“‘Renaissance man’ is just a term that is being thrown around. It’s someone that knows how to live, and someone that is of culture and of layers. I’m layered; there’s layers to peel away from me, it’s not one-dimensional bullshit. It’s not basic bitch shit. I think that’s what that means.” Action Bronson is describing his definition of a phrase that follows him often. We’re two weeks away from the release of his new album, Only For Dolphins, and he’s having a busy day: his collaboration with Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream dropped this morning, and this afternoon he’s meeting producer Daringer to go and record the 16th episode of his Live From the Moon radio show — this time dedicated to Japanese City Pop — which broadcasts fortnightly on Apple Music 1.
The Flushing, Queens native advocates staying true to one’s self and following creative curiosities, rather than allowing ourselves to be defined by others’ often narrow perceptions. “[In] the NBA, [or] the NFL, when a player speaks out on some sort of event or social issue, [it’s] ‘Oh shut up, you’re just a basketball player. Go play basketball.’ But what the fuck does that mean? That’s bullshit. Don’t think that you have me pegged, because of your insecurities and [that] you can’t do more than one thing,” he declares. “You don’t have a mind for yourself; don’t think that I don’t. Don’t take away my voice and what I fucking have to say, cos I’m gonna say that shit. I’ll do what I want. If I get a feeling and I have to do it, I’m doing it, and it matters nothing to me what anyone thinks.”
Throughout his career, Bronson has proven that he can’t be limited to any one creative pursuit: a true multi-hyphenate, he made his name in the New York hip-hop scene as a gourmet chef-turned-rapper before taking his ever-evolving career to TV screens, bookshelves, art galleries, and cinemas. He’s the creator and host of several TV series, including four seasons of the food and travel show Fuck, That’s Delicious; a New York Times best-selling author; appeared in two Hollywood movies, including Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman; and this year he's been hard at work in the gym, cutting his weight by over 90 pounds.
Only For Dolphins is the centerpiece of a multi-sensory experience that incorporates new music, visuals, paintings, ice cream, and a scent. “I’m fucking sick of people. People are just disgusting,” says Bronson. “So I made this whole album for dolphins. This album is for the people that really understand me.” The record started life at the beginning of the year, and draws from the broad palette of world music that he’s absorbed and collected on his travels. “Every record is different because of the time and moment in your life. I love recording around the country, so I do a little here, I do a little there; wherever I’m at, I’ll try and make some music and then piece it all together at the end. So going in with the knowledge that I was using some rare samples and looking for exotic sounds from around the world, I really tried to hone in on that exact sentiment.”
He completed the process in spring, just as the world went into lockdown and travel became impossible. “Luckily, I was able to travel a lot [prior to Covid-19]. So I kinda needed a break. I got a forced break to recharge, and it was perfect timing,” he explains. “I had big plans for 2020, it’s not like it’s over — we just had to readjust. We’re alive, we can change things, we can make things happen, make everything better — we just need to do it. That’s all that matters.”
Forced breaks have historically been good for Action Bronson. The legend goes that a broken leg was the catalyst that pivoted his focus from working at his father’s restaurant to recording his debut album, and an injured knee would later ignite a passion for painting. “Three or four years ago I was booked for a European tour. It was a very lucrative tour — a very demanding tour, at the time,” he recalls. “And I hurt my knee two or three days prior to going, and I had to cancel it. So, I was just sitting at home all summer with a torn meniscus. I had recently gone to Alex and Allyson Grey’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors up in Poughkeepsie — two of the most incredible psychedelic visual artists — and I just got the bug, something inspired me. Obviously I’ve been drawing and using paint and crayons and different type of shit since I was a kid, but never on a big scale.” Taking inspiration from his trip to the Grey’s Hudson Valley-based art sanctuary and inter-faith church, he began visiting an art store near his Brooklyn home to buy supplies, and spending his time in the studio painting. His painting process, he says, allows him to tap into a child-like state of creativity: “It’s like a big kid drawing — like a big kid playing with his crayons.”
