It’s difficult to keep up with Idris Elba, especially these days. As an actor, producer, director, and DJ, he’s continually expanding his repertoire while also blending his work in film and music. In 2019 alone, there have been new episodes of Luther, his new Turn Up Charlie series on Netflix, covers of Vanity Fair and British Vogue, and the debut of his play, Tree. Before the year is over, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw and Cats will be out, too.
On the music side of things, just this year, Idris was on Wiley’s massively popular “Boasty” remix, he DJed Coachella, he released The YARDIE Mixtape, and he launched a DJing-inspired clothing line, 2HR SET. The YARDIE Mixtape includes reggae-influenced music connected to his directorial film debut, 2018’s YARDIE. The day after this interview took place (over the phone from Idris’ Green Door Pictures production office and recording studio), Idris was on his way to Ibiza for a DJ residency.
Music provides a lot of work on top of his film commitments, though it doesn’t seem like Idris would have it any other way. Growing up in London, he pitched himself for his first DJ gig at the age of 12. At age 14, Idris started accompanying his uncle, a wedding DJ, to gigs (and sometimes spun a few tunes at the end of them). At 19, he started a DJ company with his friends and took on the moniker, “Big Driis.” After leaving school, a Prince’s Trust grant got him a spot in the National Youth Music Theatre, and for the next few years he began auditioning and working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Fast forward to 2007, after starring in the film American Gangster, and Idris was on the “Intro” of Jay Z’s album inspired by the film — another example of Idris shooting his shot and making it.
In addition to launching his record label, 7Wallace, last year, Idris also DJed the Royal Wedding. The irony of Idris playing a wedding DJ in Turn Up Charlie, the Netflix series he created and starred in, is surely not lost on him. In between all of his other commitments, Idris also got married this year, and got the Nigerian artist, Davido, to perform at the reception.
Idris creative directed and starred in a new commercial with Stella Artois, which features one of his unreleased songs. We caught up with him to talk DJing, music discovery, and how he keeps a vacation mindset, despite his busy schedule.
What’s your general approach to DJing?
The goal with my sets is just to keep people having a good time. I meander between classic bits that they might recognize and brand new songs that I know are going to be classics. That's how I build my sets. I try not to fall into a pattern, because then I'll get bored. There's so much great, new music coming out; I just feel like everyone should get a shot.
Without giving away any major secrets, how do you keep up with and find new music?
Transparently, I have a team that really keeps me on the zeitgeist. That feels like cheating, because I come from an era where I'd be at the record shop choosing my music. I'd know who's who and what's what. At the moment, I know who's who, but I don't have the ability to find new music in the same way I did before. So I put together all of my playlists, but I have people who say, "Yo, these producers are great. This label is doing this, this label is doing that." I just have a summarized way of pulling my playlists together. Especially when you're doing a residency, it's hard to keep up with what's coming out all the time.
In the last year and a half, you've DJed everything from the Royal Wedding to Coachella. Would you say there’s any overlap in your sets? Are there any songs that you tend to play, no matter who the audience is?
In the dance community, or even just for people who love house music, there’s so much product coming out every single day. I change my playlist every week. The Royal Wedding was a particular occasion. It's a wedding, so it was good times. I played some of my favorites and some of theirs. But my gigs like Coachella and Glastonbury are generally completely different sets.
Just like building your sets, you’ve built some original compilations like the recent YARDIE Mixtape. How did you make that happen?
Again, it was teamwork. I have a label, and I brought in a really great A&R, Ross Allen, to help me curate the sound and interpret what I wanted to do. I made a movie that was very specific in its sonics, but I wanted to make a mixtape that celebrated the influence of those sounds in modern music.
Reggae music has influenced so many people and styles, and I really just wanted to pay homage to that. For me, making the mixtape was just like playing all of my favorite records in one set. It goes from drum and bass, to traditional reggae-sounding records, to grime. Chip, who’s a big MC here in the U.K., got together with Toddla T and made this bonkers record called “Yard.” Newham Generals, who are the godfathers, pulled together an amazing song, “King Fox,” an interpretation of one of the characters in the film.
The whole process was the most amazing jigsaw, just pulling all these pieces together. I'm really proud of that album. It's my third installment; Mi Mandela was the first, and Murdah Loves John was the second. These projects are about my influences, especially hybrid music. It's not about one song, it's really about the whole collection of songs.
The YARDIE Mixtape also came out on your label, 7Wallace. Where does the name come from?
7Wallace is the address of my liberation. I had been living in America for a long time, and when I came back to England, I lived at 7 Wallace in London. It was there that Luther was born, and it was there that I started to really create as a DJ, rapper, actor, and producer. It's a place where I lived and where my life changed. I spent a couple of really great years there, I had the most incredible parties, and I met the most incredible friends.
7 Wallace is the address of my liberation. It's a place where I lived and where my life changed.
Also, just as a secret between you and me, 7Wallace is a big ode to Christopher Wallace, [The Notorious B.I.G.], who's my favorite rapper. I just happened to live on Wallace Road, too, so it felt right to call my label 7Wallace.
Who are some of your favorite artists right now?
You know, that’s a really difficult question! I'm into a few people. I'm into what Chance [The Rapper] does, I'm into what Skepta does, I'm into what Drake does, I'm into what Loski does, and I'm into what Octavian does. I mean, my chocolate box is massive. I like a lot of different types of music.
So you’ve creative directed and starred in this new spot, with the “Boasty” director, Henry Scholfield, about having a vacation mindset no matter where you are. How do you do that, especially with your extremely busy schedule?
The music bed for the film is actually an unreleased song of mine called “One Fine Day.” The song features Tigz and Sway, and it’s about the dream day: “One fine day we're going to make it there.” When you work as much as I do, you have to make that day happen wherever you are. I might find myself in a corporate hotel, looking out over a wall of concrete, and I really have to turn it into a place where I can just relax.
That’s why Stella and I decided to make this. Not everyone can afford to go on expensive holidays, and traveling can be stressful. As far as I'm concerned, I have to summer like I’m on vacation, because otherwise I wouldn't get one. I have to find those moments when I'm not on a Jamaican beach, maybe I'm in my office or just on my veranda. I multitask, so vacations are a blessing if I can get them. But it's nice to have a vacation right wherever I am.