The Oakland-based (two-time) Grammy winner returns with a new album of soulful music during trying times.
Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz was singing on the streets just six or seven years ago, fresh off of giving up music for the better part of a decade.
After a major record deal in the 1990’s — and a near-fatal car accident that left him in a month-long coma — Xavier stepped away from music, and spent his days growing cannabis. He came back to it by way of his idea for a man and his guitar as a superhero-type origin story. That’s when he hit the streets. That’s when Fantastic Negrito was born. The long hours of busking on the sidewalks of Oakland and the subsequent self-titled album that followed set him up for an early 2015 breakthrough via NPR’s Tiny Desk performance series.
Two Grammy awards later—in the category of Best Contemporary Blues for his first two albums “The Last Days of Oakland” and “Please Don’t Be Dead”— and Fantastic Negrito has become a torchbearer for the Bay Area music scene of the modern moment.
As the COVID-19 virus has shut down public performance, The Six Fifty caught up with Fantastic Negrito ahead of what would have been a Bay Area mini-tour through Pacifica, San Jose, and Santa Cruz. We kept our interview date with him to discuss local contemporaries such as E-40 & Boots Riley, as well as his dream of “Motown in Oaktown,” and much more.
Take a look…..and have a listen….
The Six Fifty: We were supposed to be talking about your upcoming concerts here on the Peninsula and in the Bay Area. How are you feeling about the shows not going on?
Fantastic Negrito: The graphs are clearly showing to us that when we’re not gathering, the virus doesn’t spread. I feel like I’d be doing a disservice. There are some people that want to go, but when I sit and think about it, I’m not helping. I help people, spiritually to heal [through music] and it’s not always about gathering. It’s great when we get together and play some music. I don’t know if this would help the cause.
In the last few years, people are always justifying not paying artists directly by saying, ‘hey, we’ll just catch them on tour.’ This current situation challenges that dynamic when artists can’t perform.
People are gonna support you, they’re gonna support you. One thing about the arts is as things change, we have to adapt. I don’t ever want to get caught up in what can’t happen. It’s all gonna happen. We’ll find a way… Go to the artist’s merch page. That’s the easy one. Another one, go support a live stream. Donate to them.
Since you’ve become a forefront artist out of the Bay Area, how has the art scene changed here? And have you noticed a difference in the crowds?
Number one, has it changed? Hell yeah it’s changed. Things change, but I think we’re in a dramatic free fall in terms of arts, accessibility, affordability. When I was playing around the Bay four to five years ago, I felt there was a lot of musicians spots, art galleries, funky creative spaces. Those seem to be gone and replaced by hip, chic lounge bars, that sort of thing. That’s definitely shifted in my view.
As far as the audience, my audience, they’re a strange tribe. They’re all over the world. They’re kinda scattered. They’re their own tribe, so they vary. My audience continues to be eclectic and they always find a way.
If you were an art czar or got a development grant, what would you change about current Bay Area arts culture, so future talent could emerge from this region?
I came up with Fantastic Negrito. I got guys together. I thought, ‘hey, this could be done.’ It’s the opposite of what the music business likes — a middle-aged guy that’s playing music, but it’s genre non-specific and they don’t really know what to do with it. But it finds its way. And that’s not what they teach you in music 101. I feel I’m already in that position. So what you do is you open your doors. You let people in.
That’s not the publicized, sexy way to do things, but simply open your door. I got about five new people that I’m working with, youngsters striving to be music producers, engineers, I got a kid that does film. We have the urban farm project that we’re doing called Revolution Plantation. I’ve always thought that way, it’s good when you open your doors and let people in.
Now if someone gave me a grant to do it, I would just multiply, and probably never shut the studio down. I’d love to do that: never shut down the studio, and just have it going all the time, so I could really open the door to develop interesting, artists that are not afraid. Those are my favorite artists. That can represent what the Bay Area really does.
In the Bay Area, we are some eclectic motherfuckers. I don’t know if we’re still represented that way. I think we used to be. There used to be such a diversity of different music happening that was actually represented on the world stage. Ten, twenty years ago, Too Short, Hammer, En Vogue, Green Day, E-40 were all happening at the same time. Tony! Toni! Toné! That is a very good representation of how different the Bay Area is, all these different artists doing these different things. I long for those days.
