Tuesday night in Santa Ana, Action Bronson walks onstage to Ginuwine’s “Pony,” swigging Martinelli’s from a sweaty bottle, asking to see everyone’s middle fingers in the air.
“I’m wearing makeup right now, because I was on TV earlier,” he tells the crowd. “A little powder under the eye, so I look beautiful.”
He turns his head, invites everybody to drink it in: The Duck Dynasty beard, the scruffy, neglected fade. He looks a little like Harry Knowles, a little like a young version of that guy sitting on a stool at every OTB. You know that guy. He steps downstage into the footlights, hits a kind of crossing-the-Delaware stance, barrel chest puffed, his hand on his chest like he’s sticking it between the buttons of a frock coat almost. Then, triumphantly: “I’M 315 POUNDS OF MOTHERFUCKING BEEF.”
And the whole place doesn’t go crazy, but the people at the front absolutely lose it. Bronson’s DJ, Tommy Mas, drops “Alligator.” It’s the second-to-last song on Bronson’s new EP, Saaab Stories, his debut major-label release, the one he and producer Harry Fraud made with their minds on live performance, hooks, dynamics. The songs were designed to shake a room like this. “Alligator” has a death-gong “Beat It” intro, ticking trap-rap drums, punishing low end. It’s armor-plated-Mercedes music, with Bronson pushing baller boasts over the top into surrealism: I ride so clean, my ride so dirty / I’m ’bout to buy a fuckin’ lion for my birthday.
Tonight he just does the first verse and the hook, motions to Tommy Mas to cut the beat off, raps the second verse a cappella, stops on a line about being “on the balcony stoned and naked playin’ Sega.”
“Always catch me stoned and naked,” he says. “Take that picture right there — now watch.” He stops, freezes, looks off into the middle distance. He wants us to imagine him naked, possibly windblown. He looks like he’s posing for the Action Bronson stamp. Takes a pull on the Martinelli’s bottle. Everybody cheers.
“Straight apple juice,” he says.
This keeps happening. He’ll start a song, cut it short, finish the verse unaccompanied. He gets to the part of “Bird on a Wire” where he says “Tailor me a leather suit.” The next line is “On some Jodeci shit,” a reference to the extravagantly horny ’90s R&B quartet and their penchant for stepping out in public dressed like men who’d stalked and skinned a strip club’s banquettes.
Tonight, though, he says, “Tailor me a leather suit … on some Keith Sweat … Jodeci … Dru Hill … Aaron Hall,” pauses, and then says, “I’m sorry. I’m very high right now.” Everybody cheers.
The response feels good, because this is not Action Bronson’s show. At Bronson’s own shows, he looks out in the crowd and sees “all kinds of life forms. A lot of hipster people, a lot of street people, a lot of Jewish people. Real rap nerds and shit. Older men.” Sometimes if he spots somebody in a wheelchair or on crutches getting knocked around the pit — it happens more than you’d think — he’ll pull them up onstage, hoist them on his back while rapping, give them weed, even let them freestyle, like he’s a cooler Make-a-Wish Foundation. He’s been known to body-slam people who come onstage unbidden.
This, though — this is a gig. This is him getting his pretty face out there. He’s midway through two weeks of dates opening for Mac Miller on Miller’s Space Migration Tour. He tells all the “15-, 16-year-old girls” out there in the dark to “tell Mommy to buy you the new Action Bronson album.” He tells them that he loves them, and hopes that they still love him. Miller is 21, a squirrelly white kid with armloads of tats. Everyone else on the bill is around the same age, except for Bronson, who’s a self-described “fucking brutish 29-year-old man.” He took up rapping late, having spent his early twenties engaged in various forms of low-rent criminality and (following a stint in culinary school) much of his late twenties working in restaurant kitchens. He goes onstage in whatever he’s wearing that day, generally a quadruple-XL T-shirt from Harbor Bay, black swim trunks, maybe a Carhartt henley. Miller’s fans don’t always know what to make of him.
