ABOVE: XAVIER DPHREPAULEZZ.
Fantastic Negrito hails from Oakland, but his storytelling spirit is one of the road. Born Xavier Dphrepaulezz, he makes “black roots music for everyone,” he says, and his music’s firm footing is its social statements. But he’s not sanctimonious; he’s simply honest and speaks from experience. This is perhaps best expressed by the man himself on “The Last Days of Oakland,” the intro track of his recent LP The Last Days of Oakland (Blackball Universe): “The last days of Oakland / The end of something / And the beginning of something … There’s good in the old Oakland / There’s good in the new Oakland / Let’s make a sandwich / Let’s make a new baby / The seeds were planted long ago / Just watch the tree grow.”
For Dphrepaulezz, loss, love, poverty, racism, change, pain, and redemption are all on the table. His music is soulful, rousing, and demanding, and his audience is asked meet those demands when standing before him. Last month, we learned that he’s also, unsurprisingly, a conversationalist. We caught up over the phone while he was in the midst of touring his way across the United States. Tomorrow, he arrives in San Francisco and will perform at Outside Lands.
HALEY WEISS: I know back in ’96 you released some music under your birth name. What made you switch to the name Fantastic Negrito?
XAVIER DPHREPAULEZZ: Back in ’96 I was a child. [laughs] I had a dream, as young people have quite idealistic dreams and goals, of, “I’m going to go to Los Angeles and I’m going to become a star!” I did get this huge record deal and I recorded this music under Xavier. That didn’t really work out. I was on that label for five years. I was able to get off because I was in a near fatal accident [in 2000]. I was in a coma for three weeks, as is probably known. I decided that I would start these incarnations: Chocolate Butterfly, Me and This Japanese Guy, Blood Sugar X. All of these different incarnations I released music under to get work in song licensing and pretty major Hollywood films. I did that for about eight years and then I quit for five years. I decided to come back. I was always thinking, “Hey, an incarnation is always a more interesting character. He gets involved in this music and he finds this new means of expression.”
WEISS: What made you come back to music?
DPHREPAULEZZ: I had a son. I quit, really, to have kids. I didn’t want to play music. I bought a farm. Then when I had the kid, I just couldn’t put him down one day. I was like, “Wow, he doesn’t want to go to sleep. He’s really irritated.” I didn’t have any old instruments left. I sold everything, all my gear. There was a crappy guitar that was underneath this orange couch in his room. I just looked at and I thought, “Let’s try this.” I picked it up and I played a G major. Wow, the room exploded; it exploded with his smile and his expression and his excitement. At this moment I felt, “Wow, you know what? This is the truest language of humanity. Maybe I should rethink what I’m doing with my life.” That began a long, slow walk back to music. Within that long, slow walk I discovered Fantastic Negrito, black roots music, and music from my grandmother’s generation—stuff that I ignored most of my life. Suddenly I was enthralled with this music and taken by it and moved emotionally. I was inspired to follow that tradition, and to mix it with the tradition of growing up in Oakland, and hip-hop music and punk music and soul and funk and all these other things, and folk. I decided that I wanted to follow that path because it seemed the most genuine.
WEISS: How old were you when you left home—after moving to Oakland from Massachusetts with your family?
DPHREPAULEZZ: I was a troublemaker. I was a delinquent. I was a fool! I was dangerous. I was 11 or 12. I think I was 12. I was really feeling myself, because I decided to never come back home—the decision that changed my life. I thought at 12, “You know what, I just won’t go back home.”
WEISS: What was the music scene like in Oakland then? Was that something you were involved in or did that come later?
DPHREPAULEZZ: It came later. I wasn’t involved with it but it was exciting. You could feel it when you touched the streets. It was the birth of hip-hop. It was filled with punk music and what would soon be alternative music. It was exciting, man. It was ’79, ’80. I’m an old man. It was combustible, explosive, my god. That was when I decided to never come back home but I didn’t become a musician until I was 17 or 18.
