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We catch up with 'friend of DJ Mag' Idris Elba ahead of our Best Of British awards

“It’s a neo-political heist film, which I like — it’s pretty smart,” he says. “I’m really working hard at it at the minute, doing lots of action stuff that I’ve never really done before.”

Idris, of course, was Stringer Bell in cult Baltimore crime series The Wire and played the title roles in detective series Luther and, more recently, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom — the film of the life of the inspirational anti-Apartheid activist-turned-President of South Africa. He's recently finished a film in Ghana called Beast of No Nation, based on a book about child soldiers — “It’s deep, deep stuff, we were out in the jungle for seven weeks and I can’t wait for people to see it. It’s a real interesting perspective on child soldiers and children of war” — and reveals that 'character albums' (such as his latest, 'mi Mandela' — see below) are going to be the way forward for his music-making projects in the near future, although he also wants to just put some beats out when he starts DJing again next summer... 

Idris, tell us a bit about your new 'mi Mandela' album, out on your own 7Wallace label in conjunction with Parlophone... why did you want to make it?
“I wanted to make this album for a couple of reasons. When I was in South Africa making Mandela, this music gave me a lot of inspiration — a lot of insight into the culture and who Mandela was. In discovering that, I just heard a lot of new stuff. I was listening to a lot of music, and their approach to music was unique to me and just inspired me. I’ve always wanted to make music, and always have made music, but I had a real comfortable entry point in South Africa.

“So I made a lot of music while I was there, just on my laptop messing around sorta thing, and then when I got back to England I said, ‘I’m gonna do something a bit more meaningful’. And the second reason was because of my dad. He literally just passed when I went off to make this album, and before he passed he was always encouraging of my music — and basically introduced me to it. It’s one of these things you want to do in your life — a landmark thing to make a special effort for. This is it.” 

You've worked with people like Maverick Sabre, George the Poet and Shaun Escoffery on the album. How did you decide who to collaborate with?
“Some of it was gratuitous luck really, and some of it was planned out. I wanted to work with people who would understand the vision — who were a bit of a musical hybrid themselves. So Maverick [Sabre] to me is a massive hybrid, his voice is very soulful and where he comes from is very folky. I just thought that might be something that I could pull together. The South African and African musicians were people I’d heard of when I was in South Africa. It was a collaborative effort — bringing people together.”

Was a lot of the stuff recorded in South Africa, then?
“Yeah, all of it was recorded in South Africa — the whole album, apart from two tracks. The one with Shaun Escoffery was recorded in London, and the one with the Malian musicians was recorded in Mali. Otherwise it was all recorded in South Africa.”

Why did you call it ‘mi Mandela’?
“My parents come from Sierra Leone and we speak creole, which is broken English, and ‘mi’ in that means like ‘us’ [explains how ‘mi’ is a collective term for ‘we’ or ‘us’]. So ‘Mi Mandela’ is sort of saying ‘This is our Mandela’, from my point of view — this is how I saw he affected a lot of people.”

Not a lot of people know that you've been involved in DJ culture for a long time – since the late '80s. You started your own DJ company with some pals, didn't you?“Yeah, I was in soundsystems since when I was a teenager, I grew up around big Jamaican soundsystems — Saxon — and then Soul II Soul on the soul side, Mastermind… all these sounds, they were all who I followed, it’s how I got into music really. My uncle had a little soundsystem as well, when I was a mid-teenager I started to get into it seriously. I did pirate radio for a little while, that was good.”

And you started DJing under the name Big Driis, is that right?
“My first DJ name was Mr Kipling [laughs], as I apparently had more tarts than Mr Kipling! My mum actually gave me a DJ name — Idrico. Like Idris, but Idrico — she used to like saying, ‘DJ Idrico!’ What sort of tunes was I playing back then? Reggae and calypso, stuff like Arrow ‘Feeling Hot Hot Hot’ — that sort of music.” 

Then, obviously, your acting took off. But while you were a jobbing actor in the '90s, how did this work in tandem with your love of music culture?
“Music became more of a hobby as soon as the acting took off, I was completely taken away by being able to make a living by acting — and I loved it. The music was secondary. I don’t know why I didn’t try to pursue both at the same time, I guess I just wanted to focus in on the acting. Music I was doing as fun, and as a reset button, y’know? I think it still plays that role for me now, but I’m just taking it a lot more seriously.

“It’s a bit clichéd, ‘actors who do music’ — you get that vibe, ‘Oh, I’m doing music now’, but because it’s always been alongside my career as an actor it feels natural to step into it and push it a bit further. But I’m doing it for the love, you know what I mean? For the creativity of it all. That’s what I love doing it for. It’s sound in general — whether it be producing, sound editing, I’ve always been interested in being in that space.”

When you DJ now, what do you play?
“I play mainly house now. I really got into house in the early ‘90s, post-drum & bass. Well, two-step, drum & bass, house, y’know? Then when I moved to America, I was a lot into R&B and hip-hop, that’s what I played a lot more but I kept one ear in the house world, and then over the last five years it’s been really house. It’s just a refreshing vibe — I love the vibe.” 

How come you haven’t gone EDM?
“Ha ha ha, if I’m honest I did play a bit of that in America. When I was living in America and playing house there, it was always going to be more EDM. I played for Deadmau5 a couple of times, I warmed up for him, it was very trap-meets-hard EDM — that’s what the audience wanted. It wasn’t a natural lane for me, but I’ll tell you what — the energy playing that shit was just fucking… 25,000 people for Deadmau5 in Toronto, you see why it works. But naturally, for me, going back to deep house — UK house as well.

“Could I have become a big EDM DJ? Nah, that definitely wasn’t a natural fit for me. I did EDC a year ago, last summer, and that was the transition point for me, where I knew I had to step into my own lane, because I do this thing where there’s 5000 people all looking for EDM-type music, but then you realise that even the EDM that I like sounds more like the sound that I wanna play, so I ended up getting in to what I wanted to play naturally — and the crowd go with, do you know what I mean?”

How do you decide whom to collaborate with on a featured dance track?
“Well, I don’t get as many offers as you might think, most people who I’ve worked with I’ve wanted to work with anyway, so collaborations with Timo Garcia, The Milk and Ben Hudson [Mr Hudson], they’ve all been sort of like different parts of my musical journey. They’re all in the right direction.”

When are you going to get the call to be James Bond?
“Ha ha ha, you tell me, man. Honestly, I’ve no clue. It’s one of those things, if it happens it’d be wicked and nice.”