But that’s sort of the best thing about Bronson: No one can fully believe what they’re seeing. A 300-pound Albanian American dude who’s released hundreds of rap songs, almost all of which are to some extent about fine dining, obscure athletes of the ’80s and ’90s, or sex workers? If Bronson hadn’t existed, an Internet ever more grateful for novelty artists whose appeal can be distilled in a snack-size listicle would have invented him. But he finds poetry on the plate the same way the same way Clipse did in the bottom of a Pyrex: caciocavallo, cuttlefish mixed with lime juice, bucatini, salads tossed with lemon segments, shaved fennel, “feasting dolo down in Eataly,” bone marrow spread on rosemary bread. He raps about food the way other rappers might describe a watch’s bezel, the wood grain of a fine automobile — lovingly, boastfully, passionately, but also like it’s no big deal, like the perfection of every meal is a foregone conclusion. It’s central even when it’s not central:
My new shorty got a gymnastic back
’87 emerald green on a classic Jag
She had the cleft palate, I ordered chef’s salad
She had the club foot, with that little arm
I couldn’t help but laugh, she ordered chicken Parm
And he likes names — athletes’ names, often obscure role players, often wrestlers. Calls himself Bam Bam sometimes, as in Bigelow, has compared himself and his beard to Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart more than once, always says the name in full, “Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart.” The way other rappers might invoke Tony Montana (still!), he pulls out Sam Sifton, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Randy Velarde, Ricky Steamboat, Dennis Haskins, and George Whipple as adjectives or signifiers of badassness or non sequitur hooks, like Roger Angell writing his Christmas poem on angel dust. It’s like he’s building a secret pantheon of cool the way the Beastie Boys did on Paul’s Boutique, spotting George Drakoulias at Orange Julius, tipping their caps to Sadaharu Oh and Chuck Woolery.
At the Observatory, Bronson is sharing an upstairs dressing room with Chance The Rapper. The walls are floor-to-ceiling chalkboard, so as to harness and manage the tendency of touring rock bands to mark their territory with cave paintings of spurting dicks, I guess. There’s no chalk, though. There’s a picked-over catering spread and a seemingly endless supply of a gooey marijuana concentrate called “wax,” which you smoke off a blowtorch-heated “nail” at the end of a water pipe. It’s called “dabbing.” It’s said to offer a cleaner, healthier hit and a purer, headier stone. A more efficient one, too — a largish dab can contain as much THC as a gram of pot.
Bronson is a pure dabber now, doesn’t touch blunts or pipes or joints anymore, says he doesn’t miss the attendant rituals, all that rolling and crumbling. You can’t just walk around doing it, though. You have to be someplace where it’s OK to spend quality time with a lit blowtorch. As a result there’s an unavoidable cracky vibe to the practice. It’s the first time watching people smoke pot has ever made me think of Rahad Jackson’s sixth awesome mixtape.
This is leavened somewhat when I meet the guys supplying the wax tonight. They’re from a collective called West Coast Cure that makes this stuff (in a warehouse lab somewhere, because it’s still illegal to manufacture it) and supplies it to dispensaries (because in California it’s totally legal to sell it). They all wear little scimitars — the size of those swords they impale club sandwiches on, titanium, suitable for dabbing — pinned to their black West Coast Cure caps. They have names like “Jarret.” (Jarret gives me his business card. It just says “Jarret.”) They’re the nerdiest drug connects imaginable. They’re weed geeks. They could be model railroaders or comic-shop clerks or molecular gastronomes. Or pharmaceutical reps, which I guess in a sense they are.
Bronson’s tour manager, Marc DeJesus, asks him if he’s going back out. There’s a song on Mac Miller’s album that features Bronson, “Red Dot Music,” and Bronson usually comes out to do his verse when Miller plays it live. Bronson says he’s not up for it tonight. He checks out the food. Hip-hop’s biggest gourmand fills a plastic cup with Lucky Charms cereal.
