Back in 2011, I had the opportunity to interview Flushing, Queens rapper Action Bronson for Steve Stoute’s The Tanning of America website. At the time, I was a new fan who couldn’t stop listening to his debut album Dr. Lecter in the whip. So when I got the call to see if I wanted to do a Q&A with him for the site, I was definitely down. Not only did his background as a white rapper from New York City intrigue me for the Tanning series, which focused on race in hip-hop and the music and culture’s overall effect on our country, but there was a significant white rapper boom going on with the success of dudes like Mac Miller, Yelawolf, Machine Gun Kelly, and Asher Roth, and also an Eminem resurgence, so I was curious to find out his perspective on it all and where he thought he fit in. And also, I just thought he was dope, so I wanted to find out about his background and influences and early experiences in the rap game.
What transpired helped lead to Action Bronson becoming my favorite rapper of all time, no exaggeration. I’ve since interviewed him twice more, once for Complex about the making of his project with The Alchemist Rare Chandeliers, and once for NahRight about his 2013 European tour. Each time was a pleasure, and I hope to interview him again in the future. Here’s our first conversation, with intro, which is no longer available on the TOA site. So this is a Westcheddar #TBT exclusive, ya heard?! Enjoy…
Even with the slew of new white rappers on the scene in 2011, Action Bronson has no problem standing out. The 300-pound bald-headed and bearded professional chef turned MC from Flushing, Queens, who is still an unsigned artist, is having a very successful rookie year to say the least. The Albanian-American’s debut album,Dr. Lecter, which is filled with fiery raps and sample-heavy authentic New York production, was received by hip-hop tastemakers with rave reviews. In addition, his live show, where he showcases his stamina and flair for witty humor, caught the attention of The New York Times, and GQ Magazine was intrigued enough by his culinary roots to feature him in a Guide to New York City Dining, highlighting his favorite grub spots in the five boroughs.
After returning home from a recent trip in Los Angeles to work with seasoned rap producer, The Alchemist (they are collaborating on series of upcoming releases), Action Bronson took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his early exposure to hip-hop growing up in Queens, how he forged friendships in high school through writing graffiti, and why he stopped using the N-word when he first started rapping. Plus, he breaks down his culinary background, the diversity at his shows, why he thinks white producers and industry legends gravitate towards him, and the state of the white rapper in 2011.
Interview by Daniel Isenberg
I want to start off by talking about your roots. I know you are Albanian, but are you a first generation American?
Yes. My father is full Albanian, and my mother is a Brooklyn Jew, so I get the best of both worlds. I hate myself, you know?
Yes, I know. I’m Jewish myself.
[Laughs.] Thank you. Tell me about your upbringing in Queens. Did you have a lot of friends with different ethnic backgrounds?
Of course. I live in Flushing, but I live closer to the Jamaica side of Flushing, so my neighborhood is pretty much right across the street from Promenade Project Houses in Queens, which is one of the biggest Project Houses there is. Growing up, I had all kinds of different friends, from every different kind of race that you could imagine. Color was never really an issue or an interest with me. It’s just the person.
Can you remember your first exposure to hip hop? Was it something that all your friends were listening to?
It wasn’t something I found following my friends. I found hip hop myself, to tell you the truth. My cousins put me on back in the day, with like The Box, and just watching them and what they were doing. My cousins would be driving around Astoria bumping the new Mobb Deep, and they always had the newest sneakers and the newest tapes. My family really put me on.
But then, me and my man Troy, we went all out with it. We were addicted. I would just buy any tape in Sam Goody that was rap. All the tapes. Then, in Queens, we would go to a lot of flea markets, and we would get the tapes with the neon cover. Those would have all the ill shit. And right up the block from my crib, they had all the DJ Clue? and Ron G mixtapes.
I know you’re a big Kool G Rap and Cam’ron fan. Were there other rappers early on that you really liked?
We listened to a lot of Beatnuts at that time, in the early days. They’re from Queens, and they were legends around the hood.
Did any specific rappers have an influence on your lifestyle?
I would say just hip hop culture in general influenced me. I can’t really look to one specific person [or group]. Just watching all the old movies, like House Party, and all those types of things were influential.
Were you a big Beastie Boys fan? Eminem?
