Xavier Dphrepaulezz leans forward on a wooden bench inside Bicycle Coffee near Oakland's Jack London Square, wrapping his hands around a cup of freshly brewed joe. Steam rises to the collar of his black dress shirt, which is riddled with decorative air holes and accented by a denim tie. A grey fedora atop his head straddles puffs of thick, curly hair lightly peppered with gray. The dapper, old-fashioned outfit embodies Dphrepaulezz's Fantastic Negrito persona, the latest, perhaps greatest, and (according to Dphrepaulezz) hopefully last in a long line of musical incarnations.
The coffee shop is just a few blocks from Blackball Universe studios, the art gallery and collective of which Dphrepaulezz is a member. It's also a five-minute drive from West Oakland, where Dphrepaulezz spent a few of his formative years on the streets as a youth runaway. This is where he slept in cars, got in fights, and experimented with drugs before he landed in foster care and reform school.
It's also only a stone's throw away from 15th and Broadway, where Fantastic Negrito first set out a hat on the street and played guitar for passers-by in 2013.
"Without busking, there is no Fantastic Negrito," Dphrepaulezz says.
Playing music for an unwilling or unexpected audience at a BART station or late night Oakland intersection is the beginning of the journey for many musicians, but for Dphrepaulezz — who is made so anxious by crowds that he admits to nervously puking before every performance — it was a rebirth.
"There's a truth and honesty and transparency to Fantastic Negrito — and that's even more scary," he says. "I had been hiding behind my art gallery and collective for a long time because I was scared. I'm just starting to admit that."
When Dphrepaulezz, who's primarily a keyboard player, hit the streets, it'd been several years since he had performed in front of a real crowd — in a venue or otherwise.
An earlier successful music career, which included a major label deal with Interscope and a $1 million advance under the moniker Xavier, came to a tumultuous end in 1999 when Dphrepaulezz was involved in a serious automobile collision. He awoke from a three-week coma with his right hand badly disfigured, rods holding his arm together, and a schedule of intense therapy to regain limited mobility in his arm and shoulder ahead of him.
It looked like he may never play the keyboards again. His relationship with the label fell apart.
But his release from the label brought new life and perspective to his art. He had felt stifled by his relationship with Interscope the minute he inked the deal, and used his newfound freedom to experiment with an array of musical genres. He toured, playing basement shows on New York's Lower East Side, sporting a blue Mohawk in a punk act called Blood Sugar X. It was fun, but he grew tired.
"I was gonna be 40 and wanted to have a kid. I was tired of the L.A. thing, so I came back home. And I didn't want to do music here — I wanted to raise chickens and grow weed."
Dphrepaulezz fell back on his music licensing business — a continuous and steady source of income that has seen his music featured in over 60 TV shows and movies. (His songs have been in everything from Leprechaun in the Hood to several Tyler Perry movies, to USA Network's Burn Notice.)
He also hustled. He sold things on eBay. He did what he needed to do to get by, without getting onstage.
But one night, when his restless newborn son Kyu wouldn't stop crying before bed, the new father went into the career musician's deep cuts. He pulled out a guitar and played a G major chord.
The baby stopped crying.
Dphrepaulezz got chills. After the accident and the anxiety, the simple and pure reaction his son had to the sound of the guitar reawakened in Dphrepaulezz the desire to perform and create in front of others.
It was the same desire that had encouraged Dphrepaulezz to move to L.A. to front a band at 20. The same desire to reinvent he felt in the hospital bed after being dropped from his major label deal. And, as a father in his 40s who hadn't seen a stage in years, the same desire that led him to rekindle, on Bay Area street corners and inside BART stations, a new persona: Fantastic Negrito.
A short time after that G major rang out in front of his son, Dphrepaulezz was walking out of his studio on Oakland's Madison Street, hat and guitar in hand, seeking the audience he'd been avoiding.
A Collective Mindset
Dphrepualezz's big break came earlier this year, when he entered and won NPR's Tiny Desk Concert Contest in February. The video propelled his music into a national spotlight — but at first, he wanted nothing to do with it.
"I was like, 'Man, they're not gonna be into this black roots gutter shit.' You know? This is some gutter shit, man. I couldn't really see them liking what I was doing," he says.
But the decision wasn't Dphrepaulezz's. It was a collective decision, put to a vote in the Blackball Universe Collective, a group he founded as a record label over a decade ago but has since grown into a collective of writers, hustlers, cannabis growers, artists, and musicians. The collective finances each other's projects and helps members who fall on hard times. When there's a disagreement, the issue gets put to a vote. Blackball voted in favor of the shoot, and so Dphrepaulezz was forced to film and submit his video — reluctantly and a bit truculently.
"You can see the NPR video is one take, and I'm like [Dphrepaulezz begins to pound the coffee table, causing little Godzilla-esque ripples to reverberate inside his cup and sings in a raspy, soulful voice lost in a crowd, you feel your thoughts out loud]. I was mad," Dphrepaulezz says. "That's anger, man — but it worked."