From acting in The Wire and Luther to rapping with Skepta and DJing Glasto, Idris Elba does it all, and does it well. Nick Levine meets him the morning after an all-nighter with Madonna.
More than a decade since drug kingpin Stringer Bell ruled the streets of Baltimore, people are still asking Idris Elba about his breakout role in The Wire. “That show’s like Breaking Bad,” he says. “New people discover it and tell their friends, so I’m always getting, ‘Oh, it’s Stringer!’”
But since he started fronting the BBC’s coolest-ever cop series in 2010, Elba gets nearly as many questions about Luther. The 43-year-old Londoner says he relates to obsessive detective DCI John Luther because they’re both workaholics. He’s not exaggerating. When we meet at his Camden office, Elba is drumming the table with his fingers to keep himself awake. He didn’t get any sleep the night before because he accepted a last-minute DJ gig opening for Madonna in Berlin. Madge fancied a nightcap, so there was no time to nap before catching a 5am flight back to London.
Despite being knackered, Elba is excited to discuss his “character album” ‘Murdah Loves John’, a spin-off from Luther’s new two-part special that starts on BBC One on December 15. First question: what is a character album? “It’s an alternative to your bog standard soundtrack album,” Elba explains while raiding a jar of sweets on the table. “Instead of writing about the TV show’s themes, we’ve focused in on the central character and written songs about him and the things that affect him. If you love John Luther, this album gives you an opportunity to get more in-depth with him.”
‘Murdah Loves John’ is Elba’s second character album, following last year’s ‘Mi Mandela’, inspired by his lead role in the acclaimed Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, about late Apartheid activist Nelson Mandela. Where ‘Mi Mandela’ drew from the music of South Africa, ‘Murdah Loves John’ is designed to evoke Luther’s gritty London streets with a sound Elba calls “industrial funk”. It’s more mainstream, featuring cameos from Kasabian’s Tom Meighan – who Elba says “smashes it” on ‘Sinner Man’ – and grime MC Wretch 32. “The endgame is to have a nice boxset of character albums from all my films and TV shows,” Elba says, enthusiastically. “I’ve really found my niche with character albums.”
Elba wrote and produced ‘Murdah Loves John’ with up-and-coming musician Fred Cox, but doesn’t actually appear on the album, even though he has form as a rapper (check out his recent remix of Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’). Will we ever see a proper Idris Elba album? “I don’t know whether I’m there yet,” he says. “I’ve fantasised about making a hip-hop album for years. Not as a rapper – well, partly as a rapper – and not necessarily attached to a character. So that might be it. It’s on the cards one day for sure.”
There’s also the small matter of time. Because Elba has established himself as such a formidably charismatic actor, he’s highly sought after. His forceful performance as the delusional, warmongering commandant in Beasts Of No Nation is attracting Oscar buzz, and next year brings a high-profile role in Star Trek Beyond. There’s also constant chatter about James Bond. “I think people have started to realise,” Elba says, adopting an exaggerated American accent, “’Oh my Gaaahd, this guy is versatile!’ I always ask myself, ‘Can I disappear into this role? Is it a repeat beat of something I’ve done?’ If the answer isn’t ‘yes I can’, and ‘no it isn’t’, then I won’t do it.”
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Because of his screen success, Elba concedes his music will inevitably be greeted with suspicion. “When someone who’s sort of respected as an actor changes lanes into music, people are like, ‘Whaaat?’ But that pressure challenges me,” he says. “I’m proud of both my character albums. They’re very different, but when people lay them next to each other, hopefully they’ll think, ‘Wow. Fair enough.’ I’m not doing this in a fly-by-night sort of way. I think when I release my third album, that’s when people will really start to see me as a musician and a producer.”
He was, though, given a special MOBO Inspiration Award last year in recognition of his journey from East Ham to Hollywood. “I don’t feel like a role model, but I guess I speak to people who come from a similar background. They see me and think, ‘If he can do it, so can I.’ I meet a lot of young artists doing their thing, and I always emphasise the importance of hard work. That’s how I got where I am today.”
So knuckle down, and you too might be knocking them back with Madonna. You will need some sleep, though…