The legend. That's what old-timey spies called it—your backstory, who you are, what you're all about. For a rapper, the legend is everything: a character to play, a fantastically embellished protagonist to spin yarns about and, finally, to grow into. And no one has more fun spinning those yarns and growing into his own legend than Action Bronson.
Born Ariyan Arslani in 1983 to an Albanian Muslim father and a Jewish hippie mother, Bronson is to Flushing, Queens, what Falstaff is to London: a wild, hedonistic hero and comically boastful mascot. Weaned on Wu-Tang and weed in the heyday of hip-hop, Bronson developed an early appetite for havoc, regularly running the streets as a tagger and, later, a thief and drug dealer. Growing up around his father's Mediterranean restaurant, he developed a taste for good food and a facility with its creation. After a bout of recklessness had him flirting with a first offense at 19, Bronson decided to make some changes. He enrolled in culinary school, started to rap, had two children, and began growing into the majestically bearded, Mario Batali-bellied thrill seeker to match the moniker he'd given himself—all action adventure like Charles Bronson.
In very quick succession, his first albums, Dr. Lecter and Well-Done, both released in 2011, and then his triumphant mixtape Blue Chips in 2012, established his rhyming bona fides and laid out Bronson's lexicon in vivid colors: a libidinous love of luxury, obsessive consumption of fine foods, and so much marijuana that ... Wait, what were we talking about? Last year, Bronson expanded on the brand, launching a travel-eating show on Vice's Munchies called Fuck, That's Delicious, which features a whole lot of Bronson going around eating things and saying, in effect, "Fuck, that's delicious." That it is also terrific is a testament to the fun that Bronson is having being Bronson, and the fun that that transmits to everyone around him.
Because, just as it is for a spy, if a legend reads false for a rapper, it's pretty much curtains. And, as Bronson tells his number-one fan, actor Jonah Hill, he's just trying to get in tune with his own tuning fork. Wait, did someone say fork?
ACTION BRONSON: Yo, what up, baby?
JONAH HILL: Bronsonmania, what's going on?
BRONSON: Flawless from the neck up. Underneath that, I'm a little chunky.
HILL: So, three or four years ago, my buddy Dave Appleton, who is up on all hip-hop stuff before anyone knows about it, hips me to Bronson. This was before Fuck, That's Delicious. He showed me some kind of YouTube show of you cooking with this very hip-hop dialect and extreme knowledge of the culinary arts. [Bronson laughs] I was already in, and then he started playing your music, and I was ... It was all I listened to for, like, three months straight. There's a lot one can say about you to someone who has no knowledge of you: born in Queens; Albanian; former chef. And that's how I pitch you to people who are stupid and don't know who you are. But then I go, "You got to see him to believe him." My work as a fan has been to just share the gospel with as many people as I could.
BRONSON: That's fucking incredible right there. That's quite an introduction.
HILL: I'm constantly trying to get you cast in movies. And I have to explain to these older white directors who you are. It's been a hilarious process so far.
BRONSON: Let's go. You know I'm ready.
HILL: What are you doing today?
BRONSON: I'm trying to get this home setup going on. I just got the studio. We went to buy a whole bunch of shit yesterday, set up the Pro Tools, to have me recording in the house in my underwear if I want ... naked if I want. [Hill laughs] I can't keep relying on people to do this shit for me, so I got to learn it. And there's no better time than now. I just finished having some Israeli food. It was incredible—some whole-wheat couscous type of deal with lentils and some grilled chicken breast. I'm trying to eat a little bit cleaner nowadays.
HILL: Did you make it yourself?
BRONSON: Nah, I ordered it from this nice place by my house in Flushing. Israeli is a delicious flavor of the Mediterranean that I've been lacking in my life.
HILL: [laughs] You felt an absence in the Mediterranean lifestyle?
BRONSON: It's such a relaxing lifestyle: all white everything, little light shorts, the lightest of fabric, you know what I mean?
HILL: A lot of your imagery feels like a 70-year-old wise guy going back to Europe, possibly on an escape or to just enjoy the finer parts of the summer.
