For Tiny Desk Concert winners Fantastic Negrito, the journey began in Oakland
The New Parish in Downtown Oakland is packed. About 300 attendees wave their hands and clap as five purple stage lights illuminate the silhouette of a guy wearing a plaid suit, a red vest, a tie and shiny black shoes. The band—drums, piano, bass and guitar—starts playing a blues tune with a catchy guitar riff. Finally, the front man grabs the microphone with conviction and sings in a gritty voice:
I’m packing up and leaving tomorrow
I need a new beginning
I need a new beginning
I’m heading down the road.
After being away from the music scene for five years, this “new beginning” Xavier Dphrepaulezz is singing about might be a reference to his new musical journey as Fantastic Negrito. Dphrepaulezz won the National Public Radio Tiny Desk Concert Contest in February, beating out more than 7,000 submissions. After that, he became a blues sensation. His EP entitled “Fantastic Negrito” charted number 7 on the Billboard blues chart, he performed at the trendy South by Southwest Music Festival, his winning video for the contest has scored more than 100,000 views, and he was invited to perform at the popular Bay Area festival Outside Lands in August.
The 45-year-old singer, who is African American, said that the band name Fantastic Negrito emerged from his desire to call attention to the bluesmen Skip James and Robert Johnson, and as a reference to his ancestors, who picked cotton. Dphrepaulezz has a reputation for coming up with original band names: some of his previous musical endeavors were “Chocolate Butterfly,” “Blood Sugar X” and “Me and This Japanese Guy.”
“I don’t know why I come up with these names. It just seems like it’s divine,” he said. Although his last name, Dphrepaulezz, might sound like another stage name, this is in fact his real last name.
But this new “incarnation” as he likes to call it, as Fantastic Negrito didn’t come easy. Dphrepaulezz had a multi-million dollar deal with Interscope Records in the mid-90’s, and released an album called “X Factor” that, he said, “didn’t quite work out.” He said he felt “creatively drained” and the record didn’t do as well as expected. Then he had a car accident that left him in a coma for three weeks and damaged his playing hand. Shortly after the accident, the label dropped him.
After this experience, he started what he calls his “second phase of music life,” during which he licensed his music for use in about 70 films, including the cult horror movie Leprechaun In the Hood. During those five years, he recorded under three different names.
Then Dphrepaulezz decided he wanted to take a break from music and start a family. And he did. But after being away from music, it was his son who brought him back in. One day, his then one-and-a-half-year-old son wouldn’t sleep. He was holding on to his crib and crying. “He was so cranky and I kept making faces and I remember that lip was just hanging down. I thought, ‘What can I do?’ Dphrepaulezz said. “I remember that I had a guitar. I’ve never played the guitar for him. So I reached down, I picked it up and I played an open G Major. And that changed the course of my life.”
Seeing his son smile, Dphrepaulezz said, he felt both scared and excited. “That smile was saying: ‘Hey, I like music man. Music is great.’”
That experience made Dphrepaulezz slowly walk back into the music scene and “reincarnate” as Fantastic Negrito. He picked up his black acoustic guitar and started playing outside BART stations. “I love street performing because that is the truth to me,” Dphrepaulezz said. “Everyone can hide behind their little mantle, but if you just go and play your songs on the street, people either love it or they hate it.” And he said people seemed to like his newly-composed bluesy songs, which would soon become the base of Fantastic Negrito.
One day as he was sitting in a room composing, he found the sound he was looking for: soulful lyrics, blues melodies, looped instruments and a raspy and raw voice. “I wrote this song: ‘Night has turn to day, oh, night has turned to day,'” Dphrepaulezz sings, following the melody. “And I thought, ‘What is that?’ I never wrote anything like that. And I thought: ‘That’s like black roots.’” That early-blues style, combined with the influence of Delta bluesmen like R.L Burnside, is what makes Fantastic Negrito have its characteristic sound.
