Xavier Dphrepaulezz, AKA Fantastic Negrito originally hustled his way into music to escape the gang life and murders of Oakland. Then, an LA music career was cut short when his car was broadsided by a drunk driver and flipped across four lanes of traffic. He emerged from a coma but his guitar strumming hand was permanently damaged. After quitting music altogether to go and farm weed, he rediscovered its power when playing a song for his new child. This set him on a path that has resulted in him winning a Grammy and having a succession of best selling albums. So, how did he reinvent himself?
RSNG Growing up in Oakland did you have access to music school?
FANTASTIC NEGRITO, MUSICIAN ‘Not at all. I was in impoverished areas. My story of learning is that I would sneak into the University of California, Berkeley, and I would like wear a tie that day, and I grew sideburns. I think I was 17, 18 maybe, and it would be small talk with the person at the front desk, then just skip right in there. I'd get that key and I'd get into the practice rooms in the music department, and all these students, they were playing to what I now know as scales, but I didn't know what it was. I learned that you could play that scale in every key, and it was fascinating.’
‘Then I'd go and try and talk to the people who knew music and they'd look at me in a strange way. I'm like, “Oh, see, the black keys, you can just…” Haha, yes, that's how I learned. I think I wanted to be self-taught because my hero was like the early Prince, the androgynous weirdo dressing in garter belts, but then he had the prettiest girls, and I thought, wow. Now, if a black man from Minneapolis can do that, I want to be on that trajectory.’
‘I didn't like the way that 9mm felt on my head, like 100lbs – I thought I was going to die that day’
RSNG Your music career first took off with a big, mainstream recording contract in LA – how did that come about?
FN ‘This thing goes in like three parts. There was the first part of there's the young artist from Oakland, from the streets, who wanted to get way from all the crime and murder and things that were happening at that time. I'd lost a lot of friends who'd been murdered at barbers shops and I'd been robbed, man, at gunpoint, and I didn't like the way that nine millimetre felt on my head. I thought I was going to die that day. I always say when that gun came over my head it felt like 100lbs.’
‘Immediately, I got out of Oakland, I went straight to LA [with $100 and a keyboard] and I thought, do you know what, I want to be famous. I want to be a star. I want the best food, the best house, the best clothes, the best women. That artist, he wanted everything. He was a young, good-looking dude, and so there's a difference between him and the artist now. That was phase one.’
RSNG That LA dream ended when you had a horrific car crash that put you in a coma and permanently damaged your playing hand – what happened next?
FN ‘The accident happened, then phase two began where I went into the underground. I didn’t quit but I got into the whole Afropunk scene.’
RSNG So you adapted?
FN ‘Yes, I'm optimistic, man. I just believe it's going to happen. I looked at this hand and I'm like, I'm buying a grand piano, so I borrowed money from my friend and clunk, clunk, clunk. I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried, I wouldn't quit, I cried tears, and I made it happen, man. I made it happen, with the help of people. I hate to say, “I did.” I hate that shit. No, people put up with my bullshit and let me sleep me on the couch, and then 'we’ made it happen. It's very emotional for me.’
‘It's like, what could I come back and tell you guys after I was in a coma and almost died? People were like, “You can't do this. You can't do this. You can't be this.” Well, yes, you can, you can do it, and I was like, what I can come back and tell people is that we can do it. No matter how low that we get, how bad that it seems.’
‘‘Looking online and everybody's polarised and they're against each other. Dammit, we can still do it. We can do it. I believe in it. I think it's what really began the third phase of it, being a musician. Becoming Fantastic Negrito was being that character, being that superhero. I'm Fantastic Negrito. I'm coming. Here I am at the train station!’
‘Even if you've given up it's OK – I gave up but every day is another opportunity to hit reset’
RSNG You eventually gave up music completely – what advice would you have for someone who had totally given up but then still had an itch to make a comeback?
FN ‘Well, I'd say, even if you've given up, it's okay. I gave up. I sold everything I had. It's all okay, then every day is another opportunity to hit reset. Every day you were an asshole yesterday, wake up, take a deep breath, reset, refresh and don't try to be famous. Don't try to write hit songs. Maybe that's my advice. Walk towards the light and you'll find happiness and you'll find truth, and those are the things that we need in living this life. We learn to live for other people, then we become happy. Then we become human.’
‘My life, before, I was living it as some crazy narcissist. I didn't think I needed – I just wanted shit and I wanted things good for me, but when I got to the third phase of being an artist he was a middle-aged guy and he wanted to give back. He knew that it was important to have a friend and he knew that it was so important that everyday people going to work, riding that bike, painting the building, serving the coffee, those are the people, and those people are my record company. No offence to them. The people are my record company, that's who I've got to answer to.’
RSNG Do you think part of your new creativity has to do with the limitations that the accident and your previous life put on you?
FN ‘Absolutely. Absolutely. I had to reinvent how to play. I couldn't play for as long, I couldn't do certain chords, so, yes, it limited me, but I think when we're limited sometimes we become more creative. We're using different parts of the brain and the heart.’