When I ask Bronson later what his plans are for the rest of the evening, he says, “I’ll probably fornicate tonight.” Afterward he’ll stand on his hotel balcony for a while — possibly naked, almost certainly stoned — before falling asleep around 5 a.m. Right now, though, he changes his mind, without saying anything to anyone. He would rather be upstairs smoking, but this is the job. “This is just like being a fuckin’ banker,” he’ll tell me the next day. “You still gotta go do work things.” He makes his way back down to the stage, casual as a man walking into his own living room, stands next to Mac Miller, still holding his cup of cereal. He looks out at the crowd and says “You guys like Lucky Charms?”
The Alchemist has a place out in Santa Monica behind a tile store. Bronson stayed here last year when he and the Alchemist were making Bronson’s Rare Chandeliers mixtape together. The Alchemist told Bronson that he and his small entourage — Tommy Mas, Marc the tour manager, and Bronson’s old friend Big Body — could use it this week while they’re in town and the Alchemist is on tour DJing for Eminem. The Alchemist’s place is a tunnelish bachelor apartment with a one-room recording studio in the back. There are platinum albums lining the hall and short, dark beard hairs in the sink. The Alchemist also owns a surprisingly extensive collection of Michael Connelly paperbacks.
It’s a nice setup. “You’re not making as much money on one of these tours as you usually would, so you want to put a little bit aside,” Bronson says. They’re in Vegas tomorrow night. They’re at the MGM, where Joël Robuchon has a place right there in the lobby. They splashed out on the room. Skyloft, 1,000-square-foot balcony. “You know Daddy gets the suite,” he says. “Fuckin’ shower hits me in four areas. That’s what I want. I want to be able to possibly drown in my bath. You have to paddle to your seat. That’s the bath. That’s fire. The bath has a shore.”
Bronson’s sitting at the studio console, heating up for another dab. Big Body’s asking Tommy if Tommy will drive him to Venice so he can go lift at Muscle Beach, check out the weirdos down there. Big Body’s in an undershirt and nylon shorts. He’s Albanian American, like Bronson, with a shaved head, a bouncer’s body. Bronson and Big Body didn’t grow up in the same part of Queens but they’re friends from way back. They did drugs and graffiti together. I ask Bronson if Big Body has an official job title, and Bronson says, “Yeah — he’s my man.” He elaborates: “He’s my spiritual adviser and my spirit animal.” Big Body isn’t really a hype man and he isn’t really a rapper, but he’s amazing at talking shit, and sometimes he comes out during one of Bronson’s sets and does that for a minute.
Bronson yells to Tommy in the other room. “Tommy,” he says, “don’t go too far.” Tommy sticks his head in, says “Why?” and Bronson says, “What do you mean, ‘Why’?” Shoots me a smile. He’s fucking with him. He makes Tommy run through the set list before every show, adding and deleting songs at Bronson’s whim. This isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary, Bronson admits, “but I feel like Tommy needs to work. An hour out of the day he has to give me. That’s all I ask.”
Big Body gets to basically treat the tour like a vacation because Big Body has seniority. Big Body is family. Bronson calls him his cousin, even though they’re not related. But Bronson’s been abusing Tommy Mas since the first time they met — some 4/20 party at the famed Williamsburg shithole Rock Star Bar. Tommy DJed the whole show from the booth, and when he dropped Bronson’s instrumentals in the wrong order, Bronson yelled at him. Tommy ended up producing all of Bronson’s first mixtape, Dr. Lecter, including fan favorites like “Larry Csonka” and “Barry Horowitz.” I ask Bronson what he’d do with a Justin Timberlake production budget, and he says he’d have a hardcore-wrestling cage match going, right there onstage. “Me rapping from the top of the cage and shit,” he says. “But it’d change from place to place. Jail scenes. River scenes. I want to rap from a boat.”
Did I mention he’s stoned? He sets the pipe down. Coughs hard. What was the question? I ask him about signing to a major label, Vice/Warner Bros. Why do that, in 2013? “They were offering a nice amount of money,” Bronson says. “And why the fuck should I not give myself the chance to be the biggest star I can possibly be?”
He rolls in rarefied circles these days. He’s met Jadakiss. He’s met Andrew Zimmern. (Not Anthony Bourdain, though. “Saw Bourdain from a distance,” he says, almost wistful, like they were on different moors.) He’s “having talks” about hosting a cooking show. Grenco Science, the company that makes the portable vaporizer known as the G-Pen, sells an Action Bronson signature model, and he gets a piece of that, too. Bronson was its first artist collaboration. Chris Folkerts, Grenco’s founder, says the partnership came about almost as soon as they met: “You know how a fisherman recognizes another fisherman? That’s kind of the mentality.”
Bronson might call his debut Warner Bros. album The Chairman’s Intent. But he might also end up asking Warner Bros. to work a record called Not Your Average Korean. Or The New Age Sammy Davis Jr. Or just Leather. So far they seem pretty into his ideas. They let him put a nebulous but really creepy scene involving two Asian models on the Saaab Stories cover. When I try to ask him what the picture is specifically supposed to depict, he says, “It’s a crazy Asian escapade,” then takes a phone call. The cover’s gross, but if nothing else, it’s proof that no one’s trying to make him over, at least not yet:
“I’m not putting shit out if that’s the case,” Bronson says. “I swear to everything: I will give them back the money.”
He pauses. “Don’t quote me on that, motherfucker. I won’t give them back the money. I will not give them back the money. I will keep the money, and they’ll have to deal with it. I’ll get shelved forever, and I’ll just keep putting mixtapes out.”
Bronson’s been pressuring me all afternoon to smoke a dab, so I do. I’m expecting to slip into a coma, but I don’t. I do get really stoned, something I realize hours later while trying to negotiate the drive-through line at In-N-Out Burger.
The Miller tour is at the Palladium in Hollywood tonight. Tommy’s on the couch, Yelping sushi places. Bronson’s obsessed with sushi these days. “I haven’t eaten fish my entire life,” he says, “up until this year, and now I’m addicted. I’m serious: I refused to eat seafood up until this year. Refused! My entire life! Twenty-nine years, no seafood.” Not even, like, a fish sandwich?
“A fish sandwich?! That’s unheard of in my life. My life has never been about eating fish on anything. Always. No shrimp, no nothing. I still hate cooked fish. Cooked fish is disgusting; I don’t give a fuck what anyone says. But raw seafood, I’ll try whatever at this point. I love the octopus, roasted. One of the homies opened up a sushi place in New York; we had some shit there. It’s the otoro with a fuckin’ big piece of belly fat. He torches it over a colander, you know, so the fat drips over the otoro. It was literally one of the best things I’ve ever had.”
I begin to realize I’m starving.
I’m trying to formulate a question about how his songs are rich in detail but sometimes it’s like they’re nothing but details, like Bronson can’t see the forest because holy shit feel the texture of this bark. He’s not a storyteller yet, the way Ghostface is, or his idol Kool G Rap. Or he’s an even-more-post-narrative Ghostface — anyway, I say something like that to him as if it’s a question. He tells me we’ll never see him do “a message, a ‘We Are the World’–type song.” I ask him if he’s thought about making a concept album, and he gets a little offended. The mixtapes he’s made so far? They’re all concept albums.
Dr. Lecter was him going “into the mind of a sick fuck that loves the finer things.” Well-Done is the sleeper. (“I tried to step it up on that. If you listen to it, there’s a lot of ill shit on there.”) Blue Chips is “some college rookies taking fuckin’ money under the table and ballin’. Throw the game if we have to — it’s about the paper.” Rare Chandeliers is a blaxploitation-inspired “funky ’70s action-hero” adventure.
I ask him what the peak is — if there’s something he wants, other than his own lion. “I don’t know. I have no idea,” he says. “I’m not even thinking about later. I’m thinking about the crispy rice with the tuna I had today,” which is a very Action Bronson way to answer that question.
