This article was first published on May 27, 2016.
Fantastic Negrito is an ambitious musical project of Xavier Dphrepaulezz, who aims to unify the past and future of his native Oakland, a once dangerous city currently in the midst of a cultural and economic renaissance. The 46-year-old musician had all but quit music when a nearly-fatal car accident inspired him to pick up his guitar and channel a new persona, one inspired in part by bluesmen like Skip James. Once aptly called the “punk rock Al Green,” Xavier’s sound might best be characterized as a meeting of blues and punk, which creates a soulful and simultaneously high-energy blend that’s bound to move and impress.
Set for release on June 3, 2016 The Last Days of Oakland marks Fantastic Negrito’s eagerly anticipated full-length debut, one concerning the changes he’s seen amidst the decline and rebirth of his hometown. In the meantime, enjoy his latest hard-hitting single, “Lost in a Crowd”, and the to know him a little better.
Please introduce yourself. Who is Fantastic Negrito?
For the record my mother still won’t call me Fantastic Negrito.
I’m a musician out of Oakland, and I’m in a collective called Blackball Universe. I play black roots music for all people, and I try as hard as I can to be honest at all times, in my music — and in this interview.
What’s the story behind your artist name?
It first started off in a different form, Nigga Fantastic. It was a phrase I’d use to describe the polar extremes my brothers and sisters operate on. I always marveled at cats in the hood being half super villain, half super hero: knock a cop out, get a chick pregnant, save a baby from a burning fire while drinking a 40. When I started getting back into music I wanted to take that energy and make it something positive, and I knew many of my blues idols took on names that reflected their vibe, so I flipped it into something more celebratory: Fantastic Negrito. A celebration of blackness and black roots music….with a Latino twist.
Tell us a little about The Last Days of Oakland. What’s the main story you want to communicate with this album?
I came up with the title The Last Days of Oakland while I was touring last year, to mark the end of an era. Cities have become unaffordable. Black people are leaving in large numbers. Artists too. Everyone feels the loss of culture and diversity. People can’t afford to stay in the neighborhoods where they were born and raised.
Even with all of that, I feel the end of something always means the beginning of something new. It’s really up to us collectively to step forward and be heard. To protect the things we love and value about the communities we live in. We are in this together.
What’s in your opinion the biggest difference of being an artist now and back in the mid 90s?
Now it’s all about having a direct relationship with the fans. The machine is broken, and maybe that’s a good thing. You have to do everything yourself, take chances, take risk. Really expose yourself creatively. It took me most of my life to learn how to do that. I’m still learning.
Also, because I didn’t have the burden of trying to “make it” the way they did in the 90s, I was free to allow myself to grow into whatever I am now. And I think I may be honing in on a sound that I can legitimately call mine…meaning I’m ripping great blues musicians off with style.
Who were your musical heroes growing up?
Not the same ones I have now. Except Prince, who taught a young kid from the streets that it was okay to be different. That it was okay to dress different and be a little wild. To not make music according to a genre or type. He made a lot of my choices okay when there were not a lot of other examples out there.
Now the musicians I admire the most are ones I was exposed to as a kid but didn’t appreciate. Music that my parents would play. Robert Johnson, Skip James, Leadbelly. They’re the standard. Along with people I’ve met in the last couple years like Taj Mahal and Buddy Guy.
Name an album, artist or experience that changed your perspective on music?
I just met Robert Plant. I love Zeppelin. Love them, turned my boys onto them once we were old enough to listen to “white” music without it causing drama. He came to one of my shows and dug it. Robert Plant doesn’t cut anyone slack. He doesn’t fuck around pretending to like shit he doesn’t like and there’s something awesome about that. I have that in me but try to resist it because in this era, musicians HAVE to support each other to survive, but Plant is a giant. He’s raw with his opinions. Also, had a deep deep knowledge of black roots music, which is really what he played.
What’s the best new song you recently discovered?
“Two Wings” by Utah Smith
Can you share a fun fact about you or your music?
There is a dash of hip hop in everything I do. Remember, though my heart is the blues, I grew up on Hip Hop. Some of those aesthetics are ingrained in me. I love the minimalism of Rick Rubin. What I will do is strip my music all the way down to just the few cords, then I loop those. So the loops are born specifically for the song, they’re not samples, but they’re distilled to just the hardest shit. And my drums are often done the same way.
What’s your favorite activity besides music?
If you’re from the Bay you can’t help but love great food. That doesn’t mean the fanciest restaurants; it means good authentic food from around the world.
If you see my twitter posts I’m always posting pictures of my meals. Everyone on my team tells me no one cares what I’m eating. They’re probably right, but that’s their problem. My twitter account is not part of the collective.
What’s coming next for Fantastic Negrito?
I’m about to go ham in the studio after I tour. I’m heading out with Chris Cornell in June, plus a few festivals like Bottle Rock and Outsidelands, then Europe and a short U.S. tour with my full band. But I also have some ideas on music that I’m excited to try out.
Looking one year ahead, where would you like to see yourself?
Like I said, I gotta get busy in the studio and make a couple of records. I have two approaches to what I’m gonna do. One will be a progression with Fantastic Negrito, keeping it raw and getting to the most primal essence of American music. The other’s gonna be something that has more hip hop fused into it, with a real concept. Trying to push. Push push push push.
And finally, if your music were a physical object what would it be? Please describe.
Maybe a bullwhip, or some object that ties directly to struggle and perseverance. Because that is at the essence of all American music. A shackle or a whip or something that brings out the raw angst and human condition that all people can relate to. That’s what’s great about black roots music, it is the distilled raw emotions that are at the heart of all emotions. When that whip cracks, power and misery connect all souls, including the individual administering it.