Cellulite Superhero: Interview with Action Bronson
(Photo: Alexander Richter)
[Action Bronson is generally regarded as something of a clown, and if you’re at all familiar with him, there is no doubt he is a humorist among most rappers. But early on I felt that he was doing something more complex with his art than most people were giving him credit for. After working very hard to secure a call with him, I approached this interview with the intent of exposing a higher narrative to his image, while of course still embracing his hilarious persona. I was pretty happy with the result.]
Action Bronson occupies a space all his own – and a large one at that.
Take one look at the 31-year-old Queens-bred rapper – born Arian Asllani, of Albanian-Jewish heritage – and you know he isn’t your average hip-hop star and he didn’t take the usual route to hip-hop stardom.
Prior to his entry into music, Bronson worked as professional chef well into his twenties.
As such, his lyrics, especially in his early songs, are unapologetically packed with rhymes and metaphors about food (“The olive oil, virgin, first press, it’s never blended, kid/ I’m straight raw like Carpaccio”), and his videos frequently feature him eating at some point.
Last year he hosted the hit web-series for VICE, called Fuck, That’s Delicious, which followed his culinary adventures while on tour with Eminem. A second season is supposedly coming to cable.
When I call Bronson up, he’s eating lunch, and I ask him if he thinks there’s any crossover between rapping and cooking.
“Hip-hop and the culinary art go hand in hand in my mind, because they’re both art forms that people can enjoy in their everyday lives,” he says.
When I suggest they might also be connected by his other outspoken fixation, marijuana, Bronson laughs, “You’ve got that right, brother. Weed makes music enjoyable and weed makes food enjoyable. Food also makes weed enjoyable because you’ve gotta eat a lot of food after you smoke all that weed.”
And although he didn’t start rapping until he was 25, hip-hop has been a lifetime obsession.
“Shit, I’ve been interested in hip-hop my entire life,” he says. “I’d say I started listening to rap music when I was seven years old.”
Remembering his first exposure to hip-hop, he says, “I used to buy a lot of cassette singles. My earliest recollection is buying a cassette of Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker.” [starts singing] ‘All I wanna do is zooma, zoom zoom zoom.’”
Mr. Wonderful is being heralded as Bronson’s major label debut, which seems odd for those who have followed him for years now.
He’s been releasing singles, EPs and mixtapes since 2010, with guest appearances on others’ songs going back to 2007.
“Calling this my debut album is almost laughable because I’ve put out so much music already, but it’s true this is my first album on a label,” he says. “I think of myself as a baseball player: you’re in the minor leagues for a long time, and then you get your chance to play in the big leagues. It’s finally time for me to play professional baseball.”
I tell him he sounds ready, and he responds instantly, “I’m definitely ready.”
Bronson has proudly called Mr. Wonderful a “masterpiece” – a statement I ask him to defend.
“It’s a masterpiece to me because of I’ve given this my most incredible effort,” he says. “It’s taken so much time and work. This is by far the most put-together piece I’ve ever created.”
The effort shows. With a boost from Mark Ronson, Noah “40″ Shebib, Omen, The Alchemist and others, the high production level is definitely something that sticks out compared to his less brooded-over works.
Notably, “Brand New Car,” the album’s opening track, includes a hard-to-get sample of Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar,” approved by the Piano Man himself.
“Billy Joel is a big influence in my music, he’s an incredible artist,” says Bronson. “When we used his song, we had to clear the sample directly through him, so [Ronson and I] ended up writing a handwritten letter asking for his permission. And Billy came through for us.”
Most fans of Action Bronson, and just about anyone below the age of 30, might be surprised to hear his admiration for the singer-songwriter. He’s previously called the New York legend his favorite lyricist of all time, even next to any rapper.
When I ask what he admires about Joel’s music, he explains, “Billy Joel is my type of guy. He’s a Long Island guy, he plays fucking incredible piano, he has an ear for everything. His music, the choices he makes musically, they have an incredible power to make me feel happy.”
Between the Billy Joel sample and the funky production, the record has a classic and varied sound that at times samples soul (“Terry”), R&B (“City Boy Blues”), hair metal (“Only in America”) and psychedelia (“Easy Rider”).
When I suggest the album has a retro feel, he’s quick to contend his modernity.
“I don’t think that it’s retro at all. I don’t do retro things – that shit already came out,” he says. “I think my music is elevating hip-hop. I want to be a modernizer and bring my own swing to the game.”
What’s always been certain is that Action Bronson approaches the rap game differently from anybody else.
By outer appearance alone, he’s forced to addresses that fact that he sticks out.
On the Ronson-produced “Baby Blue,” one of Mr. Wonderful’s standout singles, Bronson and Chance the Rapper soulfully hold their middle fingers up to detractors and women who have rejected them.
He raps, “I’m not exactly flawless, but I’m gorgeous, just like a horse is / I know the thought of me succeeding makes a lot of people nauseous / Still I’m on the back of the boat taking pictures with the swordfish.”
Chance the Rapper then quips a long, though relatively benign, list of malevolent wishes (“I hope you get a paper cut on your tongue…I hope every soda you drink is shaken up”).
Typical to his own style, it’s nasty, but far from murderous.
Generally, rather than tearing people down, Bronson’s most trusty device is his sense of humor.
On “Actin Crazy,” he sings, “I feel so alive, I think I shit myself / I should kiss myself / I’m starin’ at the man inside the mirror / The reflection shows a wolf though / Goddamn, I’m still cute, ho.”
Songs like “A Light in the Addict” prove he’s capable of considering grievous subject matter, but Bronson doesn’t think his jestery does anything to depreciate his art.
“I’ve gotten pussy for making girls laugh,” he says. “You make people laugh and they like you. I like making people feeling good.”
This Action Bronson in a nutshell: often sweet but rarely serious.
After telling me that his number one priority is providing for his family and making his mother happy, I ask what his biggest dream is, and his response is, “Five-bazillion girls licking my nuts at the same time.”
What becomes more apparent the more I study Action Bronson, is that, true to his name, he’s consciously and subconsciously channeling his action figure persona.
He’s making up for his lack of outer sexyness or coolness with a teenager’s sensibility for what’s awesome.
The music videos for “Easy Rider” and “Actin Crazy” materialize his fantasies of dunking a basketball on Godzilla, beating up a bar full of bikers, riding a shark that shoots lasers out of its eyes, and playing electric guitar from the top of a mountain.
In the same way KISS inspired a generation of underdogs to imagine themselves as rockstars, Action Bronson is the G.I. Joe of rap. He can be tacky and over the top, as are many of his lyrics, but it’s somehow always playful and charming, underlined by his big-hearted sincerity.
I explain to him my theory around the symbolism of his name.
“I’m a superhero,” he says. “I’m a superhero in action.”
“Then you’re playing a character,” I say. But he corrects me.
“You’ve gotta understand, this is just me, this is my life,” he says. “I’m the same guy all the time, and for the most part I’m a normal guy. I just have a few special powers.”
So while Kendrick Lamar is purifying hip-hop and Kanye is chasing a legacy as the greatest of all time, here enters Action Bronson, driving a Harley with one hand, eating a bowl of chili with the other, wearing a shit-eating eating grin and a homemade cape that flutters in the wind.