If I had a grant, I wouldn’t shut my studio down. I’d load my shotgun up with producers, musicians, beat makers, make my dream happen, which is Motown in Oaktown. It can happen. We can do it.
I’ve done some really big collaborations in the last six months. I did something with E-40. I did a song with Tank [and the Bangas]. Some other interesting people I can’t announce yet.
Is this for an upcoming album?
I finished the third album already, it’s done it’s mixed, mastered, ready to roll. It’s called “Have You Lost Your Mind Yet.” I was writing a lot about people that I knew that were effected by anxiety, mental health, just going through awful shit, but still functioning. I wasn’t kinda writing about, the guy talking some stuff on the corner. That’s an easy observation or take on mental health. It’s more about people I knew. What guys I was working with, friends that I’ve had for years, people in my band — there came the subject of, have you lost your mind yet?
In terms of the blues, it’s interesting because the conversation around mental health has accelerated so much in recent years, it seems like a perfect time to fuse the genre with its roots while taking it in new directions.
I live in new directions. Blues purists hate me. I don’t think I have a twelve-bar blues song on my record. People decide to put me there. I feel like yeah, a bluesman but a very strange one. I feel it’s in the spirit, in the feel, in the essence.
I can’t stand cliché blues myself, sorry. ‘We’re a blues band,’ all the cliché twelve-bar blues, ‘I woke up this morning.’ All that shit. The people that did it originally, were fucking genius. They did it. Now it’s over, we gotta find new ways. That’s kinda the journey of being Fantastic Negrito. Punk, blues, early hip-hop, all the things that we loved, they were different and edgy and made us feel a certain way. That’s the bus I’m chasing, always, that bus.
Does the new album have a set release date?
It’s scheduled to come out in July, trickling down, first single is with Tank and The Bangas. “I’m So Happy I Cry,” we shot the video in Oakland, it’s historic man because it’s the first time two Tiny Desk winners have collaborated on a song in the history of, shit, the earth. So for NPR, it’s very interesting they’ve created this whole Tiny Desk contest culture and it’s gave birth to two artists out there internationally in the world, and Grammy-nominated, winning Grammys, that’s Fantastic Negrito and Tank and The Bangas. That single drops probably around April tenth-ish.
The second single is with E-40, is called “Searching for Captain Save a Hoe.” If you’re familiar with the E-40 library, that’s a take on “Captain Save a Hoe”, where this time we moved into 2020 and the hoe is me. The hoe is the guys on the road. Men been calling women hoe’s all these years, and damn, we’re the hoes…I’m not calling nobody’s name but damn.
You talk about eclectic, standout artists the Bay has offered the world, I was wondering if there is a collaboration, whether it be music or film, or another connection you may have to Boots Riley [director of “Sorry to Bother You”/front man for hip-hop group The Coup].
I love Boots. When I was busking as Negrito, I would be meeting Boots at coffee shops. I’m like, ‘man, what are you doing?’ He’s like, ‘man, I’m working on this movie.’ I’m like, ‘hey, I’m working on this Fantastic Negrito idea.’ I loved him. He’s one of my favorite people.
The problem with the Bay Area is getting us all together. I’m actually doing this event where I gather people at my studio. It’s invite only, and we just meet twenty-five interesting people. We all kinda get up and talk and kinda cross pollinate. First one went really well. I wanna do more of that, opening up, that’s the only way me and Boots, or me and Ryan Coogler, that’s how we’re gonna hook up. With [E-40], it was through someone I knew. It was a matter of having a conversation and talking to each other. It sounds easy, but it’s not as easy as you think. Everyone’s on their shit, in their little tiny world, and that’s how the big boot stomps us, because we don’t collaborate enough.
That’s what I really tried to do with this record, make it about collaboration. It’s really getting interesting for me over here, cause I’m getting some big names to do some really different music than what I’m used to doing.
I hear the excitement in your voice. That’s what keeps you going.
Bro, bro. That’s what it is. We need this music. I hate to cancel this tour or do anything like that, I don’t want to do it because I’m a busker. I need to talk to people. I need to look into their eyes. I went busking, talk about mental health. Have you lost your mind yet? I was losing my mind. Literally. I played on the streets. People didn’t realize I was doing that to connect with people. I was trying to find a way. How can I talk to you? It’s really important to me.
Were you a lapsed artist in that time or you were incubating?
