Fantastic Negrito recently became a two-time Grammy award winner. Both 2016’s The Last Days of Oakland and last year’s Please Don’t Be Dead took out the Best Contemporary Blues Album category. It’s validating kudos, but project leader Xavier Dphrepaulezz isn’t letting it go to his head.
“I don’t have any desire to be famous, to be a celebrity, so that makes it easy,” he says. “I’m not a pretty white girl or I’m not a rapper. I’m a middle aged guy excited to go out and play on the street. My famous status is a lot more relaxed and cool and laid back.”
Based in Oakland, California, Dphrepaulezz has been making music for nearly 30 years. It’s been a stop-start journey encompassing an unfavourable major label deal in the mid-90s and a devastating car accident at the end of the decade that put Dphrepaulezz in a three-week coma.
He gave up on music 12 years ago to become a marijuana farmer, but since reapplying himself five years ago it’s been a rapid ascent. Fantastic Negrito took out NPR’s inaugural Tiny Desk Contest in 2015 and the passionate performance resonated around the world.
“They saw something different,” says Dphrepaulezz. “They saw that I was approaching what I call black roots, blues, Americana very differently in the way that I thought about recording records and how they should sound. I wanted to really get in touch with the roots of the music but I didn’t want to do anything even remotely close to what had been done before. I wanted to keep it fresh. I think that attracted a lot of people.”
Fantastic Negrito’s two long-players take cues from Delta blues legends like Skip James and Robert Johnson and The Last Days of Oakland even includes a cover of Leadbelly’s ‘In the Pines’. But Dphrepaulezz makes no attempt to conform to the imposed conventions of blues music.
“I don’t think there’s a 12-bar blues song on either one of my records and that’s great,” he says. “Blues is a feeling. It’s all feel. If you’re going through the motions you’re not really doing it. You’re not really contributing to anything new. I don’t think our ancestors would think that was great. Artists, we got to keep breathing new life.”
Dphrepaulezz’s return to music at 47 years old was primarily driven by a desire to honour the example of blues innovators like James, Johnson and Leadbelly as well as Howlin’ Wolf, and R.L. Burnside.
“It was bringing tears to my eyes. My soul was crying out,” he says. “I dropped everything that I had in my life, my life savings, and I started walking the streets playing because that’s how serious it was for me. That’s how much it meant to me. This is everything to me, this music, this expression, producing records, writing bass lines, piano, guitar. I like looping it all together, turning it on its head. I get such a joy out of producing records. It’s my spiritual life blood.”
Overcoming serious hardship and various career setbacks has given Dphrepaulezz boundless creative inspiration, which he brings to bear on Please Don’t Be Dead.
“I write my bass lines based on people I’ve known throughout my life,” he says. “I’ve known killers, pimps, pushers, dealers – they all walked a certain way. A lot of times with my bass lines I’m playing someone’s life. A lot of my music is based on feeling and pain.”
Please Don’t Be Dead showcases Dphrepaulezz’s soulful vocal style and incorporates looping beats reminiscent of hip hop and R&B. There’s an experimental freedom to Dphrepaulezz’s musicality, and recent single ‘A Boy Named Andrew’ wears a perceptible Eastern influence.
“I listen to everything from as old as someone like Robert Johnson to as new as Kendrick Lamar to as far out as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Hamza El Din to as classic rock as Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. I just love it all. It’s such a joy to recognise and experience artistry.”