THE STEWARDSHIP OF CONTEMPORARY BLUES MUSIC IS IN FINE HANDS WITH THE INNOVATIVE ARTISTRY OF ONE XAVIER DPHREPAULEZZ, BETTER KNOWN AS FANTASTIC NEGRITO. Grammy award winner for his incredibly inventive and socially relevant album The Last Days Of Oakland, Fantastic Negrito has continued breaking ground with his current release, Please Don’t Be Dead, for which he just won his second consecutive Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy award. Red Hot Rock Magazine was excited to strike up a conversation with the mastermind behind some of the most interesting blues and roots music being created today.
RED HOT ROCK MAGAZINE: Am I speaking to Fantastic Negrito? FANTASTIC NEGRITO: There’s only one in the world and you got him.
RHRM: Ha ha ha. Hello, sir. How are you doing? FN: Pretty good. We got big news this morning, so we’re happy. We got the second Grammy nomination in a row, so we’re celebratin’ that.
RHRM: Congratulations, man, on getting that this year also! FN: Yeah. Why not. We figured we won it last year. Let’s get the nomination.
RHRM: That’s great news. FN: Yeah. It’s great. It’s a good feeling, man, ‘cause, you know, I’m a middle-aged guy. I don’t want to be a pop star. I’m not trying to make hit records. I’m just in my own lane and zone. I’m always surprised that people are paying attention because what I feel what I’m doing is different. This album was so different from last year’s album. And I wanted it to be. I’m not in the business of winning awards. I want to make compelling, interesting, great music. That’s my objective. So it’s a good feeling. Yeah! I’m the middle-aged warrior.
RHRM: I love your music. As soon as I first heard the great tune “Working Poor” off of your album The Last Days Of Oakland, I went and picked that up and your EP, also. Your newest album, Please Don’t Be Dead, is a fantastic one, as well. Please excuse the adjective. Ha ha. But our first order of business needs to be… What would you like me to call you, Fantastic, Mr. Negrito, Xavier, X? FN: Sure. Sure. All of the above. I answer to ‘em all. You know, it’s the one thing about being middle-aged. I’m not pretentious or particular. People call me, “Hey!” Latinos call like, “Hey, Negrito!” Some people are like, “Hey, Fantastic.” I answer to it, all.
RHRM: So, let me ask you. Could you please explain the genesis of Fantastic Negrito and how you arrived at that name for yourself. FN: I was listening to a lot of older music and I thought, well, the music of Robert Johnson and Leadbelly and Son House and Skip James really are the architects of all popular culture in my belief. And I don’t feel like people knew who these people were. That’s why anytime anyone asks me about my name, I can say those names. So, it’s really to pay homage to this great Mississippi Delta blues music and tradition that inspired all of us. And we’re really reaping the benefits and the product of that tree. I don’t know. I like to pay homage. Fantastic Negrito is about the musical tradition, black roots, this music that is a gift that came out of such darkness and tragedy. But like all darkness and tragedy, there is eventually light. And now anywhere we go in the world, we hear the by-product of this incredible, very deep, rich tradition. That’s why I call myself Fantastic Negrito. Because I get to give that speech every time someone asks me.
RHRM: I have debates all of the time with people trying to explain to them that the old blues from way back when is the bedrock of all American music. I don’t care what kind of music. FN: All American music! Exactly. That’s it, brother. So, it’s a good thing, man. We’re blessed and we’re fortunate to be alive at the time that we’re in. And I think that’s what made Fantastic Negrito so accessible and easy to people. Because it wasn’t really… I don’t give credit to myself so much. It was the garden that I was picking from. That’s easy. I mean, English rock groups have done it for ages. They continue to do it from The Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to Adele. They’re picking from that rich garden of black roots. And it’s a beautiful thing. It’s not something like, ”Oh, you’re encroaching on this.” No, because then it becomes something else. That’s what art and music is. That’s why I don’t play twelve-bar blues and all that. Because what’s the point when it’s been done over and over again. The purpose to be an artist is to take that next step. To jump off the cliff.
RHRM: That leads right into the next thing I was going to mention. It is so healthy for the state of the blues today and for the survival of the genre moving forward for a relatively young black man like yourself to be creating a very contemporary take on the music, to be singing about contemporary issues and to be taking the music to a place that is now with influences not only from classic blues and roots music, but from the music of today regardless of what some narrow-minded purists might think. FN: Oh, man! Brother. Let’s pour a drink right now to that because yeah, you can’t… that’s what’s boring and that’s what’s stagnant is to even think about those narrow-minded peers. I’m so happy I have no interest in all of that stuff. And I genuinely don’t. I’m a fan of Little Richard and David Bowie. You know what I mean? I’m a fan of Robert Johnson. No one was more punk rock than Muddy Waters. No one. Ha ha. You know what I mean? That’s what I’m a fan of, man. We’re here to take chances. And we’re here to turn it up, man. Nothing is more medicinal and more ritualistically healing than the tradition of music.
