And it turns out he knows his tunes.
Idris Elba is best known for acting. Acting hard, acting cool, and acting like someone your partner would leave you for quicker than you can say "Pacific Rim."
He's recognised as being South London's troubled answer to Columbo in the BBC detective series Luther, Captain Janek in Prometheus, Stringer Bell in The Wire, and Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. But, as we found out recently, there is much more to Elba than such simple tags as suicidally depressed detective, intellectual drug lord, and pragmatic spaceship pilot.
For a start, he spent his whole summer doing an Ibiza residency: pounding classic house into the sunburnt faces of Ibizan party critters. "Yea, I did a whole season there this summer," laughs Idris. "It was a little tiring, but that said: all I had to do was party hard and get people off their arses. So...it was hardly work."
Secondly, he's spent the last year curating, writing, and producing a music project after getting hooked on African rhythms whilst filming the Mandela biopic. The project, titled mi Mandela, pairs acts like James Blake, George The Poet, Maverick Sabre, and Cody ChestnuTT with South Africa's most gifted yet largely undiscovered musical talents. "I just wanted to embody South African musicianship, and what I love about UK musicianship, and see what would come out of it," explains Idris. "Phuzekhemisi, for instance, isn't exactly well known to us, but he's an amazing Zulu guitarist who has sold over 30 million records to his own people. I also felt in touch with some producers who aren't getting the light of day outside of their own townships, yet they are dope."
So, Idris is clearly a bit of a tastemaker. But what will he make of the freshest music that is soundtracking the Noisey stereo each week. Does Idris lose sleep with nervous excitement about the bubbling grime revival? Did he agree with the Mercury Prize? Do Sleaford Mods make him want to turn up at the next tory conference with a balaclava and a packet of organic eggs? Does he understand Dean Blunt? We sent the Hackney hard man five tracks that are circulating this month to see what he made of it all.
Okay, the grime revival is kicking off right now with new music from Dizzee, Wiley and Skepta. What do you make of this new Skepta track, and were you into grime first time round?
Grime missed me, man. I was in the states when it kicked off. I heard echoes of it, but I never got into. And I have to be honest, I wasn't too inspired by what I was hearing from grime at the time. Recently though, I feel like it is stepping up and starting to sound more like itself. For the reason that it is totally British, I think it deserves its props. At the same time, some of it aint great. I mean, some of it really isn't that good. You often get that across rap in general though. This track, the beat is crazy. It sounded like some fucked up Kool Moe Dee shit. It's very different. The rapping almost didn't sound like grime to me. It sounded different, like his flow... *Idris starts rapping like Skepta*. I like this video too. It's so blatantly raw!
Nice one. How about Young Fathers? They are a hip-hop trio from Edinburgh who have just won the Mercury Prize for best album.
Listen, the production on this one is awesome. It's like some fresh sounding, quite industrial r&b. I think it's like a 110, 114 tempo? Which is fine by me, you know what I mean? The song itself was interesting, and the melody actually sounds quite retro. Reminded me of something from the 80s. Also, I didn't even know they were from Scotland? That doesn't explain much, but now I'm even more excited about them. You don't expect much from Scottish hip-hop. That's dope.
Do you know Run The Jewels? These are two veteran rappers called Killer Mike and El-P who have teamed up to make some shit hot free mixtapes. Is this more your type of hip-hop?
They are a dynamic duo man. Wicked! That song you picked is just alright. There is better stuff. I was listening to their mixtape today actually. They just have that presence, man. Their flow is stupidly sick and they have some intelligent lyrics. Thumbs up from me. I've been derailed on hip hop recently, but this feels like a step in the right direction. It's real fucking heavyweight beats and rhymes. Actually, I was listening to this kid Awate recently. You know him? He's from Eritrea I think, but now in London. It's produced by Turkish. His beats are old school, and very influenced by Dilla, Pete Rock etc. I was super impressed.
I don't know Awate. I'm gonna check him out. Okay, time for some more British stuff. This is Sleaford Mods.
This reminds me of some Sid Vicious shit. Super raw. I thought it was very nostalgic, very 80s and it also reminded me of The Streets a little bit. The video is wicked, and I watched all the imagery. That geezer on the right, his expression never changes.
This is a bit of a curveball. This is Dean Blunt, a very enigmatic and provocative musician. Some people don't get him, but we reckon he's one of the most important British musicians around right now, and his new album Black Metal dropped this week.
Well, I didn't like it. It's clearly avant garde, and he's a musician, no doubt. And I heard his other stuff as well, but it was just a bit too experimental for my tastes. It quickly turned into background noise for me. I didn't find myself being drawn into what would happen next. I get that he's brave, and I love artists who are brave. He's clearly totally like "this is my shit, and this is my sound," I love that and more people need to be like that. But I feel like there isn't enough to keep me switched on. To me, this song just sounds like a loop with talking over it, and I tuned out.
I would never shut him down, because I think it's great he has the balls to make this. But I still think listeners deserve the right to have something in there that really turns them on. I could make a whole album like this on my iPad. Although if I did, everyone would tell me to fuck right off.
Cheers Idris. Can you recommend us a track?
Let me see man. Let… me… see. Fuck. My computer's dead. Do you need it right now?
Idris Elba Presents mi Mandela is released on 27th November. Pre-order it here.
You can follow Joe on Twitter: @cide_benengeli