and we get to see a softer side of the man better known for his towering and intimidating screen presence. Even though the mixtape boasts contributions from heavyweights such as 9th Wonder and Pete Rock, it's the unknown Vitamin D in charge of the beat on this one, whose production encourages Elba to sing and experiment with his voice.

Skepta – "Shutdown" (Remix) f/ Idris Elba

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Idris Elba's remix of Skepta's "Shutdown" (a contender for song of the year) has to be heard to be believed. After the critical success of mi Mandela, Idris didn't stay away from the music game for too long and surprised the internet with his take on the grime king's smash hit. Here, Elba demonstrates his evolution as a rapper, venturing into the unknown as he displays a quicker and more complex flow to what listeners had become accustomed to. It's also interesting to see him go over a grime production, when his previous musical output has been over slower hip-hop beats that fit his voice more naturally. Making references to his time on The Wire as Stringer Bell, his portrayal of Nelson Mandela, his success on Luther as well as his own rags to riches story, Idris gives us one of the better "Shutdown" remixes to have touched down on the interwebs. 

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