I gotta be honest with you. Being white, I don’t like other white rappers. I never was a fan of the Beastie Boys, ever. I was a fan of Eminem during his underground era, like in ‘98 and ‘99. But after that, I wasn’t really listening to him. But he’s obviously someone I really respect. He’s made it easier for someone that’s white to be looked at as really nice. He’s a legend. You can never take that away. And he’s still nicer than everybody now.
You’re not only a rapper, you’re a professional chef. Take me back to your first job in the food industry.
I worked at several different places. I went to culinary school, and I worked at my father’s restaurant in Forest Hills for a while. I was there for the majority of my career. I worked at Citi Field for the Mets. I worked at a lot of places. But it all started in the deli section at Key Food on 164th Street and 69th Avenue.
Fast forward to this year, and you had an Action Bronson New York City dining guide published in GQ magazine.
That’s not even the illest one to me. The illest one was in Zagat. I don’t even know how to explain [those]. People catch wind of things. Being a rapper, they’re not expecting you to be a chef as well. I’m a chef that happens to rap. This wasn’t my choosing, it’s just something that happened. I guess it’s my calling at this point.
Those are pretty good looks for an underground rapper from Queens, huh?
Yeah, but I hate being called an underground rapper. Can I just be a regular rapper?
I’m just a regular rapper, I’m not an underground guy. I don’t want to pigeon-hole myself into an underground role.
I can appreciate that.
I guess I am, because not as many people know about [my music], but that’s not my goal.
Do you get upset when people put the “white rapper” stamp on you?
I mean, my skin color is tan. It’s not white. There’s no color lines for me. I don’t even give a fuck, I just look at myself as me. As stupid and simple as that sounds, that’s what it is. I understand the white rapper label is going to be there regardless because of how I look.
But there are a lot of people out there that will come to my defense as say, “Yo, he transcends color.”
You really just started rapping recently, right?
Yeah, I’ve been [recording songs] for like two and a half years.
What was it that made you want to start pursuing a career as a rapper?
My man Meyhem Lauren, my brother that I grew up with, was a rapper for a long time. And I would always go with him to his shows and watch him do it. And he kept going, “Yo, write something. Do it, do it, do it.” So I just did it. This is like four or five years ago.
So I just started writing, like, funny shit. Not even serious, just for fun. Not knowing how to count bars or to make an actual verse. And then, like two or three years ago, I just said, “Fuck it, I love it so much, let me make some music.”
I broke my leg in the kitchen, and I was laid up for two and a half months. And in those two and a half months, I became who I am now. I had my mind set that I was going to get paid off this rap shit, and that I was going to do it full-fledged, whether I was successful or not. And here we are.
Did you have any touchy racial moments when you first started?
Never. But you don’t realize that the rest of the world doesn’t really get where you’re coming from. When I started rapping, I would say the N-word. Because that’s how we talked to each other. That’s how my friends addressed me, so I thought it was okay. And once you put yourself in the public eye, you realize that’s just a death trap. You become that guy. So I stopped using it completely. I took it out of my vocabulary.
I never really had a moment where anyone said anything to me about it. But my man Meyhem Lauren took me to the side as a friend and was like, “You shouldn’t even go there. You’re already white. You’re just going to give them more reasons to try and hate.”
People aren’t going to understand.
Exactly. And I understand that I’m stupid for trying [to use the N-word in my raps]. That’s not me. That’s not what I want to portray in the music anyway. I say a lot of other crazy things, but that’s where I draw the line.
You’ve worked with a lot of white producers. You’ve got the album coming out with Statik Selektah, Well Done, at the end of this month. You’ve done projects with Tommy Mas and J-Love, you were featured heavily on a Peter Rosenberg mixtape, and now you’re working with Alchemist. Is there something comfortable for you about working with white producers? Have you noticed them gravitating towards you because you guys are both white?
You’re the first person that has ever brought that to my attention. But nah, I really doubt that, because they work with some of the thuggest black dudes that you know about. Lil’ Fame and Bumpy Knuckles love Statik. Alchemist, I didn’t even know he was white. I thought he was Spanish or something until I met him.
Yeah, you’d never know he was a white dude who grew up in Beverly Hills by the sound of his beats.
Exactly. But he doesn’t even act like that. That’s just one cool motherfucker right there. He’s not stuck up on any level whatsoever. But I’ve worked with every kind of person that you could even imagine. It’s not about color, it’s about music. It’s about what I hear.
