An Interview With Fantastic Negrito

Xavier Dphrepaulezz, who’s more known by his stage name Fantastic Negrito, has a fascinating story to tell. We sat down with him after the release of The Last Days of Oakland, his first LP, to chat about his history and the story behind the record. It was such a rewarding chat, with so many memorable quotes, and it quickly became clear that Fantastic Negrito is in a league of his own.

I just want to congratulate you The Last Days of Oakland; I think it’s phenomenal. Thank you very much.

I know your story, but in your own words, would you be able to share it for the readers who might now know who you are? Well, I was born in New England to a pretty big family of fourteen children. My parents moved us to Oakland when I was about twelve years old, and I hit the streets of Oakland and never really came back home. It was such a hotbed of culture and temptation and music and art, and I decided I didn’t want to come back home.

And then I became an artist myself, scored a huge record deal with Interscope Records, one of the biggest ever. Getting signed to Interscope really was the end creatively. I was in an environment that I didn’t know how to function under, in a corporate world.

About four years into it, I was involved in a car accident. I was in a coma for three weeks, and it destroyed my playing hand, my right hand. Upon that happening, I was finally released from my contract under Interscope and began the second phase of my life as a musician.

I became involved in music lessons, and getting my music into film. That was a way to make a living, and it was liberating that I could really create incarnations that could make a living.

I pretty much resigned from the idea of making music after about eight years. I moved back to Oakland in California, decided to become a farmer, grew a lot of weed… And other stuff, but mostly weed. I wanted to live the whole spectrum of being a human being. I wanted to see what it’s like to have a child, to try to create a family. And having a child returned me back to music.

For a few years, it was a slow walk back and it became my third life as a musician — Fantastic Negrito. And I decided to just keep playing in clubs and talking to labels. And a few years later, here I am. I’m in Baltimore — it’s pretty exciting.

I hope that sums it up in five minutes.

Yeah, that’s amazing, thanks. Back to your new record: The Last Days of Oakland is so great. I had trouble even describing it. To me, it’s genre-defying and a really eclectic brew of sounds. Can you share what inspired that? I think, really, what inspired it, is that I try to be truthful and not perform. I think that I was torn. I noticed there was a shift that was happening in every major city that I would go to. It seemed like the same thing was happening over and over again. The cities were unaffordable, black populations are leaving… It seemed that even people that grew up there, and the cities were their hometowns, now they’re facing the fact that, “Hey, this may be our hometown, but we can’t afford to live here.”

This is me focused — you don’t want to see me get eclectic!

And it felt like there was a huge disproportion, financially, between classes of people. It seemed bizarre. It seemed very acceptable to young people that worked multiple jobs just to pay the rent. I don’t think it’s very sustainable. I think that some of these cities had amazing things come out of them because of their accessibility for all people. And you had artists being able to live in the cities, and they were just shared, you know?

And I came up with The Last Days of Oakland because I grew up there, where this exact thing happened. It just made me delve into that as a songwriter, and that’s where I came up with the concept. It’s the last days of Oakland because it’s the last days of London, and Baltimore, and all these cities.

I think we’re witnessing a shift.

Do you think there’s a solution to that? Do you want people to take away from your record that there’s a solution to the problem? I think that, when you’re under attack, that you have to come together. And the way that I made The Last Days of Oakland was through a collective. I know that sounds like a real simple answer, but it’s actually good because you’re not taking all the risks, you’re not making all the decisions. Even the space that you’re creating music in, everyone is contributing — financially, creatively. It’s getting out of the “me” game. I used to be pretty big in it. I’m pretty self-absorbed too.

I’m a guy from the hip hop generation who just happens to be into black roots and blues.

It’s good to just give up control a little bit, and lean on other people, and let people lean on you. I feel like that’s the solution. I know it sounds really simple to people, but that’s exactly what I did and I’ve never felt better. When I went in and made the record, I even had to get past a few dudes… Even though I’m the producer, I’m writing songs like Hump Thru the Winter, or About a Bird, or Scary Woman, obviously. And I feel like you gotta get past a couple of them, in terms of sonically, where you’re going.

And it’s interesting, because I’m pretty eclectic. This is me focused — you don’t want to see me get eclectic! This is me trying to stay in this mode. I’m always picking from the garden of black roots music, and I’ve never wanted to do it the way that anybody else does it, and sound like anyone else. It was always my goal to try to sound as original as possible and take an approach that’s genuine and transparent.

That’s how I approached all the songwriting, and even the production. I was looking for space and rawness, and emptiness. You know, I’m a guy from the hip hop generation who just happens to be into black roots and blues. So I think I take that approach a little bit, but not too much. It’s a very fine line, and a multi-layered, interesting recipe, because you want to keep the general rawness of the Delta blues, which is really my biggest influence, but at the same time, you don’t want to do it the same way it’s been done before.

