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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7

Cover Story

ROB DEEZ: Mild-mannered Medical Professional by Day, Singer-Songrhymer by night

by Lindsay WhiteAugust 2013
Rob Deez. Photos by Robbie Taylor.

Rob Deez. Photos by Robbie Taylor.


“In 1981 Sublime and the Wu-Tang Clan gave birth to Rob Deez on the set of Saturday Night Live.” You may wonder what the hell a sentence like that is doing in a publication like this. Allow me to explain. Rob Deez is an acoustic hip hop comedian. The above sentence is the bio listed on his website. And while it might work as an elevator pitch, there is much more to both Deez and his music. He is one of the only (and certainly one of the most talented) of his kind in San Diego, making him a unique and worthy specimen for this month’s cover story.

At first glance, one might assume that Deez’s music is not to be taken seriously. He raps about Ramen noodles, burritos, DUIs and 40-ounce beers accompanied by hip hop beats on a classical guitar, for crying out loud. He is the court jester of the San Diego music scene, probably a role he cherishes. But make no mistake — just like Shakespeare’s Feste, Deez is “wise enough to play the fool.” In addition to his hilarity, he offers a knife-sharp wit and a commanding stage presence, all tempered by an endearing, enduring puppy-eyed quest for love. If Rob Deez is the love child of Sublime and the Wu-Tang Clan in a Saturday Night Live delivery room, I have to believe Gregory Page was the doctor that slapped him on the ass.

Enough with the metaphors. Born in an actual hospital (San Diego’s Scripps Mercy) to actual parents, Gary Robert Lyons (Robby for short) was raised in North Park by Debra Louise Schmidt and Gary Keith Lyons in a typical working class home.

“My mom is a jack of all retail. She’s worked for REI, the San Diego Zoo, the Padres, most of the stores in the Mission Valley Mall, and the Hard Rock Cafe. She currently works at the Omni Hotel. My dad is collecting retirement from both the U.S. Navy and the state park system. He’s currently making some extra spending money by teaching a motorcycle safety course and by driving a school bus. I was afraid of my dad growing up, mostly because he enforced the rules and I wasn’t able get away with as much when he was around. But since he was in the Navy he wasn’t around much. But once I moved out my dad and I became best friends. It doesn’t even feel like a father/son relationship. It feels like we’re just a couple of buds who’ve known each other for a long time. We can talk about literally anything together without fear of judgment. It’s pretty cool. My mom works all the time. Too much. I’m trying to win the lottery so I can buy her a house and she can retire. I might launch a Kickstarter. Would you donate?”

At an early age, Deez made fast friends with both creativity and humor to keep himself entertained. “I was an only child so I was constantly using my imagination to keep me company. I was also super short. Because of that I was paranoid about being picked on or made fun of. My strategy was to learn how to make fun of myself before other people got the chance to. That way if someone attempted to make fun of me, I’d be like, ‘Really dude? I thought of that in second grade. That’s all you got?’ Then I’d tear them a new one by tearing myself a new one. I imagine this is why people thought I was humorous. I developed a razor-sharp ability to defend myself with words. I could outwit people. I learned how to turn real life situations into jokes. I’d hear things differently. When people spoke, certain words would stand out in my mind and they’d end up forming a punch line.”

Luckily, Deez received the parental support he needed to transform his quick wit into a musical endeavor. “I’d say one of the things I value most about my upbringing is the freedom to make my own decisions and form my own opinions. I wasn’t ever forced to subscribe to a religion, play an instrument, or play sports. I was given the freedom to do things that interested me… I’m afraid that if I was forced to learn how to play an instrument I would’ve just grown to resent it and perhaps I wouldn’t be participating in this interview now.”

Empowered by the ability to choose his own path, Deez also benefitted from a carte blanche approach toward music. A baking soda and vinegar blend of lyrical and musical influences resulted in the development of Rob Deez’s volcanic performance style. “I remember liking Kris Kross, Das Efx, and NKOTB as a kid. As I got older my taste in music expanded to incorporate Nirvana, the Offspring, Blink 182, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Drum & Bass, and pretty much everything from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. I started taking lyrics a little more seriously when I started listening to Wu-Tang Clan; that’s also about the time I started rapping/free styling with friends in my garage. Around this time I was also teaching myself guitar chords by learning how to play Sublime songs. I’d say Wu-Tang and Sublime are my two biggest influences.”

