Idris Elba On Making His U.S. Festival Debut At Coachella: 'If I'm Proper Sweaty, I Did All Right'

Idris Elba
Ollie Millington/Redferns/Getty Images

Elba will play both Saturdays of Coachella: April 13 and 20.

Roles in The Wire and Avengers: Infinity War elevated Idris Elba to “sexiest man alive” status, but the actor has always been hot behind the decks. A longtime producer-DJ, the 46-year-old got his start as a teenager, tagging along to weddings where his uncle would DJ. Since then, the self-described “house head” has become an in-demand live act: In 2018, he launched an Ibiza residency and played the royal wedding at Prince Harry’s request. He also puts out his own music: Last year’s slinky “Badman,” released on his label, 7Wallace, has been streamed just under half a million times in the United States, according to Nielsen Music. Elba, who stars as a DJ-turned-nanny in the new Netflix series Turn Up Charlie, will now make his U.S. festival debut at Coachella.

You have a hugely successful acting career. Why do you want a music career too?

It’s one of those things that keeps me grounded. I’m not a multiplatinum artist. I don’t necessarily do it for the financial benefits. I do it because I love it. I can make music on my phone, anytime, instantly. Making a film takes a long time -- an average of 24 months between selling an idea and getting it onto the screen. I could make a tune today, put it on the internet by Friday and in two weeks it could be sitting on the charts. That’s amazing. It’s a different experience altogether.

You first got into DJing through your uncle. What tracks do you remember being particularly big at weddings in that era?

It ranged from everything from “Hot Hot Hot” by Arrow, which was a big calypso tune, to early reggae like Super Cat. It was a bit of African music, especially Congolese music, and maybe some pop stuff like “Vogue” by Madonna. My uncle used to play mainly African and Indian weddings, so it would be a lot of reggae and Calypso. That was the vibe.

Musically speaking, did you get your education primarily by being in the mix of the London club scene?

Yes, definitely. You're buying music and going to record shops every week. It was very different from what we do now, where someone creates playlist or you go to a website and listen. Going to the record shop every week to find out what's new, that's where I really learned my music knowledge.

You dipped into grime music on a remix of “Boasty,” and you’ve worked with Skepta, a star of the genre. How does the scene inspire you?

Only in London am I allowed to rap on records. I’m 46 years old. I’m not known for rap music, but the music scene in London is so vibrant. If you’ve got something to say and you’ve got a vibe, you can win.

Did you always gravitate towards house music?

My earlier sets were all reggae, hip-hop and R&B. When I did my radio show, that was a mishmash of hip-hop, R&B and whatnot. I loved house, and I loved drum and bass, but I didn't really play that stuff until much later. When I moved to New York, that was a chance for me to be a bit more eclectic.

What song have you had on repeat lately?

Last summer there was a song by an artist called Fisher, "Losing It." I was probably one of the first people to get it, and every time I play it now it reminds me of a time where I was DJing every week for 14 weeks in Ibiza, where I did my first residency, in a high-pressure four hour set. I have fond memories of playing it, definitely.

And not to just plug my own tune, but "Badman" was the first song I made that really penetrated in a huge way, especially in the dance world. I remember playing it and people were like, "I know this song" and they didn't even know it was me. I love that.

What can festivalgoers expect from your Coachella set?

As an actor, it hit the news that I’m playing Coachella, but I’m sure most people don’t know what I play: deep, techy house. I’m just excited to have been invited to one of the world’s best and largest music festivals. It’s a real nod to the work I’ve done as a DJ.

How will you know if you killed it?

During the last song [of each set], I normally pick up the mic and say, “Yo, thank you very much, you’ve been amazing!” If I get a rapturous roar from the crowd and come offstage and my T shirt is proper sweaty, then I’ll know I did all right.

Festivals 2019

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 23 issue of Billboard.