Statik was one of the first people to take interest in me. I didn’t even know his music like that. When we started working, I realized how talented he actually is, and it just elevated from there. Alchemist I know because of that Queens shit. He’s made some of my favorite music ever. That was an honor for him to want to work with me.
What are you guys working on?
I was just out there, and actually just came back to New York today. We finished an album with twelve, thirteen songs. I’ll probably go back out there towards the end of the year and do another ten or twelve, and get this series together.
Did you enjoy collaborating with him?
Yeah, he’s the man. I love him. He’s a great guy.
Do you think white producers like Alchemist and Statik Selektah, who are affiliated with black rap artists, helped open up the door for a rapper like you?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t look at it like that. I think everyone makes their own lane. Of course, there’s gotta be people to innovate and be the first. But at the end of the day, I think skill, and attitude, and actually just being in the right places at the right time and knowing the right people is what makes you. You could be the nicest motherfucker, and you could be white, and no one could hear you because you’re not nowhere. You’re not on the scene, you’re not pushing yourself to where you think you need to be.
I didn’t know about putting music out on the Internet until this year. I got put on this year. Last time I had a computer was AOL 3.0. And I tell this to everybody. I just got a computer this year, and last time I remember music on the Internet was Napster. Straight up, no bullshit. Now, it’s a world. You can make a full career off the Internet. You don’t have to ever sign a contract with anybody. You can just do it yourself. That’s pretty much what made me. I put all my shit out there, and motherfuckers liked it, and it steamrolled from there.
How’d you link up with your manager Dante Ross? He’s a legendary white guy in the music industry.
Yeah, he’s another white guy [who reached out to me]. I don’t know what’s going on, man.
That’s what I’m curious about. Maybe it’s not you, but them.
Obviously, I would say [me being white is a reason they want to work with me]. That’s for sure. It’s like an anomaly. It’s something mysterious. Like, “This fucking white guy raps like that? Whoa.”
Here you are, this white guy who raps just as dope as the black rappers they’ve been working with, so they are intrigued.
Yeah. I’m just gonna say this, though. There’s only two types of music: good music and bad music. You could be a turban-wearing Arabian. I don’t give a shit. If you’re spitting some shit that I can relate to and I can fuck with it, then I fuck with you. Peep this: I love Das Racist. And they’re Indian dudes. And those are my people. I fuck with them.
Yeah, Das Racist is dope. Getting back to Dante Ross, how has he helped you since he became your manager navigate through the music industry?
We’ve been working together for four or five months at the most at this point. He’s doing his thing, managing, and connecting dots. I had a lot of things on the table I couldn’t handle anymore, you know, email wise. I’m not really that computer savvy, and I’m also a little bit lazy, so I just won’t check for it, or just go continue with life.
You need support when a lot of people are checking for you.
Exactly. It’s overwhelming at times. So, I just pass people off to him. I never had a manager, so I never knew how a manager acts. It’s a learning curve right now. But we’re pretty comfortable with each other, and we work well together. He is legendary. But I’m not gonna front, he knows I had no idea who he was when I first met him. Some people get offended by that shit, but you can’t because you don’t know how my life was.
He’s a guy that unless you were reading liner notes, you might not know about him.
Exactly. And I wasn’t reading no motherfuckin’ liner notes.
There are a lot of new white rappers popping in 2011, from Yelawolf to Mac Miller to Machine Gun Kelly. Is there no longer a concern about what color people are in hip hop?
I think the music has totally transformed now. It doesn’t matter who does it. Things catch on, and people like it. The white shit doesn’t matter. Yelawolf is very talented. People who come from where he comes from relate to it. It’s just like people who come from where I come from relate to me. Everyone is reppin’ where there from. It doesn’t have to be a specific type of person any more. Does any music have color lines any more? One of the best salsa pianists, [Larry Harlow], is a Jew, you feel me?
When you do shows, do you notice who’s out there in the crowd?
There’s definitely a mix of everything. Older dudes, younger dudes, younger girls. It’s definitely a mix. It’s weird to me who listens to the music. I’ve had 65 year old TV producers coming to the shows. It’s crazy at this point.
Does it vary if you go out of New York to certain places? Have you been in spots where you’re in front of an all black or all white crowd?
Of course. But they always react in one specific way: with fuckin’ cheers and joy.
[Laughs.] Right, right.
