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Captain Fantastic: Oakland’s Xavier Dphrepaulezz Dazzles SXSW With a Lo-Fi Mix of Rootsy Punk and R&B 

Wednesday, Mar 25 2015
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AUSTIN, Tex. ­— It's a Wednesday afternoon, humid as hell, and I'm sitting in a covered picnic table area surrounded by food trucks and about a thousand other people, watching as the winner of NPR's Tiny Desk Concert contest is accosted by a pair of fortysomething blondes in silver bangles and cowboy hats.

"It's so good to finally seee youuu!" they screech, as the singer stands up, with only the slightest hesitation, to meet their embraces. A man appears alongside them, introductions are made, and five minutes of chitchat ensue before the guy is eventually tasked with taking a photo of the threesome, both women grinning on either side of Oakland's Fantastic Negrito. They hug again before leaving, and the singer sits back down to his gyro. "I have no idea who that was," he admits cheerfully.

A little over a month after Xavier Dphrepaulezz, aka Fantastic Negrito, beat out some 7,000 other artists across the U.S. to take home the prize in NPR's first-ever Tiny Desk Concert contest, the roots musician is getting used to interactions like these. People know him, or think they know him, or want to know him. This is all good, Dphrepaulezz says. He's rolling with the punches.

His band is just one of many set amid the chaos that is South by Southwest, which has mushroomed over the course of its 28 years from an intimate music-industry conference of fewer than 1,000 registrants and about 170 artists into a music, film, and tech megafest that now attracts a total of more than 50,000 people and more than 2,300 bands. It's become the unholy love child of a music-industry meetup, Spring Break in Cabo, and a 10-day, live-streamed interactive commercial for capitalism itself. You can't turn down the volume in this small annual colony, only join the noise, and the currency consists of 80 different levels of color-coded VIP badges, wristbands, and passes on which far too many registrants and attendees seem to base far too much self-worth. This event is, in layman's terms, a total fucking shitshow, and as an unsigned yet white-hot buzz band, Fantastic Negrito is at its epicenter. All the more reason to admire Dphrepaulezz's Zenlike take on the hype surrounding him.

Hearing a bit about Dphrepaulezz's background helps explain some of his calm, which is to say, the man seems to have nine lives. Growing up in Oakland in a strict Muslim family with 13 siblings, he started getting into trouble at a young age, and eventually was kicked out of junior high. He spent time in reform school, bouncing among foster homes throughout the East Bay from 12 "until I was out of the system," he says. Dphrepaulezz didn't start playing music until he was 18, when he taught himself to play any instrument he could get his hands on by sneaking into practice spaces at UC Berkeley. "The Bay Area's awesome like that — that I had that access," he remembers. "I just acted like I belonged. It gave me something to do, to focus on. It was either that or end up dead." The latter seemed likely, he says. At one point, he had a gun held to his head. He decided he didn't want to experience that again.

Six years later, Dphrepaulezz was signed to Interscope with a $1 million deal. He released a straight commercial R&B album in 1996 called X Factor, under the name Xavier, but he says neither he nor the label were ready for the partnership; the album floundered. In 1999, a car accident put him in a three-week coma, and he didn't know if he'd ever regain full use of his hands.

As anyone who saw Fantastic Negrito perform at SXSW can attest to, he certainly did: Like Prince, one of Dphrepaulezz's idols, he seems almost preternaturally gifted on guitar and piano, with a voice that makes blues and punk sound like regular bedfellows. The kicker, though, is his attitude: There's a sense he's fighting for something up there, and he's not afraid to let the full force of his history, in all its pain and violence — and once you start asking questions, there's a whole damn lot of it — pour out of each syllable. There's a rawness in it, which might have something to do with the fact that he only started this project a year and a half ago, playing at BART stations and in front of doughnut shops in Oakland (still his favorite kind of gigs). He doesn't seem surprised to be where he is. He works hard, and expects results.

Which is not to say Dphrepaulezz is fearless. "I get stage fright," he says. "I throw up before every show. I'm thinking about just making it part of the act. Then maybe get some lighter fluid involved ... 'Fantastic Negrito and the Flaming Pukes,' we'll call it."

Still: He understands the level of buzz around him, and he looks it in the eye. "I name each show," he says. "Today's show was called 'Time To Live Up to the Hype.'" And? As we part, a whole other gaggle of people comes up to congratulate this fantastic talent. He's unfazed. Tough to tell whether he actually knows these folks or not, but soon enough, a whole lot more people are going to know him.

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Emma Silvers

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Emma Silvers is SF Weekly's former Music Editor.

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