Grammy Flashback Interview & Performance: Fantastic Negrito

Lyndsey Parker

 

With the 59th Annual Grammy Awards set to air on CBS on Sunday, Feb. 12, we’re looking back at some of the nominated artists who’ve performed for Yahoo Music. Today, we go back to South By Southwest 2016, when bluesman Fantastic Negrito played acoustic at our Austin compound. He’s up this year for Best Contemporary Blues Album, for his release The Last Days of Oakland.

If the ad execs over at Dos Equis ever want to recast their famous “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign, they need look no further than Xavier Dphrepaulezz, aka Oakland-based bluesman and NPR Tiny Desk Concert contest winner Fantastic Negrito.

At 48, this man has lived a life with more twists and turns than Showgirls, Leprechauns in the Hood, or an entire season of Empire — all of which have featured his music. From his childhood (in and out of foster care) as one of eight siblings, to his stints as an Interscope Records signing, illegal nightclub owner, and medical-marijuana farmer, Dphrepaulezz has done and seen it all — and his life experience seeps its way into his raw and gritty roots music.

Dphrepaulezz had a rough upbringing, leaving home at 12, but it looked like his life was about to turn around when he moved to Los Angeles in the ‘90s and was soon discovered by Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine while gigging in a band called Dead From Sex. But again, trouble followed the struggling singer.


“Jimmy, he signed me, and it was a pretty big deal, but then I just ended up on the label for like five years, kind of toiling in obscurity. It was quite an experience; I’ll say that,” Dphrepaulezz recalls, sitting on an Austin porch with Yahoo Music after playing an acoustic session during South by Southwest. “I had this dream that you get this record deal and you’re a star and everybody loves you — but I was a youngster, and it didn’t work out that way.

“When I was a youngster, I wrote all this music — it just came out of me — and I think record executives were like, ‘Oh, wow, he’s a genius, let’s give him a million dollars!’ But the minute I started producing the records, they’d be like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re terrible! You’re all over the place! We can’t market this!’ They’d bring in different people to try and work with me, but by then they’d already given me a million bucks and told me I was great, so I believed that.”

Looking backing on his early days of swelled-headedness, Dphrepaulezz admits, “I could have worked with great people like Nile Rodgers, which I regret. I don’t have many regrets, but I remember he’d shown some interest, and I was just in my own world, man. So Nile, if you’re out there, let’s do it! There were other high-profile people, like Teddy Riley, but [the Interscope deal] was contaminated by then, and it just didn’t work out. I don’t blame anyone. Sometimes marriages work, sometimes they don’t.”

Dphrepaulezz ended up releasing only one album during his Interscope tenure, the largely ignored The X Factor. (The LP’s main claim to fame was that one of its tracks was licensed for Showgirls, which is actually pretty amazing.) Three years later, his life once again dramatically changed — and nearly ended — when he was involved in a serious auto wreck on Hollywood’s Highland Avenue.

“In a strange way, what got me out of that deal was a near-fatal car accident, which left me in a coma for three weeks and disformed my playing hand, which I now call ‘the claw,’” says Dphrepaulezz, holding up his curled right hand. He also had a titanium rod inserted in his left arm. But these injuries didn’t deter him from making music. “I just had this hunk of flesh and I thought, ‘I’m stubborn, and I’m just going to do it, no matter what it takes.’ It took a long time, and I had to figure out what worked for me … but I’m a believer that you take something that’s not happening and make it happen. Maybe it has to happen in a different way, but damn it, it can happen! I really believe that.

“There came a point where I did give up on music, but I’m the kind of person that when I face obstacles, I become more determined. It’s just something weird within me. What I did was I took that energy and I created different incarnations of myself.”

Dphrepaulezz continued to reinvent himself musically, playing with groups like Chocolate Butterfly, Blood Sugar X, and Me & This Japanese Guy, and licensing his music to film and television. (Having a song in the infamous Leprechauns in the Hood is his greatest pride.) But he eventually branched out into even more adventurous ventures.

“I decided that the best thing to do in Los Angeles was to have an illegal afterhours with live music,” he says. “I got 7,000-square-foot warehouse and split it up, built a nightclub/bar/studio, with a hot tub on the roof. It was amazing! We’d open at midnight, close at 6 a.m. Police would come and party, too. It was super-eclectic. … Nude body-painting, topless bartenders, weirdos. My dogs lived on the roof.”

Eventually, when he decided to start a family, Dphrepaulezz moved back up north and took over a medical marijuana farm, which he decided was a more stable career than being a musician. But ironically, it was his toddler-age son who lured him back to the music world.

“One day we were alone and he had to take his nap, and he wouldn’t go to sleep,” Dphrepaulezz recalls. “I’d sold all my instruments. I had nothing left. … I was like, ‘I’ll never play again. I have no inspiration for music.’ But I had a really bad acoustic guitar underneath the couch. … I remember I played one chord for [my son]. It was a G major chord, and he just exploded. I’d never seen him react to anything like that. It was emotional. In that moment, the answer was there: that music is the most amazing language ever. This kid really loved it — and he didn’t care about all my baggage.”

Reinventing himself once again as blues troubadour Fantastic Negrito — with the encouragement of his longtime collaborator, Blackball Universe record label co-owner and Empire writer Malcolm Spellman — Dphrepaulezz is making music for fans of all ages. It seems he has finally found his niche, as well as the success that eluded him for more than 20 years.

So this raises the question: When will Fantastic Negrito stop just licensing his music to films, and have his life story turned into a major motion picture? With all his tales to tell, he really may be the Most Interesting (Blues)man in the World.

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