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How Action Bronson Lost 100 Pounds but Kept His Appetite for Life

The Queens rapper is back with a new album, ‘Only for Dolphins,’ and a new outlook

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When I connect with Action Bronson via phone in early September, he had just gotten off the elliptical machine, where he sweated through 10 miles—in a brisk 45 minutes, nonetheless. As our conversation winds to a close, he tells me he’s preparing for another quick cardio session. A visit to his Instagram shows him grinding like an athlete in the offseason: You can watch him do 110 pushups, or rapid-fire dumb bell presses, or something he calls the Sunday Morning Torture Chamber. While many have spent quarantine falling out of fitness routines and gaining weight, Bam Bam Baklava has gone in the opposite direction. He started the year at 360-plus pounds; he’s since shed 110 pounds, along with most of his trademark beard. This is a man transformed.

On the surface, his new lifestyle may seem like just the latest challenge for someone who thrives on new ventures. But the Queens rapper born Ariyan Arslani says it goes much deeper than just trying something else: He’s finally focused on his health. “It’s really what it’s about, just keeping it fucking consistent, and getting your shit together, not overdoing it, not overindulging,” Action says.

Overindulging may be out for him, but indulgence remains a key tenet of the Action Bronson experience. We’re speaking ahead of the release of his new album, Only for Dolphins, out Friday on Loma Vista Recordings. If you’ve heard his earlier work, the project will feel familiar: a focus on the finer things life offers, food described in exquisite detail, non sequiturs about Eddie Murphy flicks, simple but luxurious beats built from a wide array of samples, boasts like “Spanish women all over my body like I’m Machete.” Longtime collaborators like Meyhem Lauren and the Alchemist are along for the ride, and lead single “Latin Grammys” was produced by Tommy Mas, who helmed his first full-length in 2011. It’s everything you’d expect or want from an Action Bronson album. As much as he’s changed outwardly, he’s the same Bronsolino.

But Action isn’t content to stand still. Already something of a cottage industry thanks to his culinary work and Viceland shows like Fuck, That’s Delicious, he’s got a host of new endeavors underway. In the past few years, he’s taken up painting. (His artwork was first featured on the cover of 2018’s White Bronco, and is again on Only for Dolphins.) There’s also the ice cream he recently collaborated on with Morgenstern’s in New York, the line of plush toys made from upcycled Gucci and Columbia gear, and, perhaps most unexpectedly, a cologne named Splash—after one of Only for Dolphins’ standout tracks.

Throughout our hourlong conversation, Action spoke about all of these things and a lot more, from a brush with controversy, to how the pandemic is affecting New York’s hospitality industry, to his recent work in movies like The Irishman. One thing is clear: Despite his new approach to life, he hasn’t lost his appetite for it.

How much weight are you down right now?

Around 110. That’s crazy weight I had to fucking lose. Motherfuckers was eating, you know?

Wow. What’s your routine like right now?

It’s just hard work and dedication to my diet every single day. Just hitting that road work.

You’re running?

Yeah, I’m running. I’m doing a lot of different shit. I’m mixing it all up, seeing what works best for me. Running gets boring for me. I need to fucking run, and throw a ball into the hoop, or catch a ball, or dive for a ball, or throw a Frisbee and try to catch it, diving.

Has the weight loss helped you on the court?

I haven’t actually run a full, but I’ve been definitely training, doing all the drills that the pros would do—just running up and down the court, getting your dribble right. You want to talk about sweating and getting your cardio going, that’s real cardio right there. For an hour, just running up and down the court, doing 20 left-handed layups on the right foot. It’s almost impossible.

Does staying fit get hard with your love of food?

I’m doing this so I’m able to eat again, so I’m able to taste the things that I love to taste, without having to worry whether it’s going to send me over the edge with a heart attack or some shit. Because I could eat something now, and I’d just fucking work it off.

