The Most Honest Liar in Rap

In “Swagga Like Us,”1 Lil’ Wayne boasts “when it comes to styles, I’ve got several.” When it comes to nicknames, Aryian Arslani conservatively has several dozen.The Queens native raps under the name Action Bronson, but also goes by Bam Bam, Bronsolino, Mr. Baklava, the Flushing Grizzly, Ill Prosciutto, the Rap Dennis the Menace, and Mr. Wonderful, among other aliases. Superficially, those nicknames are completely random, as their references range from a Middle Eastern dessert to a classic cartoon, but they provide an entryway into Arslani’s life and the unique perspectives he brings to rap, which are as distinctive as his 5’7”, 273 pound frame, and his massive beard. And in a musical genre that prizes originality and authenticity while commercially rewarding cookie-cutter lyrics about women, drugs, and wealth, it’s frankly refreshing.

Arslani grew up in Flushing, Queens, one of New York’s most diverse neighborhoods. His father was an Albanian immigrant; he describes his mother as a “hippy, white woman…Jewish from Brooklyn.”2 He grew up surrounded by family, played both high school football and baseball, and, for the most part, had a comfortable 1980s childhood.  In fact, he even earned one of his many nicknames—Mr. Wondeful—after his mother observed that young Aryian never stopped smiling, even when misbehaving.3 After graduating from Bayside High School, he worked professionally as a chef, spending even cooking for the New York Mets, before a broken leg forced him out of the kitchen.4 While on bed rest, he indulged his rapping hobby; before long, his first mixtape, “Dr. Lector” hit the Internet.

With that background in mind, it makes sense that Arslani’s music is on the lighter side of the thematic spectrum. His parents were not Black Panthers like Tupac’s; he did not grow up without his father and go to jail for selling drugs like Biggie. Instead, he was a chubby first-generation American trying to define himself. And like many young Americans, he turned to pop culture.

While he did graffiti as a teenager under the tag “Action,” which in itself recalls both Action Jackson—a 1988 movie staring Carl Weathers as a renegade Detroit detective who is “no talk and all action”5—and a film genre rife with excessive masculinity, Arslani felt that his alias needed an extra push when he began rapping. He selected “Bronson” out of respect for Charles Bronson, who was known for playing gruff gun slingers and police officers in the ’80s.6

Many of his lyrics mimic this emulation of dramatic—almost cheesy—bravado. While all rap features some form of braggadocio, Arslani’s rarely raps purely about the amounts of drugs he has sold or women he has slept with. Those themes are apparent, but pale in comparison to the lyrical descriptions of Bronson’s “stunts,” which allow him to discuss the conventions of his genre without relying on the traditional “pimps and hoes” tropes.

Take the mixtape “Rare Chandeliers” for example. Not only does the cover depict Arslani in a tuxedo, wearing a wolf skin headdress and firing a shotgun, surrounded by scenes of wizards, nude women, car chases, alligators, and fist fights,7 but the title track boasts that after Bronson stabs his enemy, he will “backflip off the ledge, hang glide off the roof [and] land on one leg…holding a pump gage [shotgun.]”8On “The Symbol” he not only claims to be able to “Triple Lindy out the Jeep,” like Rodney Dangerfield did in the 1986 film Back to School, but can one up the movie star by “[landing] in a split [and getting] up in a spin.”9 The message is clear but serves two purposes: Arslani is establishinghis masculine potency,but also transcending rap’s traditional hyper-masculinity with an almost satirical flourish.

He also makes heavy use of wrestling imagery, again speaking to his 1980’s youth. Not only do his many nicknames, like Bam Bam, referring to the similarly-shaped Bam Bam Bigelow, harken back to the height of the WWF—what was a wrestler without a cool nickname, outlandish persona, and dramatic introduction—but he concretely links his masculinity to theirs. In “Tan Leather,” for example, Bronson explains that he is so handsome he is “about to be up on the screen like Ted Danson, [wearing a] suede loincloth [that] never falls off, [in the style of the wrestler] Mr. Wonderful, Paul Orndorf.”10 In one line, he checks all of the boxes that a conventional rap boast requires—he is attractive, successful, and calls attention to his crotch—without beating the listener over the head with clichéd images of violence.

