Fantastic Negrito Opens Up About Roots, Society, and New Album ‘Please Don’t Be Dead’
Virtually all contemporary, popular Western music is indebted to the blues. It’s often so far removed, however, that the blues elements go unrecognized. When you trace sounds back to their sources, you can tap into the atrophied, but still vital, spirit that inspired generations of artists, and transformed the cultural landscape of the last century. It can all be heard in the Mississippi Delta Blues.
Xavier Dphrepaulezz recorded under the moniker “Xavier” in the mid ‘90s, until a near-fatal car crash left him in a coma. He recovered to find his recording contract terminated, and gradually withered into obscurity. In 2014, a rediscovery of roots music inspired him to radically reinvent himself as Fantastic Negrito. And so, he set out excavating the sounds of our heritage, terming them “black roots music for everyone,”and presenting them, updated but unadulterated, to modern audiences. So deeply rooted are the sounds that they strike a universal chord, one effectively conveyed through Negrito’s musical skill, versatility, and passion. He’s just released a new album, “Please Don’t Be Dead,” which finds him ambitiously hopping genres, always emphasizing their roots qualities with his characteristic flair. It’s very much a record of the time, a reaction to the sociopolitical climate.
Entertainment Voice met with the artist for an inside look into his latest release. We dissected the new songs, and shed light into Negrito’s musical aesthetic, outlook, influences, and ideas.
To get the cliche question out of the way first, you’ve explained that the name “Fantastic Negrito” just came to you one time when you found yourself overwhelmed by the power of black roots music, and thought it was “fantastic.” This still doesn’t exactly explain the “Negrito” choice. Why did you pick a term that literally translates to “small black.”
I’m small in places you guys can’t see (laughs.) I’m joking. First, I thought Mississippi should be the richest state in the union, not the poorest, because it’s made more people rich, from the tradition of the music, than I can count. And I thought I’m a person that comes from this amazing culture, and so many of my ancestors who paid with their blood for this music to be created. I thought, I love Skip James and I love Robert Johnson. These are the architects of pop music culture, and I thought if I could say those names whenever someone asked me about Fantastic Negrito, then it’s perfect.
Growing up in a lot of these different hoods, the Mexicans were always there too, the Latinos, and we’d sometimes hear that name in songs, “Negrita,” “Negrito,” so it wasn’t anything harsh. It sounded very sweet in those traditional Mexican or Salvadorian songs. I feel like that whole culture, as a Californian, is part of my culture too because we’re just surrounded by it. That was already in my DNA, as a person from the west coast. It was just natural to me, “Negrito.” I wasn’t really going, “oh, little black,” but I thought that’s great, because it sounds like something black. And “fantastic” to give it a positive meaning and connotation. It came from the very concept I have about taking the bullshit and turning it into good shit. Often times, we’re the most imprisoned, the ones that get shot by the police the most, whatever. I thought this empowers. And I can say the name of the Delta kings, and have this conversation with anyone from the press. That’s what it all came from, and what it all means to me.
According to the writeups on your official website, “(you leave) the original sounds of Lead Belly and Skip Woods intact and (build) bridges to modernity by looping and sampling (your) own live instruments.” Your new record, however, doesn’t sound merely like Leadbelly-era sounds looped and sampled. It sounds as if it spans several decades of music, yet always highlights the “roots” element. Please expand on your musical aesthetic, especially on the nature and extent of the “roots” element.
That’s funny, that bio was written at the time that I was doing the EP. I think even when I did “The Last Days of Oakland,” I was kind of done with that. And I hope I’m done with all descriptions every time I make an album because I don’t have an interest in being popular or being a fucking pop star, or trying to fit into someone’s repressed fantasy. That’s the beauty of just being a guy that played on the street. As a producer, I feel like each time I make a record, I fire the last producer. I want to write and produce music absorbing everything around me. Since “The Last Days of Oakland,” a lot of things have happened. So I was just writing and producing from that perspective. As a producer, I thought we’re under attack, and there’s no one in sight that can save us except people like Dave Chappelle or Kendrick, who are really talking about issues that matter, and are being very forthcoming and honest and real. This is the time of artists. This is when we get out there, and we’re on the front line, and we’re relating to our brethren, our people, our family. So when I wrote this, I was looking for, like, the universal fucking riff. And those people marching in North Carolina, I bet they like “Johnny B Goode.” Who doesn’t like that riff? The one thing that unites us — I don’t care where you are on the spectrum — is a riff, a jam. I always stay true to the roots. Everybody does, even if they don’t think they’re doing it. All of this music came from African people that were enslaved. They went through a lot of shit, and they started making songs, and that infiltrated the entire world. I call it “black roots music for everyone” because that’s what it is. And everyone from The Spinners to Jack White to Grandmaster Flash to Kendrick to Zeppelin to Black Sabbath, that’s what you’re pulling from. I’m always in that neighborhood because that’s where I belong. As Fantastic Negrito, I just got more to the source. I had heard about this music my whole life, but I had never gravitated to it.