I think you did that really well. I get that from listening to the record. Oh, well, thanks! I tried. I had the collective to kick my ass when I didn’t stay true to it.

I wanted to ask you about your songwriting process, actually, because of your car accident, and how that damaged your playing hand. Did that change the way you play now? How does that shape the way you write? Well, I don’t think I was… I think I’m a pretty good writer, but I was never a great player. It’s funny because I could play, you know, “Oh look, I can play all those notes!” Especially on keyboard, which is really my instrument. I just started beating up on the guitar because I couldn’t walk around with a piano.

So I started playing the guitar more, and I had to adapt the way that I play, yes. But the concept of The Last Days of Oakland, and everything that I’ve tried to represent and talk about is, hey, if you’ve got bullshit, turn that into some good shit. Roll the good shit up and smoke it if you want. The point being that, yeah, that was some bullshit, and you have to adapt. In everything we do in this world, we’re going to have situations that aren’t favourable to us, and we have to learn to adapt just like the current situation with these major cities being so unaffordable to people. We’ve got to adapt. That’s how we’ll survive. I feel that way about songwriting and I feel that way about life.

That perspective — which is so evident in your music too — is that perspective all a result of the car accident? I think it’s just life. I was born, financially poor, with thirteen other siblings. From that day, I always learned to be positive about everything, and I know where I got it from. Just being the runaway, and streets, and surviving foster care. One thing led to another, and I always walked towards the light because I really had no choice.

If you’ve got bullshit, turn that into some good shit.

Well, you have a choice. But I always felt that way. The accident was just another hurdle to jump over. The record deal’s another hurdle to go over, and I’m happiest that now it’s useful to other people. And my failure is now music for the people, and I think that’s great. I’m happy to get out there every night, and lead all these enthusiastic people who are connected with the music.

I have two questions left for you. I usually ask about streaming services like Spotify, and Apple Music. I’ve been listening to your music for probably about two years — since your first EP came out as Fantastic Negrito. And I’ve listened to it on Rdio, Spotify, Apple Music, and your music kind of goes on and off those services from time to time. As an artist coming up in this streaming era, how do you feel about their business models? Ah, there’s no money in music. That’s a tough question because I haven’t made much money off downloads or streaming yet. I hear that it’s going to be amazing soon, but I didn’t get back into this to be famous or make a lot of money. I really did it for me, for the spirit, and for the health of the spirit, and for therapy — music is my therapy. I don’t know enough about streaming. There doesn’t seem to be that much money in it. The way I look at it is, this is the new model of the music business, and again, you just gotta find other ways.

But I’ve read articles that say streaming is going to bring the music business back. But I don’t know. I’m not well-versed enough. Maybe I should be.

It’s all speculation, right? Your answer is totally fair. I’ve heard people say it’s the future and I’ve heard people say it’s going to destroy them, so who knows? You know, it’s so good not to be thinking about that. In my view, I’m thinking about music. And there are ways to make money. Touring, and merch, people really support you on that. And licensing. I’ve done a lot of licensing. I did Empire, I did The Good Wife, I’ve done all these shows. Vampire Diaries. There are ways, man. There’s always a way. I don’t like thinking about how I can’t do things, so I never walk towards that. I just walk towards what can happen. Somebody try to stop me over here, and I just go to the other side. And again, maybe I need to know more about streaming, but I’ll tell you that there’s not much money at all in it.

I’d say your attitude is the healthiest out of everybody I’ve talked to. Well, good, I like that. It’s about the music man. I’ve learned so much about going out, taking my guitar, and letting people decide. When I did that, it changed my life. We debuted on Billboard at number four. You know, we’re not rocking with a record label, we’re just people who love music, and we want to make great music. We don’t care about hit records; we care about making great music. I think that’s where it’s at, and you can be really happy in that state.

Great. This is my last question for you, and then I’ll let you go. You’re on tour right now with Chris Cornell. Yeah!

What are you listening to on tour? What records do you have on rotation on the road? I got a chance to check out J Cole more. I remember hearing him in passing, and thinking, “Wow! That seems impressive.” But I finally got to really listen to him, and I really like what he’s doing.

I checked out a little bit of Chance the Rapper. Not much. I mean, I heard it passing, so I checked him out some. There’s another girl I just looked at from England. I just saw her on the Tiny Desk Concert. I didn’t catch her name, but she’s an English solo singer. We’ve been listening to some Nina Simone on the road, because how do you not listen to that?

Those are the spectrum right now. I’m rolling with the guys in the group, and they’ve got some stuff that, I don’t even know what it is, but it sounds really cool.

Well, thanks a lot for taking the time for this today, I appreciate it. And thanks for having me! Appreciate it, man.

Fantastic Negrito’s The Last Days of Oakland is available on Spotify, Apple Music, and iTunes.

An image of Fantastic Negrito performing

Fantastic Negrito performing live