The final area within Arslani’s comfort zone is the least conventional and the most personal: food. Before he became Bronson and took to the stage, Arslani was a professional chef in New York City, a job that uniquely toes the line between masculine and feminine.

On one hand, cooking, especially in Albanian culture, is a stereotypically female domain: “you’re not allowed to touch shit in an Albanian woman’s kitchen…a man cooking is unheard of,” he explains on an episode of “Fuck, That’s Delicious,” an over-the-top web series in which Bronson travels to exotic locales to sample the local cuisine. 11 But, at the same time, professional kitchens are a domain of physical endurance, sharp blades, and fire; chef-author Anthony Bourdain infamously compared the atmosphere to a “pirate ship,” where is not only a “leader of cooks, [but] a wrangler of psychopaths.”12

Arslani still wears his potent culinary knowledge as a badge of honor; in a genre that favors machismo, he asserts his masculinity by brandishing his unabashed love of cooking for all to see. While some might say it is ‘soft’ to rhyme about antipasti and drizzling chocolate sauce over roasted rabbit, Arslani uses it to show just has far he has come in life. Some rappers define ‘making it’ as rising from a poor childhood to having “50-inch screen, money green leather sofa…two rides, a limousine with a chauffer,”13 Bronson’s rags to riches story is different. As a middle class white kid from Queens, his transition was from, “[his dad saying he] was a strange, fuck / Now every meal is calamari and boudin blanc.”14 It’s the traditional rags to riches story that every rapper tells, but examined through a fresh—and honest—lens.

Even on stage Arslani is not that far removed from his ’80s childhood. On the opening night of his “Blue Chips 2” tour, where Bronson was performing the songs from his latest mixtape (which gets its title from none other than a ’80s sports movie), he seemed like a massive teenager, the class clown performing at his high school’s talent show. After sauntering onto the stage shouting the apropos “Let me begin baby, my name is Bronsolino,” he bounced back and forth, slapping hands with the crowd with a fervor that only his words could match.

Keep in mind, once again, that this is a nearly 300 pound man, who has literally thrown fans off of the stageat earlier concerts.15 This show carried a lighter tone, though, as it was Arslani’s homecoming, his first major show in New York City. Not only were his interactions with fans friendly, if unusual—he vanished from stage for nearly five minutes, before reappearing with the explanation that he was trying to reach the bar in the back of the auditorium but was slowed down taking pictures with every fan who asked—but his guest of honor was high above the general admission crowd.

“This is a big night,” he bellowed in between songs and lewd jokes. “My mother, the woman who created me, is seeing me perform for the first time. The first time! I love you.” And of course, in he could not resist irreverently adding, “If you didn’t fuck my father, I wouldn’t be here.” He would later reappear on the balcony and performed a verse of “Man in the Mirror” with her under his massive arm16 It was a touching show of emotion, especially given its setting at a rap concert. But amid the surging testosterone of the room, Bronson was still confident enough to rap alongside his mother instead of scantily clad women.

“You need to stick to what you are all about and that is what I do,” Arslani once explained.“I am just here to have fun.”17 The latter half of that quote is especially significant, given rap’s thematic affinity for serious and violent lyrics. While it would be naïve to pretend that Arslani does not rap about prostitutes and his sex life, he asserts that those who claim he is a misogynistic rapper are completely off base. “I respect and love women totally,” he explained. “Sometimes I use words that aren’t pleasant, but I’m talking about a certain type of person.”18

It is easy to write Action Bronson off as somewhat of a joke: after all, he is a former chef who looks nothing like a traditional rapper—he even refers to himself as a “white man excelling in a Black sport.”19But that would miss the significance of his music.

Amid pro-wrestling references, outlandish jokes, and rhymes about Italian cheese, Arslani is using his unique perspectives to find his place in the pop culture world that shaped him. While he tips his hat to traditional rap, his work is uniquely his and takes the listener through Arslani’s own life, where things are done for pure enjoyment rather than to project up a gangster facade. Rap prizes authenticity and Arslani fulfills all the genre’s clichés by speaking to what is personal to him, be it action movies or culinary culture.

