Queens rapper Action Bronson burst onto the scene with a penchant for words and the culinary arts
In just three years, this former chef has blazed a trail with vividly humorous rap tales and a larger-than-life personality that brings new-school flavor to classic New York hip-hop
by David Ma
In only one year, considered as a veteran…
Picture thirty-year-old Action Bronson (born Ariyan Arslani) laughing while in boxer shorts, talking about his love of sashimi, scraping a ball of hash into the side of a pipe. His beard is an unkempt, fiery red mass, and his eyes squint when he laughs. His tank top looks about two sizes too small, and he typically keeps a shaved head, though you can see the emerging stubble. “This is my life now. This is technically work, but it don’t feel like work,” laughs the chef-turned-full-time-rapper, exhaling while looking down to reload his pipe. With ESPN’s SportsCenter blaring behind him, he looks up and admits, smirking: “I’m enjoying this.”
“I love sitting here talking to music lovers like yourself,” he says. “I think you can tell I really do love my job when you listen to my music. It’s a dream come true to live this life, to be free, to sit here in my fucking underwear, and not have a nine-to-five obligation. I’ve worked my entire life, dog.” He adds sotto voce, “That shit is not easy.”
Bronson remains a workhorse, far from an inactive pothead still in pajamas at noon. His name has emerged rather quickly beyond the Flushing, Queens, area where he’s from. While many MCs start and peak early, rap was a second vocation for him and something that began in his later twenties. He’s exceptionally good at spitting vivid, sometimes absurd rhymes urgently and with brevity—all of it underscored by a large, looming persona. And regardless of his songs’ thematic differences, Bronson neatly folds it together through self-deprecation and an almost childish sense of humor. “I’ve been a grown man ever since I had a baby dick,” he says on “72 Virgins” from 2013’s Saaab Stories, produced by Harry Fraud.
He’s been enormously prolific in a span of three years, appearing on seemingly every posse cut with crews and MCs from all regions (Odd Future to Riff Raff, Ghostface to Wiz Khalifa) and labels of all sorts, both indies and majors. After Bon Appetit…Bitch!, a well-received mixtape backed by J-Love, Bronson followed in 2011 with an independent debut, Dr. Lecter, and a full-length sophomore effort, Well-Done, with Bostonian beatsmith Statik Selektah. His next was the aforementioned major-label EP on Warner Music, Saab Stories, in addition to three Internet-only projects—Rare Chandeliers, Blue Chips, and Blue Chips 2, all of which were free and “for our listeners.” Says Bronson: “I’m always working. This is what I do with my life. Of course, I take that shit fucking seriously.”
All these releases have had numerous producers, and this is something he’s certainly mindful of. He seems to have a healthy antipathy toward backing tracks, casting a wide net for beatsmiths and sounds offering something new, or perhaps challenging, to him. On “It’s Me,” a track off Blue Chips 2 produced by Party Supplies where an African highlife sample underpins the song, Bronson raps: “Heading towards a magical path / Rhyming over African jazz / Put the drugs inside the crack of my ass…” Though Rare Chandeliers and both Blue Chips albums were made with friends—the Alchemist produced the former with lush, ’70s psychedelic samples, and Party Supplies leapfrogged genres for the two Blue Chips releases—Bronson only speaks fondly of Dr. Lecter, what he considers his first proper release, as his favorite.
“I heard my second record, Well-Done, a couple weeks ago in its entirety, and it sounded like I was trying to get my shit together,” Bronson says. “I do think some of the illest shit I’ve done is on there, but overall, it left a sour taste in my mouth. Some of it was label stuff too. But Lecter came before that and is on some pure hungry shit. It was at a time when I was really like, ‘I’m either doing this for real, or not doing shit.’ So I just said to myself, ‘This is who I am, and eventually went nuts on that shit. It’s still the most enjoyable for me to listen to. But I keep busy regardless.” At the time of this writing, he’s had seven releases in three years. “My job is to rap,” he says.
Ate dinner while they played the Whispers, I had the fish, it was delicious…
“I hit the stage at [New York’s] Grand Theatre and remember being mad full and tired, because I had been eating tons of meat all day,” laughs Bronson, describing his very first time onstage. “There was this food convention called Meatopia earlier where the world’s best chefs were barbecuing and grilling entire animals. I definitely overdosed on flesh that day. It was a next-level experience, but I was mad sluggish onstage. There was like ten people there watching us play, but I’ll never forget it. It was grassroots shit.”
Much has been made about his previous profession in the kitchen, with Internet videos of him cooking post-Thanksgiving biscuits or critiquing ten-course tasting menus in Manhattan. It’s clear he can sketch detailed storyraps with aplomb, but his true loves and interests emerge through the fiction. Though Dr. Lecter was a violent outing filled with bloody, sometimes ghoulish narratives, it was also rich with culinary references—a topic that anchors many of his rhymes.
On “Moonstruck” from Lecter, he raps with dizzying gumption: “Now it’s time to eat, paired up with the rarest of wine / Hair red just like the meat, never careless with mine.” On “Midget Cough” from his newest, Blue Chips 2, he says: “Three different types of forks for a Monday lunch / Tamarind punch, higher than a javelin jump.”
On the subject of cuisine, Bronson says, “Of course, we could talk about food all day.” The son of an Albanian immigrant who met a Jewish New York City native, Bronson keeps his family private besides a couple sparse lines. He redirects the interview: “You know where my favorite food spot is in this entire city? I get asked this a lot, but it’s hard to remember exactly which one.”