WEISS: What made you decide to become a musician? Did you know you had musical ability when you were younger?
DPHREPAULEZZ: I knew I was an exhibitionist. I came from a huge family. I found an emotional connection being on stage. When you’re from a family of 14, you don’t really get attention. I finally realized [I liked] that attention, plus I was a hustling drug dealer. People were getting killed all around me and I thought, “Geez, I better find a better occupation.”
WEISS: Did you start singing or was it the guitar?
DPHREPAULEZZ: I started out playing the piano. Prince was a hero. He was the brother, the black man that was a little different. As a kid you thought, “Wow, he’s different. If he can do it I can do it.” I read that he was self-taught so I started teaching myself to play the piano.
WEISS: Isn’t it true that your friend gave his manager your tape and that’s how you first got signed?
DPHREPAULEZZ: Yeah, that’s how I got signed.
WEISS: Were you surprised when you received that level of attention?
DPHREPAULEZZ: I knew I had something but I didn’t really know what I had. I knew something was good, but I wasn’t sure. I was surprised though. That was my goal. When it happens you’re always surprised.
WEISS: Do you ever listen to the music you made during that period? If so, what do you think of it?
DPHREPAULEZZ: I don’t really listen to it, but when I think of it I go, “This guy is really talented. He didn’t really have a direction but he was extremely talented.” I just needed some help. I remember them trying to get me some help but I didn’t want it at this point. The relationship was so damaged. I think they were trying to get Nile Rodgers to help me. He was actually interested. I was such an asshole that I wasn’t interested. That’s youth for you. You can’t tell young people shit a lot of times. [both laugh]
WEISS: When you got in the accident, was that a bit of a wake up call? Did that become a turning point for you?
DPHREPAULEZZ: Definitely all of the above. It’s a turning point, it’s a wake up call, it’s life changing. What I decided was I’d be happier not being in the confines of a corporate infrastructure producing music. That’s when I was free and it opened up the door to have a different personality and incarnations. That’s really when I had success in my music life. I was able to license my music.
WEISS: When did you come back to Oakland and why?
DPHREPAULEZZ: I came back to retire. I quit from music and was never going to play music again. I really thought I wanted to live the full spectrum of life. I wanted to see what it’s like to be married, to have kids. I thought, “I’ve never tried that. Let’s try that!” I definitely wanted to quit music. I had no interest in it.
WEISS: How’d you arrive at the title for the album, The Last Days of Oakland?
DPHREPAULEZZ: First of all, I was touring and traveling the states quite a bit and I saw [change] everywhere, not just in Oakland. I was in New Orleans when I came up with the title. I thought, “Wow, everything’s different. It’s over. It’s changed.” We are now living in a time where the city you’re born in, you may not afford to live in it [anymore]. A large number of black population have moved out of these cities. They’ve become these places where you’ve got to be rich to live. You have to slave your life away just to pay $3,000 rent or whatever. I just thought, “That’s really unsustainable for the future for people, all people.” I thought the sound of the record, with what I was going for sonically and the narrative, that this was a good title. It meant, “Hey man, you better look towards something great and you better work with people because the end of everything always comes.” When you’re living in the last days of something the point is, “How are we going to prepare for what’s coming next?” That’s really how I came up with the title. Now it’s really time to get it together and let’s find common ground. Let’s build towards something new.
WEISS: On “The Last Days of Oakland,” the album’s intro song, there are excerpts of people talking about how Oakland has changed. Are those from interviews?
DPHREPAULEZZ: That’s just me walking around being nosey, antagonizing people. It’s kind of what I do. It’s good. I walk the streets with my iPhone. I always like connecting with people. That’s what I did.
WEISS: What did you ask them? Did you tell them it would be included a song or did you just ask, “How do you think Oakland has changed”?