The other day, I made some börek. It’s an Albanian dish my grandmother used to make. It’s pretty heavy duty. It’s dough stuffed with whatever you like to stuff it with. This time I used bok choy, because that’s what I had. Bok choy and scallions. My grandmother would be flipping right now that I fucking did that. I was able to have a piece of that. I went and did my running, my squatting, my situations that I do at night. And I’m not worried about what I ate.

Speaking of food, I wanted to switch gears to Fuck, That’s Delicious for a second. It’s a show that focuses on traveling, and eating at local restaurants, and traveling to other places and experiencing their culinary traditions. Season 4 came out shortly after everything shut down due to the pandemic. Do you have a greater appreciation for what you’ve been able to do with that show, given everything that’s happened?

I’ve appreciated it since it happened, not since whatever this shit is. I’m talking about years ago when I first started doing the show. It’s really opened a lot of people’s eyes, it’s opened my eyes, it’s opened all my friends’ eyes. I was able to bring my friends places that they’d never seen in their lives, and they probably might never see again. Who knows if they will or not? It’s one-of-a-kind experiences that just happened to be on film. You learn more about yourself, you learn more about others. You learn pretty much about life during these sessions.

Before rap, you were a chef. Are you worried about the restaurants in your neighborhood or the ones you came up in?

A lot of them have already closed down. It’s been unfortunate, but that’s just the blowback from this bullshit. It’s really devastating for communities, for small businesses. I know good friends who are losing their businesses as we speak. We always bounce back. That’s all I can say.

Food is culture, right? Especially in a place like New York. People spread culture through food.

Food is culture. It allows you to display all the cultures of New York.

I want to switch gears to something a little more cheery than all of that: acting. You’ve had an incredible run the past 12 months. You were recently in The King of Staten Island. And before that you had The Irishman. Was acting always in the plan?

I’ve never really had a plan. It’s just kind of fly by the seat of my pants, and shit just happens. It’s all meant to be. I’d write some things down that are definitely dreams of mine, but acting was never one of them. But the way that I feel in front of a camera, it just doesn’t feel like it’s there. I feel normal.

I think that really came across in the Irishman scene. How wild was it to have your first legit movie appearance be opposite Robert De Niro, selling him his own casket toward the end of the movie?

It was just surreal. I was in the carpentry area. And then, there was some random guy that was dressed like De Niro sitting in the seat. So I was like, “Ah fuck, this is just one of those things where they’re using a placeholder.” And then shortly after, I’m eating an edible somewhere backstage, De Niro just comes moseying on and sits in the spot, “Hey, what’s up?” And then it started, and that was it. For a second me, him, and Scorsese huddled. He made me feel very comfortable; we had a couple of laughs, there were a couple of hugs, and we did the scene.

I loved that you were able to talk about the caskets kind of like in a way that you would describe things in your songs, whether it’s exotic rugs, or different kinds of food, or whatever. Did any type of extra preparation go into that?

I have an eye for design, so I could tell which ones take craftsmanship, and which ones are shit. I feel like I could talk about pretty much anything. Not really just caskets. It’s a nuance thing. You have to have been around. I’ve been around. I’m 36 years old now, and I’ve fucking really been around. I’ve done lots of shit, and I have a lot of experience, which makes it more of an authenticity there, because I’ve lived shit.

What classic movies do you think you could have killed it in?

I think I could have been an amazing Demolition Man. I think I could have been great in Major League. I probably would have killed in The Birdcage. I would have been unreal in Juice, or My Cousin Vinny. The Lion King.

You would have been great in The Lion King.

Yeah, I think voiceovers is where my money is going to be, even though I am fucking gorgeous at this point.

Absolutely, you look great.

I’m trying to be like the Rock. I’m trying to be jacked out of my mind, driving cars, and exploding shit, and fucking jumping off fucking planes. I want to be that type of star. Jason Statham type of shit.

Let’s talk about the new album a little. What’s the story behind the title, Only for Dolphins?

Humans don’t deserve it. It’s for the ones that get it. This is for the dolphins. And I also said that on White Bronco that my next album is Only for Dolphins. I like to keep it real.

