The American dream

Xavier Dphrepaulezz, aka Fantastic Negrito, on record deals, being in a coma and taking life one day at a time

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Fantastic Negrito, by DeAndre Forks
DeAndre Forks

Xavier Dphrepaulezz is the son of a Somali-Carribean immigrant, and he’s got a story to tell.

“I think my story is the American dream,” says Dphrepaulezz, who performs a genre-blending style of roots music under the name Fantastic Negrito. “I think it’s valuable to share, to see someone who is living it as an artist — from working with (record executive) Jimmy Iovine to being three months in a coma, years in obscurity in the L.A. underground, quitting music altogether to becoming the Fantastic Negrito. I have the responsibility of having a perspective, and I want to share it.”

Dphrepaulezz grew up in Massachusetts before moving to Oakland, California, at age 12. Soon thereafter he left home, winding up on the streets and then with a strict Christian foster family. Obsessed with hip-hop, he taught himself to play piano by sneaking into practice rooms at UC Berkeley at night.

By 20 he was making music, but it took a terrifying encounter with a masked gunman to truly begin his musical journey. He headed to Los Angeles, armed only with a demo cassette of songs he’d recorded.

Success came fairly quickly. Dphrepaulezz soon signed with Prince’s former manager and, in 1994, landed a record deal with industry giant Interscope Records, helmed at the time by Iovine. His debut album, 1996’s The X Factor, flopped. Then came the 1999 car crash that left him in a coma and disfigured his guitar-playing hand.

Released from his Interscope contract — or liberated from it, in his view — Dphrepaulezz rehabbed and returned to Oakland in 2007. Exhausted, he gave up music — until the birth of his son.

Picking up a guitar to entertain his little boy, Dphrepaulezz found himself reinvigorated and began writing songs again, testing them out in subway stations and on street corners.

In 2015, Dphrepaulezz, now performing as Fantastic Negrito, won the first NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest. The next year, he released The Last Days of Oakland, a powerful, raw album that won the 2017 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, setting him off to play bigger shows for larger audiences.

He’s now touring behind his acclaimed 2018 album, Please Don’t Be Dead. The cover art features Dphrepaulezz in his hospital bed after the car crash.

The album is unflinchingly honest, with a contemporary sound that sets it apart from other blues albums.

“Number one, I don’t record in the studio, I recorded in an art gallery,” Dphrepaulezz says. “I like making records that have a very raw, real sound that accounts for how organic the music ends up. That’s a huge priority. I try to make the music organic. 

“I’m a middle-aged guy. I grew up at a time when hip-hop was the music of my generation. … I’m sampling, taking the drum parts, the bass parts from hip-hop. That’s why it doesn’t sound dated,” Dphrepaulezz says. “I don’t want to sound like people did in 1968. And I don’t want to be a pop star. As an artist and a producer, I go into the studio with all of that in mind.”

Even though Please Don’t Be Dead won the 2019 Grammy for Best Blues Album, its fresh musical mixture doesn’t fit easily into any category.

“I’ll hear, ‘It’s blues, but not blues enough. It’s rock, but it kind of feels like soul,’” he says. “I’m like, ‘Good.’ I love soul. I love punk music. I love blues, and I love early hip-hop. To me, there’s nothing more punk than Muddy Waters, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Black Sabbath. That’s material for what I play. It’s Americana, in a way. It’s something that brings us all together and it’s gone around the world.”

Dphrepaulezz tackles serious issues, like gun violence and addiction in “Plastic Hamburger,” pleading for the country to “break out these chains, let’s burn it down.”

Still, Dphrepaulezz says he’s not making protest songs per se.

“It comes from being a person who lives on the planet,” he says. “I’m concerned about living here. I don’t look at myself as political or preachy, I’m just trying to make a contribution to the society I live in. It’s helpful to people to have a point of view and express that. If people curse me out, that’s fine. You have to be coming from a place in your heart.”

As for the name Fantastic Negrito, Dphrepaulezz says, he took it to uplift other artists.

“As I was listening to Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson, Son House and more recent artists like R.L. Burnside, I realized nobody knew them,” he says. “I chose it (Fantastic Negrito) because I knew when I’d being doing interviews like this, I’d be asked about it and I could say their names.” 

Dphrepaulezz is “very optimistic” about his future, but he’s cautious — practical. 

“I take it as it comes,” he says of life. “It’s all amazing, waking up from a coma and learning to walk again, having friends that help you, having people that seek out your music. It really is all amazing.”

It’s the American dream.  

ON THE BILL: Fantastic Negrito. 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 4, Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. Tickets are $20-$25 at axs.com.