When Fantastic Negrito emerged onto the music scene in 2015, he looked to all the world like a new, emerging artist. Winner of that year’s Tiny Desk Contest for his song and video “Lost in a Crowd,” the Oakland musician showcased a sound that built upon the blues, but that didn’t conform to most people’s ideas about what blues should sound like. In fact the man born Xavier Dphprepaulezz had been making music for quite a few years.
photo © Audrey Hermon Kopp
Today his remarkable story is fairly well known, but here are the highlights: a former drug dealer, he scored a deal with Prince’s former manager and signed a major recording contract with Interscope, the hip label that helped bring Nine Inch Nails and Snoop Dogg to wider audiences. As Xavier, in 1996 he made a Prince-lite album called The X Factor; it flopped. Little more than two years later, he was involved in an auto accident that left him in a coma for weeks, his body badly mangled.
Without a record deal, the recovering Dphprepaulezz returned to the street. But over the ensuing decade-plus, he also honed his skills as a writer and musician (even though he’s limited; he says he has “one and a half hands”), and developed multiple musical personae. Through those, he did soundtrack and other under-the-radar musical work, all the while crafting a fully-formed alter ego: Fantastic Negrito.
That Tiny Desk Contest and its ensuing performances broke him onto the national stage, and the music he made defied easy categorization. Fantastic Negrito’s 2016 debut, The Last Days of Oakland is an arresting piece of work that draws from funk, soul, rock, blues, hip-hop and much more. Fantastic Negrito sometimes calls it “black roots music.” whatever its name, it builds on what has come before — Sly Stone, field hollers — but transforms the sum of its influences into something the likes of which we’ve never heard nor seen.
The Last Days of Oakland won the 2017 Grammy for Best contemporary Blues Award; though he doesn’t neatly fit into the blues idiom, that community has embraced him wholeheartedly. His live performances are incendiary, and showcase the man’s facile ability to work a crowd without pandering.
The title of Fantastic Negrito’s second album, 2018’s Please Don’t Be Dead, seems to be a reference to his near-fatal accident and rehabilitation. The cover photo only reinforces that idea. But in fact it’s the man’s message — a plea, really — to the American dream. On both of his albums, Fantastic Negrito addresses street-level concerns in a universal way. He doesn’t always offer easy answers, but his music serves as kindling for dialogue.
Easily one of the current music scene’s most important artists, this physically damaged 50 year old man is responsible for some of the most intriguing music and lyrics. Without being preachy, Fantastic Negrito is an inspiring and thrilling presence both on record and onstage.