Fantastic Negrito’s Xavier Dphrepaulezz has been making music for nearly 30 years, but his breakthrough didn’t come until 2015. The Oakland, California musician persevered through a spell of street hustling to land a major label deal in the mid-90s. It would prove an inauspicious partnership – his solo debut flopped and then a devastating car accident put him in a coma towards the end of the decade.
Although he recovered physical strength, he decided to give up on music in 2007 and become a marijuana farmer. But his creative ambitions couldn’t be extinguished and after an emotional reawakening listening to Skip James, he released the debut Fantastic Negrito EP in 2014.
Fantastic Negrito took out NPR’s inaugural Tiny Desk contest in 2015 with a passionate re-interpretation of Delta and Chicago blues that bewitched the judges and resonated around the world. Two albums later, Dphrepaulezz is a two-time Grammy winner – 2016’s The Last Days of Oakland and 2018’s Please Don’t Be Dead both nabbed the Best Contemporary Blues Album gong.
A strong blues influence runs through his work, following the example of legends James, Robert Johnson, R.L. Burnside, Lead Belly and Howlin Wolf. But Dphrepaulezz’s work also betrays an experimental inclination and incorporates mean electric guitar sounds, drum programming akin to modern hip hop and R&B and Eastern influences.
1. Night Has Turned To Day, Fantastic Negrito (2014)
‘Night Has Turned To Day’ is an apt introduction to Fantastic Negrito’s distinct stylistic slant. It’s a four to the floor blues hoedown with slide guitar, honky tonk piano and a lyrical tale of redemption.
Dphrepaulezz explained the song’s origins during his Tiny Desk showcase: “I spent three weeks in a coma and damaged every part of my body. I wrote this song 10 years afterwards and it’s basically about the things that are messed up in your life, the things that are broken, the things that are fucked up, you take ’em and you just make them better.”
2. An Honest Man, Fantastic Negrito (2014)
Self-produced and self-released via his Blackball Universe label, the Fantastic Negrito EP illustrated Dphrepaulezz’s determined independence. Details of what built that self-sufficiency can be found in ‘An Honest Man’. A mid tempo ballad with a desperate edge, Dphrepaulezz chronicles the highs and lows of life on the street where violence, drugs and prostitution stimulate excitement and confusion in equal measure.
3. Working Poor, The Last Days Of Oakland (2016)
This lithe blues/funk number kicks off Negrito’s debut LP, lambasting the swelling wage disparity in US cities. Dphrepaulezz’s home city of Oakland has seen sprawling gentrification and urban displacement in recent years, hence the album title. Working Poor’s central refrain, “I keep on knocking but I can’t get in,” pithily sums up the seeming insurmountable chasm between rich and poor.
4. In The Pines (Oakland), The Last Days Of Oakland (2016)
‘In the Pines’ was written in the 1870s and famously revitalised by blues legend Lead Belly in the 1940s. Also known as ‘Black Girl’ and ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’, it’s since been covered by Nirvana, Billy Bragg and Keith Richards.
Fantastic Negrito gives the song an Oakland-centric update, including this stark comment on police brutality: “Black girl, black girl, your man has gone / Now you travel the world alone / You raised your child all by yourself / Then the policeman shot him down.”
5. Lost In A Crowd, The Last Days Of Oakland (2016)
Premiered during FN’s Tiny Desk appearance, ‘Lost In a Crowd’ heralded the sort of heavy blues spirituals that would dominate The Last Days of Oakland. The lyrics are quintessential Negrito, warning against fear’s paralysing potential and underlining existential finitude: “This is your life / Now you’re gone / There’s no tomorrow / It’s here, it’s on.”
6. Plastic Hamburgers, Please Don’t Be Dead (2018)
Album two begins with another potent political message, this time targeting American consumerism, drug addiction, gun availability and governmental manipulation. ‘Plastic Hamburgers’ is also a stomping blues rock number that isn’t too far removed from Lenny Kravitz.
“The ‘Plastic Hamburgers’ riff, that’s blues in E,” Dphrepaulezz told Music Feeds. “Blues in E can stop a war from happening, because we can all get under that human umbrella and all gather round this fire of music.”
7. Bad Guy Necessity, Please Don’t Be Dead (2018)
One of the highlights of the FN repertoire, ‘Bad Guy Necessity’ boasts an exceedingly sleazy groove: “That bass line was written based on the way drug dealers walk in my neighbourhood,” said Dphrepaulezz.
The lyrics are partly inspired by Donald Trump’s incessant deflection of blame and the way his alt-right followers appoint minority communities as their enemies. “Everybody needs a bad guy so they can have a saviour,” said Dphrepaulezz. “It’s the oldest trick in the book.”
Despite referencing such unfortunate features of our present reality, ‘Bad Guy Necessity’ is marked by soulful integrity.
8. A Boy Named Andrew, Please Don’t Be Dead (2018)
An avowed fan of Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Egyptian oud player Hamza El Din, Dphrepaulezz brings his Eastern influences to bear on ‘A Boy Named Andrew’. Rather than a straight-up tribute, however, the song’s driven by a greater ambition.
“It sounds like this Eastern chant, but I imagine humanity a thousand years ago,” Dphrepaulezz said. “We’re all in front of a fire, all these different people and cultures all together chanting.”
Humans are capable of some truly devastating things, but the chorus stays hopeful: “The wheels of time, they keep on turning / We’re still learning to fly.”
9. Transgender Biscuits, Please Don’t Be Dead (2018)
Six months before Please Don’t be Dead came out, FN jumped on twitter to pose this question: “What do you do after you write a song entitled transgender biscuits?” The titular biscuits don’t actually feature in the body text, but Dphrepaulezz rattles off a list of identifying characteristics to draw attention to the ridiculousness of discrimination. It all occurs over a tilting groove that would ably lend itself to a boom bap re-work.
10. Bullshit Anthem, Please Don’t Be Dead (2018)
We’re back to where we started. The psychological determination underlying ‘Night Turns To Day’ is given a more irreverent voicing on disco-blues number, ‘Bullshit Anthem’. “Take that bullshit and turn it into good shit,” sings Dphrepaulezz. And with Fantastic Negrito as your guide, it shouldn’t be too hard.
Fantastic Negrito return to Australia this month for Byron Bay’s Bluesfest. They have also announced a pair of sideshows in Sydney and Melbourne. Dates below.
Fantastic Negrito Bluesfest 2019 Sideshows
Presented by Music Feeds
Tickets on sale now
Sunday, 14th April
Oxford Art Factory, Sydney
Monday, 15th April
The Corner, Melbourne