“It’s not like I’m Eminem or Michael Jackson status. I ain’t shit, man. I’m just another motherfucker trying to get it. I hope people look at me as more than that, but I’m a humble dude,” Arslani once told Rolling Stone. “Everyone wants to be a Martian or a robot, but at the end of the day, I’m a regular dude, a normal person.”20

And in a way, that quality of normalcy and honesty is what makes him stand out for the better in the rap.

  1. Jay-Z and T.I., Feat. Kanye West and Lil Wayne. “Swagga Like Us” Kanye West, 2008. MP3.
  2. Arslani, Aryian. “Action Bronson.” XXL. N.p., 05 Apr. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.<http://www.xxlmag.com/2013-freshmen/action-bronson/>
  3. Arslani, Aryian. “Action Bronson Titled ‘Mr. Wonderful’ After A Nickname His Mom Gave Him.” Interview by Eric Diep. XXL. N.p., 02 June 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2014/06/action-bronson-interview-roots-picnic/>.
  4. “Action Bronson Talks Being A Father, His Bionic Leg And Freestyles!!”YouTube. YouTube, 7 Aug. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5nCDBwOrog>.
  5. “Action Jackson (Theatrical Trailer).” YouTube. YouTube, 3 Feb. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AvMn2Vh0fQ>.
  6. Susman, Nathan. “The Stories Behind 15 Rappers’ Rap Names – Action Bronson.” Complex. N.p., 27 June 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://www.complex.com/music/2013/06/the-stories-behind-15-rappers-rap-names/action-bronson>.
  7. “Rare Chandeliers.” Wikipedia. N.p., 20 Jan. 2013. Web. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare_Chandeliers#mediaviewer/File:Action_Bronson_Rare_Chandeliers.jpg>.
  8. “Action Bronson – Rare Chandeliers.” Rap Genius. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://rap.genius.com/Action-bronson-rare-chandeliers-lyrics#note-1695580>.
  9. “Action Bronson – The Symbol.” Rap Genius. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://rap.genius.com/Action-bronson-the-symbol-lyrics#note-1178431>.
  10. “Action Bronson – Tan Leather.” Rap Genius. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://genius.com/Action-bronson-tan-leather-lyrics>.
  11. “Baklava, Pizza, and Hand Tattoos: Fuck, That’s Delicious (Episode 4).”YouTube. YouTube, 3 Sept. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AASA_3Bz_z0>.
  12. Bourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 247. Print.
  13. Notorious B. I. G. Juicy. Poke of Trakmasters, 1994. CD.
  14. Pipenberg, Dan. “All the Food References in Action Bronson’s Mixtape, “Blue Chips 2″ – Bon Appétit.” Bon Appetit. N.p., 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://www.bonappetit.com/entertaining-style/pop-culture/article/action-bronson-food-references>.
  15. Weinstein, Max. “Action Bronson Launches Fans Off Stage (Video) | Vibe.” Vibe Action Bronson Launches Fans Off Stage Video Comments. N.p., 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://www.vibe.com/article/action-bronson-launches-fans-stage-video>.
  16. Rosenthal, Jeff. “Live Review: Action Bronson Makes His Mother Proud In NYC.” Complex. N.p., 11 Jan. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://www.complex.com/music/2014/01/action-bronson-concert-review>.
  17. Tobias, Jonathan. 2011. “DXnext: Action Bronson.” HipHopDX RSS. May 26. http://www.hiphopdx.com/index/dxnext/id.204/title.dxnext-action-bronson.
  18. Wiess, Jeff. “Action Bronson on ‘Blue Chips 2,’ Smoking Wax and His Perfect Woman.” Rolling Stone. N.p., 01 Nov. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/action-bronson-on-blue-chips-2-smoking-wax-and-his-perfect-woman-20131101>.
  19. “Genius Annotation of.” Rap Genius. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://rap.genius.com/1574886/Action-bronson-contemporary-man/Just-a-white-man-excelling-in-a-black-sport-like-im-pistol-pete>.
  20. Wiess, Jeff. “Action Bronson on ‘Blue Chips 2,’ Smoking Wax and His Perfect Woman.” Rolling Stone. N.p., 01 Nov. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/action-bronson-on-blue-chips-2-smoking-wax-and-his-perfect-woman-20131101>.