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A Quietus Interview

That's Where I'm From: Idris Elba On Making The Yardie Mixtape
Joe Muggs , July 11th, 2019 12:30

As Idris Elba releases a mixtape of music inspired by Yardie, he tells Joe Muggs about his life in music, style, and inspiration of UK hip hop

Even though it's barely even presented as an album, The YARDIE Mixtape is one of the best records of the year so far. The concept behind it – snippets of dialogue and soundtrack from Idris Elba's adaptation of Victor Headley's hugely successful 1992 crime novel Yardie, remixed by UK bass producers, with added vocals from the likes of Chip (formerly Chipmunk), the Newham Generals and co – was fraught with potential to be cheesy or lazily done. But the execution is spectacular.

This isn't just a chance for producers to get some fresh samples – although just taken alone, something like Breakage's 'Stannup', with its use of the "move an' ya bumbaclat dead" sample to create a mood of vintage junglist dread, is a beautiful proof of concept. But on a grander scale, the mixtape as a whole forms a brilliant illustration of the overlapping continua of UK bass: from the fusions of Caribbean culture and hip hop in the 80s through junglist mayhem, UK garage swankiness and on into grime, dubstep and beyond, it uses the mood of each style in its narrative. From the bolshy and boisterous grime of the Newhams to the stern dubstep of the ever-righteous Mala, from Toddla T's hypermodernist beats for Chip to Dennis Bovell's revivalist dubbing of Elba's own hip hop / reggae production to the fearsome postpunk chant of Crooked Man and Farai, it uses the multiple flavours in Britain's melting pot to full advantage.

All of which, it turns out, was inadvertent. There was no grand plan beyond making a record around the film, as Elba has done before with his roles in Mandela and Luther. The coherence and ambition of the mixtape is entirely down to Elba and music industry zelig Ross Allen, who co-compiled it, having very sharp ears. And that in turn comes from long musical histories. Allen has worked with everyone from Wiley and Slimzee's pre-grime collective Pay As U Go Cartel to Krust and the Sugababes, and remains a great A&R and DJ, with his weekly NTS show still a cracking listen. Elba, meanwhile, has been a working DJ since his early teens, and his own musical endeavours – including appearing on Jay Z, Skepta and Wiley records – are now obviously more than just novelty. With Allen's contacts and their mutual DJs' sense of pacing and energy, they simply pulled together the best talents from those who wanted to work with the source material. The way the record joins musical dots through the decades was just an emergent property of that process. With that in mind, I asked Elba to trace his own path through the cultures and subcultures that you can hear in this record. - Joe Muggs

Idris Elba on The Yardie Mixtape

"My DJ thing came as part of a family business - my uncle was a DJ who did weddings and so on, so being around big speakers, speaker wires, big halls, backs of vans, that was the beginning of my love affair with soundsystem culture. But I think what I identified as UK music culture was about the same time, I think from the time I was about 14 - and that was with Dave Pearce, Tim Westwood and all those guys.

"The first thing to turn me on, to say 'that's UK, that's me, that's where I'm from' that was hip hop. People forget there was a golden era back then. Hearing Demon Boyz, MC Duke, obviously Bionic and Rodney P – London Posse – even Derek B and Cookie Crew - those were for us our proper heroes, and they were people like us, talking in British accents about things we knew. People like DJ Pogo were killing it with the scratching too; even if he was playing American records, it was still part of our British thing. There was a real scene and following, jams all over London and other cities, I remember going to the [Brixton] Fridge and they're bringing out all these UK MCs doing their thing, and that was a big moment for us.

"Fashion wise it was funny. I was in soundsystem dances from when I was 14, but I looked older, I looked about 17, so I was going big man places, wearing all that stuff, paying attention to how I looked. Back then you definitely couldn't get into no clubs wearing sneakers, so you'd have to wear slacks, a Gabicci [sweater], something that'd make you look a little smart. The UK hip hop fashion lick, portfolio, stance, was a bit more Americanised if I'm honest. It was Troop and baggy jeans, you were more Yankee than UK - or there was the ragga bwoy dem with their Ballys and Clarks, in that style. But I come from Canning Town, and round that way the style is very much Lacoste t-shirts, straight jeans, Reebok classics. The area of Canning Town I grew up in, black people were very much in the minority, so the identity, the fashion was definitely more English as such. I remember being a bit all over the shop fashion wise: if you were coming from Hackney, Canning Town into East Ham, but going to dances down in Brixton, you weren't really linking the Pringles and straight Lee jeans like you would in the East End, you'd have to change it up a bit.

