Action Bronson on Going Major: 'I Don't Wanna Look Like a Schmuck in the First Week'
Photo: Tom Gould
"What happens if the plane falls or the fucking window busts open and I get sucked out? You don't think about that?"
Action Bronson is gazing at me intently, his piercing blue eyes slightly crinkled thanks to the weed he's smoking, and I have no clue if he's fucking with me or not. With Action Bronson, it's hard to tell. The 31-year-old rapper, born Ariyan Arslani, is a comedian on and off wax. I'm not sure if I'm awaiting a punchline or an existential a-ha! moment.
I meet Action at the offices of Shady Records/Goliath Artists on Lafayette Street. Between Soho and Chinatown, the company owned by Eminem and Paul Rosenberg is situated opportunely between overpriced cold-pressed coffee at La Colombe and a fine plate of $6 Singapore mei fun. It's a small, nondescript building and I'm led to a spacious lounge where Action is fidgeting at the bar. Close friend and collaborator Big Body Bes leans against a wall, while manager Pedro "DRO" Genao breezes in and out of the room. An espresso machine catches my eye, but neither Action nor I know how it works.
It's after 1 p.m., but for both rapper and rap writer, it might as well be dawn. "I just found out about press today about 10 a.m.," he laments, referring to promotion for his major-label debut album, Mr. Wonderful, out March 24. Action eases into a large leather armchair, his eyes still betraying faint signs of sleepiness. His auburn hair is pulled into a messy ponytail and his beard is scruffy. At 300-some pounds, he's more furry, cuddly bear than imposing giant. It's 55 degrees, unseasonably warm for the beginning of March, and he's wearing black shorts.
"I know you," he says, looking at me pointedly. "We've met several times." Recognizing a dude running game, I call his bluff and ask where and when. "Santos [Party House], 2013," he replies matter-of-factly. He's right. We met for one-quarter of a New York minute before his sold-out release show for Saaab Stories. I ask him if he has a photographic memory. He smiles. "I remember important things."
Charm is something Action Bronson has no shortage of. It's served him well as he's evolved into one of hip-hop's most unlikely stars. Action hails from Flushing, Queens; his father was an immigrant from Albania, while his Jewish mother was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Action fondly recalls a multicultural upbringing filled with extended family his father brought over to live with them. "My mother wasn't ready for that kind of shit," he laughs, occasionally blowing rings of smoke from a joint delicately pinched between his fingers. His father was a guitarist in an amateur Albanian band; taking after him, Action grew up Muslim (though he says he probably would have had a bar mitzvah had his grandfather been alive). "I'm just me. I'm not defined by any specific cultural thing," says the rapper, who identifies as American but regrets losing his native tongue. "I don't speak Albanian. I haven't spoken it or heard it spoken every day to me for a very long time. [Sometimes] an old Albanian person will speak to me in Albanian and it's embarrassing."
After dropping out of Bayside High School, Action enrolled briefly in culinary school. He cooked at Citi Field (a gig he eventually got fired from) and worked in his father's kitchen, where he suffered a crippling leg injury in 2011. His culinary dreams sidelined, Action used recuperation as the opportunity to switch vocations — and a foodie rapper was born.
He worked the indie rap scene, garnering a loyal following of internet fanboys and cosigns from credible producers with each release, including 2011's Dr. Lecter and Well-Done (with Statik Selektah), Rare Chandeliers (with The Alchemist) in 2012, Saaab Stories (with Harry Fraud) in 2013, and Blue Chips 1 and 2 (with Party Supplies) in 2012 and 2013, respectively. His punchy and hilarious rhymes — delivered by way of a flow often compared to that of the Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah — are filled with New York references, Nineties nostalgia, and gastronomic sensibilities. "Thin slices of the cheddar, folded up, make my life better/We had the lunch at Osteria Morini, I had the calf's brain/Half-glass of Cabernet on the PATH train," he raps on "It's Me." Part highbrow weirdo, part man of the people, he brought this unique lens to live shows, where it wasn't uncommon for the rapper to hand out steaks, perform with fans slung over his back, or find himself being physically accosted by overzealous devotees (whom he would swiftly disarm with a move straight out of pro wrestler Marty Jannetty's playbook). "I'm very approachable," he says of his relationship with his fans. "What, am I gonna act like an asshole?"
Action signed a management deal with Shady Records/Goliath and a record deal with Vice/Atlantic Records in 2012. The partnership granted him his own video series, Fuck, That's Delicious, which has been picked up for television. The once-failed chef is on the precipice of becoming an epicurean household name.
It's a strange trajectory. Blog stans, sold-out shows, and branding are great notches in his belt, but a commercial rapper proves his mettle by moving units. Four years deep into his career, the question remains: Can Action Bronson sell records?
The rapper knows he has a lot to prove with Mr. Wonderful, commercially and musically. "I guess all that shit [before] was like experiments. It's just practice almost," he says. Mr. Wonderful is far more refined than his prior discography. Its thirteen tracks are noticeably polished, and the inclusion of live instrumentation is apparent. Instead of sourcing the big rap names du jour, Action curated a small group of collaborators for the album. Features are relegated to Chance the Rapper, Big Body Bes, and Meyhem Lauren, while production is handled by Party Supplies, Mark Ronson (who wrote a letter to Billy Joel to clear the "Zanzibar" sample for the album opener, "Brand New Car"), 88-Keys, The Alchemist, and Noah "40" Shebib.
"I was a little hesitant to work with 40, to tell you the truth," he admits, regarding working with Drake's notoriously selective beatmaker on "Actin Crazy." "[I didn't want] people to see it as a fucking dick-rider. But you know, he really fucks with me and I fuck with him."
The songs are unexpected, and pleasantly so. "Baby Blue" is a playful love song (and may be Bam Bam's first radio-friendly track), while "Easy Rider" proves that psychedelic guitar rap is awesome. Food references play second course to personal introspection ("A Light in the Addict," "Galactic Love"), frat rap ("Only in America"), and soulful experimentation ("City Boy Blues"). On some tracks, Action isn't rapping at all, but rather half-singing or wailing. "Not everything has to be so much rappity-rap. I've done that shit," he says. "It might catch you off guard — and that's good! You want surprises."
"I was pushing him not to do the same old thing with this album," says The Alchemist. "Go further. He needed to show a little progression." The producer says that the rapper spearheaded his creative direction. "The album sounds good, bigger. It was his choice." DRO points to maturation and life experience as integral to this musical growth. "It's no longer rap as a fantasy. It's traveling the world a few times and meeting your heroes." Bes agrees. "He's definitely matured. I knew my man before he was a father [at 21 years old]. I've seen who he's become." The two enjoy a simpatico back-and-forth replete with shit-talking. "He's still a lowlife. Three days a week, he ain't shit," jokes Bes. "Catch him on a Sunday, you swear you want to stab him. Every other day, you love him."
Action Bronson's fans love him, no doubt, but will they love Mr. Wonderful? The rapper can't call it. "I don't know. I've given a lot [of music] away. Let's see if the business works for me." He's optimistic that the fans who have gotten him this far will come through when it counts — on release day. "You want to do numbers. It's a numbers game. Motherfuckers look like, 'Oh, he sold this.' " So what's the magic sales number? Action Bronson won't tell, but he knows one thing for sure: "I don't wanna look like a schmuck on the first week."
Action Bronson will celebrate the release of Mr. Wonderful March 24 at Terminal 5. The show has sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market. See also: The 10 Best Forgotten New York Hip-Hop Records Seven Great Things About Action Bronson's Blue Chips 2 That Do Not Involve Food Five Rap Artists to Watch For in 2015
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