Action Bronson turns bandleader at KOKO

Mr Wonderful brings his new sound to London – part jazz, part hip hop all Action.

Anyone that knows Action Bronson knows that he has undergone a significant transformation in recent years. First shifting an impressive (and well-publicised) 129 lbs in nine months, the Queens, New York native is clearly feeling far more comfortable in his own skin when it comes to his musical output. 

Since 2018’s White Bronco, Bronson has leaned into idiosyncratic jazz and soul music for inspiration, usually with the assistance of crate-digging DJ and producer extraordinaire The Alchemist. But rather than simply sampling the energy of the music he proclaimed to adore, he’s started actualising it. 

Backed by a full five-piece jazz band for his two-night stint at Camden’s KOKO, anyone holding out to hear back-to-back numbers from 2015’s Mr. Wonderful would’ve been somewhat disappointed. Instead, the ever-charismatic Ariyan Arslani aka Action Bronson presented London with an evening of incendiary (and at times improvisational) jazz and hip-hop, evolving into a bonafide bandleader for the first time. Think a laidback James Brown spitting bars without doing the splits. 

Bowling out in full force, the rapper surprised the audience with this one-off (but potentially ongoing) set-up of musicians supporting him on stage. It was a far cry from bounding about with just beat-maker The Alchemist in tow, but London – a city where jazz has infiltrated a sprawling number of artists spanning various genres over the past decade – was a grand location to take it to trippy new territory. 

Action Bronson - Latin Grammys (Official Music Video)

“It’s different vibes working with professional musicians,” gushed Bronson. “It’s the first time we’ve done that. It felt goooood,” referring to tracks from recent albums Only For Dolphins and Cocodrillo Turbo – which informed the set for obvious reasons – being performed live with an actual band of cherry-picked musicians. Renditions of ‘Subzero’, ‘Latin Grammys’ and ‘C12H16N2’ were meaty and muscular, and Bronson was content with taking a backseat to keep the fluidity flowing. 

Of course, his natural magnetism kept the crowd entertained throughout prolonged break-downs, kneeling in front of the bassist and (love) supreme saxophonist in honour of their artistry, all the while swigging from a bottle of natural wine. Or olive oil? A former chef with fingers in multiple pies (an olive oil brand, clothing brand, his own web series, books on cooking, books on weed, books on self-improvement, and a collab with New Balance that he sadly wasn’t repping tonight) Bronson is a tastemaker who loves the crackle of vinyl, the bend of a guitar string, and busted lung of a brass note played a millisecond longer – and this show was a culmination of everything he admires. 

At the tail end of the sweaty, sultry set, the big-hitters from Mr. Wonderful made an appearance after all, with ‘Terry’, ‘Actin Crazy’, and ‘Baby Blue’ all sending KOKO a bit nutty. 

Two separate encores ensued – the first an opportunity for his backing band to say farewell, though it wasn’t enough for the audience who clamoured for Action Bronson to return (“I’m out here taking a piss…” came the sound from sidestage). It was a crescendo fitting of the virtuosity on display however, with the fuzzy, Eastern psychedelia of ‘Easy Rider’ calling time on Action’s night, a track which the five-piece band felt destined to perform live.

“We’ll never be the same again,” he told the crowd just before the lights dimmed. Though Action Bronson might not have necessarily courted mainstream rap ‘mega-stardom’ in recent years, he’s never been particularly conventional and it seems like he’s much happier with it. So was the KOKO crowd.

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