An Interview With San Diego Legend Lil Rob

J. Smith speaks to the prolific Chicano rapper about his latest album All to the Bueno, why it's his first in nine years, how growing up in Solana Beach made him work harder, making feel-good music...
By    January 11, 2024

Image via Estevan Oriol

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It’s hard to tell that nine years have passed since Lil Rob last released anything. It’s hard to tell because the Chicano rap legend’s latest All to the Bueno sounds like he never took a break. It’s got the polish you’d expect from San Diego’s veteran purveyor of neighborhood music. A time-tested formula: shit-talking atop funk grooves and vintage soul. It’s a record built around Rob’s ear for the oldies, his ride or die lady, and staying sucka free.

The terrain is familiar. After all, the classic car-riding SoCal fixture released his debut “Oh What A Night In The 619” in 1992. Even then he was articulating similar ideas — hanging with the homies, the joy’s of joyriding and flirting with “fine Chicanas” – all done over concussive drums and chopped R&B vocals.

He’s part of the early wave of Chicano artists, a peer group that includes Kid Frost, Spanish Fly, ALT, Proper Dos, and A Lighter Shade of Brown. But before the musical success, he was a kid growing up in La Colonia de Eden Gardens, one of San Diego’s oldest enclaves. Founded over 100-years ago, the Mexican-American neighborhood remains full of a deep cultural history. It’s also a community that helped nurture his gift – a place where he rocked parties with his brother and worked on his performance chops – long before he earned national radio play with a top 40 hit.

Ese 1218’s been around. There’s a 1992 YouTube clip, a human interest story about Eden Gardens by local CBS affiliate Channel 8, where Rob makes a cameo midway through. Wearing a blue baseball cap, he spits a few lines for the camera, oozing charisma. It’s a receipt in real time — proof of dues paid.

This is a longevity story, the kind where overnight popularity took years in the making. It was only after a run of solid releases where his 2005 project, Twelve Eighteen, Pt 1, changed his life, yielding the classic single “Summer Nights.”

More releases followed. But one of the lasting effects of his breakthrough was the autonomy it offered. It’s allowed him the freedom to work, tour, perform and record as it aligns with his timetable. And with that, the last few years have been more about live shows than new music.

All to the Bueno, he says, was inspired by concert-goers regularly asking if he had new material on deck. The album boasts the intense energy of Lil Rob’s live show. In a space where Keith Sweat gets a shoutout, he glides through English and Spanish, throws in ad libs that are really melodies from The Manhattans and gives lames get the cold shoulder, “you’re old news, I told you’s, that you lose, I don’t even care about winning, I just refuse to lose to you dudes”. He even stretches syllables in one of his best moments: fitting “parking lot” together with “taco shop” like a line of Tetris blocks.

Set to the mid-tempo bounce of producer Fingazz, it does what it sets out to do: be feel-good music, a playlist made for backyard hangs and easy rolling lo-lo’s — all Southern California by way of nostalgia and the spirit of Sunday evening cruising. There’s party hopping and bass slaps and ‘80s flavor. It’s a celebration, the sound of staying power. Lil Rob’s been here for years. – J. Smith

For those not familiar, can you give yourself a quick introduction?

Lil Rob: My homeboys call me Lil Rob. That’s been my nickname for a long time man, maybe since like third grade. I like to drop that feel good music, real good music, real hood music, neighborhood music. That’s what I call my music.

Why did you choose rapping as your profession?

Lil Rob: I just kinda fell into it, man. My brother would Dj and I would take over at parties. But when I couldn’t go to those parties with him or whatever I’d be at home just writing music and like learning how to dance and everything. Yo MTV Raps was a big part of my life. I would stay home and watch videos, try learn how to, ya know, bust the latest moves and stuff like that. Yo MTV Raps was a big part of my life and Soul Train was a big part of my life, my household was with a lot of Blues and Soul, and Ranchera Music and things like that. And the Hip Hop from the get go, Freestyle music, Planet Rock and Soulsonic Force, Africa Bambaataa and all that stuff, man you know. Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Run DMC for sure, just a bit of everything.

When you reflect on your music, where do you think you are strongest?

Lil Rob: I don’t know, I’m pretty good at just writing feel good music. I started a little bit more on the gangster side, the first album was Crazy Life and I’m speaking on things like that, it was a little bit crazier but I lived through life and I learned a lot, gained a lot of knowledge. Just kinda learned what not to do. So now it’s just trying to teach the kids a little something different. You don’t gotta follow my lead cause I don’t have all the answers but just be good people. So, I guess that’s what I’m best at right now.

Any weak spots?

Lil Rob: Writing the hooks, people say that I write some good hooks sometimes. But that’s a sometimes type of thing, ya know. But when I get together with like, the homeboy Fingazz that produced this whole album he sits down with me and helps me write some really strong hooks. And then we work together on the hooks. I would say the hooks, my strong points are the verses.

The new album, tell us a bit about it.