With this record, everything has to be riff-oriented. I wanted it to have teeth. I wanted it to be a sword. I feel like we’re being confronted by really negative, disgusting things that are dividing us along the lines of our differences, and I don’t like it personally. And what can I do? I can make music. So, as a producer, I went to the studio, and I was like, “We’ve got to fight. We’re coming out with Plastic fucking Hamburgers.” Riff. Fucking screaming vocals. Let ‘em have it.
As I was making it, I thought, “1968 was fifty years ago.” I’m a fifty-year-old motherfucker, so I thought, “Let’s dance around that theme.” What was out then? “The White Album,” “Electric Ladyland,” these groundbreaking albums in which they just didn’t give a fuck, they were like, “We’re just making music.” And I really had that attitude, and I was like, “Yeah, I want to be all over the place.” That’s always been the critique of me, and I wanted to embrace it because why not smash the boxes that people try to put you into?
The further back a style of music can be traced back, the wider the range of “derivative” styles that bare its distinctive elements. Do you think this phenomenon sufficiently explains the broad and powerful relatability of “roots” music, or do you think there’s more to it?
Well, I always tell people I’m not doing something so great, I’m just picking from the garden. If you respect it, it’ll feed you and those around you. We have to respect the things that came before because the roots are powerful. The tree is standing because of the roots. I was a marijuana farmer for eight years. If the roots are fucked up, you’re done. When the roots are flourishing, you start smiling because you know the harvest is going to be great.
The your new album’s vividly titled opening track, “Plastic Hamburgers,” has the lines, “People get caught underneath the spell / Oh, they keep buying everything they sell,” suggesting that the title refers to unnecessary products. Please expand on the meaning of “Plastic Hamburgers.”
MSNBC or FOX, it’s the same spell. I was like, “You know what?” I’m a gun owner, but there’s a fucking gun problem. There’s a problem of the heart, mind, and soul in this country, where people are picking up guns, and killing kids in schools. There’s a proliferation of prescription pills that killed my good friend Chris Cornell. It killed Prince, Tom Petty, and thousands of other people whose names we don’t know. People get caught up in the needless materialism of America, and the bullshit, rather than the great things. America is beautiful and amazing and spectacular, and it’s also miserable and full of shit. In writing that song, I thought, “Man, let’s fix the things that are miserable,” and “Burn it down,” as I say on the chorus.
The spell is, “He’s a bad guy, and he’s out there, and you’re suffering because of him.” Blame, no accountability, no thinking, and just going with the flow of the gatekeeper. He has a plan, and you follow that plan, and that’s the destructive path that we’re on now.
What kind of chanting is going on in the song “A Boy Named Andrew?” Where does that style originate from?
I listen to a lot of things, and one of my favorite guys is Hamza El Din. He’s a Nubian oud player, fantastic guy, and he actually ended up in the bay area. I feel like all the scales and sounds are, kind of, in a circle, and they permeate all societies. I think it came from listening to so much of that, and I just got lost in it because I thought it was part of the tradition of clapping your hands and chanting — the blues tradition. It’s just very old and very African. It’s in all our blood. Even the people that owned the slaves were listening, so it’s all there, and if we open up and reach out, it can heal us and help us. I wanted to be open, and let everything in, and put it all under one roof, a dysfunctional family of songs — kind of like the country we live in.
“Transgender Biscuits” is a hell of a name for a song. What is that one about?