‘Straight, or gay, black or white, they’re all unified under this music, and it makes me feel very, very useful’
RSNG Has the partying lifestyle returned with the success of Fantastic Negrito?
FN ‘What I love about this phase of being the middle-aged Fantastic Negrito guy is that I really don't want nothing. The stuff comes to me after the shows and all kinds of temptation and I go, “You know what, I'm going to have some tea and go to sleep.” People are like, “What?” I remember in France they got mad at me. “Tea? We don't have fucking tea here!” And like, there's women. There’s all this stuff. I just go home, go to the hotel, sleep and be useful to people.’
‘To be able to wake up and my voice is strong, I've had sleep, and I can deliver a concert where people are crying after the show. People that are Jews, Christian or Muslim, whatever, they're in the same building, and they're straight, or they're gay or they're black or they're white, but they're all unified under this music, and it makes me feel very, very useful.’
RSNG You’re not afraid to address issues of inequality in your music – do you think there’s a role for musicians to have that voice and to be able to somehow, as you say, connect different people who maybe wouldn't be connected otherwise?
FN ‘I think it's our job, especially now when the world seems so split, man. You look at everywhere across the globe and it's like, ‘I'm on the left,” and, “I'm on the right.” Before, you could have tea with each other or coffee or a drink, but it just seems like it's such an ugly place that I feel it's the role of artists and musicians; we're the creative people. We can tell the truth. What do we have to lose?’
‘I don't feel like I'm political at all. I went out to help Bernie Sanders and played, but I thought he was a nice guy. I thought he was saying things that were trying to unite people along the lines of a democratic society, and I like that. I'm not a democrat, I'm not a republican, I'm an artist, and if I can be of use to the world that I live in, which is my community, well, I like that. That's a good life. At 50, that's just how I feel. I feel like I want to be productive for the rest of my life.’
RSNG Were you drawn to the blues elements in your Fantastic Negrito persona through developing musical tastes, or is it just something that you found a voice in?
FN ‘I started to create based on what was around me and about what I was going through, and I think this time I was influenced by all the guys from the delta. I don't know, I won a Grammy for best contemporary blues album. There's not a 12-bar blues song on my record! I really stay out of that stuff and I go, “Oh, really? Am I a blues musician? Okay.”’
‘I loved the look on my engineer's face when I bought in 'Plastic Hamburgers', the first song from Please Don’t Be Dead to mix. He listened and he called me like: “Holy shit, like what are you doing? Like you just won a Grammy and this is the road to success.” Then I'd come up with this loud guitar riff and I was like, “Yes, that's what I'm doing. I'm channelling 1968,” and I really was.
RSNG What about that era were you channeling?
FN ‘I thought about ‘Electric Ladyland’ and ‘The White Album’ and that whole era of freedom, man, and it made me go there and fall back in love with the blues riff. Do you know what I mean? The universal riff in E. I remember thinking, making this record, when those neo-Nazi mother fuckers in North Carolina were marching, and I was in Norway when that happened and I thought, I bet you they like Johnny B. Goode. Everybody likes Johnny B. Goode. I thought, what brings us together no matter what? A riff, a chant, something that's older than speech maybe, and that's how I approached producing this, Please Don't be Dead album. It's just fun, actually.’
‘I think we're all playing the blues; we just don't know it. I listen to EDM and I'll be like, oh, listen to that, blues. I think it's so woven into the DNA, that whole black-roots music that came from these people that came from Africa that had to work in fields, and they were just coming up with it, they were just feeling it, and that became popular culture, so I think it's everywhere. I particularly was influenced by Robert Johnson, Skip James, and everyone after that. It's blues'y and I'm feeling it with Little Richard and Led Zeppelin. The English people: Black Sabbath. I think: “Black Sabbath, what's more blues than that?”
RSNG So blues is more about how you approach music?
FN ‘You can play 12-bar blues all you want and it not be blues, brother. There's a lot of it out there. It isn't just the progression. It’s the feeling. To me, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from the Nevermind album, one of the greatest blues albums ever made. It's just got it. What is 'it'? I don't know. It has 'it'. It has the same feeling as when I play Muddy Waters because those people were living that shit, man. ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five? Blues, brother. That's blues. The blues is like the reality and it's the feeling that you have and it's real.’
‘That's why I love Johnny Cash and all these people. I never saw a difference between them. I was like listening to hip-hop as a kid, then I heard Johnny Cash and I was like, oh, that's ‘it’. You take David Bowie. Whatever you want to call it, that's 'it'. Everyone hasn't got it. It's a feeling. Muddy Waters said that. He said: “Blues is a feeling, man.”
WHAT NEXT? Watch Fantastic Negrito’s video for The Duffler off his new album Please Don’t Be Dead, out now.
Photo credits: DeAndre Forks, Alberto Bravo, Chad Crawford
Follow the author @mattfitnessray