Photo: Eric Taylor

Real Dphrepaulezz: A Conversation with Fantastic Negrito

"It took a long time to get here. Twenty years just to get here, to the voice of Fantastic Negrito. If I'm honest," Dphrepaulezz reflects, "it takes a long time to be honest with yourself."
Fantastic Negrito
Fantastic Negrito
Blackball Universe

Xavier Dphrepaulezz, the musician currently operating under the mildly controversial moniker of Fantastic Negrito, is ten minutes late for our conversation. As the winner of NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest, he is suddenly fielding a lot of interviews. But the 46-year-old Oakland oddball has been around this block before. In the ’90s, he had a multi-million dollar deal to make an ultimately none too successful album, The X Factor. That was ages ago, and even then the Los Angeles Times was calling him a late bloomer.

He was going by Xavier at that time, but has gone by many names, including the still-quite-apt Chocolate Butterfly. This is a man whose life runs through a few distinctive phases. As a middle child amongst 14 other siblings growing up orthodox Muslim in Massachusetts, he left home at age 12 to try his luck in the street. After landing in Oakland, he bounced around the foster care system and ran with a crew of troublemakers. His classic story of salvation through music was almost cut short by a terrible car accident that left him unable to play instruments with either hand once he finally emerged from his coma.

Fantastic Negrito was born one day while Dphrepaulezz was singing to his infant son. The creative juices bubbled up for him once more, so despite all the hard times and injuries of the decades behind, he put on his big boy pants and tried again. His favorite gigs were the ones during rush hour at the train station, playing for hundreds of inattentive people passing by him in ten minutes. “That’s where you can test out your songs,” he suggests. “That’s real and it’s raw. Very primitive, very human, and it can be healing or disturbing, either way.”

Nowadays, he’s amazed to find himself playing for 10,000 attentive people at outdoor summer shows. For Fantastic Negrito, “live performance is everything. First of all, I have terrible stage fright. But beyond that, once the music starts, it’s OK. In my shows, it’s everything when you’re really making that connection with human beings; it’s scary because you’re vulnerable.

“I think the word that I overuse is connection,” he continues. “It’s very important that I make a connection with people, because I need people. However [that connection] is made, it is made [whether] if it’s through entertainment [or] if it’s through something serious. People need each other, and I need people. That’s how I can live every day, and I can get up and do this. That’s what helps me.” He speaks frankly about how the traumas of his life have brought him to music as a source for healing. “It’s my therapy. I need a hug. That’s what it is; it’s like getting a hug. When I look into the audience and I just know we understand each other, I can see their faces and they know what I’m talking about. I feel like I’ve helped. Everything I’ve been through in my life, it helps people. Then that makes it worth it.”

If you tried to drink a shot every time Dphrepaulezz drops “real” as an adjective to explain what he is searching for in life or music, you’d be drunk in about five minutes. Here’s a typical bit: “Live, I’m trying to be as honest and as genuine as I can possibly be, and even before when I’m writing the songs. That can be humiliating or it can be gratifying.” A lot of artists profess their attraction to realness, but Fantastic Negrito is not like a lot of artists. “Even when I thought I was conforming, I couldn’t do it,” he reflects on his stab at fame in the ’90s. “I couldn’t help it and it drove people crazy.”

He never looked like other music acts, either. These days, he rocks a messy head of tall curls and swank two-piece suits. “I always had a sense of fashion, even back with the lollipop pants. I’m a bit of an exhibitionist; I like to dress [up]. I usually go to secondhand stores and find what I can. I like finding interesting things: vests, blazers. I tell the band, we got to look good when we’re up there. I learned it from Miles Davis. I read about his suits in his biography. Suits mean you’re getting paid, and I like the idea that he looked good in his suits. Fashion matters, style matters.”

Despite this professional approach and unique sense of style, his first round of industry relationships soured on both sides. “I look at my musical saga in different pieces. The Interscope piece, of course you have to learn from an experience like that. I learned that I wasn’t really a good fit for that situation, and vice versa. It was both of us. It just didn’t click. I wanted to do that, but I just don’t think I was able to do pop formulaic. I can do non-formulaic pop, but I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t in me to do it.”

Now he’s ready to give the business end another try. “I learned that whatever doesn’t kill you builds character, and you just keep moving. What’s important is that we have our health and we have a heart full of gratitude; I better have something to say after all these years. The major thing I’ve learned about the journey that’s very, very important to me is that you can’t do this alone. You really need a team; that’s the biggest lesson.”

Here’s a man who believes “the greatest investment that a human being can make is in another human being.” One listen through Fantastic Negrito’s Deluxe EP and it’s pretty clear what his investments are. There’s that Funkadelic bass line keeping time on “Lost in a Crowd“, shot through with a organ that would make T Bone Burnett proud. There’s the tambourine-driven revivalism of “Night Has Turned to Day“, which is a thousandfold heavy return of soul on something like George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”. The harrowing details of misadventure and loss sprinkled across lyrics that are then draped over sparse melodies call to mind Springsteen’s Nebraska.

Any of the seven tracks yields a thick slice of Delta blues. “My most revered hero is Robert Johnson,” declares Dphrepaulezz. But his take on the value of this legend is unique: “His lyrics are so consistent with rap: the danger, the boldness, the creativity. So it’s all connected. We’re all connected and it’s coming from the same place. All American people can relate to it: black or white, doesn’t matter. I call it black roots music, but it’s for everyone.”

