By Lexy Green
Fantastic Negrito, née Xavier Dphrepaulezz, first sparked national attention last year when he won NPR’s inaugural Tiny Desk Contest, beating entries from over 7,000 other unsigned artists. Though this success appeared sudden, it was born of decades of struggle, much of it in Oakland and Berkeley, where Dphrepaulezz spent his teen years.
Fast forward to today, and Dphrepaulezz is just back from a European tour that saw him playing sellout crowds at venues including London’s Royal Albert Hall. Fantastic Negrito is set to release his eagerly anticipated album, “The Last Days of Oakland” this week — and you are invited to the party. In true East Bay style, the record release will be celebrated with a free concert at First Fridays in downtown Oakland. Fantastic Negrito plays the 23rd Street stage at at 8:15 p.m. on Friday, June 3, possibly the last chance for local fans to see him until Outside Lands in August.
Dphrepaulezz left a life of selling weed to break into the music industry in Los Angeles, signed a million-dollar record deal, experienced disillusion as his musical career floundered, and endured a three-week coma after surviving a catastrophic car accident that left him with a metal rod in one arm and a hand he describes as, “the claw.” After returning to Oakland and abandoning music, Dphrepaulezz picked up the guitar again a few years ago to soothe his son. The musical spark was reignited, and, a few years later, Fantastic Negrito was born.
“The Last Days of Oakland” speaks to the rapid change occurring in the city as a result of the widening income gap and gentrification that has accompanied Oakland’s long-awaited economic renaissance. And, despite his fantastical alter ego, it is also deeply personal, confessional, and autobiographical.
Fantastic Negrito, who describes his music as blues with a punk attitude, is a musical polyglot whose sound owes as much to Led Zeppelin as it does to Robert Johnson, while his lyrics echo the social commentary of Curtis Mayfield. At once blues, soul, funk, and hard rock, the Fantastic Negrito sound is unique, urgent, and raw. Fantastic Negrito prefers to keep it real, whether testing his material by busking outside of Colonial Donuts, or challenging audiences with self portraits that are more frank than flattering.
Oakland and Berkeley roots
“I would say I’m an East Bay kid because Oakland was the first place I landed coming out of New England back in 1980,” he said when asked about his Oakland and Berkeley roots. Having grown up in a conservative Muslim household, it was an exciting and eye opening place, he adds.
“The Parkway is where we used to sneak into the movie theater. Across the street is the park where we used to get in fights and do acrobatics. We learned how to hustle at the grocery store, helping people carry their bags to their cars. And I saw flamboyant gay men in boots up to their hips and I’m like whoah! It was just… you know my first attraction to girls, cars driving by playing The Breaks by Kurtis Blow and playing Head by Prince. I remember that keyboard line… It’s a very colorful, special time.”
After bouncing around between three or four different schools, Xavier found himself at Berkeley High School.
“When I landed there that was home,” he said. “And you just felt that there was a sense that anything was possible. And it was extremely diverse. And I thrived in that environment. I had friends in the poorest neighborhoods and the wealthiest neighborhoods. And I’m still friends with all of them.”
Those Berkeley High friendships have also played a part in Dphrepaulezz’s reborn musical career. Screenwriter Ben Watkins is the creator of the Amazon series Hand of God, for which Dphrepaulezz recorded “An Honest Man.” High-school peer Malcolm Spellman is a part of the Fantastic Negrito management team, as well as a writer and co-producer on Fox’s hit series Empire. Not coincidentally, Fantastic Negrito was featured in a recent episode.
As the East Bay floods with newcomers, Dphrepaulezz sees some potential downsides, but remains fundamentally upbeat.
“I have a philosophy about “The Last Days of Oakland,” and it’s that the only thing that would be at risk is just the spirit and the essence of why Oakland, of why the Bay Area is cool. Why did you want to move here? Somebody made it cool. So I think what may be at risk is just that acknowledgement or that knowledge of the history of the Bay Area. That edge. Everyone talks about the Hell’s Angels came out of here, but so did the Black Panthers. So did the idea of free speech. So did Too Short. So did Creedence Clearwater Revival. So did the Coup. And so did Santana and Metallica and even Green Day and MC Hammer. You can go down the list. We are very edgy. And we are very much individuals. Let’s not lose that.”
Since returning to music as Fantastic Negrito, Xavier has honored that edgy history by reaching out to Bay Area music greats like Oakland’s Sugar Pie DeSanto, who will join him at First Fridays.
But, despite the connection Xavier feels to the Bay Area’s storied past, he does not advocate preserving it in amber.
“I know that change is inevitable. And “The Last Days of Oakland” for me, it means that’s over. Here’s something new. Let’s do something amazing. I look at it in a very positive way. I actually came up with the title of the album while I was on tour in New Orleans. The world has changed. This is a new era. Let’s get down.”
Or, as Fantastic Negrito likes to exhort his audiences, “Take that bullshit, and turn it into good shit.”
Want to know what else is going on in the East Bay? Visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. Submit your own events for free if they aren’t there already -— and give them featured status for just a few dollars a day.