You’ve got to be a man of your word.

I am a man of my word, there’s no doubt about that.

Did you set out to do anything different with the album?

Music isn’t thought of in that mode for me. This is art, this is painting for me. I put the canvas in, and whatever comes out at the moment is what we capture. This is capturing moments in time. I don’t just care about singles, I’m trying to put a whole album together that’s a seamless soundscape. I try to give every piece of me, and whatever I’m feeling at those times.

You mentioned painting—you painted the cover on Only for Dolphins, and you painted the cover for your last album, White Bronco. How did you get into that?

Maybe three years ago now is when I first painted on a larger scale. I used to do it all the time—watercolors and pastels and shit like that, smaller scale. But I’ve actually never done it on a large canvas. But I tore my meniscus three years ago before a summer tour in Europe, and I was devastated. I couldn’t really walk. For some reason this tear was pretty bad, and it slowed my knee up. I had to cancel the tour, and I was home for the summer. And I would go to my studio every morning and just force myself to do shit. And I started painting. It’s just something that I really enjoy, I really love. I think that doing different artistic mediums helped bring out others. It’s like salt and spice; they all complement each other and allow each to shine differently.

Is there any story behind the cover? I see the dolphins, but there’s also the Grim Reaper and Robocop.

Yeah, the Grim Reaper is always fucking there, and Robocop is always there too. It’s just the cycle of life. That’s the shit that’s always there. And life is like a video game. You see that there’s coins, the gold coins that are always at a video game, where you have to capture them. It’s all about money, it’s perspective.

OK. I’m into that.

I’m about creating thought. You try to figure out what it’s about, if it’s about anything. That’s what art is: It invokes thought, and as long as it does that, it’s doing its job. I like to continue to do these types of things, because with this album specifically, I’m giving you every sensory overload that you could imagine. You’re getting the music, which is the auditory. You’re getting the visual, which is the videos, and the art that I did myself. You’re getting the taste in the ice cream that I did with Morgenstern’s collaboration, Only for Dolphins ice cream, which is fucking out of control. I also created a smell. I created a fragrance called Splash, by Baklava.

What’s the deal with Splash? Are people going to be able to buy that?

You’re going to be able to purchase Splash, absolutely. I have it sitting right in front of me. I’m bottling it myself, I’ve created the formula myself, I’ve got all the packaging done.

What’s Splash smell like?

It smells aquatic. It smells phenomenal. It smells like you’ve been in the sun, chilling at the beach, smoking some hash. It’s really what it smells like.

I absolutely love this, because when I think of celebrity colognes, I think of Michael Jordan, David Beckham, and now Action Bronson.

How about this? I saw a fucking Michael Jordan cologne 18-wheeler truck recently. What the hell is that doing? Someone must have bought the trailer and just left that shit, fucking with us.

I also have an olive oil that I did, Only for Dolphins olive oil. It’s with Chile’s southernmost producer. It’s the first time ever being imported into America. I’m going all out, man. I don’t fuck around.

OK, so this is important. I noticed on the new album you declared yourself an exotic olive oil taster a few times. What’s your favorite kind of olive oil?

It really depends on the season. What I have right now is phenomenal. My friend Nicholas Coleman is the top oleologist in America, probably in the world. He has a next-level palate for olive oil, and his passion for olives and olive oil is just second to none. I’ve paired with him, and collaborated with him, and absorbed a lot of his knowledge and his teachings, which has allowed me to enjoy the fruits of the god, because this is a fruit that bears oil.

What’s your favorite joint on Only for Dolphins?

I love them all, to be honest with you. I like different verses, or I fall in love with different things. I always listen to “Cliff Hanger.” I just love that vibe.

“Cliff Hanger” is dope. “Golden Eye” is really dope, too.

“Golden Eye,” yeah, I love it. That’s that lovers rock, that British riddim, you know?

I appreciate that.

I always think of something funny that I said on “Cliff Hanger.” The line about how, “She told me to shake my dick, and I shook it, but she wasn’t even looking / She was locked in watching Vampire in Brooklyn / Eddie Murphy with the long hair.” Who the fuck talks about shit like that?