Despite getting some flack for his choice of name in this phase of his career, Dphrepaulezz sees roots music on the rise in the American music consciousness. “He’s amazing, Jack White. He’s a shining light in the dark. He has studied the music. I love when white artists listen to black music and then they give it back to you. Thank you, Led Zeppelin, Jack White, and the Rolling Stones. Thank you for reminding us. And now we’ll give it back to you, then you can give it back to me again. That’s what I think is fascinating. I love someone like Adele, Amy Winehouse — when they give it back to you, it’s fun. And Jack White, you know, in the last decade, he’s at the top of that. His favorite artist is Son House, so there you go.”

These fresh takes on old ideas help push Fantastic Negrito into ever better emotive range within his musicianship. Of people he considers his contemporaries, “they probably don’t sound anything like me, and that’s the thing. Kendrick, Killer Mike. Because of the fact that they’re going in, trying and pushing, and being as real as they can be, I listen to them. It’s not the same music, but I get what these guys are doing; I identify with the energy. I mean, you feel it: the sense of urgency.”

He worries about the homogeneity of the next crop of hip-hop artists in this regard, clinging to reality television’s idea of fame instead of the realness of their own lives, and how it trickles down from listeners to impact the culture as a whole. “Kendrick Lamar is like the savior. People like him and Killer Mike. I think mainstream, you know, they could step it up a little bit and talk about different things. But it’s pervasive, that culture [of sameness] right now. In the country we’re at that point where there’s something missing. I do this song called ‘Hump Through the Winter’, which I’m going have on my full length album, about how I can’t believe, as a grown-ass man, listening to kids talk about working two or three jobs like it’s nothing. There’s something missing. They’ve taken something from us, and we need to take it back. This idea, that one should live like that — just work. It’s insane.”

Even as he strives to hit the next level as Fantastic Negrito, Dphrepaulezz finds value is making sure to pull the next one up, the way it happened for him. “In the ’90s, people were like who is this crazy motherfucker in lollipop pants? Lauryn Hill, I remember her giving me a nod and having me open up for her, De La Soul, hip-hop people always related to me, and I thought it was strange. Really great artists would always reach out to me. And now, like Blackalicious, they reached out to me and asked me to go on tour with them. I sang on their album. So I have this weird relationship with hip-hop artists.”

He recently asked two of his faves to open for him. In Oakland, he called up Antique Naked Soul. “They’re really talented. I just think that what they’re doing is carrying on in the tradition of black roots music.” On the East Coast side, he recommends “Ron Gallo: “a skinny, white kid from Pennsylvania, but amazing voice, great lyrics. Just really good, man.”

It would be easy to dismiss as some average networking, except Fantastic Negrito is bent on saving himself by saving everyone else. “I want to help these young people,” he emphasizes. “I’m going to need them when I’m 90, and 70, and 50. I think it’s so important that we help younger people. They’re going to be in control. Community is about selflessness, and a little bit of selfishness because you’re preparing the ground for someone else.” He arrived at this observation the hard way, through a painfully oppressive childhood and then a blissfully ignorant foster care system.

Dphrepaulezz hopes for nothing more than to make good on his past. “In foster care, there was a lady that rescued me from some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Oakland when I was a kid. She took me in, raised me up, kept me alive, and kept me out of trouble. She died of cancer. She meant a lot to my life. Her name was Rose, and I don’t know if I would’ve made it if it wasn’t for her. I remember the guy that I ran with back then; he was murdered in a barbershop. I was living a very dangerous life at that time in Oakland. She was amazing, [she] just plucked me. She saw the potential in me; she saw the good in me when other people didn’t. They thought I was going to end up in prison, but she was amazing. I love her and I hope I’m doing her proud.”

She Don’t Cry No More” is an ode to Rose. It’s a somber dirge, packed with grief and gratitude, and showcases those sounds he studied as a troubled teen. “I became immersed in those cultures because I ended up in foster care, and these were Christian people and they dragged me to church. I learned a lot from church because the most exciting time for me was the music. It’s a community, but for me, it was much more the music. It just got inside of me, and I’m sure that shows up on stage.”

He always comes back to the fact that “live performance should be everything. The artist should give it all up.” With his energy on stage and his howling vocal modulation, Dphrepaulezz could easily be mistaken for a preacher. He’s happy for the comparison, but equally humbled by it. “I don’t know how much I’m the good guy. But I’ll say this: preaching is the right word. [The show is] like church without the religion. I may be the real guy; I don’t know about the good guy. I’ve done a lot of things in my life that were not good, and I’m just trying hard every day as a human being. I want to give back because I’m happy to be here. I believe in gratitude. I believe that once a person can grasp the concept of gratitude, that’s the road to happiness. That’s not to be perfect, but to try hard every day.

“It took a long time to get here. Twenty years just to get here, to the voice of Fantastic Negrito. If I’m honest,” he reflects, “it takes a long time to be honest with yourself.” So Dphrepaulezz is trying to make it once again, but he is also just letting this phase roll out how fate would have it. “I’m an optimist, definitely. I believe it can be done, it will be done, and I think that every day is a gift. Every opportunity is amazing; I say thank you all the time.”

Of course, this includes his elated surprise over the fluke few minutes of video that became a huge NPR victory. “It was at like two in the morning, and nobody wanted to do it. ‘They’re not going to be into this, man.’ We were so wrong about NPR. I’m so grateful to NPR. And in the end, it was just one take. I knew when I saw the video. I didn’t think I would ever win, but I thought ‘That’s me, that’s us, that’s raw, that’s real.’ Indeed, this time as Fantastic Negrito, Xavier Dphrepaulezz is once again poised to use honesty as his best weapon against the odds.