Cooking up trouble with Action Bronson
“It’s pure, it’s the extract, it’s all the goodness, it’s everything you want without the garbage,” Action Bronson enthuses with his rich New York accent. His sentences are filled with pauses for emphasis, making him sound kind of like a Mafioso describing a fine wine or reminiscing about the prowess of a forgotten sports hero. The delicacy in question is wax – solidified THC oil which he scrapes into a bong gauze with a metal pin, before lighting it with a miniature blow torch. “It doesn’t have the carcinogens and the burning, and shit like that,” he continues, his voice husky as he holds in a lungful of smoke, “You’re only getting that pure … psychedelic drug.” He exhales.
We’re sat in the rapper’s suite on the 17th floor of a medium budget hotel. Waiters, slightly alarmed by the pungent smell in the room, bring a feast that’s served on silver platters. “Actually looks pretty good,” Bronson remarks, inspecting a slice of pizza before tossing the metal lid on the floor. Our interview and shoot was initially supposed to take place elsewhere, but Action Bronson has a reputation for putting on one hell of a show, and with an intense international tour schedule like this, he needs all the downtime he can get.
Still, it’s not like he’s complaining. “I mean, you get to see the world. It’s an experience. You wouldn’t get to do this unless you’re a fuckin’ rich kid or something like that. And even rich kids aren’t going to the sort of places I’m going.” There’s truth behind the boast. His dates with Eminem and Kendrick Lamar in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa were documented online earlier this year in the Adventure Time With Action Bronson video series, and his exotic culinary experiences form the themes of his popular food show Fuck, That’s Delicious. “And there’s definitely a big appreciation for me in [the UK]. I’m very appreciative too, believe me,” he insists, “I love coming out here.”
"There was never dreams of being a touring rapper. I had no aspirations other than being the best chef in the world."
This wasn’t always the plan. Born Arian Asllani, Bronson was raised in Flushing, Queens by his Albanian Muslim father and his American Jewish mother. Growing up in a food-loving household, it was only natural that he’d go on to be a passionate and professional chef. This career would see him cook in his dad’s Mediterranean restaurant and for the New York Mets at the Citi Field baseball stadium, and while he started rapping around 2008/9, the music thing was purely recreational at this point. “There was never dreams of being a touring rapper, nothing like that,” he explains. “I was really just focused on taking care of my children. There was no aspirations of anything … except maybe being the best chef in the world.” So what motivated him to go full time with it? “I was working in the kitchen and I slipped, fell and broke my leg. Freak accident. And from there, from the broken leg onward, I was a professional rapper.”
Action Bronson really began to make a name for himself around 2011, drumming up underground hype with a string of releases for which he rapped skillfully over throwback, soul-sampling beats in a high-pitched and strained vocal style that bears an uncanny resemblance to Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah. But while there have been many to accuse him of borrowing too heavily from Ghost, Bronson seems to have eclipsed the comparisons – maybe due to the uniqueness of his lyricism and persona. And in 2012, his eccentricities began to flourish; he achieved perfection on the track Bird On A Wire by rapping about sponge baths and leather suits alongside Atlanta weirdo Riff Raff over Harry Fraud’s blissfully zoned-out beat, and later that year he broke through with his revered Blue Chips mixtape.
Teaming up with producer and now regular collaborator Party Supplies, the recording of Blue Chips was relaxed, with the duo smoking copious amounts of wax, devouring munchie-appeasing snacks, watching trashy TV shows and digging for obscure samples during bleary-eyed YouTube binges. The tape also introduced a wider audience to Bronson’s recurring lyrical motifs, including the surreal comic imagery that jokes on his large stature (“Been on the honour roll / sculptures of my body out in Nagano”), the mouth-watering descriptions of gourmet recipes (“Got the lamb rack, pan-roasted, laced it with fennel / Little yogurt that been drizzled over, might be a winner”) and his perverted preoccupation with seedy narratives (“She started hanging with strippers and dropping the zippers and selling the pussy for paper to play”).
Now a fully-fledged internet sensation, Bronson is gearing up for the release of his major label debut, Mr Wonderful. The video for the album’s first single Easy Rider portrays a bandana-wearing Bronson dropping acid, riding a Harley Davidson through the desert and miming a guitar solo as the sun sets in the background. It’s highly entertaining stuff, marrying a solid rap track with the kind of loveably goofy humour that’s made the Bronson tag a viral guarantee. But during our conversation, Bronson expresses no desire to even attempt a bigger break, arguing that it’s the very qualities which his fans respect him for that have restricted him to the alternative rap market. “I get played on the radio, but not a lot,” he claims. “It’s all about money, it’s all about ads and shit like that. So they pretty much play that shit with all the melodies and hooks, they’re not going for that raw hip-hop that everybody grew up on, that’s the dominant music in my life. “I love lyrics, I love that ‘Oh shit, what did he just say?!’ feeling,” he continues. “And you don’t even have to be able to write a rap any more. You don’t have to be able to fucking spit anything that’s ill and you can be a fucking superstar.”
"I have intelligent fans, the people who like me aren't stupid."
With new strains of Atlanta, Chicago and Bay Area-influenced sounds securing a stronghold on the rap mainstream in recent years, the traditional definition of being ‘lyrical‘ has taken a backseat to make way for the dominance of less complex (although, many would insist, no less effective) rhyming methods in the genre. With ASAP Rocky using a ‘Houston flow’ and 2014’s breakout star Bobby Shmurda appropriating Chicago drill, some of New York’s most-hyped rappers in recent years have gained international attention by adopting post-regional styles. So, I ask Bronson, how does he feel about the theory that it’s hard times for traditional East Coast hip-hop?