I quit. I was strictly a cannabis farmer.
What made you ready when it all came quick?
You know what happened to me is I had a kid. The kid was like, ‘music! I’m a baby!’ Alright, this kid likes music, so I played music and that kinda opened the door. I was in a collective growing the weed. One of the dudes was a writer. His name was Malcolm. We hooked up — he would just challenge me. ‘You gotta get back into music.’ My idea was, ‘hey, let’s do it, but let’s do it the way we wanna do it.’
Let’s do it with songs we think are important. Let’s not do it in the way the system was looking for. They weren’t looking for us anyway. Every person was telling us it couldn’t happen. If I could have kept a list of people saying, ‘no, this won’t work. It’s not gonna work.’ Because I’m too old and the music is too genre non-specific.
And here we are, two Grammy award wins later. How was it the first time around, and was it any different the second time taking the Grammy home?
It was different. I’ll be honest with you. When I made “Last Days of Oakland,” it was, ‘wow, really? I didn’t know y’all were looking for me.’ I got a taste of the Grammys. That’s cool and all that. But I was like, ‘you know what? I don’t want to get caught up in this,’ so I made a record that I felt was the complete opposite of “The Last Days of Oakland.”
It took chances, turned the guitar up with big guitar riffs, freaked people out, people in my small circle like, ‘what are you doing? You’re changing everything. You just won a Grammy.’ I was really happy because I had been signed as a kid once, for a million bucks and that almost ended my life, man. I just don’t trust that kinda machine thing. So I did it on this record, “Have You Lost Your Mind Yet” — you should know from the collabs, just with E-40 and Tank, it’s a different record just with them two. I just wanna keep doing that. I wanna run away with that stuff as much as I can. Not that I don’t love it when it happens. That’s great, but I can’t live in that world, ‘We validate you now. We say what’s good.’ I can’t fuck with that. I lived a life trying to do that once as a kid and it almost ended me in Los Angeles.
Was it just because the advance was so significant to put that pressure on you or was it the overall package?
Trying to fit into someone’s repressed fantasy of your image. I have to admit, it tasted good. I was like, ‘this is great.’ I did try. That can kill you. You commodify these artists. Trying to commodify one’s spirit is death. Look around you. Look at all the stars from the 80’s. Dead. Michael Jackson died just keep trying to outdo “Thriller.” Wanting to be famous. It killed Prince. Whitney [Houston]. Rick James. Go down the list of all these people. Look at Kurt Cobain. That thing, being in that room, artists who have been there kinda know. You become a Pepsi can. You’re a commodity and people are making a lot of money off of what you do. They want you to keep doing that but you’re a human, you’re an artist and you can’t keep doing it. You want to grow.
That’s been the beauty of Fantastic Negrito. Being a small artist, I don’t feel that pressure. My greatest attitude going into the studio is I-don’t-give-a-fuck. That is the power of my universe. That’s what it is. If you do, you’re done. I can’t tell you how much you’re done. To Pac, getting caught up in that shit, it’s death bro.
You have a famous fan in Bernie Sanders. What do you see in his #NotMeUs platform that speaks to you?
I’ve said it before, I’m a recovering narcissist, so “Not Me, Us,” that’s the mantra you have to embrace if you want to have any kinda peace in your life, one-hundred-percent. I love Bernie, I’m a big supporter, but people aren’t ready for Bernie. They’re just not. They can’t get over their bigotry or fear. ‘Is this socialism? Is he a Jew?’
Yet they support Trump — you gotta look at like this, if the KKK loved you, supported you personally, I wouldn’t do an interview with [you]. White supremacists, Neo-Nazis love the guy, marches where they say ‘Hail Trump!’ like ‘Heil Hitler!’ It’s just bizarre we’re in this spiritual free fall. They can support that but they can’t support Bernie, who probably can’t do all the things he says he can do [but] I love what you’re saying, you want to limit billionaires?
I think billionaires should be illegal. You’re a billionaire, you’re stopping a lot of money from being in circulation, is just my view.
It’s the monetary equivalent of narcissism.
Yeah, totally. It should be illegal, until I become a billionaire [laughs].
I think that’s obscene. There’s something inhumane about being a billionaire. Yes, I said it. Maybe people won’t be happy about that. They’ll say it’s un-American and all that shit. Well, good. But I don’t think it’s un-American.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
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