BRONSON: Honestly, it's like I'm a big kid doing all these adult things and having an incredible time. My mind is so imaginative and expansive; I can't really explain it. It's like the cloud. Somehow these things happen. You don't know why, but it does.
HILL: When we first met through David, you picked us up in New York City, where I live, and you took us on a tour of Flushing. And I was immediately so taken by you. One of the things I love is that you picked us up in a 1990s gold ... How would you describe it? Like, a hatchback? A station wagon?
BRONSON: It's a Touring wagon—a BMW Touring wagon. That's my baby. I have it tatted on my fucking arm. It's the first thing I purchased with rap money. That's why it's so important to me.
HILL: [laughs] And you're building a fleet of them.
BRONSON: I sure am. I mean, I have nothing—I have children that I take care of, and I have some things set aside for them—but the rest of it, I'm bored. I don't really buy clothes or shit like that. Motherfuckers will spend ten grand on a pair of tight jeans. I can't do that. I'd rather buy a Beemer for four, put six grand into it, and it's like a brand new car; motherfuckers loving it.
HILL: May I suggest an album cover, or at least a photo shoot of you in front of your fleet?
BRONSON: Oh, absolutely. BMW wants to do a thing, and I'm going to try to go over to Germany and get on the Autobahn with one of these fucking machines that they make, see if I fit in the new i8.
HILL: I remember I was probably 23 when Ed Norton interviewed me for Interview—and he's one of my favorite actors and a friend of mine—but I was terrified because he's done so many great movies, and he's older than me. And as an actor—until you start writing and directing stuff—if you're doing good work, you're really lucky to be in the hands of the people you're working with. But as an MC, choosing the beats, designing your record, it's really coming from who you are. I can give everything I can to a film, but at the end of the day, if I'm not directing it, I'm just putting in a piece of the puzzle. And so for me to watch how you've grown, from "Barry Horowitz" and "Buddy Guy" [from Dr. Lecter], which are my two favorites—and actually, when I was making Wolf of Wall Street, those were two of the songs that I listened to every day to get into character ...
BRONSON: Oh, man.
HILL: And I followed everything: the Blue Chips tapes, everything. And I think people want to label something as something else they've already heard, so they go, "Oh, he sounds like Ghostface."
HILL: That's so stupid because it's like, "Clearly, he likes Ghostface-Wu-Tang is probably the greatest rap group of all time." And it's been beautiful to watch you embracing your own eccentricities and your own individuality on the new album. And the music is getting better because of it.
BRONSON: Honestly, it takes a lot to fucking sit there and write all this shit. It's almost impossible to be a carbon copy of somebody, to have that much information just going through your mind constantly. But it's like Coke and Pepsi—everyone's going to label something. You have a choice; you don't have to listen to me, you know what I mean?
HILL: No. [laughs]
BRONSON: I've been rapping since I've been on the internet. My first couple of songs are on there, with a video from when I was younger. So I've kind of grown up in front of people. They can trace back, and I think people are very excited about where I am now. And, honestly, the type of artist that I am now is exactly what you say: I'm growing into myself. I don't really have outside influence from the game. I want to be totally different. I am totally different from everybody else already, so I just have to be myself. You can't follow the pack in this type of game. People write roles for you, for actors and stuff like that, but if someone found out someone was writing my raps, it'd be like the fucking end of the world. I'm just starting to get in the groove of things. I haven't totally hit my stride yet, so there's a lot more to come. I can sit in the big living room right here on a nice fucking leather couch from Jennifer Convertibles, and just get to do what I got to do. [laughs]
HILL: I hit you up after I heard "Easy Rider." I was like, "This is a new leaf turned." You're not holding anything back. And sometimes people not holding anything back isn't good. [laughs] But I hear this and go, "Okay. Fuck yes. This is Action."