Settling on Deez as his rap surname (Rob Dogg and Spitz were other options that never stuck), he looked to the Wu-Tang Clan as inspiration for his lyrical prowess. “It wasn’t until I started listening to Wu-Tang that my lyricism was kicked into high gear. I was inspired by the clever word play, metaphors, and punch lines. Eventually my rhyming gained the approval of my friends in the garage, and that inspired me to want to gain the approval of people who’d never heard me before. I wrote a song about my job at the zoo and played it at a party for a bunch of coworkers. It went over way better than I expected it to. From that point on acoustic/hip-hop/comedy was my genre.”

Deez lists early episodes of Saturday Night Live as a major comedic influence. “SNL was like a gateway drug to stand-up comedy for me. From Adam Sandler combining music and comedy using just a guitar to Chris Rock doing a two-hour stand-up set. I never thought about getting into stand-up comedy because it seemed way too scary. You’re so vulnerable. On stage with nothing but your words. No instrument or music to hide behind. But making people laugh by writing funny songs sounded like something I could pull off… I’m still a fan of SNL. Some episodes are better than others, some scenes don’t work, but overall it’s a great show. It’s live comedy. Anything can and does go wrong.”

Armed with guitar beats, quick-witted lyrics, and the sheer approval-seeking adrenaline of an improv comedian, Deez set up his first gig in 2005 at Twiggs (“back when Twiggs had gigs”) and never looked back. “Eventually I started going religiously to the open mic at Lestat’s. Every Monday I exhorted my obedience to the holy trinity, Lou the sound man, Toby the dog, and Isaac [Cheong] the holy host. I honed my craft on the Gregory Page Stage.”

Even in early performances, Deez enjoyed the immediate gratification he needed to continue on his journey into the local music spotlight. “Laughter is my fuel. If I can make someone laugh it carries me. As long as people are laughing I’ll keep going. Half the time I’m not even trying to make people laugh. I just hear someone say something and a punch line comes to me and I just blurt it out. And next thing I know people around me are laughing, which causes me to start laughing. Laughing is my jam.”

While laughter might be the best medicine, it doesn’t always pay the bills. Like most local San Diego musicians, Deez relies on a day job to make ends meet. Unlike a lot of musicians he actually likes what he does for a living. Since 2004, he has worked at Scripps Mercy Hospital, starting in an entry-level position and working his way up to endoscopy technician. “I was looking for a job and my [former] girlfriend’s sister told me she could get me a job doing what she did. I didn’t know what it entailed, I just knew that it was super close to where I lived; it was at the hospital I was born at, and I’d get to wear scrubs. I had to drive up to Temecula for the interview, and the night beforehand I had lost my voice during a performance of The Wizard of Oz at the Saville Theatre [on the City College campus]. I was the cowardly lion, of course. I got the job due to my kick-ass personality. The job basically consisted of ordering and stocking supplies throughout the hospital. Everything from ace bandages to urinals. After doing that for two years a position opened up in endoscopy. One of the nurses encouraged me to apply for it. Once again, I didn’t know what it entailed, but I knew it paid more and had a better schedule. Turns out I was gonna be cauterizing bleeding sites and taking biopsies — you know, typical hospital jargon. Anyway, they trained me on the job and now, seven years later, I’m telling you about it. My day consists of setting rooms up, interacting with patients, doctors, and nurses; taking biopsies; cannulating bile ducts, deploying stents; extracting gallstones; and fine needle aspirations during endoscopic ultrasounds. I love the job because it’s close to home, it pays well, and it’s rewarding. Making a difference in people’s lives and what not. One of my favorite things about my job has got to be the look on an old person’s face when you cover them up with a toasty warm blanket. It’s like the greatest thing they’ve ever experienced. You can see it in their eyes.”

