Interview written and conducted for Tonight At Dawn by @KralTunes
“No one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint, none but persons of the greatest good fortune.” (Quar’an, 41:35)
Xavier Dphrepaulezz, (pronounced dee-FREP-ah-lez) finally earned his good fortune as Fantastic Negrito. And he earned it by exercising a great deal of patience.
In his early 20’s, stardom appeared to be instantaneous for Dphrepaulezz. But he quickly learned the harsh realities of the pop music world; he said, the problem “when these labels get behind certain artists, they have so much juice and move so fast, the artist doesn’t grow into himself. If you dangle all the trappings of success in front of a kid like me, I’m gonna stumble toward it. But success has nothing to do with the real. And what I discovered when success seemed like it was never gonna happen is the real.”
Dphrepaulezz said that his record deal took away his creative control. Soon after his debut album failed, in 2000 he was involved in a major car crash. He was comatose for almost a month and his hand was so severely damaged that he has come to call it “The Claw”. After his recovery, he decided to secede from the music business and rely on his instincts. “I hustled and started random businesses, selling junk, furniture, random shit I found on the internet, and growing weed,” Dphrepaulezz said.
However, soon after his first child was born, Dphrepaulezz renewed his creativity in the form of Fantastic Negrito and made The Claw work for him. He said that he plays music now by “just beating the guitar into submission or banging on the keys with The Claw.”
Dphrepaulezz started to channel himself through a mixture of black roots music, soul, blues and funk. His debut E.P., Fantastic Negrito, is an impressive collection of music that clearly shows stardom quickly latched itself to him so early in life. He was content to play on the streets if need be, but his patience paid off when he won the NPR Tiny Desk Concert contest. These days, he is happily forced to re-release the Fantastic Negrito E.P. with several new tracks, one being a studio cut of “Lost in a Crowd, the song that won him that NPR award contest, thus rocketing him to superstardom.
For Dphrepaulezz, patience bred good fortune.
Here is the complete transcript of our discussion with Fantastic Negrito:
KralTunes: How nerve-wracking was it to perform behind that little makeshift desk in Oakland for NPR, knowing that it could be a make or break moment for your career at that point?
Fantastic Negrito: The struggle and fatigue leading up to that moment was immense. We’d been grinding hard, doing street shows, trying to force the world to hear this music and we’d almost forgotten about the contest. Field, the guy who runs things here in Oakland, pressed me to do the video the last day before the deadline. He was sure we were gonna win the second he saw the take, but I figured it wouldn’t happen. My voice was shot, I was clearly tired. The entire time the contest was unfolding, Field was telling the rest of the team “we got it, we got it.” When we won, I was stunned. But the second the flood came on social after we won, I knew it was gonna be a game changer. It’s still a struggle but it was definitely a turning point in my career. What’s crazy is it happened so fast, I’m gonna have to re-release my EP because I just–one week ago–finished recording the song that won.
KT: Prior to that performance, you quit the music business. If the NPR deal did not pan out, were you willing to persevere, or was this the moment that would decide you musical future?
FN: I’m not a quitter. The things I went through that made me quit back in the day, it was a lot. I’d been crushed internally by “failing” at the record label and crushed literally in that car accident. It took years and years to get back to music but once I was back in, it was all the way. I knew I’d never quit again because I knew I’d never hand my power and creativity over again. That’s what all the street shows were about. At some point I realized, “Fuck it, I can make a living playing on the streets if I have to.” I was committed entirely. The people that inspire me died broke, struggled their whole life…I knew I’d keep playing regardless of any mainstream recognition or success. When I put the EP out, if doesn’t get a single download, it won’t matter because I’m never stopping.
KT: Fast forward a few weeks, performing live once again for NPR, this time knowing that you have won their competition, what was your emotions at that point? What the feeling that you had made it, or now that you have won, did you feel that you had something to prove?
FN: It was and is surreal. Going to DC for that show was like being in an alternate reality questioning whether or not it was happening. As far as having something to prove, yes. Always. I am extremely competitive and my partners nurture and stoke that competitive nature. Every time I perform I feel like I have something to prove. It’s always a battle. Any time I’m opening up for someone, I want to prove my shit is undeniable. I feel zero hostility toward other artists, but I do want to crush whenever I do a show.