“I mean New York is just rolling with the times like everybody else, whatever makes money. New York is a hustle and bustle town, if it ain’t cuttin’ it no more it’s done, you’ve gotta fuckin’ move on,” he says in defence. “But … it pains me to even talk about it in this manner … because, I just love the fuckin’ beats that I hear, that I like, that I feel everybody else should like. I don’t wanna hear rap over crazy weird shit, I’d rather hear rap over The Little Mermaid. Just do something different, do some next shit, don’t just keep on going with what everyone else is doing.”
Bronson’s straight-talking manner, along with his down-to-earth attitude and the warm gratitude he shows his fans is what has secured his man-of-the-people reputation. But while Bronson’s lyrics have always described sex in a gross, remarkably explicit manner that could make even the most desensitised rap fan shudder, some critics pointed out a subtle but – they argued – significant slip to mean- spiritedness on 2013’s Rare Chandeliers and Saaab Stories which threatened to undermine his charming persona. Saaab Stories’ grim cover art, in particular, seemed to inspire a fair few moralising think pieces. What does Bronson have to say to the people who’ve taken offence to his music?
“They can go fuck themselves,” he says, becoming a little agitated. “Honestly, how can you take offence to like … they’re just shallow-minded people, you know what I mean? Like what are you taking offence to exactly? I’m not really saying anything that outlandish … I mean maybe. But what’s outlandish, what’s outrageous at this point?” So he never feels insulted by words? “I’m never offended really. I mean certain things offend me, but with jokes and shit like that? No.” It’s often said that chefs have the dirtiest sense of humour, and I suggest that when you’re working in a kitchen in Queens, you might get pretty good at flipping an insult into a joke. “I mean in a kitchen, or anywhere, because … people are mean. I’m a fat fuck. I have not been skinny in my entire life, I was always ‘fat boy‘ and this and that when I was growing up. It’s like you have thick skin, who cares?
“And plus, everyone jokes. That’s what it is, you hang out, and you joke, everyone jokes on each other, and that’s how you become a cool fuckin’ dude. Like this guy’s pants [points to his manager’s flamboyant, patterned trousers], I’ve been going in on them. The kid’s a good kid but the pants are shitty, he looks like a fuckin’ shmuck.” After a brief moment of tension, Bronson has us laughing again.
Later that night, Bronson delivers a show which truly justifies the fact that everyone’s talking about him. During a set based heavily on the wacky Blue Chips 2 material, he climbs over the crowd barrier and heads to the bar. His DJ drops Pantera’s Walk, and Bronson finds his way to the balcony, tosses his t-shirt into the crowd and headbangs on the staircase. With the mic still in his hand, he then leads the crowd into the men’s toilets, but struggles to take a piss with so many audience members waiting outside the cubicle. After the show you can feel a buzz in the air outside the venue.
Earlier, Bronson had rejected an invite to a post-gig meal at Crack’s pub The Christmas Steps. But after being told that the staff were willing to keep the kitchen open just for him, he can’t bring himself to say no. On arrival, he orders pretty much everything on the menu, before heading to the kitchen to greet the chefs and supervise the cooking process. Once the food is served, he’s relentlessly interrupted by wide-eyed fans while he’s eating. He might be a little irritated on the inside, but he courteously obliges to pose for photos.
With such a striking but approachable image, this must be pretty much standard procedure for Action Bronson whenever he’s out in public. Back at the hotel, I’d asked him if this ever gets exhausting, and in his response, he revealed an the attitude that’s probably played a key part in his success. “Nah, it’s great because that just means that you’re doing the right thing, and the fact that people take the time out to recognise what I do, you gotta be thankful,” he said. “I don’t know what people expect, honestly. But you know, they see me out, they feel they already know me, like I’m the man, I’m cool. And I like to keep it that way.”
“Everyone take a picture, we have a good time, boom, we go about our business.”
…working with Riff Raff
He’s a fucking asshole, I love him. People don’t take him serious, but he can rap his ass off, and he definitely wants to be respected for that. And he’s very intelligent, he knows exactly what’s going on. He’s not stupid in any sense of the word – he’s smarter than me, that’s for sure. But I’m not doing any albums with anybody. I’m a solo artist.
…not compromising his sound
The thing is that I have intelligent fans, the people who like me are not stupid. They have a sense of humour, a sense of culture, you know what I mean? And I would feel that 100% I’d be called out, and I’d call myself out, like “yo listen, I did some bullshit, I needed some money, you’re either fucking with me or you’re not fucking with me, I’ll make it up next time.” That’s just the kind of guy I am, I’m very honest, I’m very straightforward, there’s no bullshit.
Well … you know, in the past there’s been issues. I shouldn’t be the one who has to take care of that, there should be security on stage and at venues and shit that worries about that. But, at the end of the day, if someone gets up there and I feel a little something … maybe I’ll do something crazy, who knows? I’m into slamming people, but I don’t do it to hurt no one, it’s more theatrics.
…his multicultural neighborhood
I learnt to speak Spanish by learning all the fuckin’ bad words and crazy shit first, and then you gradually learn to say nice things. But you learn the bullshit first. I know curse words in many languages, just from growing up in Queens. Russian shit, Korean shit, all kinds of bullshit.
Mr Wonderful will be released this year via Vice / Atlantic