I laughed when I heard that. I hadn’t thought of Vampire in Brooklyn in so long.

That’s what I wanted you to do. It’s one of his best.

The next line you said you prefer Trading Places.

That’s the best—that and Beverly Hills Cop.

I want to switch gears to something a little more serious for a minute, and I bring this up because there’s a lot of debate over so-called cancel culture. You had a brush with it in 2016 with the show at George Washington University that was called off because of some of your lyrics and videos. You apologized, but you also made clear this was all fictional. You’re just talking on a record.

Sometimes when you’re ignorant, you don’t know you’re going to become famous or anything’s going to happen. I’m not trying to make excuses here, but I want to get to the genesis of it. When you listen to all rap from back in the day, motherfuckers were saying crazy things. That was kind of a thing in rap, am I wrong?

Not at all.

I’m edgy. I was coming with some fucking sick concept. I was just fucking stupid. That’s really all it was. It was just idiocy. You pay for it down the line, when things start happening. And it is what it is. You have to deal with it accordingly. I don’t apologize for things unless it’s genuine. When I’m wrong, I’m wrong, and I’ve been wrong about a bunch of stuff and I’ve apologized for a bunch of stuff. I feel like that always makes it easier for people to move on, because what else can you do but apologize? You can only apologize and try and be better. That’s really it.

Is hip-hop judged differently than other art forms when it comes to storytelling?

It’s a little bit different than other genres of music in the sense that it’s really young and fast. Motherfuckers don’t really last that long like that. Other genres, there will be artists that will be around for so long. They’re few and far beyond in hip-hop.

I think that it’s definitely more scrutinized due to the fact of it being looked upon as urban, and shit like that. Everyone looks upon things differently, and I just feel like hip-hop in general always tends to get a bad rap, no pun intended.

Also: Tom Petty had the dead girl in the “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” video, and nobody was calling for his head. And nobody is trying to call De Niro out for some of the characters he’s played. With rap, it’s almost like people can’t believe that the artist is telling a story, or the artist is just being artistic.

They think that because hip-hop started with the street culture. [Early on] I guess you could be a caricature of yourself, but then it becomes more of a street culture, and it wasn’t to be a character; you had to be real, and hard, and shit like that, and there had to be violence involved. Once that comes into play, all bets are off, and motherfuckers can’t really deal with that shit. I feel like that’s kind of where that happens, is when the violence and stuff like that comes in, and people start getting scared and shit.

What’s the role of a white dude in rap music in 2020? Have you thought about that? You’ve been entrenched in the culture for a long, long time now, but given the public discourse, as we’ve talked a little bit more about appropriation, as we’ve put focus back on—

I don’t think about things like that. I just live my life, and I do what I do. I don’t appropriate nothing. I know where the origins of the music that I do comes from. I know my history. I respect my history, I respect the people that came before me, I cherish them, and I try to continue on with a legacy like everybody else is doing. I’ve never looked at myself as the white guy in rap, because I’m fucking Baklava. I transcend color. I’m the fucking world’s rapper. I’m good everywhere.

On a more local tip: There’s always a lot of hand-wringing about the state of New York rap. I’m wondering if that’s something you think about, and if so, what your take on it is right now?

I’ve never been so territorial. Like I said, this is fair game for everybody, and everyone has their turn. New York started it, but it’s gone around the fucking world, around the country, around everywhere now. This is a global thing. We should be proud that we created something that’s lasted, and that’ll last forever, and it’s the most popular thing out there. I think that the forefathers should be throwing parties for themselves every day. I know that they don’t always get the kudos that they deserve.

Action, I think that was it for the questions I had prepared. I don’t want to take—

You know I’m going to fucking hit another workout, bro.

What are you going to do?

I’m going to probably do 200 squats, 200 jumping jacks, and 200 pushups.

Get after it, man. That’s phenomenal.

Thanks man, I’m trying to stay around.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.