Idris Elba is playing Coachella. First he got to work in this L.A. studio
The invitation was intriguingly vague.
Did I care to drop in on Idris Elba on a recent Friday night as he did something music-related — his representative was no more specific than that — at a recording studio somewhere in Los Angeles?
Yes. Yes, I did.
Many recognize Elba, 46, as the English actor famous for his roles on “The Wire” and “Luther,” and in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” As the soulful-eyed hunk People magazine last year named Sexiest Man Alive. As the guy George Clooney has said should be the next James Bond.
Fewer know about Elba’s sideline as a DJ, which is the guise that will put him onstage at this weekend’s Coachella festival along with Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, Bad Bunny and dozens of other acts.
When Coachella announced its lineup a couple of months ago, surprise over the movie star’s booking rippled across social media.
“People were like, ‘What’s he gonna do — a speech?’ ” Elba recalled with a laugh. “ ‘Scenes from “The Wire” with music behind it?’ ”
Yet he’s been spinning records since he was a kid, when he started tagging along with his uncle to the latter’s gigs as a wedding DJ. In 2015 he played England’s massive Glastonbury Festival, and last year he entertained the crowd at the royal nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. (His uncle must have been proud.)
So it was with the hope that I might broaden awareness of Elba’s musical background that his rep told me to show up around 10:30 at Henson Recording Studios on La Brea Avenue.
What I found when I walked into the room was Elba, cool-dad casual in a T-shirt and scarf, reading off his iPhone as he mumbled into a microphone. A minimal electronic groove played in a loop over the studio’s speakers; it sounded like the beginning of a track by LCD Soundsystem, perhaps, or Berlin-era David Bowie.
Behind Elba, Poo Bear — the producer and songwriter known for his work with Justin Bieber and Mariah Carey — sat on a couch carved into one of the studio’s walls. He was staring at his phone too, and each time Elba rattled off a lyric Poo Bear liked, he’d make a note.
Elba waved a quick hello, said, “Sorry, we’re just in the bubble right now,” then turned his attention back to the beat. Poo Bear told him that “ending on an ‘E’ rhyme would be dope,” to which Elba nodded in agreement.
This went on for a while, the two of them slowly working out the structure of a verse that seemed to have something to do with drugs, though Poo Bear at one point noted, “We’re not talking about drugs. We’re talking about life, you know what I’m saying?”
Eventually, Elba came over to where I’d taken a seat. “You want a drink, bro?” he asked. “Something brown and cold?”
He appeared to have had a few, so I said sure and asked him what exactly he was working on here.
“Ah, we’re just building vibes,” he replied, his deep voice even more sensual in person than it is on a screen. “It’s like Lego. First you get a couple of bricks, and you just build it out.” He chuckled.
“I’m only saying Lego because I’ve got a 4-year-old son. Everything is Lego right now.” I told him I could relate as a father myself, which led Idris Elba — sex symbol, acclaimed thespian, longtime dance-music enthusiast — to go quite a bit deeper on the subject than I’d anticipated.
“I’m proud of Lego, man.They’ve done incredible work,” he said. “They have to pat themselves on the back for not being completely obscured in this digital world. It’s still as relevant as you can get.”
Had he been to Legoland?
“Yeah, yeah — I’ve taken my son there. Bonkers, isn’t it? When I was growing up, Legoland, it was like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s a whole land?’ ”
So, Coachella, I said.
“To be honest, I’m super psyched to be on it. I never thought I’d be able to play there. I’ve DJ’d for money and I’ve DJ’d for fun, and now there are people that are coming to see me play Coachella. That’s out there.”
Last month Netflix premiered the sitcom “Turn Up Charlie,” in which Elba plays a past-his-prime DJ who ends up working as a nanny to the bratty daughter of his movie star pal. It’s charming if inconsequential, but the show (which Elba co-created) is packed with references that make it clear how much music means to him.
Is it important, I wondered, that he not be seen as a mere celebrity dilettante — a type, he must know, that Coachella tends to welcome with open arms?
“Of course it’s important,” he answered. “And I think when people look back and check the history and check the music” — including “Boasty,” a collaboration with the grime star Wiley that recently went to No. 11 in the U.K. — “they’ll see that I’m serious about it.”
With that, Elba excused himself to huddle again with Poo Bear, who’d asked his engineer to cue up a vocal hook he and Elba had been working on earlier. Something about the melody and Elba’s delivery — “I don’t wanna turn off / I’m on life right now,” went the words — reminded me of the album Bobby Womack made a few years ago with Damon Albarn.
Poo Bear heard it differently. “This sounds like U2,” he said.
“Bono?” Elba asked. “That’s the compliment of the evening.”
Just then Skrillex, the superstar DJ and producer, entered the studio. He’d been working down the hall, he said, and wanted to say hi.
“You know Lykke Li?” he asked the room, gesturing to the Swedish singer who walked in behind him.
“Hey, Lykke Li,” Poo Bear said. “Happy birthday.”
“Oh, it’s not my birthday,” she replied.
“It is your birthday,” Poo Bear said. “Every day.”
“OK, great — thank you,” she said.
Poo Bear, who co-wrote Bieber’s 2015 smash “Where Are Ü Now” with Skrillex, had the engineer play what he and Elba had recorded so far.
Within seconds, Skrillex started tapping out rhythmic ideas; Elba sang along with himself, and at one point he came up with a new vocal lick. Skrillex asked him to sing it into the microphone so he could remember it later.
“You guys here tomorrow?” Skrillex asked. He was leaving town Sunday for a long stretch but wanted to help out on this song if he could. “Come by my spot,” he told them.
Before Skrillex left, Elba asked him if they’d see each other at Coachella.
“Not this year,” Skrillex said.
“Too bad — it’s my year,” Elba said.
“Really?” Skrillex asked. “You DJ-ing? Singing?”
“Singing?” Elba repeated with a laugh, though he’d spent the previous couple of hours doing just that. “I wish. Maybe next time.”
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