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Boom or Busk: The Street Roots of Fantastic Negrito 

Wednesday, Sep 9 2015
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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."

The video shows Dphrepaulezz and his bandmates crammed into a freight elevator in Blackball Universe's warehouse, performing "Lost in a Crowd." The judges chose it out of over 7,000 submissions to win NPR's submission-based contest, a victory that afforded Dphrepaulezz and his band the opportunity to perform on Bob Boilen's All Songs Considered at the NPR offices. The group made the most out of the platform, and watched its EP shoot to No. 4 on iTunes' blues chart, and No. 7 on Billboard's.

"NPR changed my life, I don't even front," Dphrepaulezz says. "They just injected steroids into Fantastic Negrito."

The video would go on to garner over 140,000 views on YouTube and strengthen Dphrepaulezz's faith in the power of a collective.

Dphrepaulezz did not associate power with numbers early on. He grew up with 13 siblings and "had to fight for everything," he says. "Food, attention, socks — everything." As a teen, he was sent to juvenile hall for fighting. His brother was murdered when he was 14, and his cousin at 17. Dphrepaulezz ended up in foster care and reform school, where he redirected his combative urges to boxing

Now, at 45, he's done fighting, and is looking to find team members instead of combatants.

One of the members of his collective, writer Malcolm Spellman, is an old rival from his neighborhood in West Oakland.

"We grew up selling drugs on the corner, hating each other, all that shit," Dphrepaulezz says. "I went to L.A. first being like, 'Imma make it.' I went first and I had made it. Then he came and we still hated each other. I think we hated each other because we were both eclectic motherfuckers in the hood, which can be dangerous."

As a fellow member of the collective, Dphrepaulezz had financially supported Spellman's writing aspirations for years. Then Spellman made it in L.A. too, landing a gig writing for FOX's Empire.

"I was hustling — doing what I was doing; song licensing, herb collecting... I'm gonna do all this stuff, you just write for three years; 'Here's your money, brother.' Sometimes I was like, ahh," he said, flashing a look of pain across his face while extending an arm holding imaginary cash. "But one thing you learn with the collective: You gonna drown all alone, so you better get on a winning team. We're in such an era of financial oppression in this society, man — I dunno how people make it. So the way I made it is, I just surrender myself and money to the collective. That's when we became successful. We got Empire, then I got Fantastic Negrito."

The relationship is symbiotic, with Spellman often being the critic who urges Dprepaulezz to "stop being such a narcissistic asshole" and write about people other than himself — a suggestion that led to "Lost in a Crowd," the song inspired by an overworked cashier that won the NPR competition. But the relationship also indicates deeper, more wide-reaching beliefs Dphrepaulezz has about the Bay Area, a community he draws inspiration and power from.

"I don't care how much money one of us makes, it's our money, and it's for the city," Dphrepaulezz says. "I want to make other people around me smarter and more powerful."

Dphrepaulezz is quick to point out that before he started preaching positivity, he made plenty of mistakes. But he learned from those experiences and now wants to help create a better environment for the youth — and himself.

"We gotta bring new ideas to the table and empower each other. I wanna be 90 years old walking and not get hit over the head. Give up on the American dream, let's call this the Bay Area dream."

Steel Festival Bracelets

Last month, at Outside Lands, San Francisco police detained Dphrepaulezz for three hours, forcing him to cancel his set at San Francisco's biggest paid music festival. The cause for the arrest: one of Dphrepaulezz's interns scalped a festival bracelet — much like the men and women who stood outside the entrance of the festival every night advertising discount passes.

"When the police were running toward us I did like this [Dphrepaulezz looks behind himself, motioning to an older white lady reading a magazine and enjoying a coffee with a quizzical expression], like, 'Who y'all chasing?' It was like a comedy because then I was like, oh [he now points to himself, expression deflating to one of defeat]."

A medic's recommendation to cuff Dphrepaulezz's hands in a forward position so as not to cause undue pain to his surgically repaired shoulders went ignored, and his hands remained cuffed behind his back for the duration of the detainment.

"I say something in my shows all the time. I say, 'Y'all, we gotta take that bullshit and turn it into some good shit.' That's what a lot of my music is about, that's why people relate to it," Dphrepaulezz says. "So I got with Another Planet [the company that produces Outside Lands], and we sat down and said, 'How can we make this good?'"

The answer is a free show at the Independent on Sept. 11. RSVPs for the make-good show are already full, but the incident has joined a larger conversation.

