For Xavier Dphrepaulezz, the most crucial music venue in America is not a rock club in Brooklyn or a disco in L.A. but a small cubicle in the corner of NPR’s office in Washington, D.C. It was from there, last spring, that the 49-year-old father from Oakland, California, began his second act. He’d bested almost seven thousand other unsigned musicians to win a performance on All Songs Considered‘s influential Tiny Desk Concert web series, and if you watch the video, it’s easy to see why: In the fifteen-minute clip, he comes alive in real time, stirring the room with blues depth and gospel enthusiasm. “There was a nervous energy going on, but then as soon as it kicked in, he was like a different human,” recalls Bob Boilen, the NPR host (and owner of the eponymous desk) who ran the contest.
The concert was uploaded to YouTube on March 9, 2015, and streamed half a million times from around the world. “It definitely put my career on steroids,” Dphrepaulezz tells the Voice via phone from Paris, where he’s prepping to play his first show at Petit Bain, a floating club off the banks of the Seine. It’s his second global tour after his breakout and includes stops at the Restoration Rocks festival in Bed-Stuy on October 8 and at Mercury Lounge on October 9.
On the previous tour, Dphrepaulezz noticed changes in cities like New York and New Orleans that reminded him of home: Like Brooklyn and the Lower Ninth Ward, he explains, “Oakland [has] lost like 25 percent of its black population!” When he got back, he wrote a soulful song cycle that puts blues singer Skip James in conversation with radical Bay Area rap group the Coup in an attempt to make sense of everything he’d seen. The finished product, The Last Days of Oakland, released this June, is one of the great unclassifiable records of 2016, an exploration of what Dphrepaulezz calls his hometown’s “new era” in all its beauty and complexity.
Dphrepaulezz moved to Oakland when he was twelve. He ran away from home as a teenager, immersing himself in “anything edgy,” including the Clash, George Clinton, and hip-hop. He taught himself piano by sneaking into practice rooms at UC Berkeley, where he’d listen to students playing, wait for them to leave, and then replicate what he’d heard.
In 1995 he released his Prince-indebted debut record, The X Factor, on Interscope, under the name Xavier. But he felt stifled by the label system and walked away from the deal, hiding out in an illegal Redondo Beach nightclub where he’d throw monthly concerts. “Bro, it was so much fun!” he remembers (excitement bubbles constantly in his voice when he tells stories). “If I wanted to [be in] a punk band, I’d do a punk band. If I wanted to do soul music, I created that band. I just wanted to escape from the music industry and live underground with beautiful people.”
Four years later he returned to Oakland, where he opened a gallery, had a son, and started growing marijuana — the Bay Area way of settling down. He never stopped playing music, though, and eventually came up with his Fantastic Negrito alter ego, a sort of superhero for black roots music. He began imagining a dream city in which poets and tech gurus find common ground, and artists come from the working class rather than pushing it out. This is the optimistic vision of Last Days, and he grounds it in the tough sound of the Delta blues. Masa Kohama, Dphrepaulezz’s longtime guitarist, remembers starting work on the record: “He started sending me his tracks with only one line in the email: ‘Just do slide!’ ”
The LP’s most devastating cut is “In the Pines — Oakland,” a bass-heavy reworking of Lead Belly’s famed rendition of the tune. Both open with the same line (“Black girl, black girl/Don’t lie to me”), but Dphrepaulezz’s version adds original lyrics to turn a tale of infidelity into the story of a single mother whose son is killed by police. “I watched my mother bury my fourteen-year-old brother, a victim of gun violence,” Dphrepaulezz says. “I watched my aunt bury my sixteen-year-old cousin, a victim of gun violence. So I thought, ‘I need to change the lyrics, so that when people hear “black girl” I can give respect to these black women who hold together the fabric of society.’ ”
He hands another track, “What Do You Do,” over to real-life Oaklanders, whose voices appear in sound-collage talking about how to deal with police searches, while Kohama’s aching slide guitar keens in the background. “I put that on there just for the young people in my family, for my children, so that they’ll know, ‘Hey, what did Dad do?’ ” says Dphrepaulezz. “We have to be given the tools to deal with that, and I feel that as a community elder, in a sense” — he chuckles at the thought of himself, the runaway, becoming a leader — “that’s my responsibility.”
Dphrepaulezz also considers himself a bridge between his community and the new one pushing it elsewhere. “I grew up in that old Oakland, but I’m being an artist and getting down in the new Oakland. It’s the last days of a lot of things. But it’s also the beginning of something great — if you want it to be.”