To the average observer, the world of hospitals and scrubs and endoscopy departments doesn’t exactly scream “LOL.” And to the average musician, daytime employment is often seen as an obligation to suffer through in order to make ends meet. But Deez’s observation skills are above average; he manages to fertilize the most sterile of environments with his signature brand of funny. His song “Day Job” exemplifies a natural ability to bridge the gap between fun and the mundane. On a side note, I just created a new word: fundane.

I’ve written songs to the gentle hum
of a yogurt machine if you know what I mean
and I’ve written tracks on the back
of register tape at the zoo, I swear that it’s true
and I’ve written verses while tourists have purchased
maps from a store at a downtown mall
and I’m currently dropping these between
colonoscopies at Mercy Hospital

(from “Day Job” from Trademark Infringement: My First CD)

Deez also skillfully bridges gaps between musical genres, a rare accomplishment in the clique-heavy San Diego music scene. In this light, he is a true representative of the evolving, eclectic iPod shuffle generation. No genre boundaries mean no style limitations, resulting in mass appeal. “I can play the same show in front of many different crowds and walk away knowing the crowd dug it…. Everyone enjoys laughing. I believe that that, more than anything, is why I’m able to play for pretty much any crowd.”

Deez’s scene-hopping gives him a unique perspective and ability to observe the culture of various pockets of San Diego music. I asked him to share his insights:

The hip hop scene: “One of my favorite things about hip hop is the collaboration taking place. Multiple lyricists on the same song, each with a different style, delivery, and point of view. Each song is like a musical buffet.”

The singer-songwriter scene: “One thing I really like about the singer-songwriter scene is how supportive of each other everyone is. Some of my best friends are other musicians I’ve met along the way. I wouldn’t trade my relationships with these people for anything in the world. Okay, maybe I’d trade if for a full rack of baby back ribs at Phil’s BBQ, but that’s it.”

The comedy scene: “I find the comedy scene to be the most entertaining, but also the most cut throat. It feels like there’s a different comedy clique at each comedy venue and that branching out and performing at multiple venues is generally frowned upon. I’m not one to quote the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, but ‘that’s the impression that I get.’”

Deez slays comedy-loving crowds with storytelling songs about real-life absurdities like jealous ex-boyfriends:

Yo, he started to run to the front of his house
He ducked behind the bush and popped back out
Tossed a f*cking squash at my car,
missed as I drove off, but I didn’t go far
I parked around the block, I was in shock
Called the girl up, like what in the f*ck
I don’t feel right leaving you with this dude
Son of a b*tch likes to get pissed and misuse food

(from “Squash the Beef ” from Trademark Infringement: My First CD)

In many tracks, he simultaneously walks the line between comedy and hip hop, embodying characteristics of the self-deprecating comedian…

Waking up under the toilet bowl (that’s just how I roll)
No memory of the night before (that’s just how I roll)  
My chest’s scraped up and my shirt’s got a hole (that’s just how I roll)
…and the über-confident rapper
I own the microphone, it’s mine alone, king on my throne
Try to invade my zone, I’ll break your dome, so take it home
MC’s just b*tch and moan, so I flip the pitch and switch the tone
I’m original, kids, ain’t no clone, just me and hip hop here all alone

(“How I Roll” from Trademark Infringement: My First CD)

Deez incorporates the acoustic singer-songwriter sentiment to many of his tunes, not just with the obvious employment of his acoustic guitar, but with a subtle infusion of emotional longing and romance. This underlying vulnerability is perfectly placed amidst his light-hearted jokes and quick-spit rhymes, adding a layer of depth while helping him dodge the dreaded cheesy-white-rapper label:

One of these days I’m gonna be an old man
And you’re gonna be my old woman
Yo, ours is a love that you seldom see
We’re gonna be young at heart when we’re elderly”

(“Senior Love” from upcoming album, tentatively titled Brown Chicken Brown Cow)

Above all, Deez’s powerful performance style is the bow that packages his music into a pleasant present rather than a gag gift. Local songwriter and guitarist Kenny Eng (Deez’s best friend) knows this first hand, regularly sharing the stage with Deez as a stoic singing sidekick. Eng notes, “He is probably one of the most ‘free’ performers I have ever seen. If he thinks of something funny or entertaining, he will say it. If he sees an opportunity to comment on something while he’s in front of a microphone, he will do it.”

