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
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The Independent Culture

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