Fantastic Negrito tells the story of an independent artist from Oakland whose fearlessly candid blues infused afro-roots music was illuminated by winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest out of over 7,000 submissions.
The brainchild of journeyman Xavier Dphrepaulezz, a once young promising artist signed to Interscope records in the 90s who was shook by an unfortunate accident that left him maladjusted, personally and musically, is fueled by his past.
His wild journey into self-exploration and fatherhood is the driving force behind the inevitable incarnation of his new alias, Fantastic Negrito. We caught up with Xavier to talk about his experience with Interscope records, winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest and his current musical ethos.
Fantastic Negrito plays Boom Boom Room May 21st.
You’ve had quite a musical journey thus far, having been signed to Interscope records in the 90s. What are some of the main differences in your musical ambitions this time around?
I was a kid in the 90s and I know who I am now, that’s one of the biggest differences. Secondly, it’s a different age. Artists have so much more control over determining over what’s happening and how they sound, and you can market directly to people and they either love it or hate it. The artists have a lot more power. It’s mainly about the music as opposed to trying to make hit records.
There were some pretty big bands on Interscope in the 90s. I would imagine that was a lot of pressure for a young artist.
You had No Doubt and Nine In Nails. I was on Interscope with Death Row-Dre and 2pac, and then there was little old me. I was literally some kid in Oakland and then I ended up with a million dollar record deal. It was crazy, it was surreal and it seemed like that was supposed to happen.
Pressure, yeah that’s a good word. I don’t know if I knew it or was aware of it, I was clueless and didn’t really know the record business back then. I didn’t realize it was a business and it was not happy for either party. It takes a team to make good music, that I believe in and I don’t know if we really had a great team.
Did you ever think you’d make music again?
When I was on Interscope I had this accident and ended up in a coma for three weeks. I lost a lot of my physical abilities, and still to this day my right hand is really compromised. It was kind of a reality check about existing and not about the music business.
I was off the label by that time. They found a way to finally let me go. That kind of started this independent journey. I did the whole afro-punk scene in New York, London and Los Angeles, and then I just quit. I wasn’t feeling music anymore. I don’t think I had anything to say.
I decided to have a kid and I did that. He’s six now. I couldn’t put my son to sleep one day and I played an open G for him and that started the journey back to music. I was so surprised that he had such a strong reaction to an instrument being played, and here I am a couple years later as Fantastic Negrito. It’s been about a year and half since I came up with the concept but it’s an amazing transformation.
Your new sound seems very pure and honest.
I thought I could do something that I was really inspired by, black roots music. I recorded in my office, not even in a proper studio. You wouldn’t be impressed if you came in, but there’s a tremendous amount of happiness in there. It’s honest, and I’m trying to get to the truth and the source.
What inspired the name “Fantastic Negrito”?
The main inspiration was shining the light on black roots music. I wanted to do that musically. I was trying to find this new incarnation of myself and it just hit me because black roots music is so fantastic, and Negrito was a word to bring everyone in.
It was spontaneous and I was sure it would get me into some trouble, and it has. When I came up with it I got so excited about it, I ran into a room with a bunch of young marketing interns and they all said it was terrible. But it really resonates with me and I can identify with it.
I think today people are very sensitive and cautious of anything that might be slightly offensive, which blinds them from the real meaning and root of a word or statement.
I was surprised that people thought “Negrito” was strange. I think artists have a responsibility to be forthcoming and honest. That’s very exciting and interesting, and comes from a place of happiness and goodwill. The truth will set you free. All that stuff is true.
You moved to Oakland for a simpler, more sustainable life. What kind of changes have you noticed over the years?
I grew up in Oakland, went to school there and left to go to Los Angeles to make it. I came back for a simpler life. When I was here as a kid there was a lot of changes, that’s life. The world is about change and about how we adapt, but they’re gonna happen.
But current changes? Well, there’s white people in west Oakland, there’s new people coming in. There’s a huge arts scene. I think when I was younger, we didn’t just talk about it but it was there, and it was powerful. It’s just more pronounced now, and people wear “I hella love Oakland” T-shirts. I think change is good; it’s inevitable.
How much consideration did you give to winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert?
I did it because I had to do it, but I had no idea. I would have bet everything I had against me. I didn’t think I was NPR enough. I was doing this kind of gutter, black roots music and we recorded the video in one take in an elevator.
I was surprised and very grateful. I thought many other people had the NPR aesthetic better than me, but credit NPR, they were willing to step out of the box a little bit. I wasn’t gonna change after hittin’ the streets, playing Bart stations and doughnut shops, and I’m not going to now. I had to earn all this stuff on stage, and it’s nice someone shined a light on me. I know I’m worthy to be here. You want me playing your festivals!
Speaking of festivals, you’re playing Outside Lands this year. Is there anyone you’re particularly excited to see?
Kendrick Lamar. There are so many incredible artists across the board, but that guy puts it all out there. There’s so many great people, though—the legendary Elton John, the Black Keys…
Currently, you only have an EP released. Are you working on a full length?
I’m always recording. I’m going to re-release the EP with the song from the contest, “Lost in a Crowd.” I never recorded it, I just wrote it a few weeks earlier and liked the song.