This fearlessness ignites Deez’s free-styling comedy skills on stage. Eng observes, “[He] takes the idea of free-styling to places not even some of the best rappers in the world can… In my head, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Do you people even realize what he just did?’ Rob may not consider himself a musician per se, but from my perspective, seeing him free-style is like watching a great instrumental soloist perform.” He continues, “I don’t think I’ve ever played a show with him where someone wasn’t keeled over laughing because of his outrageous songs.”

In addition to Eng, Deez often collaborates with other musicians, bringing the hip hop tradition into an acoustic setting. “I don’t see much of that in the singer-songwriter scene,” says Deez, “which is unfortunate because there’s a ton of talent and it’d be great to see more collaboration among singers.” Some of Deez’s favorite collaborations to date include Okay at Best, John Hull, Isaac Cheong, Broni, Kelsea Little, and Josh Damigo. “We all know each other’s stuff so well, it just turns into a giant musical orgy onstage.”

On his upcoming sophomore album, Deez looks to Jeff Berkley of Berkley Sound to help him capture his on-stage magic and give it a fully produced polish. Though Deez’s first album, Trademark Infringement: My First CD, is definitely worth a download, the rapper is eager to expand his musical horizons. “I’m excited about it because it’s a real album with real instruments, being produced by people who know what they’re doing. My first album was recorded in my living room with my buddy Nate, and we didn’t really know what we were doing. We recorded the guitar and vocals and then just added a bunch of drum loops. It’s not a horrible album, but some of the songs sound kind of repetitive. Fortunately, this new album doesn’t sound repetitive at all. Jeff has a great ear and a lot of patience. Instead of making Jeff Berkley’s version of a Rob Deez album he’s making my version of a Rob Deez album, which I’m grateful for.”

Berkley shares Deez’s excitement, and enjoys working with the artist, “simply because he is an awesome live performer and [his] songs/raps/ flow are clever, funny, and even poignant. He makes fun happen with his music!” Berkley’s primary goal with the record is “just trying to stay out of the way of the words. He wanted a rap album with all organic, human-played instruments. That’s just what I do. Banjo is about to take over the hip hop world!”

Deez’s adventurous musical spirit carries over into his other personal interests. He spends free time either watching action/adventure shows and films (Man vs. Wild, Deadliest Catch, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are among his favorites) or actually participating in his own action adventures in the wild. “My most recent trip lasted nine days and took me through Vegas, an overnight backpacking trip through a slot canyon in Utah, a few nights in Yosemite, swimming in the Merced, getting eaten alive by mosquitos, enjoying a thunderstorm while drinking red wine from a Nalgene bottle in the shadow of the most impressive Half Dome. I’ll leave out the part about the beer, the shortcut, and the park rangers.”

Whether onstage or in the wilderness, Deez makes sure to surround himself with good company. He reflects, “The friends that I’ve made in the music scene mean the world to me. Some of my best memories are things we’ve done together. From climbing a fire escape in New York with Josh Damigo, to exploring a mine shaft in Death Valley with Kenny Eng, to driving through Vegas at 4 am and arriving in Zion National Park just in time to see the sunrise. Good times. I look forward to many more.”

And I can’t wait for more stories
From Rob Deez, whether it’s endoscopies
Or trips with buddies
He’s got the skills to make fans pleased
He says he’s “hip hop’s cup of tea”
I say he’s folk music’s 5-Hour Energy
Good beer, good jokes, good songs, good times
Hip hop rhymes and sick punch lines
If life is a Corona, Rob Deez is the lime
Thank God for Wu-Tang and Sublime

(“Lindsay Tried to Be Rob Deez for a Second” from this article)

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