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Boom or Busk: The Street Roots of Fantastic Negrito 

Wednesday, Sep 9 2015
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"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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