BRONSON: I made some decisions a while back. I had to be my own man. I worked with my father [as a cook at his restaurant] for a long time. I acted real immature. And when I broke my leg, I just felt like, after that, I was just going to go fucking balls to the wall with everything that I did. I was going to make decisions and stick with them, and they just turned out to be right. When you take responsibility for your life, good things start happening.
HILL: Well, when you're just yourself and you're eccentric ... I told your manager, "You walk Action into a room, people don't see some TV actor or some shit—it's like he's already a star. There's shimmery, shiny stardust emanating from him."
BRONSON: I'm like a diamond in the rough, man.
HILL: I just see the value, the rarities of people.
BRONSON: It's some rare shit, man, because I'm not your typical looking person.
HILL: [laughs] It's not that.
BRONSON: I appreciate it. Some people don't get it.
HILL: Obviously, we can't really talk about your career without the Blue Chips mixtapes, which are required listening. And then I heard Saaab Stories , and I love "Alligator," but I wasn't sure if it was actually capturing as a whole what I loved about you.
BRONSON: Well, that's exactly why that same year I put out Blue Chips 2 because I felt like I did not display my rhyming to the best of my ability on that. Even though the songs were connecting more, I wasn't satisfied. And with Blue Chips, I'm totally satisfied. I get to shine and do exactly as I feel, and I can't stop, won't stop ...
HILL: Right, it wasn't disrespect to the music because there's songs on the album that ...
BRONSON: Oh, never. We're on the same fucking page. I totally know what you mean. I've been saying this since it came out. That project is good, but I wasn't in the right headspace. I was a little bit combative to tell you the truth. I was a little bit hardheaded, so I might have not let that go to the best of its potential, and it was the decision that I had to live with.
HILL: The movies I've done that have felt big to me, the ones where people have a lot of pressure behind them or are telling me, "This is how it has to be done ..." while I'm doing it, I have that pit in my stomach knowing that it's not going to be my most elevated stuff.
BRONSON: It's the same shit for me. Exactly.
HILL: And so the lesson you take away is that when you're feeling forced and you're feeling this is for other people, then it's not going to end up like those other projects.
BRONSON: One hundred percent. I live by that. If you don't like it, no one else is going to like it. If you're really into it, and you're feeling good about things, you have space to create, let your mind flow, let things happen naturally when they want to happen—not with someone telling you to do it, and then you try too hard, and then you fuck up. Nothing good ever comes from that type of shit. That's why I took a little bit longer to do this record, because I had to work at my own pace and do what I wanted to do. I'll never get out of my zone again with music. I was in a bad fucking mind frame, snapped out of it—boom, boom, boom, we're here now. I learned my lesson.
HILL: I know I've had to go through experiences where I felt less in control or more pushed around by people, and then, as painful as any of those moments might have been, the shit that gets done after—out of the anger and lessons learned from those—ends up being the shit that you're most proud of.
BRONSON: Absolutely. I ended up putting out fucking incredible work after that, man. With this new shit, man, it's a fucking musical. I'm going to make a fucking Broadway play out of it, on Broadway, where Cats was, the Winter Garden Theatre; I'm taking over.
HILL: You should do your album release party at Katz's.
BRONSON: [laughs] That would be fucking ridiculous.
HILL: Dude, I'm not going to bring up the body-slamming shit. I'm sure you have to talk about it in every interview, but to me, just as a fan, I love it. I just think it's amazing. It just adds to the mystique of Bronsonmania: When fools would come up on the stage, you body slam them.
BRONSON: Man, listen. This is what happens, I have to protect myself. A lot of these little fucking towns, the security guards are, like, half my fucking size. I'm like 5'8", 5'9" on my best day in Timberlands. And these dudes are smaller than me; they're not doing shit, and kids get wild. They see one motherfucker do it, they get slammed violently, and it keeps on happening. They just want to be on World Star, or they just want to say, "Oh, Bronson slammed me!"
HILL: [laughs] There's some '80s wrestling element to it.
