Fantastic Negrito is Xavier Dphrepaulez, the son of a Somali-Caribbean immigrant who has a story he wants to tell, in conversation and in music.
It’s a tale of talent and triumph over adversity, of near death and disappointment, of giving up, then finding a reward and success that couldn’t have been imagined years earlier.
“I think my story is the American dream,” Dphrepaulez said. “I think it’s valuable to share, to see someone who is living it as an artist — from working with Jimmy Iovine to being three months in a coma, years in obscurity in the L.A. underground, quitting music altogether to becoming the Fantastic Negrito. I have the responsibility of having a perspective and I want to share it.”
The short version of that story:
Dphrepaulez grew up in Massachusetts before moving to Oakland, Calif., at age 12. Soon thereafter, he left home, winding up on the streets and then with a strict Christian foster family. Obsessed with hip-hop, he taught himself to play piano by sneaking into practice rooms at UC Berkeley at night.
By 20, he was making music, but living a rough, drug-infected life — until an encounter with a masked gunman sent him off to Los Angeles, armed only with a demo cassette of songs he’d recorded.
Determined to be a pop star, he signed with a big-time manager and, in 1994, landed a record deal with industry giant Interscope Records, which was helmed at the time by legendary producer Iovine. His self-titled debut album, released in 1996, flopped.
Then came the 1999 car crash that left him in a coma and disfigured his guitar-playing hand.
Released from his Interscope contract — or liberated, from his point-of-view — Dphrepaulez rehabbed and resumed his street hustle, returning home to Oakland where, in 2007, he gave up music. Until the birth of his son.
Picking up a guitar to entertain his little boy, Dphrepaulez found himself reinvigorated. Freed from the pop drive, he took to writing his blues-rooted songs, which he tested by playing them in subway stations and on street corners.
In less than a year, Dphrenpaulez, who had taken on the moniker of Fantastic Negrito, had won the first NPR Tiny Desk contest in 2015. The next year, he released “The Last Days of Oakland,” a powerful, raw record that in 2017 won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, setting him off to play bigger shows for larger audiences and get wide public attention and critical acclaim.
He’s now coming to Lincoln Calling for a Friday night Bourbon Theatre show behind “Please Don’t Be Dead,” an album that finds him on the cover in his hospital bed after the car crash.
That record, like its predecessor, is filled with blues-derived roots music that is rough, raw, unflinchingly honest and, in contrast to most blues records, contemporary rather than retro.
“I think it’s a fine line to create that balance,” he said. “Number one, I don’t record in the studio, I recorded in an art gallery. I like making records that have a very raw, real sound that accounts for how organic the music ends up. That’s a huge priority. I try to make the music organic.
“I’m a middle-aged guy. I grew up at a time when hip-hop was the music of my generation and I’m not afraid of it. I’m sampling, taking the drum parts, the bass parts from hip-hop. That’s why it doesn’t sound dated. I don’t want to sound like people did in 1968. And I don’t want to be a pop star. As an artist and a producer, I go into the studio with all of that in mind.”
And he comes out with a fresh musical mixture that doesn’t fit easily into any roots music category.
“I’ll hear, 'It’s blues, but not blues enough. It’s rock but it kind of feels like soul,'" he said. “I’m like, 'Good.' I love soul. I love punk music. I love blues and I love early hip-hop. To me, there’s nothing more punk than Muddy Water, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Black Sabbath. That’s material for what I play. It’s Americana, in a way. It’s something that brings us all together and it’s gone around the world."
Lyrically, the Fantastic Negrito songs are just as raw and pointed as the music — addressing gun violence and addiction in “Plastic Hamburger” and pleading for America in our interview: “I thought, America, please don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead, liberty, justice.”
While his pleas feel ripped from today’s headlines, delivered by a black Muslim, who would seem to be a target of the policies of President Trump, Dphrenpaulez said he’s not making protest songs per se.
“It comes from being a person who lives on the planet,” he said. “I’m concerned about living here. I don’t look at myself as political or preachy, I’m just trying to make a contribution to the society I live in. It’s helpful to people to have a point of view and express that. If people curse me out, that’s fine. You have to be coming from a place in your heart.”
As for the name Fantastic Negrito, Dphrenpaulez said he took it to make a point about great-yet-obscure blues artists of the past.
“As I was listening to Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson, Son House and more recent artists like R.L. Burnside, I realized nobody knew them,” he said. “I chose it (Fantastic Negrito) because I knew when I’d being doing interviews like this, I’d be asked about it and I could say their names. That’s why I did it and it’s why I can talk about them now.”
Throughout our Tuesday conversation, Dphrenpaulez approached his life and thoughts matter-of-factly. Asked if he could have imagined being where he is now when he was lying in that hospital bed, he replied:
“I’m very optimistic, but I try not to think that far ahead,” he said. “I take it as it comes. It’s all amazing, waking up from a coma and learning to walk again, having friends that help you, having people that seek out your music. It really is all amazing.”
It’s also, as he knows, really living the true American dream.