Keep Pushing a Little Harder: The Crosscutting Blues of Fantastic Negrito
“I keep on knocking, but I can’t get in”
Fantastic Negrito, Working Poor, 2016
Every bluesman needs a story. Blues Music is based on personal problems, suffering, feelings. You can be technically skilled, but there should be something in you that fascinates the audience.
Think of Robert Johnson – probably the most iconic Blues artist of all time. Of course, his catalogue is amazing and his playing technique has changed the Blues – and the music – forever. But would it be considered in the same way without his legendary story? His skills made his music great, but it was his life, the mystery that surrounded him, the tales about his being kin to the Devil, ending with his death induced by poisoning at 27, that made him timeless.
Now, if we talk about Blues music today, no one has a story like Fantastic Negrito.
Mr. Xavier Dphrepaulezz, alias Fantastic Negrito, despite being 51 years old, released his first album only in 2016 and the second in 2018; even with such a short music career, is a veteran who has already lived three lives.
Born in 1968 as the son of an orthodox Muslim, he left home at the age of 12, magnetically attracted by the streets of Oakland. There was too much stuff going on around California in the ’80s: music, sex, gangsters, hustlers, artists. He escaped from his father’s strict rules and never came back. Living as a small-time criminal, at the age of 18 he started to sneak into Music classes at Berkley University pretending to be a student, and learned how to play every instrument he could put his hands on.
Year after year, the music began to play a more important role in his life, helping him to leave the street life behind, up to get a million-dollar contract with Interscope, leading to his 1996 major label debute “The X-Factor” under the name of Xavier. This could have been the perfect happy ending, but nothing went as planned. Although the album was an effort to become a star of Pop-R&B, it flopped heavily. If the commercial failure blocked Xavier’s career, a couple of years later a car crash definitely killed it. He spent three weeks in a coma, and when he woke up he realized he had partially lost his ability to use his hands. For the label it was the perfect opportunity to cut him off.
In the darkest era of his life, he found a way to play guitar and piano again, with his hands permanently injured. For some years he kept composing music for films and television programs, exploring different genres with side music projects under different pseudonyms. Then, in 2007, completely dissatisfied with music, he surrendered. He sold all his equipment, except an old guitar that no one would buy, and started his second life as a medical marijuana grower. Musically speaking, it was over.
One day, however, in early 2010, his son gave him trouble whining and refusing to sleep. After desperately trying everything, Xavier took that old guitar and played a G-major chord. His son smiled instantly. At that moment, his third life began. It was the beginning of Fantastic Negrito.
He started composing again, playing his new music in the streets of Oakland, as a busker. What happened in the following years was his definitive rebirth: he won the NPR Tiny Desk competition in 2015, in 2016 he toured with the late great Chris Cornell; the year after he won a Grammy with his first album “The Last Days Of Oakland,” and in 2018 he won a Grammy with the second album “Please Don’t Be Dead” in 2018, on tour around the world.
Personally, I had the chance to see Fantastic Negrito live in my hometown in June, and I was absolutely captivated.
Listening to his music and lyrics you can say he is a son of the Hip Hop generation that grew up in the ’80s Bay Area, surrounded by Punk, inspired by Funk, who finally found his greatest form of expression in Blues.
Paying the right attention, in his more bluesy tracks you can feel some Son House vibes, or some Led Zeppelin influences in the most rockish riffs, while all is surrounded by the presence of his greatest musical idol: Prince. Then, on stage, he puts on an amazing show with a James Brown charisma and a flamboyant Andre 3000 attitude.
Negrito’s Black Roots Music is the result of this cross-pollination of genres and influences, never going beyond the thin line between inspiration and impersonation.
Fantastic Negrito’s life is a tale of failure and success. A story of struggle and hustle. A narrative of ascent, fall and rebirth. A case of artistic freedom. A plot that everyone must know, at some point in their life.
“Take that bullshit, turn it into good shit”
Fantastic Negrito, Bullshit Anthem, 2018
Enjoy here a selected playlist to experience the Blues of Fantastic Negrito.