Visual art isn’t new to Bronson, who’s route into hip-hop came through graffiti with Queens’ infamous Smart Crew. “That was the background,” he explains. “That was how I met a lot of my friends, through graffiti and through stealing fucking paint and racking, that’s how you meet friends and build bonds through years. That’s the backbone of everything. You know how there’s those elements of hip-hop? The element that I come from is the graffiti element. I’m not a fucking b-boy. I don’t breakdance. But I write graffiti, and I rap like a motherfucker.”
His process usually begins on the iPad, which he describes as his “digital sketchbook,” and says is “literally the best thing to get your ideas out quickly.” Once he has his initial drawing on the screen, he scales it up in his studio, which is littered with different types of paints, lacquers, wood stains, and tools with which he experiments: “Different types of scraping tools that could make patterns, different techniques by using a fucking wooden spoon. It’s just as creative figuring out how to paint and what to use as the actual picture on the painting.” The original iPad drawings appeared as part of his Apple Music radio show, providing the visuals on listeners’ devices as he and Daringer play a rare selection of world music from Bronson’s collection. “[We] go through a bunch of old vinyls that I have at the studio, come up with a theme, and that’s that. Last week’s theme was all Colombian cumbia from the ’70s. Prior to that, all psychedelic Thai records,” he says. “The playlist I listen to the most is Daringer’s playlist of all Italian psych from the ’70s, or this Thai playlist — [if you put it] on in the gym, you’re gonna fucking run through the wall.”
Bronson’s artwork began appearing on his album covers with 2018’s White Bronco. “Bottom line, I was sick of asking people to do things for me,” he admits. “And I’m like, ‘Yo, fuck this. I can do anything that I wanna do, better than the person I’m asking to do it, and I’m fucking saving a headache.’ So I looked at it that way as well. I like taking things into my own hands. I don’t like leaving them in the hands of judges.” The paintings that grace the covers of Only For Dolphins (the physical edition is reversible) were initially inspired by the work of tattoo artist Dan Santoro, who had been posting 16-bit gifs on Instagram. “I asked him to do a couple with an Only For Dolphins theme,” says Bronson, who created the cover in tandem with recording the album. “And I used that vibe from the little digital memes that he did, to create those paintings. It felt like a 2-D, side-scrolling video game scene.”
While the final images are up for interpretation, Bronson draws on the prizes and pitfalls of a video game as a metaphor for the impending doom that lurks over our daily lives. “There’s always imminent danger, and there’s always motherfucking RoboCop Big Brother watching us,” he says. “All we’re trying to do is collect our coins, live our lives, and mind our fucking dolphin business. Death is always around the corner — we have to dodge different things, so it’s an obstacle course as well. It’s a dolphin training center; a dolphin obstacle course. I’m giving you all the tools you’re going to need in your next life.”
A self-described obsessive, Bronson goes all in when he finds a new interest. Most recently, that focus has been on his health. “I haven’t painted in a couple weeks because all I’m obsessing about is getting up and running and working out. I’m spending all my time trying to eat nutritionally and make good food and bake,” he admits. “So I go in spurts with my obsessive-compulsive disorder — when it comes to making art and creating art, things take over. I think that fighting is art, so when I’m in the gym trying to fucking throw amazing punches and kicks, I’m doing the same thing, thinking about it the same way I would if I was in front of the canvas or in front of the mic.”
His latest compulsion sparked from the process of writing his upcoming book Fuck It, I’ll Start Tomorrow. “It was interesting writing a self-help book at 400 pounds,” he declares. “It gives perspective. I didn’t really start losing weight and taking heed to what I was actually saying in the book until after it was done. It’s an interesting story, because who the fuck is going to listen to someone that’s not even listening to themselves?”
Action Bronson is taking risks and leaving no stone unturned, when it comes to his creative interests. But with each new pursuit comes an uphill battle, fighting against the perceptions of those who want him to stick to whichever element of his art first interested them. “If you do one thing, others will always want you to do that one thing. But they don’t know what you have until you show it,” he explains. “If someone won't allow you to grow and do what you want, get away from them and don’t be involved. You have to have in your own mind and know in your own heart what you want. Just go for shit. Don’t be discouraged. I’m a prime example of how not to be discouraged by things — that things can happen if you try.”
Stream Action Bronson's 'Only for Dolphins' here.