Action Bronson photographed on Jan. 29, 2015 in Queens, New York.
In the dark basement dining room at TaiPan Fusion, a Chinese restaurant located near the Long Island Expressway in Queens, Ariyan Arslani, the 31-year-old rapper known as Action Bronson, pauses mid-sentence, wrinkles his nose and wiggles his legs uncomfortably in his red leather seat.
“Excuse me,” he says, raising his tattooed hand to his face and fanning the air away. “That… really stinks.”
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Yes, Action Bronson, rapper, former professional cook and online TV personality, just farted. Maybe it’s TaiPan’s food: chicken with honey and chilis, Szechuan chicken and fried rice, among other delicacies. Or maybe it’s just by design. Bronson, whose major-label debut, Mr. Wonderful, is due for release on March 24 through Vice/Atlantic Records, has spent the past few years revealing his eccentricities on mixtapes, EPs, independent albums and his online Vice food show F—, That‘s Delicious. At this point, his slovenly, disgustingly lovable rap everyman shtick is one of the main reasons his growing fan base loves him.
“People feel like they know me — I’m the laidback guy you want to smoke with,” he says in his thick outer-borough accent, looking like a 1980s wrestler, wearing a green jacket over an orange shirt and black shorts.
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That Bronson has done anything at all with music is still a wonder to him. He was raised an only child by a Muslim Albanian father, a restaurateur, and a Jewish “free spirit hippie” mother (both also amateur musicians) in the diverse, working-class Queens neighborhood of Flushing. After their divorce, he worked in his father’s restaurants and played football at Bayside High School. But he says he lacked discipline, dropping out of school and falling in love with hip-hop and graffiti. “I’d never really completed anything in my life until now. I went out, bombed, rolled around smoking weed, listened to rap music, stole paint and did ill art on walls,” he says.
Under pressure from his father, Bronson briefly enrolled in the Art Institute of New York City’s culinary program. He spent his early 20s bouncing around New York eateries, including a stint cooking for the Mets at Citi Field, and quietly recorded and released ’90s-inspired rap music in his free time. An overweight, white, lumberjack-bearded rapper with a nasally voice that drew comparisons to Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah was an odd spectacle, and Bronson’s music soon started making noise online. But he was content with his cooking career — until a fall in his father’s restaurant’s kitchen in 2011 left him with an injury to his left leg. “I couldn’t cook, and that’s all I knew for eight, nine years,” he says, between burps. “I was just sitting there, healing, making no money. I couldn’t sue the owner — because it’s my pops! So I was on my own.”
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Fortunately, cash was starting to trickle in from paid features and occasional shows, so Bronson, who has two kids with an ex-girlfriend, changed focus. He released a well-received independent album (Dr. Lecter) and a collaboration LP with DJ-producer Statik Selektah (Well Done). Then, in 2012, on the heels of a Reebok-sponsored, critically acclaimed mixtape, Blue Chips, he made a handful of power moves. He brought on Eminem’s manager, Paul Rosenberg, and after being courted by Vice Media co-founder Suroosh Alvi signed a deal with the company’s in-house record label. With access to Vice’s creative resources and its sizable online footprint, his popularity jumped — without him making the kind of concessions a major-label deal sometimes requires.
“We wanted to let him be himself,” Alvi says. “He has really taken advantage of all that Vice has to offer: the TV side, film side and the label.”
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“Sony wanted to sign me. It was one of the most awkward meetings ever,” Bronson recalls. “Vice is more up my alley. They do fun shit that means something. I took a little less money but it worked out in the long run.”
Late last summer, between stops in New Zealand, Australia and Africa with Eminem on his Rapture Tour, Bronson released “Easy Rider,” the first single from Mr. Wonderful. The song’s pulp-fiction-inspired video features Bronson dropping acid, motorcycle-riding through the Southwest, cavorting with a witch doctor and playing electric guitar on a mountaintop. Such idiosyncrasies, including his live performances — where he often flips cartwheels, tosses steak dinners into the crowd and suplexes unruly fans who jump onstage — have made him one of the rap world’s favorite weirdos. “This isn’t the Philharmonic,” he says about his antics. “Not everything is scripted. I keep it loose.”
Bronson is taking the same approach heading into the release of Mr. Wonderful, but also flirting with broadening his scope. Drake’s right-hand man, Noah “40” Shebib, helmed the frenetic, electro-kissed single “Actin’ Crazy.” Hitmaker du jour Mark Ronson stepped behind the boards for two tracks, including “Brand New Car,” and also recruited Bronson to rap on the official remix of the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 “Uptown Funk,” a huge co-sign.
“If it doesn’t connect commercially, that doesn’t bother me,” says Bronson, who, it should be reiterated, is wearing shorts in January. “That was never my goal. I don’t have any pressure on me, because I don’t give a f—.”
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of Billboard.