KT: Moving from Massachusetts to Oakland in the 1980’s must have been quite the culture shock for a youngster?
FN: Coming from a conservative Muslim household in mostly white Mass to Oakland California on the heels of it being the center of the black power movement–and the dawn of the gangster crack era was like you guys moving from your life now, to an underwater city in the ocean. Oakland isn’t just “any” other black city, it’s OAKLAND. Especially back then. This is the place that bred the Black Panthers, the Hells Angels, the Oakland Raiders…it was buck wild and vibrant with dangerous culture. I got swept up into the tide for better and for worse.
KT: To quote your own About page;
“By the time he was 20, Negrito had taught himself to play every instrument he could get his hands on”
After your life changing accident, how difficult was it to play any of the instruments you once mastered?
FN: It wrecked me technically. I can’t play. Not like a real player. But my feel is stronger than ever. My playing hand is crippled, I call it “The Claw.” If you’ve seen any of my performance vids, you’ll notice that I’m just beating the guitar into submission or banging on the keys with The Claw. It’s not like it’s random but there are mistakes–and I don’t hide from them. That damage is part of my sound now and if you pay attention, you can catch them on every song on the EP. I have other players of course, but I think it’s important to include my imprint on there as well.
KT: After being signed to a huge record deal so young, was it tempting to abort your instincts and follow the money trail and popular culture?
FN: Yes. I mean, I was in my early 20’s with a bunch of money and a bunch of people telling me how great I was and how rich I was gonna be, so THAT became part of the thing I was pursuing. I never aborted my instincts but I never got to fully identify them either. That’s the problem when these labels get behind certain artists, they have so much juice and move so fast, the artist doesn’t grow into himself. If you dangle all the trappings of success in front of a kid like me, I’m gonna stumble toward it. But success has nothing to do with the real. And what I discovered when success seemed like it was never gonna happen is the real. The real, truth, that’s the only thing that matters. Every word on every song on my EP is real. Fuck success and a hit single.
KT: Your music has a very intimate, earthy soul to it. Was that element always present, or is it a result of the obstacles you faced later in life?
FN: The primary element that guides me now is truth. Truth in my lyrics, truth in my sound. That was not always present because I was a kid when I started. I was imitating the artists I loved, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson. I was finding myself. And before I really knew who I was, everything collapsed. Honestly, this first collection of songs is a journey in me finding that intimate soul you’re talking about.
KT: After quitting the music industry, what was your plan? Did you even have a plan?
FN: No. No plan. I’m a hustler and the son of an immigrant so my inclination is to be an entrepreneur as opposed to getting a 9-5, and that’s what I did when my “career” died. I hustled and started random businesses, selling junk, furniture, random shit I found on the internet, and growing weed.
KT: What can fans expect to hear from you in the near future?
FN: Well, as I said, we’re gonna re-release the EP with two new songs in late July and an album at the end of the year. I think An Honest Man and Lost in a Crowd are the clearest indicator on where I’m going. I think I wanna find a balance in doing songs where I turn myself inside out and put my personal truth out there and songs where I remove myself and tap into other people’s truth and give them a voice. Basically there are two types of songs, songs where you make people feel you and songs where you make people feel like you feel them. Also, beyond delta blues musicians, I’ve been listening to some African stuff and Kendrick Lamar, so…the future will be all of that filter through black roots music–black roots music for everyone.
Fantastic Negrito is scheduled for re-release July 24, 2015.
See FANTASTIC NEGRITO Here:
Jul 23 Rock & Roll Hotel Washington, DC
Jul 25 SummerStage, Central Park New York, NY
Jul 27 Brighton Music Hall Boston, MA
Jul 29 WFPK Waterfront Wednesdays Louisville, KY
Jul 31 Nightfall Concert Series Chattanooga, TN
Aug 01 The High Watt Nashville, TN
Aug 08 Outside Lands San Francisco
Find FANTASTIC NEGRITO Here: