Action Bronson is my only role model.
I first saw him at A3C in Atlanta in 2011, when he was just starting to make his mark, his name popping up in hip-hop head circles but not yet so big that he wasn’t staying at the same mediocre hotel I was. It was one of those hotel continental breakfasts where the food somehow matches the faded carpet: bagels with cut rate cream cheese, eggs that would bounce off the floor if you dropped them.
Action emerged from the elevator and walked towards that continental breakfast slowly, purposefully, like a resigned convict walking towards death row, mesh gym shorts, flip-flops and a t-shirt apparently his uniform both night and day. Without even pausing he scooped up a handful of bagels, a couple cartons of cheap orange juice, and as quickly and mysteriously as he had emerged was back in the elevator. I’d never seen anyone be so staggeringly ordinary and yet obviously extraordinary at the same time. I was hooked.
In the ensuing years Action has emerged as an absolute force in hip-hop, a man whose presence extends far beyond the mic, and it’s felt like only in the last year, really even the last six months, that he’s really hit his stride. Taking his live shows outside to grab slices of pizza, body-slamming fans, rapping about perfect dives off yachts, Action’s become a hero for all of us who dreamed of conquering the world without shaving, who daydream about luxury without compromise. If anything, Bronson seems to have become his own glitch in the matrix, a living antidote to the don’t-rock-the boat-normalcy we’re told is the only path to success. In fact, the more he fully embraces his inner-Action, the more richly he’s been rewarded.
That’s the man I was excited to talk to, the man I didn’t bother to hide my fandom from. And sure, I asked Action Bronson all the questions it felt like you should ask Action Bronson, the same questions he’s been asked 100 times before. We talked food; he firmly believes a hot dog is not a sandwich, and that the Coney Island hot dog is the hot dog against which all other hot dogs should be measured. We talked about beards; he hasn’t cut his in months, a kind of embodiment of the creative excess he’s trying to embrace these days:
"I haven't touched my beard, touched my hair at all, just goin for it. My mustache is gettin in my mouth, I can't eat, fucking hair in my face, I bite down it's all over. Shit's crazy. It's always a problem trying to mic me up. That's where I'm at right now, fuck it. Just going with the wind."
This was the man, the myth, the legend that I had hoped to talk to, and he was giving me everything I wanted from my legends. But it wasn’t until I asked about his last project with his major label benefactor, the Saab Stories EP that came out via Atlantic Records, that I stumbled into something more than myth, I accidentally found a musician. During our conversation I recalled an interview where he mentioned regretting Atlantic’s involvement in the project. Was he worried about the same thing happening to his full-length album, Mr. Wonderful? His voice suddenly turned deadly serious:
"Atlantic didn't have anything to do with the music. I didn't want it to be an EP, I wanted it to be a full project and I wanted it to be free, but they insisted. I wanted more of a reach, I wanted more of an impact, but it's over, it is what it is and I have to live with it. But I always make the music I want. No matter what. No....matter...what. I have to make it or I'll be unhappy, I won't be able to live with myself. I'll be up at night, be thinking about it constantly. I'm not going to do that to myself."
He meant it. In that moment I truly believed he would rather go back to sweating in the back of a Queens’ kitchen than put out a single song he didn’t believe in, and it was perhaps stupidly an epiphany for me. Yes, Action Bronson is in many ways bigger than hip-hop; as he’s said, he’s not a man, he’s a symbol. Everything that surrounds Action – the parking lot dabs, the obsession with food, the pro wrestling parallels - they’re not gimmicks, they're a part of his true self in the same way we all have multiple interests and passions, although Action’s appeal is the way he pursues those interests seemingly with an almost reckless passion. But at his core, in his heart of tattooed hearts, he’s a musician, a man who is completely and inescapably in love with making music.
That love came up again when I mentioned "Baby Blue," his single with Mark Ronson, a producer who at first glance seems like an odd fit for Action. Ronson’s had one of the biggest hits of the year so far in "Uptown Funk," a pop-funk track lead by mega-star Bruno Mars, a track that initially seemed miles away from Action Bronson’s Boogie Nights homages. But then Bronson reminded me of Ronson's deep hip-hop history:
"Even before his recent success, I feel like a lot of people don't know that he has a very, very good track record. "Ooh Wee" with Nate Dogg, that's one of the best songs in hip-hop, that's a fucking fire song. [Recording with him] was just a magical time, an incredible moment. It was the right time, the stars were aligned."
It suddenly made sense. Ronson has his hip-hop roots and from Wale to Amy Winehouse has always been drawn towards artists living outside prescribed bounds. Both he and Action were musical chameleons with encyclopedic musical memories, just as capable of reciting a Big Daddy Kane verse as singing along to a Peter Gabriel song. Ronson working with Action Bronson the legend seemed odd, but Ronson working with Action Bronson the musician now felt completely natural, staggeringly obvious.
Bronson pointed out that he was around for some of the recording of Ronson’s Uptown Special album, proudly relating a story about how Ronson had played all his recent sessions for someone and they had honed in on "Baby Blue"; that’s the best song you’ve got, they told Ronson, who had to regretfully admit it actually wasn’t for his album but Action’s Mr. Wonderful. Action’s too humble to come right out and say it, but there was a certain pride in his voice as he told that story, a “Can you believe I’m making music good enough to stand out next to these superstars, how awesome is that?” quality that was even more compelling than any body slam.
Even more impressively, it was a small moment, but the most excited I heard him was when he mentioned that multiple Grammy-winner Tom Elmhirst had mixed his album, a fact he relayed in as tone of voice I'd expect to hear someone talk about working with JAY Z. It’s hard to imagine a single fan caring who mixed the album currently playing in their headphones, but for Action it seemed like everything, more of a I made it moment than getting a guest verse from even the most famous emcee. Sure, you could easily spend an hour with the man debating the best pizza slice in America, but go ahead, bring up Tom‘s name and watch him truly light up. Bring up that moment when he was sitting with Noah "40" Shebib and 40 first played him the "Actin' Crazy" beat, bring up using a Rhodes piano alongside 88-Keys and Party Supplies for "City Boy Blues," and he really does seem to be at his most alive.
"I feel honored to be able to work with these people, it's a dream. I love their taste, I love the way they make music. Working with famous people to work with famous people has never been my forte, I just need to feel comfortable, and I feel that way now. I'm in a creative space."
Action Bronson is still my only role model. As I told him, I’m working towards the day I have to hold my beard back to eat, trying to become as unapolgetically passionate about the good things in life. But now, as I listen to Mr. Wonderful, I’m listening for more than even the most double-take inducing of raps. I’m listening for the music.
Action Bronson, the man, the myth, the legend, the musician.