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Boom or Busk: The Street Roots of Fantastic Negrito 

Wednesday, Sep 9 2015
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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.


About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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