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Action Bronson Is My Grandfather

Meet the genius Jewish rapper from Queens who isn’t up for a Grammy, but should be, and will be

Jeff Weiss
February 08, 2013
Vice Records
Action BronsonVice Records
Vice Records
Action BronsonVice Records

Action Bronson is a 29-year-old chef-turned-rapper of Albanian and Jewish extraction from Queens, who is internationally known for his love of THC, epicurean feasts, and whip gymnastics.

He reminds me of my grandfather.

My tough Jewish grandfather died four years ago at 88. He worked in the garment industry, stayed unhappily married, and unsuccessfully faithful for a half century. He never listened to a complete rap song in his life—even though his early adult years were spent in Hollis, Queens, cradle of Run-DMC. Andrew Weiss preferred jazz and swing. He attended innumerable shows at the Savoy and Apollo, bequeathing several thousand CDs that still sit adjacent to my desk, waiting to be uploaded: Duke Ellington, Studio Sessions, 1957-62, Miles and Quincy Live at Montreaux, Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio, and others.

Anecdotes about my grandfather that suggest that, as Action Bronson put it in a lyric, he “was wild since the Rabbi snipped it”:

♦ On the occasion of his 80th birthday party, my recently widowed grandpa brought a black 50-year old woman named Janice to the Pico Blvd. branch of Delmonico’s. She was a church-going woman in a floral-print dress and pearl necklace. Everything was all good until my uncle congratulated him on hitting “the big 8-0,” and my grandfather suddenly scowled and whispered, “Shh … she thinks I’m 65.”

♦ At 83, he was rushed to the hospital after suffering a very minor stroke. His first words to the nurse upon regaining consciousness were: “Hey baby, can you get me a little grass?”

♦ His long-term advice to me was “marry” a rich woman. “The first thing we got to do is stretch out your tongue.” I was 11.

♦ When asked what he did during World War II, he responded, “Try not to get shot and try not to get the clap. One out of two ain’t bad.”

Grandpa was raw. Howard Stern raw. Action Bronson raw.

Bronson represents the off-grid New York that you would think had disappeared if you only went no further south or east than the Barclays Center—the cab drivers rambling at micro-machine speed, the freaks and fishmongers of Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel. The old fuck you-pay me New York City. Sure, there are “kreplach soups, and sable” and shouts out to Shaevitz & Shaevitz, a law firm in Jamaica, Queens, but the sensibility isn’t Jewish so much as it is old-world immigrant. “Barry Horowitz,” named after the WWF jobber who once entered the ring to “Hava Nagila” cohabits with “Larry Csonka,” named after the ’70s Miami Dolphin fullback.

Bam Bam, born Arian Asllani, first back-flipped into the whip 30 months ago with a YouTube video called “Imported Goods.” Over a Diana Ross loop, he pushes a Beamer around in a New York Knicks Jersey. There’s a blunt behind his ear, tattoos, baby fat, and a ginger beard. His syllables slash in homage to fellow Queens native, Kool G Rap. There was no hype bubble or big name co-sign. Just a no-frills Flushing native rapping and running into Peking ducks and turbaned men on his daily errands—while happening to sound uncannily like Ghostface Killah, a vocal resemblance that was initially both the main selling point and chief strike against.

You started to see all sides of the rapper’s character in the video for “Shiraz,” where Bronson goofs with an Italian deli owner and purchases prosciutto, back-slapping like he was a young Ed Koch. He cracks open Philly blunts in the park and flirts and freaks like Jodeci with a woman who looks like a wilder version of my grandpa’s ex-girlfriend Janice.

After the song ends, the camera keeps rolling. Bronson gets the woman’s phone number and she tells him that he’s going to be a star. She also confides that she hasn’t had sex in 21 years, but she’d do him now. Then he hoists her off the ground and police sirens squawk. It ends with him flashing an impish Dennis the Menace glance at the camera.

Action Bronson’s formal debut was 2011’s Dr. Lecter, which felt a little like a formal debut. There are plenty of inspired moments. But the appeal is heaviest to rap purists and anyone else entertaining by nimble politically incorrect rhymes about being “twisted off Manischewitz” and eating barbequed venison.

The big creative leap happened on last year’s Blue Chips, a pawn-shop collage of samples lifted from the Neville Brothers, Frank Zappa, The Flamingos, and other flotsam scrounged while stoned-surfing YouTube. Bronson became a writer as colorful and carnal as Henry Miller and as chimerical as Rick Ross. He’s “eating tacos in the Galapagos, higher than a opera note,” smoking out of Thanksgiving turkey bags, eating out Yugoslavian women with “baby bushes,” and buying prime rib from premium NYC “meat purveyor,” Pat LaFrieda. “Hookers at the Point” riffs on the 2002 documentary of the same time, with Bronson inhabiting the character of a cracked-out prostitute “suck[ing] a Jewish lawyer, or an African cabby,” a Puerto Rican john, and a pinky-ringed pimp named Montel (one “L”). But “9-24-11” might be the moment when he became one of the best rappers out. He fucks up his verses three times, coughs, and hacks up his worries, anxieties, and his family’s immigrant saga. It’s as confidently improvised, tough, and honest as rap gets.

The star turn was the video for “The Symbol,” from late 2012’s Rare Chandeliers, his collaboration with the similarly Semitic Alchemist. The result being the greatest Hebrew hip-hop contribution since “So What’cha Want.” Wearing a blond Brian Jones mop-top wig and a denim vest, Bronson is a ’70s crime boss, seducing harlots, buying delicious cocaine, and dispatching enemies with sadistic glee. He is the symbol, staring at himself in the mirror and only seeing exquisite features. He is the fat pretty boy who will dismantle you and cook pasta, a lost character from Jackie Brown.

Released as his first official project since signing to Vice/Warner Bros, Rare Chandeliers elicited raves. It’s weirder, heavier, and more psychedelic than its predecessors. It also features “Eggs on the Third Floor,” his most playful and possibly best moment as an artist. The beat switches to an old-school chant and he toggles back and forth between Jamaican toaster and block party Queens MC, who you can catch out in SoCal, spending five weeks in the grow house.

To use an analogy that my grandfather would understand, when Ornette Coleman first came up in the jazz world, he couldn’t escape the Charlie Parker comparisons until one day, he became Ornette Coleman. “Eggs on the Floor” is when it becomes obvious that there can only be one Action Bronson, a blunt and blunted Queens representative, hand-springing into the Buick, having wild nights with your wife, and always smoking spices. He feels like family.

Jeff Weiss, the editor of Passion of the Weiss, is a regular contributor to The Washington Post, the LA Times, and Pitchfork. His Twitter feed is @Passionweiss.