Fantastic Negrito is technically the name just for Dphrepaulezz, but when he records and plays shows, he’s backed up by a four-person band. “I am Fantastic Negrito. There is only one Fantastic Negrito in the world, but I didn’t get here alone,” Dphrepaulezz said pointing at his band, halfway through the performance at The New Parish. Dphrepaulezz personally picked each of the members of his band, who have been playing with him for less than a year. Tomás Salcedo, or “the Chilean” as he calls him, met Dphrepaulezz when he was a street performer. “Crowds would gather when I played,” Dphrepaulezz said, “and then one day the Chilean, Tomás, said ‘Man, this is amazing. Do you mind if I sit next to you while you play and play the conga?’ and I was like ‘Yeah, go ahead.’” He said the next day Salcedo called him and ask if he could play the guitar for him. “I loved that he didn’t have much of a blues background and I thought that was even more interesting,” Dphrepaulezz said.
He had known the drummer, Ruthie Price, for a while and asked her to join. Then somebody recommended bassist Nate Pedly to him. Keyboardist LJ Holoman already had a well-established career before joining the band; he had worked with 50 Cent, B-Legit, Joss Stone and other famous artists.
They released a self-titled EP in 2014 on Dphrepaulezz’s own label, Blackball Universe. But things didn’t really pick up steam until they won the first NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest, a competition that aims to give an undiscovered band a chance to be in the spotlight. The competing artists each uploaded a video submission of themselves performing a single, original song at a desk. Then there were two rounds of judging. In the first one, members of NPR Music voted on their favorite videos based on musical quality and appeal, originality and stage presence, and charisma. In the second round, five judges including NPR’s Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton and industry experts like Valerie June selected the winner from among the twenty finalists’ videos.
Fantastic Negrito’s entry video, “Lost in a Crowd,” was shot in a single take in a warehouse. “I was surprised because I didn’t think NPR would go that raw,” Dphrepaulezz said referring to the simplicity of the video. “I was happy that NPR picked that because it’s great for the city of Oakland, it’s great for me, it’s great for the band. It shines the light on the Bay Area.”
After winning the contest, Fantastic Negrito’s success has consistently grown. Dphrepaulezz did the Tiny Desk Concert with the band at NPR offices in Washington D.C at the desk of Bob Boilen, host of All Songs Considered, where music personalities like Adele, Foster the People and T-Pain have performed before him. He was also invited by NPR to perform at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas last month and the band was recently invited to perform at the Outside Lands festival.
The record also started selling. “Without a record company, it charted number seven on the blues charts on Billboard and right now it’s still doing very well,” Dphrepaulezz said. He said that he is planning to record “Lost in the Crowd,” which he refers as “the song that kind of made people pay attention to us,” and re-release the album.
On this chilly April night, the crowd at The New Parish seems to have shaken the cold off. They also seem to have been paying attention to the band and their songs—they’ve just finished singing “Night Has Turned To Day” at the top of their lungs. Dphrepaulezz wipes the sweat off his forehead with his small white towel and says, “The Bay Area is the greatest tribe in the world.”
And he knows exactly what he is talking about. Although he was born in rural Massachusetts, where he was raised with his 14 siblings in an orthodox Muslim household, he moved to Oakland when he was a teenager. “It’s just a magical place,” Dphrepaulezz said referring to the Bay Area. “We are our own tribe and we let you shine in here as long as you are authentic and you are yourself.”
Dphrepaulezz said he grew up “being the weird one,” but that he would still hang out in West Oakland with the punk rockers and the hip-hop kids. “I was the outcast in the Bay Area, that was how weird I was then,” Dphrepaulezz said with a grin on his face. “We dressed up in leopard skin cowboy boots and orange pants.”
Dphrepaulezz says the openness of its culture is what makes the Bay Area a creative hub and that is why its bands are so different from each other—he points out that Sly and the Family Stone and Green Day came from the same area.
That creativity is what he thinks set Fantastic Negrito apart and helped them win the Tiny Desk Concert Contest. Dphrepaulezz says that, this time around on his music journey, he wants to connect with his audience through honesty. That is not always an easy task. “I think what I’m conveying is that life is a journey of ups and downs and failures and heartbreaks and disappointments,” he said. “We can get through it together if we just help each other and connect with each other.”
As the show comes to an end in The New Parish, Dphrepaulezz sings the song that has brought him back to the spotlight: “Lost in a Crowd.” But this time instead of singing the lyric:
We are people, lonely people, you and I.
I said, Oakland, California in the house.