I’m also 300 pounds, but in my live show you would never be able to realize that. I don’t rap over any tracks [with vocals on them], I just rap over the beat, and it sounds like the song. And I take pride in that. If you’re going to pay to come to the show, you’re going to get real shit, not bullshit.
What kind of music outside of rap do you listen to?
I love oldies, like real oldies. I love salsa and Spanish music, and just Latin music in general. I listen to a lot of jazz. I also like listening to sports talk radio. I get sick of music sometimes, and I gotta just listen to some guys talk about sports.
How heated are you about the lockout now that the Knicks are back in playoff form?
I’m disgusted with basketball right now, man. The Knicks finally have a decent team, and we’re getting shit on over here. It’s rich people getting mad at other rich people and fighting over crumbs. It’s disgusting. At least I got my Jets playing right now.
Outside of sports and cooking, what else are you into that maybe the stereotypical rapper might not be interested in?
I’m into sharks, and marine life.
Is that connected to your love of eating fish?
Of course. I like studying animals that I consume.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about you when you tell them you’re a rapper?
I don’t really tell people that I’m a rapper. If you know, you know. I don’t know what people think, I can’t even call it. I know what I would think. I’d be like, “Are you fuckin’ stupid? What are you doing right now? Go chop wood or something.”
But you’ve had a successful year. Are you finding that you’re going to be able to make a nice living as a rapper?
Are you surprised by your success?
I’m surprised in a sense, but now I feel there should be more [success]. And this is all fairly new. This is without any label. This is just me by myself. This is without anybody pushing anything. All this is off the strength of me. That’s what I’m the most proud of, because it’s not made up. It’s real love.
I must say, you pick great beats. How involved are you in that process?
I only rhyme over shit that I like. I don’t rhyme over bullshit. Whether it be a down south beat, or some raw New York hip hop that I know about, it’s going to be quality. But I’m definitely hand to hand with the way I want shit to sound.
You love trees.
Tell me how you’ve seen weed in your life bring people of different cultures together.
I can attribute many relationships to two things: weed and graffiti. If I didn’t do graffiti, I wouldn’t know a lot of people. If I didn’t smoke weed, I wouldn’t know a lot of people. Those two things forged a lot of relationships in high school. Smoking weed makes you chill with people you normally wouldn’t, and then you become cool. But then you become friends, and you learn shit about each other’s lives, and this and that.
You were into bombing, huh?
I wouldn’t know most of the friends I have now if it weren’t for graffiti. Smart Crew. We were bombing all the time. But I don’t have time for that shit now. I still love it though. I still look at who’s up, and I know all about it.
There’s a lot of white rappers still on the scene now. We mentioned Yelawolf and Mac Miller and Machine Gun Kelly, and Eminem who is still making noise. Plus, there’s Asher Roth, who I know you’re cool with. I saw you make a cameo in his latest video.
That’s my man. That’s a nice dude right there. I don’t care what anyone thinks about his music, that’s a nice fuckin’ kid.
Yeah, he’s a good guy. What do you say to the people that are trying to put all you guys in a box?
All you have to do is literally listen to my music. And do a little research. Don’t just look at the cover, you have to open up the book and read the pages. Don’t just peep the way we look, go check the music out, blindly. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, go ahead and move on with your life. No one is forcing you to listen to it.
Did you shut a lot of people up when you did the collaboration with Ghostface Killah, “Meteor Hammer?” I know people were giving you a hard time, saying you sound like him.
Of course. Everyone knows that I love Ghostface and Wu-Tang and all that old school Kool G. Rap and Mobb Deep, but I am me. I can only be one person, and that’s me. I don’t play those games. Nothing is fraudulent, and nothing is unoriginal. Nothing was ever stolen or plagiarized in my entire life, in any aspect of my life, [including] my music.
So what’s the future for Action Bronson? I’ve heard you mention that you want to own your own restaurant.
That’s kind of generic. I’m just bullshitting. Yeah, of course, but I don’t want a restaurant with my name on it like Mickey Mantle’s. It wouldn’t be my name, like Action Bronson’s. It would be some quaint shit you didn’t know I owned. It would be some next level shit.
What about in terms of your career in rap?
To be honest, I don’t know what’s in store for me. I want it to be where I’m able to live. I don’t know if I want to be like Eminem, or if I could be like him. I want to be able to walk down the street, and still be able not get bombarded or punch someone in the face if they’re coming too close. Fans get excited when they see people, and they get a little over the top sometimes. I want to be popular, but secretly.