So he lives in the moment and that’s probably mostly the drugs. He’s not good with dates, go figure, except one: January 31, 2011. That’s the day he broke his ankle, coming out of the kitchen at his father’s restaurant, and the day he decided to become a rapper full-time. “I was arguing with the mother of my children,” Bronson says. “It was her birthday, and I was cooking for my kids, who were with me at work. I go to carry their food out, and I just slip. Crack. My life changed from that day on.”
Before that: He was born Arian Asllani, in Flushing, Queens, in 1983. His father was an Albanian Muslim from Macedonia who’d played in a rock band in the old country, immigrated to the States, painted houses in Sheepshead Bay, bought a building, opened a restaurant — grinding, grinding. Bronson hasn’t spoken to his father in almost a year. This is for a lot of reasons — when I ask what some of them were, Bronson just says “Life,” and smiles. (Later, he adds, “I’m like Derek Jeter, man. I give the diplomatic answers.”) But part of it was Bronson’s father laughed at him wanting to be a rapper. “He’s not laughing now,” Bronson says. “People are always coming up to him and always talk to him about me. All my cousins are fuckin’ heavy-duty into me and shit like that. And he doesn’t get to see me because he’s a jerk.”
His mother was a Jewish hippie. “My mother pretty much raised me to be a free spirit,” Bronson says. “Anything my father would say, she would tell me, ‘No, it’s like this.’” When he was 9, somebody complained about young Arian walking around the neighborhood with a boom box bumping N.W.A’s Niggaz4Life. Bronson’s father threw all his rap tapes out the window; the next day his mother took him to Sam Goody in Forest Hills, bought him all new ones.
His best friend was a black kid named Troy. Most of his other friends were black or Spanish. It never occurred to him that he was crossing some cultural boundary by listening to hip-hop. Bronson heard Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) at 10, at a sleepover at Miguel Ruiz’s house. It was Miguel’s birthday. Imagine: a bunch of 10-year-olds in a bedroom, listening to Method Man talking about torture. I’ll fuckin’ lay your nuts on a fuckin’ dresser.
He went to Bayside High School, fell in with the wrong crowd (by joining the football team), dropped out, took a year off “to find myself.” I ask how he spent it.
“Literally smoked weed and did graffiti every single day,” he says.
You didn’t go backpacking through Europe on a train?
Bronson laughs. “I went to Brooklyn on the train.”
He doesn’t remember a lot about the next few years. “I would imagine that I was, y’know, chillin’. I was definitely chillin’ somewhere,” he says. He cooked at his father’s restaurant; he did graffiti. He was a “sporadic criminal.” He’d run out on diner checks. He went years without paying for a cab. He’d steal 400 cans of spray paint. A bunch of JVC Kaboom Boxes. He and his friends got heavy into “mobbing.” They’d meet up, head into Manhattan, sometimes rolling 30 deep, and just physically overwhelm a store’s ability to defend itself, walking out with as much product as possible. “We used to literally storm through,” Big Body says. “Chaos, you know? Come in, take shit, writing all over shit, snatching shit up, racking, boosting, smoking everywhere, disrespecting, getting spit on, trying people’s jackets on.”
Finally, when he was 19, Bronson got bagged up while strolling out of a Kmart in New Jersey, carrying two TVs he hadn’t paid for. It wasn’t exactly the heist of the century. He’d worn a suit, so as to look like a solid citizen, but he had Air Jordans on his feet and his hair in a topknot. Security tackled him in the parking lot. It turned out the combined retail price of the TVs came in just less than the dollar amount for grand larceny, so all Bronson had to do was write a letter telling Kmart he was sorry. But he’d learned his lesson. “I was like, ‘Fuck that — I’m not going to steal shit no more. It’s bad karma,’” Bronson says. “I just got on my shit and started selling drugs.”
