Chasing Success

After winning a Grammy earlier this year, Oakland musician Fantastic Negrito has been traveling the world and writing new songs with a political bent.


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Photo by Bruce-Creative Commons

A couple of months after he won a Grammy Award for contemporary blues in February, Fantastic Negrito is sitting in his makeshift music studio in a second-story office in an industrial building near Jack London Square. A train horn blares from nearby tracks.

“My Grammy-winning recording studio: I wait for the train to pass and then do a vocal!” laughs the artist, born Xavier Dphrepaulezz, who is funkily resplendent in a cravat, red dress shirt, suit vest, black leather sneakers with red laces, pink and black striped socks, and a long, colorfully decorated leather jacket. “You can’t buy that.”

Dphrepaulezz, 49, is glad to be home in Oakland for a moment. The city where not long ago he busked in the streets for cash keeps him rooted.

Courtesy of Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito has been touring a lot since the Grammy ceremony, wowing crowds with his physicality and intense, soulful songs in Tokyo and Ibiza—Spain’s Mediterranean island playground—as well as Southern U.S. cities. This summer it’s back to Japan for a month, then Europe for two months.

In addition, Dphrepaulezz is working on a second album, he’s close to signing a music label partnership, and he’s preparing to re-release his indie breakthrough album, The Last Days of Oakland, with two new singles. Both new songs are politically minded odes for the Trump era.

“One is called ‘Push Back,’ which I think is appropriate,” he said. The other one is called “The Shadows.”

“Where were these people, saying all these outrageous things, crazy, racist, nationalist, populist beliefs?” he asked. “They were living out there in the shadows.”

Dphrepaulezz said he’s not bitter, though, and in conversation he constantly emphasized the positive: the gratitude he has for his life and his desire to make a contribution. Despite an “insane” presidential administration and other societal challenges, like continuing instances of mistreatment of blacks by police, Dphrepaulezz said he is an optimist.

“Americans are a resilient bunch. We’ve been through far worse things, and we’ve got to find a way again,” he said. “I love living that way. It’s better than drugs, man. There’s always a way.”

That attitude has carried Dphrepaulezz far.

Born in the middle of 14 children, Dphrepaulezz was thrown out of the house at age 12 by his strict Muslim father, and for years he lived on the streets and in foster homes. He watched several people close to him die tragically from gunfire: his 14-year-old brother, a cousin, a close childhood friend, the list goes on.

Inspired by Prince, Dphrepaulezz taught himself to play multiple musical instruments when he was about 18, dressing up to sneak into a UC Berkeley campus studio to watch students practice.

At the same time, he was a petty criminal, selling drugs and stealing from houses, until he got robbed at gunpoint and left Oakland for Tinseltown with big dreams.

Improbably, Dphrepaulezz was able to score a million-dollar deal with Interscope Records, but that fizzled out after several years of commercial failure as he struggled to satisfy corporate expectations. He was cut loose after almost being killed by a drunk driver who ran a red light, smashed his car, and put him in a coma for three weeks and mangled his strumming hand, drastically limiting the way he plays guitar to this day.

“When everything get’s tough, I feel like that’s when you get going,” he said. “You work with what you have. What else is there? OK, so you’re hand doesn’t move. What are you going to do?”

For eight more years, Dphrepaulezz stayed in LA, making money by licensing music, running an illegal after-hours club in his South Central apartment and other hustles. He continued to play in various incarnations, including as the Chocolate Butterfly and the blue-haired frontman of Blood Sugar X, a funk-punk ensemble.

Then, tired out, Dphrepaulezz moved back to Oakland to settle down, grow pot, and open an offbeat art gallery. Five years went by in which he did not play music, having sold most of his equipment. But his passion was unexpectedly reignited after he strummed a chord in desperation on a guitar from under a sofa to quiet his crying baby boy, and the child’s face lit up with joy.

That was when Dphrepaulezz and Malcolm Spellman, his partner in the marijuana growing operation, formed the nucleus of what became the Blackball Universe arts collective, an entity Dphrepaulezz credits with fueling his trajectory and helping him to find satisfaction in work.

Spellman at the time was a down-on-his luck screenwriter who, like Dphrepaulezz, had returned to Oakland from LA when his career stalled after initial success. He has since become a writer on the hip-hop dynasty show Empire on Fox, a fact he feels is linked to Dphrepaulezz’s success.

The two men had been in each other’s orbits since their days as delinquent youths in Oakland, but only become good friends after Spellman visited Dphrepaulezz in the hospital following the car crash.

“Thank you @MalcolmSpellman for giving me so much clarity on my artistic vision with out you there would be no #fantasticnegrito,” Dphrepaulezz posted to Twitter on April 17. “With out @MalcolmSpellman stopping me from hating everyone and self destructing I don’t know where I would be.”

Seasoned by trials, setbacks, and age, Dphrepaulezz found himself drawn for the first time to the Delta blues music he had heard while visiting relatives in Virginia as a youth.

Dphrepaulezz played local bars and turned to the streets, where he would gather crowds of up to 200 people.

“He didn’t know what else to do, and he wanted to be heard, so he went out and played,” Spellman said.

With songwriting, Dphrepaulezz allowed Spellman to be a reality check, and Spellman pushed him hard to focus on the plight of others.

“I’m in recovery from narcissism,” Dphrepaulezz says matter-of-factly. “It’s just like being a junkie. It’s destructive and extremely pervasive in this society we live in.”

That focus led to “Lost in a Crowd,” a song inspired by an overworked cashier. And that song won the National Public Radio “Tiny Desk” competition in 2015, a seminal event for Fantastic Negrito that sparked important connections and appearances, including ones with Jimmy Kimmel and Bernie Sanders and multiple tours with Chris Cornell, the Soundgarden guitarist who recently died.

Again, Dphrepaulezz credits the Blackball Universe collective with the fact that Fantastic Negrito even entered the Tiny Desk contest, something he didn’t want to do because he thought NPR folks wouldn’t get him.

“That’s the great thing about a collective is I was outvoted, and it changed the course of what I was doing,” Dphrepaulezz said. “Because you don’t have all the power. Narcissists want all the power.”

Spellman had brought a friend of up from LA, a somewhat mysterious man who goes simply by the name “Field,” to help with the Fantastic Negrito project.

Field, also re-entering the music business after a multiyear hiatus, was sure Dphrepaulezz’s music, with its jagged edges, could get a video posted on the Tiny Desk website and thus get some good exposure.

Field and Spellman pushed the issue, and the collective voted against Dphrepaulezz in favor of making a video, which was shot in a single take in a cargo elevator in the back of the Blackball Universe offices using an iPad, with the sound recorded on an iPhone.

“We’re all very truthful with each other,” said Field. “We’re all about authenticity and excellence.”

Spellman, who has been drawn away by work in Hollywood, said he hopes the future is rewarding for the collective, which has grown to include several more members, including Field.

“It could change for the better,” Spellman said. “We have all lived very, very intense lives. Hopefully we are built for the world up ahead. I think we are.”

Dphrepaulezz agrees.

“In any relationship, there are ups and downs. That’s with everything. ... Nothing is all good,” Dphrepaulezz said.

“It’s a great idea to kind of depend on each other and build a community, not just with your mouth and the slogans, you know,” he added. “To just do it, put your money where your mouth is.”

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