(Laughs.) What a great fucking title. I should win an award for that title. I live on a farm, and one of my neighbors saw me, and said, “I got fired because I was a woman,” and I just started thinking of the absurdity of bigotry. I wanted to write something, feeling like I was fifteen years old, and didn’t care about the rules. That’s why everybody’s in there, like woman, gay, white, black. That’s why in every part of the verse. I’m like, “I got fired because of that.” I wanted to write something that expressed that in a very whimsical and funny and interesting and captivating way.
Which song(s) on the new album are you especially excited for fans to hear, and why?
I love every song on this album, which is not normal. I love “Plastic Hamburgers,” but they’ve heard that. I love “Bad Guy Necessity,” because Candice Antique Davis is the guest vocal. I love “A Boy Named Andrew” because I feel like I’m just taking you somewhere you didn’t expect me to take you. I love “Dark Windows” because I wrote it about all the emails between Chris Cornell and I, in the short time that we knew each other. I walked in the store yesterday and heard “A Letter to Fear.” That’s a really good song. Man, I like these songs on this record. I like the record top to bottom.
With all the often laughably excessive overproduction in current pop music, do you think a large-scale resurgence of more stripped-down music is imminent?
Well, I know I’ve been doing it for the past couple years, and I hear traces of it out there. I think people have to do what they’re feeling. I think pop music now is a reflection of what’s going on in society. Look around. Society’s been dumbed down. These are opiates for the masses, sloganism, fear. I think people express what’s going on around them. I’m expressing mine, but I’m a different age group.
What do you think, these days, of your earlier music as “Xavier,” released before your brilliant reinvention?
Well, I think that guy was just doing what he knew about. He wanted to be a pop star, and he was young, good looking, liked to sleep with a lot of women, be around thugs and fancy things. That’s what you get. You get where your head is at. I think that guy was necessary in the story, in the evolution. You’ve got to love it all, man. You’ve got to be in the religion of gratitude, and be thankful for even being an asshole. You know, I had to be a narcissist to become a recovering narcissist. And I had to be greedy to then become a contributor. I had to be a greedy artist that wanted everything one day, and then I became a contributor. And then I got it, when I picked up my guitar and just walked into the street, and forgot about the world of, like, “Hey, let’s please the gatekeeper, man. Let’s see what he says we should be. What does he need? The gatekeeper needs to make more money. Do I look good enough now? Should I gain more weight, lose more weight, lighten my skin, whatever.” The gatekeeper is always telling you what you should do. Meanwhile he’s fucking shitting on society.
Are there any contemporary artists that interest or excite you? Is so, who are they?
Candice Antique Davis, she’s from Oakland. I’m a huge fan of hers. There’s a crew up out of England, Wildwood Kin, these three girls who are amazing. I like Sturgill Simpson. What a voice, what a guitar player! He’s just sick. Valerie Tune, she does interesting stuff. Out of the popular people in the world, no one’s beating Kendrick Lamar. I feel like he’s just miles ahead of everyone else. I go on tour and I see great acts all over the world. They’re out there. Be optimistic, there’s a lot of great music out there.
You seem to really channel the spirit of bygone times in your live performances, in a way that can seem uncannily authentic. This probably explains why crowds have been so hypnotically attracted to you during live sets. How do you suppose you do it?
Well, live — to me — I call it “church without the religion.” All those older groups, that’s what they were doing. They were all out of church: James Brown, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, rock ‘n’ roll, The Stones, Prince. I’m from that energy field of feelings. That’s how I feel. It’s just authentic, man. I don’t have set lists all the time. I change it. If I’m feeling it, that’s what we’re doing. I make shit up right in the middle of the songs. There’s something about being a human being, and beating on these instruments, and making these sounds. There’s something so primal, beautiful, and necessary. And I feel like music really has the power to point us more in a direction of love, and I just want to be part of it. I want the world to be better, and I see the better side everytime I’m out there, touring around the globe. That’s what the whole idea of “Please Don’t Be Dead” is about. Let’s keep alive the things that are amazing, that make us better, for all motherfuckers, no matter who you are. Who cares who you fuck, or what you look like, or what you’re into, just as long as you’re not out to hurt other people? I’m an old man that’s emotional now, and I want good things.