He sold weed, but smoked more of it than he could pay for with what he sold, or used it to pay prostitutes. He sold steroids to pay for the steroids he was taking. He’s giving me the clean version of this story, he says. “I’ve hurt many people in my life,” he says, “and I’ve done many horrible things that I don’t care to speak of. That stuff is not to be spoken upon. I don’t want to fuckin’ tell somebody what I’ve done. I have a family. I don’t want to go to jail. I can’t make money from jail. I can’t see my kids. I want to live a fucking drama-free life. That’s it. I want to fuckin’ dip my bread in olive oil every day and eat fuckin’ peppers, and that’s it.”
He ended up laid up for gallbladder surgery around 2004. Lost a bunch of weight in the hospital, decided to make some changes. He stopped smoking weed and enrolled in culinary school at the Art Institute of New York City. “That school was where everything popped off,” he says. “I met the mother of my children there. Fucked her in the locker room. And then we went back, and I think we made filet mignon that day.”
All this time he’d never rapped once. “Not one rap, not one bar,” he says. Almost proud of it. He’d always wanted to. You always secretly want to, Bronson says. But he worried he’d look stupid if he tried. I ask him how he got over that and he says, “Seeing a lot of people that looked a lot stupider than me do it.” Meyhem Lauren, a guy he knew from doing graffiti, had started rapping. He claims not to remember exactly how this happened, but at some point Bronson just got in the booth, said his first rhyme. He said “$30,000 on my wrist,” which was a lie, and felt stupid when he said it. He wants to buy a watch, put that amount on his wrist for real, like to clear the karmic ledger, I guess.
For a while, he and Lauren had a crew. The Outdoorsmen, one of those many-headed entities that maybe only existed for the length of a mixtape. Bronson says only a few of them stuck with it as a job. Him, Lauren, this guy AG Da Coroner. “Nobody else has actually done anything with their lives,” he says. “The best rappers I know are, like, air-conditioner men.”
“I’m never late for work,” Bronson says, pointing at a digital clock that reads 7:26 p.m. We’re backstage at the House of Blues in Las Vegas. Bronson’s supposed to go on at 7:30. “Ten minutes ago,” he says, “I was eating fuckin’ Wolfgang Puck’s. Wolfgang himself brought me the fuckin’ wings.”
Tommy drops George Michael’s “Father Figure” and Bronson strides out onto the stage. He demands “five seconds of recognition for my body,” pauses, launches into “Steve Wynn,” from Blue Chips. There’s at least one guy down in front who’s really into it. He’s wasted, wearing a bucket hat, conducting the music with his middle finger. He’s trying. But the vibe is off. Everybody’s either too wasted (Vegas!) or not wasted enough, and whatever they have to give they seem to be saving for Mac Miller.
Which doesn’t mean Bronson doesn’t go for it. He gets down on his knees and raps right at three glammed-up girls in the front row, only one of whom smiles at him. He says “You don’t know me, do you, girls?” He says, “Look what I do to amuse you,” stands up, does a little monkey dance. The crowd’s enthusiasm never moves the needle past “polite.” They just refuse to start feeling him, even when Bronson goes a cappella during “9-24-11,” arguably his most personal song, the one where he admits “At times my only friends in life are drugs and the cannoli.”
At one point he says “Stop talking, shut the fuck up” to the crowd, takes the white towel he’s been carrying around like Pavarotti’s handkerchief and cracks it angrily. He asks to see fists in the air and nobody goes for it. They’ve denied his leadership. The show’s over, although it goes on for a while after that. Nobody — not Big Body, not Tommy, not Marc the tour manager — says anything as Team Bronson makes its way backstage. It’s like they’re waiting for a cue from Bronson, for him to frame the discussion. Bronson doesn’t say anything for a while. Bronson’s sharing a dressing room with Chance again. Chance is shirtless with his feet on the edge of the coffee table. A blunt makes the rounds. Everybody sits quietly for a minute and watches a guy get Tasered on Cops. Four officers all over him and he keeps on swinging. Finally Bronson finds the upside. It’s still early.
“We can still make it to fuckin’ Robuchon,” he says.