Idris Elba - Tapping into a sound new direction

The British actor Idris Elba, who starred in The Wire, is launching his music career with an EP. Can a 37-year-old British-born Hollywood actor make it in the rap game as Big Driis? Matilda Egere-Cooper meets him

It always seems a bit suspect when relatively successful actors, such as a certain Hackney-born Idris Elba, cross over into music.

There's that question of ability, where, if you're like Jamie Foxx or Terrence Howard, and are fortunate to be endowed with a decent vocal ability and musical talent, critics might reluctantly give you the benefit of the doubt. But if you have more in common with Eddie Murphy's bemusing free-love foray in the 1980s, which proved that no amount of superstar support – which came from Michael Jackson and Rick James – can disguise a hideous singing voice, such experiments are better left as an indulgent hobby nobody ever has to hear.

Elba, who for all musical purposes and intentions is the artist now known as Big Driis, is entirely aware that at 37 years old, with a healthy catalogue of movie and television roles, such as Beyoncé's harassed husband in Obsessed, the cult figure Stringer Bell in The Wire, and his forthcoming turn in Marvel's Thor, his decision to make the transition may not be met with a major round of applause – even if his attempts aren't half-bad. "First of all, I'm overly aware that, you know, being an actor doing music is always going to bring its own criticisms," he says, with the knowing resignation of a man who's become accustomed to the side-glances and incredulous reactions to his first love. "So I filter that. I don't play my music to people that are not going to be able to see beyond the fact that I'm an actor. And out here in England are the hardest music critics ever. People don't take lightly to actors doing music and you know even if they love you, if the music's shit, the music's shit. So for me, this is the place to introduce it and this is the place to hone it. I hear negative shit all the time, but I don't pay attention to it."

Although now based in Miami, the actor and part-time DJ is in town to promote his new EP, High Class Problems Vol 1, while also filming for his new BBC drama, Luther. He suddenly sits up. "Here's my thing: if you weren't there when I was recording it, what do I care about what you were thinking when you were listening to it?" he asks, then breaks into a charming smile. "Truly. It's done now." This is said less in defence, and more nonchalantly, indicative of Elba's constantly cool façade, which justifies why so many women are into him, and so many men want to be like him – well, more like his infamous character Stringer Bell. There's also a sense that he's testing the waters with his new record and isn't quite ready to take his music persona too seriously. His first major stab at music happened in 2006 with the subtle release of his debut EP, Big Man, which, fortunately for him, introduced him as a rapper who had clever-enough rhyme schemes and a good ear for high production values, hooking up with south London production outfit The Insomniax. Since then, he's managed to notch up a few production credits, including the intro on Jay-Z's American Gangster LP in 2007 . "Big Man, to some people – and I'm quoting – is a classic," he says. "Some said, 'I didn't expect to hear that Idris and when I heard that I was like, hell! Considering who you are and what you do, that is a classic in time and space.'" So I always held on to that and thought, 'Don't go down from there. Go up, elevate yourself and challenge yourself.'"

The challenge, of course, is one of establishing musical credibility, where in spite of existing in an age where the odd artist can find success on the merits of being a one-hit novelty, there's still a need to have that genuine, authentic "X" factor. He's mainly singing on this new collection, and to his credit, his voice is so safely competent and laid-back, he could never be accused of being terrible. Musically, he's drawn on his early 1990s hip-hop, soul and reggae influences to tackle the well-worn topic of love, and highlights come courtesy of the Pete Rock-produced waist-twister "Please Be True" and "Private Garden", blessed by illustrious hip-hop producer 9th Wonder. Lyrics such as "Let your guard down, let this brother enter in your private garden" on the latter initially seem spicy, until he explains it's about an insecure girlfriend who was a bit too guarded. "A lot of people think it's about me getting into your panties," he smiles. "It's fine that people think that – at the end of the day, love is love. One brethren said, 'Why didn't you just say, let me into your bush?' I said, 'Bruv, it's not about bush per se', even though..." he pauses awkwardly. "It's a garden."

It all seems inspired by an old-school sentiment aimed at single women in their mid-thirties who squeeze into leather skirts to hang out at wine bars on the weekend, but he manages to get away with it. "I wouldn't say I was a singer... I'd say I was a mikes man," he concedes. Which is what, exactly? "You know, in the sound-system culture, you had the DJ, the mikes man would be the host and he's literally toasting on the mike, keeping the vibe up. He wouldn't necessarily be the best rapper or chatter, or best singer, but no matter what he did, he offered a vibe. And I think that's where I'm sort of fitting into." He brings up Fela Kuti, Sade and Frank Sinatra to illustrate his point. "Frank Sinatra, God bless him, was an actor and a hybrid musician as well. But what people loved about Frank was his personality, and he brought that personality into his performance as an actor and he brought it into his songs. He had a beautiful voice, but it was a Frank voice. And there are a few artists that have their own sound. A Sade record is a Sade record. There are artists that are uber-talented that can make a soul record, an R&B record and a reggae record and they still sound like themselves, but they don't have their own genre, they just happen to be talented." So is he trying to create a new category of music that revolves around him? "I'm not bold to say I have my own genre," he adds, on cue. "But I just feel like I represent a DJ culture."

Elba traces his musical interests back to growing up as an only child with his Ghanaian mother and Sierra Leonean father. "Home was west African, lots of entertaining. Music was a big part of that. What you played next at the parties was a big part of the whole culture. It's about how you're making people feel." His uncle was a professional DJ, and he joined his team to play at functions and weddings. At 14, he hooked up with a DJ named Boogie and they started a rap group at a time when London was thriving with a healthy hip-hop scene fostering acts such as the Demon Boyz, Rebel MC and London Posse. But eventually, the acting called, and he headed to New York, aged 25. "I feel like if I kept on the music, I could have been a lot advanced," he says. "I think, honestly... if I went the music route first instead of being an actor, people would have been a lot more forgiving. Like Mos Def. People would have been like, 'He's a rapper, but he can act good!'"

He admits he's still trying to work out his musical identity. " It'd be highly presumptuous of me to think that I'm going to gain an audience because I'm an actor, you know what I mean? And I think that two EPs is about paying my dues," he says. "They're not full albums and I don't think people are quite ready for a full album, but now there's a collection of songs on the internet, it's clear your man is serious about it, and it's not because of the recognition... I feel it's important I find my own audience." So what's the long-term goal? Grammys, chart success, MySpace fame? "For me it's an outlet," he says, admitting his eight-year-old daughter, Isan, loves his tunes. "It's a way for Idris to sort of express himself, as opposed to express the ideas of a writer who's writing a character. Stringer Bell was the brainchild of someone else. The character in Obsessed was the brainchild of someone else. It's not Idris's work. My music is Idris. It's me, it's my interpretation, it's my thoughts, it's my ideas." But it seems unlikely he'll be able to distance himself from Mr Bell any time soon – although, perhaps he could consider dropping a concept album, like, say, "Stringer Does Sinatra"? "Uh... no," he chuckles. "Although one time there was this rumour that Stringer Bell was coming back – so I did this freestyle about it, and I addressed it plain and simple... He's not coming back. Done."

High Class Problems Vol 1 EP is released on 8 February on Hevlar Recordings

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern