There is no easy in Fantastic Negrito’s story. Born Xavier Dphrepaulezz in rural Massachusetts in the late Sixties, he was raised among fourteen siblings in a devout Muslim family before he wound up on the streets of Oakland by the age of twelve. Fast-forward to the Nineties, when he was an artist with a million-dollar deal with Interscope Records: A car accident put him in a coma and left his guitar-strumming hand permanently crippled, his deal going up in smoke.
No wonder Dphrepaulezz (pronounced Dee-FREP-ah-lez) is playing the blues on his Deluxe EP, out July 24. There is no bitterness in the way Dphrepaulezz tells his story; there’s nothing but celebration of a life, and the blues is his weapon of choice because he believes it is the music of truth.
“I was an alien,” says Dphrepaulezz of his early years. He pronounces each word as though it begins with a capital letter, and they come slowly to emphasize the magnitude of his statement. “I was born in the Berkshires in a town called Great Barrington: the most unlikely place for a little brown boy. It was a very white world, but it wasn’t just being a black kid; it was also being in a conservative Muslim home. Man, I was up against all odds,” he says, calling from Oakland. “I was hated from one section to the other. I was hated.” He spits out the final word. Then, he brightens: “That’s life, and whatever doesn’t defeat you turns you into an incredible person. It didn’t defeat me. It gave me power.”
Dphrepaulezz didn’t find his power until his family moved west and he found music. But it took a drastic life shift in order for him to find his own path. “At twelve, I basically left home and I never came back,” he says. “My father passed away and I never saw him. I didn’t see my mother until I was eighteen or nineteen. Coming from this very homogenous, safe, conservative world into this diverse, amazing time in 1980 — hip-hop was happening, and punk rock was happening — the streets were just calling my name. I’d never tasted this much freedom and joy. I had never tasted this much culture, and I was hungry. I found like-minded kids and we hit the streets.”
Dphrepaulezz says those teenage years were spent “mostly hustling” and he didn’t get into music until he was “a grown man.” He was seventeen.
“What I found was that music was an escape from the danger. I’d seen people get murdered and all that. I knew I was an exhibitionist, so I did a dance contest and won. I loved the feeling it gave me, so I thought, ‘I’ll go and learn how to play instruments.’ ” He chose Prince as a role model and taught himself to play. Songwriting came naturally and, performing under his first name, he soon caught record label interest and struck that deal with Interscope.
“I was signed by Jimmy Iovine to Interscope Records — and that was the end of my creative life,” Dphrepaulezz says plainly. “I thought you just get creative in this room and, voilà, you’re a star. I thought this is music, this is liberating; this is peaceful and beautiful. I was naive: I didn’t know there was such a twisted angle on it, this business side. It scared me and confused me for a long, long time.”
Oddly, it wasn’t until after the near-fatal car accident — the one that wrecked his strumming hand, and thus ended his deal with Interscope — that he began his journey back to music.
“That was the start of my rebirth,” he says. “I quit music for five years and started living life, and had a kid. My kid brought me back. One night, I couldn’t get him to sleep, and — I had sold all my instruments — there was this old guitar under a couch in his room. I started to play and this kid just lights up like I’d never seen before. It scared and fascinated me at the same time.”
He eventually found inspiration in Delta bluesmen such as R.L. Burnside, Fred McDowell, Skip James, and Robert Johnson, and created Fantastic Negrito. “I found myself in this music that is so honest and raw. I came up with the concept, then I started writing the songs, and boom!” And he adapted to playing with his damaged hand: “I call it the claw. It just kind of hacks the instrument into submission and it gives it its own sound.” He’s adept when it comes to seeking out the positive in any given situation.
There is no negativity, or regret, or hindsight philosophy as the 47-year-old recounts his tale. “I don’t think I was ever that kind of person,” he says. “For everyone who felt like an alien or out of place, man, I was the poster child. But everyday is a gift, man, and it’s amazing. Be happy in the sunshine, be happy in the rain. You woke up this morning, what more do you want? I am a survivor and I am participating in this human story.”
Fantastic Negrito performs on July 25 at SummerStage. For ticket information, click here.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 22, 2015