"Black people, man — we've got a lot of problems. When police stop us, we're emotional because when you're constantly a target. That shit gets old, and it's painful. But you gotta survive out there. My father always told me, 'When the police stop you, you say, "Yes sir," "Sir, may I get my wallet?"' Give them all the control simply because they got a gun. Is it right? No — a lot of things aren't right. But you can't solve them on the street."

The arrest made local headlines, and when Dphrepaulezz was invited to talk about the incident on Bay Area radio station Live 105, he used the platform to talk about a bigger issue facing his community.

"I took it as an opportunity to speak to black men: You don't have no power on the street.

I don't care if they're police or just somebody who comes up to you with a gun, don't contest them. The police will just... man, they rolled on me. So be calm, be respectful. Say 'Yes, sir.' Then, after, you can deal with it. So that's the thing with this concert: All that was bullshit. It was disrespectful. It was bad. Then we turned it into something great."

As for the intern — who confessed to scalping his ticket as soon as the cops grabbed the group — Dphrepaulezz forgave him.

"[Forgive him] for selling a bracelet?" Dphrepaulezz laughs. "Man, when I was 22 running these streets, baby, you didn't want to meet me. You know what I mean? We gotta forgive, especially our younger people. Let's forgive and help them."

Streetwise Music

Dphrepaulezz's first instrument was the piano, which he taught himself at 19 after being inspired by Prince, a black man unafraid of wearing outrageous clothes. Unable to afford lessons or purchase a piano of his own, the young man found a different way to access the 88 black and white keys.

"I would just put on a nice shirt and walk up to the Cal Berkeley practice rooms," Dphrepaulezz says, stiffening his back and adjusting his light blue tie, impersonating his younger self attempting to blend in as a student at the expensive and prestigious public university. "It was great to be able to just walk a few blocks and step out of the violence."

It wouldn't be the last time he learned a music lesson from the street. Busking afforded Dphrepaulezz the opportunity to hone his guitar playing skills and his songwriting abilities. Many of the songs on his EP were written, tweaked, and inspired by busking sessions and the events that surrounded them.

In that way, Fantastic Negrito's lyrical style is a mix of Lead Belly's storytelling and freestyle rap's improvisation. His voice blends legendary bluesmen Robert Johnson and Skip James. And his spirit is equal parts punk renegade and Delta blues sorrow.

"It's just so organic and happening right now, and you're like, 'Fuck yes,' [sings baby don't drink so much next time, don't drink so much next time]. I wrote that as a girl was getting carted away in an ambulance in downtown Oakland because she drank too much," Dphrepaulezz says.

The recorded music resonates with people because it was crafted in front of them, is about them, and — in some ways — is by them.

With the dollar bills landing in the hat as a barometer, Dphrepaulezz used his raspy, soulful voice and raw, emphatic "black roots music for everyone" to entertain the commuters shuffling onto BART at the five o'clock rush hour. He kept only the riffs that connected with commuters in the same way his G major connected with his son (plus the cash; $700 over one six-hour period was his record).

"It was a long walk, and there was lot of failure in that journey, but the busking was about finally not being afraid," he says. "Forget the suits, forget the people in charge of music licensing, forget all those people. Just her [Dphrepaulezz motions to a woman walking to the cashier], these people [a group standing in line], what do they think?"

"The people are my A and R," he adds. "They are my label. They are the truth."

He takes great pride in his city's roots, and even more so in carrying on a sound important to the history of black people in America that has, according to him, been lost on much of the younger generation.

"Art has to come from a struggle, and if slavery wasn't a struggle, I dunno what is. Four hundred years of people coming in and taking your kids and selling them," Dphrepaulezz says. "I have kids now and go, 'Man, someone came in and took your kids from you and sold them?' And that's why the music touches people — because it's part of all our American experience."

He still sneaks out on Oakland's streets to busk in the middle of the night from time to time (that's how he met some of his current bandmates), only without the hat. Last month, he played with some homeless men outside Colonial Donuts. Descendants of slaves, they taught him about R&B singer Johnnie Taylor and played songs — just a little midnight jam for some, but for Dphrepaulezz, an important part of his mission to bridge the gap between two generations of black musicians to ensure the continuation of one of America's greatest homegrown art forms.

"People say to me, 'Fantastic Negrito is great.' And I say, 'No, black roots music is great.'"


About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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