Features I by I 06.06.17

Through The Wire: Remembering Idris Elba’s 2-step past

As influential HBO TV series The Wire turns 15 this month, Andrew Friedman talks to DJ Greg Poole about Wikkid!, a New York City-based 2-step night that featured Idris Elba – The Wire’s Stringer Bell – on the mic and on the decks.

The Wire premiered on HBO 15 years ago this month, changing Idris Elba’s life forever. His three-season run as Stringer Bell, the savvy, professional co-leader of the Barksdale crew, supercharged his career. A bona fide movie star, Elba’s credits include Prometheus, Finding Dory, the role of Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and a recurring role as Heimdall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It also launched him into the upper echelons of celebrity: he made People’s list of 100 most beautiful people in the world back in 2007 and was rumored to be dating Madonna at one point. But much further down his résumé, possibly below his TV debut on Absolutely Fabulous in 1995, is the crucial role he played in the small but lively New York 2-step/garage scene in the early 2000s.

Before he was famous, Idris was the voice of the Wikkid Crew, and Wikkid!, their weekly party at Guernica in the East Village. Every Wednesday night, DJs Greg Poole and Lucinda would play the hottest UK club cuts available while Idris and Whistler handled MC duties. A 2001 write-up in the Village Voice (by a pre-fame Chelsea Peretti, herself a Wikkid! regular) described the night accordingly:

“2-step, with that saucy bass and those dancey, sexy vocals, is a little burgeoning scene here in the large Macintosh. If you’re curious about the sound, or love it already and are ISO a weekly jam, go hear Greg Poole spin. Lucinda opens, and MC Idris brings words, saying encouraging things like ‘Energy!’ to keep you on your feet.”

From 2000 to around 2002, Wikkid! built a reliable following, bolstered by their ability to appeal to British ex-pats. Big songs included Ms. Dynamite’s ‘Boo’, Wookie’s ‘Battle’ and DJ Zinc’s ‘138 Trek’. (Pied Piper and The MCs ‘Do U Really Like It?’ inspired the name of the party.) “Idris would get on and DJ sometimes, but he realized that what would activate the party was him MCing and giving it a true East London flavor. He would call for reloads and get the crowd hype,” Poole says. “He knew the language and how the night should unfold.”

Idris Elba as Stringer Bell in HBO’s The Wire

In 1999, Greg Poole was already putting the pieces together for a 2-step night, having discussed the idea with Lucinda and acquiring as many records as he could. Since this was before digital DJing, he hustled to stay current, copping everything that was stocked locally and shelling out for mail-order for everything else. On a fateful Sunday night, he decided to test-drive some of these records at a lowkey downtown bar where Idris, who had grown up DJing in Hackney as Big Driis, happened to be hanging out. Elba was thrilled to hear the music in New York, and upon hearing Greg’s intentions of launching the party, offered his services as DJ and MC.

“I’m a nerdy American trying to pull all this stuff together from afar and here’s this guy from East London,” remembers Poole. “It was perfect.”

Meanwhile, Idris continued his life as a working actor. He was already reasonably successful back home, with a number of high-profile guest TV spots and a regular stint on the soap opera Family Affairs. But he grew frustrated with the way his race limited his opportunities and joined a wave of black British actors in relocating to the USA around the turn of the millennium. One of his big breaks came with a role on the 2001 Law and Order episode ‘3 Dawg Night’, loosely based on the Puffy and J. Lo shooting incident from 1999. (As it happened, the episode aired on a Wednesday and Poole recalls watching excitedly at Guernica with Wikkid! regulars.)

Even so, Idris was just MC Idris even after securing the role of Stringer Bell. He made time for Wikkid! when he wasn’t in Baltimore filming, even after relocating to Jersey City. And even after the show debuted and began to rake in the critical acclaim, viewers were slow to follow in those early days of Prestige TV. If anyone recognized him as an actor, it was usually Brits who knew him from Ultraviolet.

When Elba’s career took off, 2-step did the opposite. As Wikkid! ran its course, Greg and other American fans of the ‘ardcore continuum refocused their efforts to bring cutting edge British music to New York City. As The Wire flourished, the Wikkid Crew shared bills with the likes of Benny Ill, and Poole would eventually put Roll Deep and Juelz Santana on the same stage in 2005. Idris continues to DJ and make music to this day, working sporadically with the likes of Jay Z, 9th Wonder, Pharoahe Monch and Macklemore, and manning the occasional summer residency in Ibiza. And his remix of Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’ is still great.

Andrew Friedman is on Twitter

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