"Musically speaking, even though my family's West African from Sierra Leone and Ghana, working with my uncle I'd play a lot of reggae and calypso. But on my own side I really went though hip hop to ragga, jungle, then house and garage. When I was 16 I was in a rap group called Ultra Demus - me and these other two dudes Boogie and Ras - and we used to definitely try and emulate Eric B & Rakim, Marley Marl and that. Very American sound. But when I started my own soundystem, styling and profiling around club culture and soundsystem culture, that's when I started to get a sense of my own identity in this thing. I went jungle raves a lot, but as I did my soundsystem thing, I'd be playing rare grooves, reggae, R&B, hip hop...

"I wasn't really on top of dubstep and grime if I'm honest. I was always 2-step, house and garage, listening to Bobbi & Steve and them man there, going to those raves where it was a bit more mature, good times vibe, going to Twice As Nice and Confunktion, listening to soulboys playing house basically. And as a DJ I had to play what people in my kind of world wanted, so I wasn't following trends, I didn't go to dubstep clubs, I didn't go places where you only hear one style all night long. I only heard it later on, and when I did thought 'yes, this is amazing', it reminded me of those wicked bits in jungle tunes where it would drop tot he half-time dub wise kind of vibe. Same with grime, I didn't really realise what was going on until I came back from first working in America, and then it was a big moment of 'ok so that's what the youth are doing is it?'

"With Yardie, I sat down with Ross Allen and the label guys, had a long discussion about what we wanted to do with it. This is my third 'character album', where the whole narrative of it is led by a character I've played. It's not just 'inspired by the film', we really wanted to work on something that tells the character's story in that album format: that turns D's story, King Fox's story, the characters in the film, into the actual music. And we tried to do it with some wit, so you've got the lovers' rock version, you've got the gangsta version, you've got the going back home story, you've got the first coming to the UK story, and the type of music matches that story. So that's why we gave the producers the stems from the film, we wanted them to be able to actually use the story itself in their music.

"Now, when the Newham Generals did their track, they wanted to use samples from the film to make a Newham Generals song, rather than make a Yardie song. I wasn't sure, I kind of thought 'that's not the approach' - but then when I heard it, they'd fused it so well, they'd really incorporated the Yardie thing, and it works. Ross's job in all this was really to be a funnel for all these ideas. Early on I was heavily involved with the plan and concept, then so, so many people reached out to be involved - constantly, 'yo man, love the film, really want to do something with this' - that his job was to collect all these ideas and pull them all together into something we could look at and build the final thing from. I'm just there going 'Zed Bias wants to do this? Wahhh!'.

"I'd love to say that the grand concept of making this a grand anthology of UK sounds had been there from the beginning - spanning from the dub soundsystem influence to today's sound - but we never really programmed it like that. I'm really, really happy if that's what comes out of it, but the reason it'll have come out is because it's there in what the producers do. So talk to Zed Bias and yeah, of course he's influenced by speaker boxes and his whole background - all the way through to the Kouslin and Logan record: I'd never have thought Kouslin, a super young white guy, could make a record that relates to Yardie, but when he came in and did that record, it was just 'yessss', and the reason it works is exactly that it fit into that spectrum of soundsystem music, bass music, and - yeah - UK music. It joins those dots through the culture and through the history.

"One day I'll make a record that's just me, no question. Music is what I started doing, and I've always done it, so yes of course I want to go 'here you go - Idris Elba album, have that!' But I still feel like I've got to earn it, I've got to earn the right to do that. So all the work I do now - whether it's DJing, whether it's doing a little feature on someone's record, whether it's doing these narrative records from the films I'm in - I feel like that's doing a little more to show I'm serious about this. But yeah, one day..."

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