Interview: Fantastic Negrito, now a multi-Grammy-winner, changing it up again

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Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito performs at The Fillmore in San Francisco on June 15, 2018. Photo: Karen Goldman.

When 2014 began, Xavier Dphrepaulezz was a former musician. His mid-‘90s music career ended abruptly when a car accident shattered his wrist badly enough that it had to be fused and put him in a coma for three weeks, and by 2007 he had stopped making music entirely. Five years later, as Fantastic Negrito, he won his second Grammy Award.

“Kinda hard to believe, huh?” he says. “I’m a middle-aged guy who decided to write some songs, man; to write some music and make a contribution to the world I live in.”

In those five years he made and released two albums, both of which won one of the most prestigious awards in American music. He’s toured the world, by his count, about eight times. And not content to rest on his laurels, he’s working on a new album now, slated to be a collection of collaborations with other artists.

Fantastic Negrito, Xavier Dphrepaulezz

Fantastic Negrito photographed at BottleRock Napa Valley 2016. RIFF Photo.

“I’m not making a record like Please Don’t Be Dead or Last Days of Oakland again,” he says. “That’s the freedom of being a 51-year-old musician. Do what you want, nobody’s expecting anything.”

We’ll get to that new album later; first, his path there. His rise has been well-documented, but now that he’s a two-time Grammy winner and recently played Barack Obama’s high-profile My Brother’s Keeper Conference, some are just now catching up. So here’s the short version:

In 2014 he was busking outside the Lake Merritt and Mission BART stations, but in 2015 he got his second big break when he won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest with a video he filmed in an elevator. The national spotlight of that appearance helped bring attention to his 2016 breakthrough, The Last Days of Oakland, which won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

Why contemporary blues? “I don’t know. I don’t submit anything,” he says. “Thank God, I’m very far removed from that stuff. And I want to be far removed.”

Playing with genre is key to Fantastic Negrito’s appeal and success. His influences range from delta blues to Black Sabbath and Kendrick Lamar. He writes his bass lines by remembering the hustlers and drug dealers from his neighborhood growing up and mimicking their stride.

Even with that eclectic mix he wasn’t content to keep the ratios the same. Some artists, upon getting the sort of recognition a Grammy signifies, would settle into that formula. But he opened the box with the Grammy—on a livestream at that—then boxed it right back up, sent it to a “secure location” and went back to work on a follow-up album with a much different sound.

Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito at The Fillmore in San Francisco on June 15, 2018. Photo Karen Goldman.

“The first thing I did was fire the producer,” he says. “I’m the producer on all my records, I don’t think anyone could give me that sound that I wanted people to hear. But I said to me, you’re fired. Then I hired another guy; that was me. But I wanted to do a completely different record.”

This time the sound ended up leaning a bit more to the Sabbath.

“The production style was far more aggressive and confrontational,” he says. “It’s all based around riffs. Everything I did on that record started off with a riff; mainly bass riffs.”

That riff-heavy follow-up, 2018’s Please Don’t Be Dead, was a very different album than Last Days of Oakland. It had a theme: “The theme was, hey man, a lot of things are being threatened right now. Please don’t be dead, America.”

But it wasn’t a concept album like its predecessor. It was much more guitar-heavy and less traditionally bluesy.

It also won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

“Back to back; you shut down anybody who may have thought, ‘Well, I don’t know, maybe it’s a fluke,'” he says. “Clearly your peers agree that you’re creating albums, art, songs; producing music that’s compelling. It feels great.”

So now, in a way, he is repeating what worked. He says he’ll send this Grammy to the same secure location, for example, which he would only say is buried where they buried Jimmy Hoffa. And of course he’s going to fire his producer again, metaphorically speaking, and change up the sound.

So what will he be doing this time?

“I want my next album to be a kind of collaborative mixtape of every artist that I’ve ever wanted to work with,” he says. “That’s what I’m looking forward to making. That’s what I want to make. There’s a couple people that I’m talking with, they have their own things they’re doing and I’m trying to make it work. But every song will be a collaborative effort.”

So far he’s recorded with fellow Grammy winner Gaby Moreno, currently on the David Bowie Alumni Tour, but he doesn’t want to throw out other names and get anyone’s hopes up until the song is recorded. He’s also not ready to skip ahead and talk about potential release dates.

But one thing is for sure: it’s the early favorite for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.

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