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Q&A: FANTASTIC NEGRITO

It’s two days after Fantastic Negrito’s Bay Area homecoming gig, staged Oct. 14 at the UC Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., and the musician is nursing a hot beverage while sitting on a couch inside Blackball Universe, his multipurpose workspace in Oakland.

With his long legs extended and head slightly tilted back, he’s on the verge of reclining — and given his schedule over the past 18 months or so, the sharp-dressed man also known as Xavier Dphrepaulezz could probably use a little rest and relaxation.

He’s put in a lot of effort to make up for lost time. After overcoming setbacks both professional (a big-budget flop R&B album in 1996 as Xavier) and personal (an auto accident circa 2000 that resulted in serious injuries, a coma and a long hiatus from music), Dphrepaulezz reinvented himself a few years ago as Fantastic Negrito. In June 2016, he released The Last Days of Oakland, which built upon the arresting borderless blues featured on his self-titled 2014 EP. Few people, if any, could have predicted that Oakland would be nominated for a Grammy Award, let alone win one — and at the 59th Grammys, held Feb. 12, The Recording Academy honored it with the Best Contemporary Blues Album trophy.

There have been other highlights for Dphrepaulezz between the buildup to the spring 2016 release of The Last Days of Oakland (since reissued with two bonus tracks) and his UC Theatre concert this month. They include appearing on the Fox-TV drama Empire, touring with Chris Cornell and Sturgill Simpson on their respective headlining tours, playing at New York’s Madison Square Garden with Temple of the Dog as well as collaborating with singer-songwriter ZZ Ward on her recent single “Cannonball.” (Dphrepaulezz and Ward are set to perform the song together Oct. 23 on NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers.)

Following his Nov. 4 appearance as part of a Prairie Home Companion show in San Diego, Dphrepaulezz says he’ll be done touring for this year.

“My voice is a little tired,” he adds, but it’s still strong enough for him to talk about the recent past and what’s ahead.

Medleyville.us: After traveling so much in support of The Last Days of Oakland, do you feel differently about Oakland or see it from a new perspective?
Xavier Dphrepaulezz: “Well, it’s like your woman that you used to complain about. You get back home, and you’re like, ‘Baby, you’re all right. I’ve been out there, and I’ve seen them other women …’

“The Bay Area is such a special, magical place that I’ve always valued. When I wrote The Last Days of Oakland, there was nothing really morbid about it. What I meant was those who yearn for something that shall never return will lead a life of suffering, pain and misery. So for me, it was like, I grew up in that old Bay Area. It was amazing; it was fantastic. It was thriving with culture and Metallica and E-40 and Green Day and Too Short and En Vogue and Hammer and Tony! Toni! Toné! — beautiful, amazing (blows a kiss skyward). Hey, that’s over. This is a new era. A lot of people have moved out; a lot of new people have moved in. So in a way, [the album] is a celebration. May we now be a bridge from the old Oakland to the new Oakland. May we now embrace what is good and bad about both.”

Growing up, did you pay attention to the Grammys? A lot of musicians act like it’s no big deal, until they get nominated for one.
Dphrepaulezz: “To be completely honest, there were times that I did [pay attention] and times that I didn’t. A lot of people that I love and respect never won Grammys … but a lot of people that I did love and respect did win Grammys. Listen, it’s always great to be acknowledged, and it’s an amazing feeling to win a Grammy. I would never say otherwise. When you are acknowledged by your peers that you were the best in the world for that thing at that time, that’s pretty damn good.”

So take me through your Grammy experience.
Dphrepaulezz: “I remember being surprised at being nominated. And I remember going there and watching all of these [established] labels winning and sitting as far back as you could sit, but luckily my friend turned on his iPhone when they were announcing [that my album had won].

“Inside of me, [I knew] I had a great year. My record sounded really good; it was interesting and captivated a moment that we’re going through in our society — working three jobs to pay the bills, the working poor. … [In winning the Grammy], I really thought it’s not for me. I won this for all the people who were ever told that they couldn’t do something. I think I won it for the Bay Area, for the little people, for the working poor. I won it for the people who have home studios and want to make music that connects with people, rather than making music that is (adopts blustery announcer voice) the hit song on the radio. … I’m a middle-aged guy. It’s like, ‘Hey guys, get your high school band back together. There’s a shot.’ ” (claps enthusiastically)

Fantastic Negrito performs Oct. 14 at the UC Theatre in Berkeley, Calif. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

“Push Back” and “The Shadows,” the two new songs on the recently reissued edition of the album: Were they leftovers from the original sessions, or did you write them fresh?
Dphrepaulezz: “I was inspired by the whole political atmosphere. I think we need to contribute something to this. I’m not one of these [anti-Donald Trump] people. That doesn’t help. I care more about people, bro. I don’t care about Democrats and Republicans. I care about people on the streets. When I tour and play concerts, it’s like group therapy. These are my people, and I care about their well-being. I have Trump supporters on my [social-media avenues] — I see ’em. So what? If I want to reach them, I got to reach out with love, truth and facts. … Artists: It’s up to us. We have a responsibility. We’re kind of the last line of defense.”

On a personal and professional level, what did you gain from touring with Chris Cornell?
Dphrepaulezz: “Whew, that’s heavy. I gained a friend — and then I lost a friend. I remember hearing about Chris needing an opening act, and I just thought, ‘Well, they’ll find someone (laughs). It’s not going to be me.’ … I was in Australia doing a festival, and I flew to Norway. It was cold, and I thought, ‘This guy must be out of his mind to think that this is going to work.’ And Chris was so excited [to have me there with him] that I felt a little embarrassed, like, ‘Oh, I’m such an asshole.’

“After my set, I sat on the side and watched Chris — and I learned. Just his body language, how comfortable he was, how he talked a little bit to the crowd. It was like learning from a master. And just backstage, the conversations we had about voice and what you do and how to prepare. He was like a big brother. The love he was giving me, I was so shocked [and thought], ‘This guy has a big heart.’ And if he had love for you, you were in good hands.”

What’s the status on the follow-up to The Last Days of Oakland?
Dphrepaulezz: “Hopefully in November, Sturgill and I will get together and do a song for the new album. And for me, it’s always about songs. I learned from [listening to] Sly Stone, The Beatles: Have some songs, and I try to approach things that way. But if you’re looking for The Last Days of Oakland [again], it ain’t gonna be there.”

And once you have the songs, you can dress them up any way you want.
Dphrepaulezz: “I think for production, I’ve been playing live, so I have a few new tricks. I had a song that Chris and I kept talking about doing, and it was called ‘Plastic Hamburgers,’ and it’s one that I played [the other night in Berkeley]. But in all my busy scheduling, I never got to get it to him. I still have the email, the last one [I received from him], weeks before he died: He said, ‘Anything you want me on, bro, I’m there.’ I’m still going to put the song out there because Chris was about getting the stuff out; go out there and be an artist. Who knows? Maybe I can find some track of his with vocals on it [that I can use].”

So when do you think the next album will be released?
Dphrepaulezz: “In June. I have November and December to get it done, which is the same as it was for The Last Days of Oakland: We did it in like two months, all recorded here, in the same environment — not a traditional studio.”

That doesn’t even matter anymore.
Dphrepaulezz: “Yeah, it doesn’t matter. My record sounded good. … There was a lot of pounding on stuff and drum loops; it was exciting. I think this new one is going to be a little bit heavier — more guitar-driven.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Fantastic Negrito at Blackball Universe in Oakland, Calif., on Oct. 16. Photo by Chris M. Junior

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