The Male Patti Smith
Bluesfest 18–22 April bluesfest.com.au
Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz – better known by his stage name Fantastic Negrito – is an American singer/songwriter whose music spans blues, R&B, and roots. His 2016 album The Last Days of Oakland won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. This year he took out the Grammy for the same category for his album Please don’t be Dead. This one-time drug-dealing hustler dropped a life of guns and knives, grew his sideburns long, and gatecrashed the Grammys with what he calls ‘black roots music for everyone’. He’s refreshingly unmodest, which is kind of charming. It’s good when people know they are good.
‘I had a very interesting record for that category I think that’s how I felt, man. I don’t know, I always look to do things that are very original and that are not just rehashing the same thing that’s been done over and over before. And I think that’s probably why they put contemporary blues. I don’t know, that’s just how I felt. I had a feeling, and yeah, I mean it was… I don’t know if that’s arrogant to say, but it’s just how I feel. I’m in music for originality, and I really am attracted to music that’s pushing and does things outside of the box and differently. And it’s great that that’s acknowledged. I’m happy to say that in both of my contemporary blues albums there’s not one twelve-bar-blues song, and that makes me very happy.’
Fantastic Negrito calls pushing out of the box his comfort zone.
‘We all have different reasons for becoming an artist, and that was my reason. I think I wanted to write songs that really connected with just everyday people and that’s why I started doing this as a busker initially, just busking in train stations and in front of donut shops and coffee houses just five years ago. And my desire then was to make a connection with people, and that’s my desire now. Just all kinds of people, not just the people who make us feel comfortable. A lot of my basslines and guitar riffs are written, just me watching all the dope dealers that I grew up with in the neighbourhood. They had a certain swag, and I wrote a lot of my basslines around that. And I try to find the most out-of-tune upright pianos and strap things together in my art gallery and come up with something that’s compelling and that’s interesting and gives people a feeling.’
Fantastic Negrito was born to the street. To the hustle. In fact even learning the piano he had to hustle.
‘I thought when I was around 17, “Well, this could be good, do this”. But I just didn’t have any talent, so I had to learn how to play. So I would sneak into the University of California at Berkeley and I would get into those practice-room classes, and that’s how I learned how to play.
‘I learned probably about six months after touching the piano, I realised that there was music in my head. So I decided that that’s all that I would play. And that would be my way of connecting and making a contribution. I felt like with all the drama in my life then I would be… I could grow up to write a song like Plastic Hamburgers about the proliferation of prescription pills in the United States. Or I would write a song like Bad Guy Necessity, which is I feel like the essence of society and civilisation is that we all need to have these people we consider the bad people, so that we can rally against them. I think that’s a very unfortunate part of humanity.
‘So when I’m in there writing and producing these songs, I want to start from nothing. I don’t know what I’m gonna come out with, but I go in always with a great song. And I loop drum beats together and guitar loops together and piano licks. It’s almost like minimalism in a way. I’m trying to pick out as many things as I can so that the shortest distance between music and feeling is achieved, and that’s my objective.’
Songs just arrive for Fantastic; he doesn’t labour a lyric or a melody.
‘They fall out, they’re always circulating and I try to catch up. I need to have a couple people to help what’s going on with me because it’s just a lot of music, and then there’s so much activity. So I’m working on just keeping it as pure as I can; to me it’s very organic. I think 90 per cent of the things I write are garbage; the world never hears ’em. And then there’s that 10 per cent that the world hears. But my process is just to keep it… sanctified.
‘There’s optimism in it; even in the darkness I always walk towards the light. I mean, I feel like that with all of my songs, if you listen to Bad Guy Necessity and some of these tracks, even The Nigga Song, which people don’t want to face. But there’s a lot of positivity in it and there’s a reason that I’m singing it. I’m not just singing these things and writing them to be frivolous.
‘I call it black roots, ’cause it’s all in the same, it’s all the same garden we’re picking from. AC/DC picked from it; so did James Brown; so did Led Zeppelin. It just all came out differently because they had different experiences. But all this music came from enslaved Africans. And everyone was able to take parts of it and make it their own and share it with the world – that’s the beauty of it. So definitely, I’m not afraid of any of that, I think, “Yeah, I love it all”. People hear what they hear, but it’s great. I love… hey, whatever. Someone called me… what did they call me? The male Patti Smith. I think, ‘Great, I’ll take it”.’
Fantastic Negrito plays Bluesfest this year. For tickets and program lineup go to bluesfest.com.au.