Listen to the full conversation below:
What do you do when everything you know leaves you? When your hands are broken, but you’re a guitar player? When writing songs is who you are, but they stop coming? When the people who put trust in your artistry end up more interested in making you a product?
When Interscope Records signed Xavier Dphrepaulezz in 1993, it was the most important label in the music business. Interscope had exclusive rights to Death Row Records artists like Dr. Dre, Tupac, and Snoop Dogg, and the ear of the entire entertainment world. Xavier’s path appeared golden.
And then, his first record didn’t hit. But that was just the beginning. In 1999, he was in a near-fatal car crash that left him in a coma and eventually required years of rehab and recovery. His Interscope contract was terminated, and Xavier was adrift.
By 2008, he was back home in Oakland, raising vegetables and chickens, growing cannabis and beginning to come to terms with who he was as a human, a man, eventually a father. The guitars and the gear was gone—what good was it to have around? The life of a musician was firmly in his rear-view mirror.
So our story begins with Xavier’s answer to my question—why did you give it up? He could have easily answered “how could I not?” And that would have been understandable.
But it wasn’t his answer. Instead, he said something that shocked me. He quit because he didn’t think he had anything meaningful to say. And that it was his respect for music, for the art, that made him put it down.
And then the story gets really interesting. Years later, inspired by the birth and love of his son, Xavier began to play again. First it was just at home, but soon he was busking on Oakland street corners and train stops, finding the joy in simply playing music again, trying to reconnect with his art, but more importantly, reconnect with his community. Did he have something still left to say after all?
The answer, from the four years since Xavier was reborn as Fantastic Negrito, has been undeniable. Largely unknown outside of Oakland, he won NPR’s first Tiny Desk contest in 2015. Negrito’s record the next year, The Last Days of Oakland, was full of such astoundingly raw and genuine songs that it came out of nowhere to win the 2017 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
Twenty-five years after Interscope, he had found his voice. The record made Fantastic Negrito a darling of the critics, and he’s been heavily touring through Europe and the Americas over the last three years.
So you’d think, as a follow-up, he’d repeat the program, recapture that sound. Give the people what they want. Because he could have, maybe should have, played it safe. But he didn’t.
The just-released Please Don’t Be Dead, is as shocking as its predecessor. It’s loud, it’s edgy, and it’s a simple and beautifully honest elegy about the America that’s shifting before our very eyes. Songs like “Plastic Hamburgers” and “The Suit that Won’t Come Off” get at the feeling that so many of us have right now about our America: “supporting and loving, but still critical,” as Xavier says in our talk.
The record is also a riot of creativity. Fantastic Negrito’s energy and passion bubble up and spill over the edges of the songs. This is a weird comparison, but listening to it, I thought of Leaves of Grass; I always imagined Whitman in such a state about himself and about America that he was writing off the edge of the page. I pictured Xavier doing the same thing with these songs.
Like so many of the conversations we have, ours turned to that topic of America itself, more specifically, the promise, the idea of America. And how, though it seems in cultural and historical dispute at the moment, how that promise still pulses through the minds and the actions of most of us, wherever we came from. How it pulsed through Xavier’s immigrant father, and how that drive that propels him too, after and through all the shit, to make something, to do something, to push. To keep working. Because that’s what we do.
Fantastic Negrito’s last two albums The Last Days of Oakland and Please Don’t Be Dead are available wherever you get your music. And if you want to sign up to be part of #Negritonation he talks of here, check out fantasticnegrito.com.