DPHREPAULEZZ: I think I just wanted to get their opinion and permission to use it—that’s it. I’m talking about living, living life. I’m interested in talking about it. I’m interested in talking about living in this city. People opened up. I also walked around and I talked to people about, “What are the tools that you have? What do you do when law enforcement stops you?” I wanted kids, and even my kids, to know that you have to tools—especially being a person of color—when you’re stopped by law enforcement. I wanted to put that on my record as well because that’s my responsibility to pass on tools and the message of how to not get your life taken away from you. I really went out into the streets and talked to people.
WEISS: As a musician, do you see initiating these discussions as a requirement of what you do?
DPHREPAULEZZ: I 100 percent see it that way. I feel like when you’re an artist and when you’re a human being, and in the family of humanity, your job is to contribute. I see it as a musician, as an artist, as a painter. Whatever you do, whoever you are, that’s your job—to contribute. That’s why we’re all here. That’s my philosophy. If you’re a police officer, journalist, what’s your contribution to this gift you’ve been given, which is life and this human family that you’ve been born into?
WEISS: When you were performing at the Soho House you dedicated a song to your mom and you mentioned how your brother was killed, and your cousin, by acts of gun violence. Do you find it difficult to share those personal experiences? Does it get easier with time?
DPHREPAULEZZ: It’s not easy, but again that’s my job. My brother, my cousin, a kid who I grew up with, my friend’s brother, my other friend’s brother, my other friend’s cousin—there is an epidemic of gun violence, especially in the community that I came from. Of course it’s difficult, of course it’s painful, [but] I don’t want those lives to be in vain. I want to breathe life and celebrate those lives and hopefully bring a forth a message, which is that those lives are not lived in vain. A mother has to carry those lives for nine months and give birth, to nurture. That means everything to me. That’s why I dedicated the song “In The Pines.” I reworked it and rewrote it to pay homage, to give the utmost and highest respect to the woman who has to carry these babies for nine months.
WEISS: You’ve described your music as “black roots music for everyone,” but said that when you were younger you didn’t necessarily pay attention to that music. When did you start listening to people like Skip James and Lead Belly?
DPHREPAULEZZ: I didn’t really take it that seriously when I was a kid and it just kind of passed me by. It was something that I took for granted. It’s like being in the church, absorbing all of that gospel music; it’s just something that’s there. I don’t think I really tried to get too involved in it or even listen to it that much. When I decided to quit playing music, and move back to Oakland, I had a strange interest in listening to it. I thought it was something I could relate to finally as a grown man. I had failed enough, lived enough, and I could really feel the music resonating with me.
WEISS: What is it about that genre specifically that you find particularly vital or helpful to the kind of storytelling you’re interested in?
DPHREPAULEZZ: From those masters—Charley Patton, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly—what you get is a rawness, a nakedness. There’s a sense of urgency. What they were experiencing was so real; it was life and death. That whole experience, of even being a slave, was so real. Your options were so limited and you had to work with what you had to work with. For me, there’s no greater lesson in life than that, and there’s no higher respect that I can pay back to my ancestors who… You know, they took it for me. They suffered, they died, their children were snatched from them and sold so that I could live. I always look at it that way. I feel moved, I feel responsible, and I feel like it is all of our music—it’s our experience as Americans. We’re very different Americans because of this experience. It has really shaped who we are, whether we want to admit it or not.
WEISS: Lastly, when I saw you perform, you mentioned you were a recovered narcissist—
DPHREPAULEZZ: Recovering—you never recover. [both laugh]
WEISS: What advice do you have for other recovering narcissists out there?
DPHREPAULEZZ: You’ve got to walk toward the light!… Then the other thing is just living for other people. That’s really big for me; I live for other people, I don’t just live for myself. It’s so rewarding, and it’s so beautiful to be needed by other people, and it’s so rewarding to give. And you surround yourself with people who won’t put up with your bullshit. [laughs]