Lil Rob: All to the Bueno, man. No matter what, it’s all to the bueno. Got a lot of people talking about me but it’s all a good thing. I’ve had a lot of shows for the like, past four or five years. With MC Magic and Baby Bash from out here and we’ve been rocking. From here to New York selling out shows, and it’s been like that for a long time so, the fans kinda just were asking me where’s my music at? Do I have any new music? I haven’t had any new music for the past, almost ten years now, last album was ten years ago or 2014. So, I just thought I’d put something together and give them something that they want. It’s mostly out of love and everything I’m not doing it for the money or the likes or anything like that. So, it makes it even that much better that there’s no pressure and it was just me writing a good little album for everybody to bump. Actually busted out with some nice songs from the get go, hoping that they enjoy them all.

I’m always curious when I hear artists talk about time lapses, you said it’s been ten years. When ten years pass, what were you up to? If you don’t mind me asking?

Lil Rob: I can’t really say the exact reason why I stopped for ten years. But I did move to a place where it wasn’t very welcoming to me and it just kinda changed my view on what I was doing. I always told myself that my bank account wasn’t big enough to risk my life for this stuff, ya know what I mean. The more I get known, the more people that love me the more people that hate me. And I wasn’t really sure, one foot in one foot out, because it gets a little dangerous sometimes. So, I was going through that and just didn’t know what I was really going to do with the music. I was still living my life but with the music, I guess I lost something for it at that moment in time. No pun intended, but MC Magic had hit us up and he started taking me out on some of these shows and from the get go, the very first one we did, we were selling ‘em out. All these venues. It just snowballed and more and more than more people asking me were my music’s at. So, I thought I’d just give it to ‘em. One last hurrah but I had a lot of fun with this one already, just hooking up with the team and doing this podcast run. I wasn’t really sure about that either, I was kinda worried about that, worried about people chopping up what you say and turning it into something else to make it sound worse than it really is. All that kind of stuff but we’ve had a fun time doing some of this stuff, so I’m cool with it.

Let me switch it up a little bit. I was reading about you taking a trip to Japan. From what I understand there’s a lot of appreciation for Chicano culture there. What’s it like to go across the pond and get love in a place where they might not even speak the language?

Lil Rob: I did a five city tour in Tokyo, around that area, and three times in Okinawa. This was back in 2005, so about eighteen years ago. It was already bumping out there with the culture. One thing that always stuck out in my mind is this Japanese homeboy was saying, “Lil Rob”, but I couldn’t really understand what he was saying, but he lifted up his shirt and had ‘Chicano’ tattooed across his stomach. And this was eighteen years ago, I go right on man. [It was] just everyone singing the lyrics and everything. They [also] had some bootleg albums of mine over there but it’s all to the good, all to the bueno. But it was a good time and a trip to see. Even nowadays, eighteen years later, they’re rocking some badass lowriders. They got the steelo down, to the crease, and they’re just all about it. That’s the Chicano culture, that’s the hip hop culture, I seen some people out there poppin’, it’s like, damn, incredible. They adapted to the whole steelo we got.

From Solana Beach to Japan. I was doing my homework and you grew up in Eden Gardens, there’s a lot of history there. I think a lot of people have this idea of Solana Beach as all wetsuits and surfers. But that isn’t the case, the neighborhood you grew up in is one the oldest residential areas there. How does coming from a neighborhood like that influence your artwork, if at all?

Lil Rob: It made me work a little bit harder. I’m from San Diego North County, in a place called Solana Beach, a little place called La Colonia De Eden Gardens within Solana Beach. My grandma was going to school there when they wouldn’t let her go to the white school. So, they had a Mexican school where they had to go [because] they couldn’t be with the whites. That’s how that neighborhood was for a long time. But then it started getting gentrified a little bit and you know, to everybody else, Lil Rob is from the rich neighborhood, he’s right there by the beach. So, I would always try to prove myself. Like, you know what, you should be embarrassed if this guy from the rich area is going bigger than you guys. So, it’d always make me continue to rock it harder. But yeah, that’s my neighborhood and I’m proud of it. I’m glad it wasn’t to gangster gangster, man. I got shot in the face in ’94 but that just happened to happen. But it wasn’t really like that all the time. I have cousins that are surfers, I have a badass cousin that’s a badass drummer for a rock band, this dude gets down. I remember being in school with him, we’d be in class and he’d be flipping his pencil like Tommy Lee and shit, and I’d be mister DMC over here, ya know what I mean. So, I grew up with them and I got surfers in my family, I got skaters and BMX’rs, all a big part of it.

How central do you think San Diego has been to the development of Chicano rap as a genre?

Lil Rob: I don’t really know who was first or anything like that but I was influenced by a lot of different things. I would pick any CD or cassette that had a Mexican on it. And that goes from like Brown Pride from back in the days, and of course Spanish Fly and Aztec Tribe and ALT and Kid Frost and just everybody. I can’t even name ‘em all, I don’t wanna forget nobody but I would just pick up whatever was out there to see what they were doing.

Your hit single, “Summer Nights,” huge song, radio play, MTV spins, all these years later what does it mean to you?

Lil Rob: That song changed my life. I’m still performing and making money to this day, which is really cool. Even if I left for nine years I still had a jam out there that did some big things. And that’s what tripped me out going back out to do these shows, ya know it’s a packed house waiting to see us. Without that jam being that big I don’t think I’d ever have the opportunity to do it a second time.

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