Fantastic Negrito makes old-school music for a new era

Bay Bands

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You never know when you’ll get a new beginning. Oakland’s 46-year-old Xavier Dphrepaulezz is just now achieving his lifelong dream of a successful music career.

It wasn’t an easy road getting there. First, he signed a million-dollar record deal with Interscope Records in the ’90s that ultimately failed and led to his “creative death.” Then a devastating car crash left him in a coma and physically handicapped. After giving up on music entirely for several years, Dphrepaulezz is finally back and better than ever as Fantastic Negrito. His new project has a raw, soulful, bluesy sound that’s been skyrocketing him to fame in the past few months.

The reason for Fantastic Negrito’s recent success? Out of nearly 7,000 submissions, his entry won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest. According to Dphrepaulezz, “Once NPR shined a light on what I was doing, they really opened up Fantastic Negrito to the world.” Now he’s being asked to play festivals all over the world, including Outside Lands here in the Bay Area.

But aside from his NPR win, Dphrepaulezz’s career was already taking off. He attributes his growing success to his ambition. He’s always had a lot of drive, but the near-fatal car accident really had a lasting effect on him.

“It affected my playing ability,” he explained. “It just completely destroyed my right hand and really handicapped my left arm. So I had to really adapt to a new style of playing if I wanted to continue music.”

Despite this devastating event, Dphrepaulezz admits that the accident taught him an important lesson: “It really taught me never to quit, ever.”

After giving up on music for several years after his accident, Dphrepaulezz’s interest was reignited one day when he was trying to soothe his infant son.

“I just played the guitar for him one night when he wouldn’t go to sleep,” he recalled. “And the look he gave me when I played was one of purity and complete appreciation.”

Dphrepaulezz’s son’s innocent, open reception to his music finally encouraged Dphrepaulezz to start playing again. But this time, he did it differently. He went back to the basics.

He started out by playing on the street, in front of donut shops and BART stations. The music he’s making now as Fantastic Negrito, he feels, is much more authentic than what he was doing back in the ’90s.

“I don’t have any interest in making big records,” he said. “I have no interest in becoming some pop star. I want to remain true to the art form.”

The music Dphrepaulezz creates definitely sounds genuine and raw, with his soulful voice echoing the greats of the Delta Blues. He is heavily influenced by black roots music, including Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Lead Belly and Skip James.

Fantastic Negrito’s soulful sound is also influenced by the Oakland music scene in which he grew up. In fact, he learned to play the piano by sneaking into music practice rooms at UC Berkeley. Declaring his love for his local music scene, he said, “There’s such an original thought process here in the Bay Area that it had to affect the music and the art that comes out of it.”

Dphrepaulezz considers himself to be a bridge between the old Bay Area and the new Bay Area.

“I come from the older era of the Bay, with the culture and the sound of old-school Oakland,” he said. “But I’m making music now, in this new era.”

Now he’s releasing a deluxe edition of his self-titled debut EP, complete with bonus material, on July 24. You can also see him on tour this summer. The story behind Fantastic Negrito is one of tragedy and loss, but also of hope and new beginnings. Consider taking his advice: “Take the bullshit and turn it into good shit.”

Contact Madeline Wells at [email protected].