Since his rise, the Internet has been littered with Bronson talking about food, making food, eating food—all this has led to him being considered somewhat of a gourmand. He continues: “My go-to place, the spot I frequent most is a food truck on Seventy-Third and Broadway. It’s halal food. If you go, you have to get the lamb extra crispy with the white sauce, hot sauce, and the green sauce. Grab a pita bread, salad, and a ginger ale too,” he says, deflective but earnest. But when asked what his last meal would be, he takes a long pause and strikes a thinking man’s pose, sitting, fist on chin. After a second, he says: “My last meal on Earth would be soft-scrambled eggs my mom makes. She takes a toasted bagel with little pieces of the bagel taken out so the egg sits right in there. I eat that shit bite by bite.”
Sign my name with a feather, tap-dance under the full moon…
Bronson’s signature themes are about excess—excess of food, of sex, of drugs, of food, of life. He’s also an ’80s baby who references everything from old WWF superstars to Seinfeld to Beverly Hills, 90210. Violence and the word “bitch” dominate his lyrics, but the abrasiveness isn’t from an unfiltered stream of consciousness. He doesn’t forget or forgo content simply because he can get away with it. Bronson is firstly a writer, something he takes much pride in. “I’m not just one of those dudes who get on the mic and says whatever the fuck,” he says in seriousness. “I only write on paper. I like to sit down and get my thoughts down on a physical fucking piece of paper. As far as in the studio, sometimes, I do just do stuff on the spot and record, and it takes a while. Sometimes, it’s just perfect. You never force it. If I go to the studio, I’m there to hang out first, feel the vibe, then I rap.
“What if some crazy shit happens in the car on my way to the studio and I’m filled with road rage? Then I’m in a bad mood and end up unable to rap. That’s why I mostly come prepared,” he says, claiming that most of his songs, even the intricate ones, typically take about twenty minutes from pen to paper: “I sit down and listen to a beat and come up with a couple ideas. Usually, it takes fifteen to twenty minutes to write the actual verses. I’d say it takes another thirty minutes to complete it as a song. I put thought into my shit so everything I say is poignant.”
A track he’s outwardly proud of, one that was the lead single for Blue Chips, is “Hookers at the Point,” an awfully cold street narrative told with funny moments, voice changes, and from three different perspectives—one of a prostitute, one from a pimp, and the final, a sex solicitor. As a recording, it has the same scenery heard in his other tracks— the blow jobs, alleyways, drug needles—but it quickly turns dark with Bronson’s knack for imagery.
The first verse, from the prostitute: “It ain’t about the money, tryin’ to get back at my daddy / Plus I’m fiendin’, tryin’ to smoke me some crack in the alley.” The song, bookended with dialogue samples of street workers negotiating with johns, is as sobering as it is entertaining. Like any great writer, Bronson pens with a sense of humanity to his stories’ protagonists.
He continues, this time from the perspective of a street pimp drunk on power and prospect: “As I ride in my ’92 Seville / Windows half down so I can see my bitches in the field / Best believe they bringing Daddy money / How you think I copped this Caddy, dummy? / Tryin’ to get this Puff Daddy money.”
The third, final stanza describes a life draped by failure and drugs: “Name is Dano born in the Bronx, half Puerto Rican / Drive a truck, hooked on dope, cook up soap. Was once a prospect for the Twins / Now I’m on a mission / Crying naked, shooting dope up in the kitchen.”
It’s fitting he has an acumen for vividness, as his idol is Kool G Rap, a rapid-fire, nimble-tongued MC who inspired legions of others, including the likes of Jay Z. “He was always so sharp with the lyrics and detail, and crisp too,” says Bronson, who also notes Rakim, Cam’ron, and Pimp C as favorites. The erratic side in his writing, the moments in the delivery where he teeters on becoming unhinged, can perhaps be credited to another hero of his, Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard. “ODB’s Return to the 36 Chambers is my shit,” he says. “I mean, [GZA’s] Liquid Swords is great, and of course [Ghostface’s] Ironman is fly too. I’ll have to go with ODB with this one—that’s my shit. It’s one of the illest things in life.”
The subject of Ghostface has always been the elephant in the room when Bronson’s style is mentioned, especially at the start of his career. The easy reaction is that he reconstituted Ghostface’s style, taking his delivery and reappropriating it towards subjects like Bam Bam Bigelow, baklava, or Shannon Doherty. It didn’t aid his cause when he mentioned Wallabees, from the shoe brand Clarks, that Ghostface is famously known for endorsing, constantly mentioning, and wearing. But it’s an afterthought these days, one that’s far behind him.
“Look, dog, Ghost sounds older now. Maybe I sounded like him on Ironman when he was younger, but his voice changed,” says Bronson, conceding similar aesthetics of their style. But Ghostface is, of course, far different, and part of his greatness is that he’s beyond mimicry. Bronson in fact collaborated with Ghost on the track “Meteor Hammer” featuring Termanology off Wu-Tang’s Legendary Weapons, a 2011 compilation.
“I’m a huge fan of Ghost. If you listen to our songs, you’ll see we’re different, especially now,” he explains, adding: “I would say it if I thought I did. I’m not a control freak, but I’m an analyzer and a listener of my own stuff. I’ll go back to see if anything is wrong; or if anything little irks me, I’ll change it. The words in my writing need to fit perfectly to me. And that shit is all my own.”
During a daytime set at a music festival, Bronson took the stage and tore off his T-shirt like Hulkamaniac, baring tattoos and a belly at high noon. He performed in between puffs of a huge spliff. He made fun of his belly, then lifted his arms and kissed both biceps before divining into verses. “I still can’t believe it sometimes, man,” he says. “I’m at home onstage. I’m just being me, this ain’t all theatrics. The people are there to see me—I know that now.”
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