The DJ career of Idris Elba has got to be one of the most bizarre phenomena in Hollywood. How many other actors do you know who have successfully established themselves in an entirely separate career? I bet it’s not many. There’s a legend that Fidel Castro had an alternative career as a major league baseball player, but he certainly wasn’t an actor. Plenty of Hollywood’s biggest names have been known to dabble in music. Take Will Smith or (heavens forbid) his child Jaden Smith. Then there was Eddie Murphy’s short-lived career as a singer – lest we forget. But none of these, let’s be honest, really took off, did they? Elba’s career as a DJ, however, seems to hit new heights every time I turn around.
But the thing that I can’t help wondering is if this is all some elaborate gimmick. What if Elba has set this whole thing up as a stunt? What if, at some unexpected moment, he’s going to reveal that he was acting the whole time? He is Oscar-nominated after all and likely knows a thing or two about metamorphosis. His live act is so self-aware and yet so well-curated, he’s practically the Alan Partridge of the EDM world. Like Steve Coogan, Edris Elba’s ambition would seem to be to create an alter-ego so profoundly convincing that he becomes indistinguishable from it. And so far, he’s succeeding.
Elba’s musical career started in 2009 when he was hired as the DJ for Black Entertainment Television’s series Rising Icons. Soon after, he released his first single, ‘Please Be True’, and released two follow-up EP, Kings Among Kings in 2009 and then High Class Problems Vol. 1 in 2010. The latter won him a Billboard Music Awards nomination.
Then, in 2013, after establishing himself as one of the UK’s finest actors, Elba made the brave decision to put his acting career on hold. In an interview, he said: “This year, I’m not going to work as an actor and I’m going to put my mind into music. It’s a progression thing with me. I want to make music but I don’t want to shove it down people’s throats. People are just barely getting to know me as an actor. But I do it from the heart, I’m not doing it for money — I just enjoy doing it.”
At the time, Elba was tipped as the frontrunner to replace Daniel Craig as the next James Bond, but he seemed almost entirely uninterested. Instead, he became more focused on his DJ residency at a nightclub in Kilburn, London. “I’ve been asked to do lots of collaborations. I did something with Milk, which is a great band and an odd collaboration, I’ve done stuff with Jay-Z on his album American Gangster, so there’s bits and pieces that I’m just going to keep moving forward with,” Elba would later say.
Then, in 2014, everything seemed to come together. With the production help of Mrs Hudson, Elba released his first album Idris Elba Presents mi Mandela. The album is a cross-cultural collaboration between British and South African musicians and was born out of Elba’s role as Nelson Mandela in Long Walk To Freedom. Soon, the world started catching on and, before anyone knew it, Elba was opening for Madonna at one of her concerts in Germany. Fast forward to 2019, and, after successfully launching his own record label, 7Wallace Music, Elba performed at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. From then on, Elba couldn’t move for booking requests. Clubs around the world wanted a piece of the coolest man in Hollywood, and he keenly obliged. He has always seemed to recognise the humour in the bizarre contrast between his two careers. At some point, he decided that the best way to acknowledge this was to release an EDM remix of the 007 theme, referencing his brush with the world of James Bond. It has since become a staple of his live set – obviously.
Covid-19 was no friend to Idris Elba’s DJ career, but he’s managed to adapt to the restrictions and continues to push forward. I’m sure that, now the world is opening up again, the first place Elba wants to find himself is behind two ever so slightly sticky Pioneer turntables. His bizarre alternative career has raised the watermark of Hollywood musical ventures. No longer will A-listers be able to get away with half-arsed attempts to capture our hearts with their over-produced wailing. No, with Elba around, a new standard has been set. Soon enough, Gwenyth Paltrow will decide that she’s always been eager to “put on the cans and spin some tracks”, but we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. Until then, rest easy.