Idris Elba Talks Producing His Star-Studded New Album, His Most Embarrassing DJ Moment and Going 'Toe-to-Toe' With Biz Markie

Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

Idris Elba DJs at the 8th Annual Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament At The One & Only Ocean Club in the Bahamas on January 21, 2009.

Big Driis has left the building. That was the name British actor Idris Elba, 42, known for his roles in Thor and Pacific Rim, went by in the early 2000s, when he moonlighted as a DJ around the world during his breakout run on HBO's The Wire. "He has retired," says Elba, laughing on-set in Paris where he is filming Bastille Day, a thriller in which he plays a CIA agent fighting terrorists in France. But musically, the nickname is all that Elba -- who has rapped with Mr. Hudson and sung alongside Macy Gray -- is giving up. After completing a seven-week DJ residency in Ibiza, Elba is releasing Mi Mandela (Nov. 24, 7wallace/Parlophone), an 11-track album he produced with contributions from Mumford & Sons, James Blake, Cody Chestnutt and Mr. Hudson, inspired by his role as Nelson Mandela in the 2013 biopic Long Walk to Freedom.

Listen to Five Songs from Idris Elba's Nelson Mandela Tribute Album, 'mi Mandela'

What made you want to continue your connection with Mandela beyond the film, and why did an album seem like the best way to do it?

I didn't go out to make a "character" album. I went out to explore some of the sounds I was in love with in South Africa. The character album concept came from me expressing myself about what it was like playing Mandela. It's like a version of a soundtrack. I've played some really interesting characters, and making musical expressions of them excites me.

You spent a night in Mandela's cell on Robben Island to prepare to play him. Did that experience help shape the album?

The song that manifests that story is "Hold On." Because when I was on Robben Island that one night, even though I volunteered to go in there and get locked up, I hated it. It was horrible. It was a slow night. The place is haunted. The nearest human being was maybe three-quarters of a mile away, and that was a security guard. It was like, "Wow, the guy did this shit for 18 years." It put a lot of things in perspective. Not to sound cheesy, but I had to hold on to my wits. I thought, "I need to go through this; it's nothing compared to what he did." So that became the song.

Nelson Mandela: 10 Musical Tributes to the Iconic Political Figure

You've been DJ'ing since you were 14. What are some of your best and worst set memories?

The best was with Biz Markie at House of Blues in New Orleans in 2010. I ain't going to say I gave anyone a hiding or anything, but I am going to say me and Biz had to go toe-to-toe and the crowd was going bananas. One of my worst? I'm a nervous DJ. So if I ever have a technical issue, that makes it a really bad experience. Last time was about a year ago. It wasn't my fault, but it looked like my fault. I was doing this big tent at a festival -- 5,000 people, hands in the air -- and then the music just [cuts out]. I took the mic -- I should not have taken the mic -- and said, "I don't know what happened," and they started booing. But I managed to recover.

This article first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of Billboard.


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