RHRM: I love how you integrate a hip hop vibe, which is a descendant of the blues anyhow,… FN: Of course!
RHRM: … into your take on the blues. It kind of weaves its way through your music without being overtly there. FN: Yeah. And I’m happy that, you know, that’s why I produce my own records. ‘Cause I love this pot of soup, this pot of stew. ‘Cause I’m obviously a child of hip hop. But when I was a child of hip hop, I listened to everything. I was one of those kids that I liked all of the hip hop and I liked The Clash. Ha ha. You know what I mean? It’s all relative to me. And that’s the way I approach it. I feel like it’s a fine stew. It’s a fine line. Because my production style is still kind of hip hop. I take all of the beats. I take the loops. I take the best parts of the best licks and repeat them and it’s all a lot of repetition. So that’s in there, too. But it all comes down to stealing.
RHRM: Ha ha! That hypnotic repetition stems from Mississippi Hill Country blues. FN: Totally. Which comes from West Africa.
RHRM: Yeah. Exactly. FN: It’s really interesting. We’re very fortunate to have had this experience with the Africans colliding with the Europeans. No matter how they collided with them. And this thing happened. It’s amazing and it’s rich and we’re very fortunate. And, you know, we gotta take that bullshit and turn it into good shit. I’m sorry to quote myself.
RHRM: No. No. I’m going to get to that tune, which I love. But did your age become an impediment at all to restarting your career after being away from music for several years? FN: It’s nothing I thought about. It became a plus because I didn’t give a fuck. When you’re at this age, I just don’t care. People are like, “Well, you should do this. You should do that.” I went out. I picked up the guitar and I played for people on the street. And I wasn’t asking for anything. There is a great power in not asking for stuff. I wasn’t asking for anything. I wasn’t asking for a label to give me money. I wasn’t asking for a radio station to play me. I wasn’t asking for a club to book me. I was going out and taking this tradition, just the greatest communication ever, which is those six strings, that wood, a heart, consciousness and connecting with our fellow human beings. There’s nothing more beautiful than that. No drug that can substitute the high of that. So, I never thought of it. If I thought of it, I may not have done it. I was, what, forty-five, forty-six at the time. I was like, “So what.” I need to go out and play on the streets. I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want to be a pop star. I’m middle-aged. I’ve done this before. I’ve done the big label deals before. I just want to have a satisfying, beautiful life. And do it with music.
RHRM: If you were a younger artist, your music wouldn’t have nearly as much depth as it has, with your knowledge of American music’s rich history, but most importantly with your life experiences and the things you speak about in your songs. FN: Oh, yeah. It’s prepared me for this moment. Every failure, every injury, everything, it prepared me for this moment to become Fantastic Negrito.
RHRM: Your album The Last Days Of Oakland, which won the Grammy in 2017 for Best Contemporary Blues Album, has often been referred to as your debut album. But it really isn’t, is it? In your earlier days, you did release an album using your birth name and there were other things as well. What is the story with that part of your career and what happened to cause you to quit playing music for a significant amount of time? From what I understand, it wasn’t only because of the horrible car accident that you had. FN: This is what it is. It was the debut as Fantastic Negrito. I look at all of these incarnations as kind of separate entities. Xavier Dphrepaulezz is not Fantastic Negrito at all. And there were other ones. I had the incarnation of Chocolate Butterfly, Blood Sugar X. You know, I was part of the Afro Punk movement very early on when it was playing in basements. So, the first part was coming from Oakland, California, going to Los Angeles, wanting to be some big star, getting a million-dollar advance from Jimmy Iovine at Interscope Records. The second one was quitting, because I had an accident that took away my hand, and quitting the whole major label thing and delving into the underground of Los Angeles. And bumping heads with Afro Punk and Rock En Español and all of these other kind of fringe groups of music. I felt at home. And I, kind of in obscurity, recorded albums under the incarnation of Chocolate Butterfly and Blood Sugar X. That was the second phase. The third phase was actually quitting and selling all of my equipment, moving back home to Oakland, California and becoming a marijuana farmer. Which I found to be amazing and another great life teacher, being a cultivator and a farmer. So many lessons in that realm. And then a couple years after that, maybe five years, was the birth of Fantastic Negrito, the street musician. So it’s been three parts.
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