BRONSON: It's a live show. My live show is based upon ECW [Extreme Championship Wrestling]. I always say that because the wrestlers used to go in the crowd and wrestle in the crowd, and it would get crazy. You might get hit with a chair, you might get a little blood on you. It was just fucking fun. I want people to have a good time. I want people to be able to touch me. I'm understanding now that I'm not going to be able to do that at every venue, but I've done it in Africa, with 55,000 people. I've done it in Australia, New Zealand—every country I've been in, I've been in the crowd. I don't give a damn. But you know how it goes these days, man. What if I really fucking hurt somebody? Whose fault is it at that point? I'm not really sure, because I'm not going at them—they're coming on to my stage. I'm paid to perform there, so I'm working there. There's got to be some kind of workman's compensation when I do something to somebody that's trying to invade the work area. It almost went wrong really badly in Europe. Some kid jumped on stage, we threw him, and he flipped over. Who knows what the fuck happened. It's not a good idea to do that. It puts me in crazy fucking jeopardy. You know about Dimebag Darrell [a founding member of Pantera who was killed on stage by a gunman]. Come on, man. I don't want to get fucking Dimebag Darrell-ed. Let's just knock on fucking wood, man, because I'm about to go on this goddamn world tour. Let's hope that things go well.
HILL: I wonder how many people get your humor. You walk this really brilliant and delicate balance of being kind of like a street scumbag while being brilliantly funny and imaginative.
BRONSON: [laughs] I think that's what I was going for.
HILL: A lot of your shit has to do with luxury, like somersaults out of a helicopter.
BRONSON: [laughs] Crazy gymnastics. Unheard of gymnastic moves!
HILL: Just the idea of you being dropped from a helicopter doing somersaults and landing on a lift with skis going down a mountain; it's so luxurious.
BRONSON: The thought of it is ridiculous.
HILL: It's absurd, absurd luxury. For you, a larger man in a velour ski suit doing a somersault out of a helicopter dropping you off down a ski mountain into a split ...
BRONSON: Doesn't that sound incredible? I always watched, like, Rambo and crazy action movies, and I always wanted to be them. I wanted to be Steven Seagal and [Jean-Claude] Van Damme. Just recently I was watching Van Damme, trying to practice doing splits. How did he do that?
HILL: [laughs] Like, owning an alligator for a pet.
BRONSON: That's luxurious right there. I made a little bit of money, but not that much. I'm still in Queens. If I got an alligator, that shit is staying in the tub. [laughs] That's where it lives.
HILL: You're the Van Damme of Queens, man.
BRONSON: Yeah, the Van Damme, van Gogh of Queens. I'm a mix of Van Damme and van Gogh; that's going in the next rhyme. Oh, man. There's something wrong with me.
HILL: No! My point, my whole message that I wanted to express to you is that it's so easy to be influenced by the people you adore and who made you do what you want to do, and then there's that moment when you get to have the confidence to be your own artist. And I really see you heading there and it's so inspiring to watch.
BRONSON: Thank you, my brother. I really appreciate those words, man. That hit me right in the heart, right there. Ain't no stopping over here.
HILL: Yeah, dude. I told you, I went on a magical quest in the desert, and all I brought with me was "Easy Rider." [laughs]
BRONSON: Man, that right there is a spiritual moment, I'm not going to lie. When I would drive around and have moments ... You know a song is good when you drive over the bridge, and you're looking at the city, and the shit sounds ill, like, "Oh, hell yeah, it's like a video." That's how you know a song is good. And I had several moments with "Easy Rider." The craziest part about "Easy Rider" is that we took a fucking song off YouTube, made a new song out of it, put it back on YouTube, then got millions of views. That's a crazy thing.
HILL: Wow. It was a beat?
BRONSON: The beat, the rhythm. We sampled it, made it into a new song, put it right back on motherfucking YouTube, got millions of views, and generated money out of it, which is a crazy thing.
HILL: I want another trip to Flushing.
BRONSON: We over here! Let's do it.
JONAH HILL IS AN OSCAR-NOMINATED ACTOR. HE CAN BE SEEN IN TRUE STORY AND THE UPCOMING HAIL, CAESAR! AND SAUSAGE PARTY.