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Fantastic Negrito finds inspiration in black roots music, streets of Oakland

Fantastic Negrito opens for Chris Cornell on Wednesday at the Fox. (Robbie Welsh)
Fantastic Negrito opens for Chris Cornell on Wednesday at the Fox. (Robbie Welsh)

Xavier Dphrepaulezz has lived enough life to supply material for multiple biographies.

“I never really thought my story was that interesting until people started telling me it was,” the Oakland-based musician said during a recent phone interview. “I don’t want to sound cliched, but everything that we go through in our lives shapes us.”

The eighth of 14 children, Dphrepaulezz ran away from home at a young age, and he taught himself how to play music by posing as a University of California, Berkeley student and taking advantage of the music department’s pianos. He was signed to Interscope Records as an R&B artist known only as Xavier, but his one album never took off. In 1999, he was in a car accident that put him in a coma for weeks and partially disfigured his hands.

He continued scraping together an income with his music, but he stopped playing altogether seven or eight years ago.

“I didn’t have anything left to say,” Dphrepaulezz said. “I wanted to become a farmer, grow some weed, have a kid.”

After those years of musical inactivity, Dphrepaulezz picked up his guitar again and rechristened himself as Fantastic Negrito, busking for change on the streets of Oakland.

“I really wanted to make music that connected with people, which got me to go onto the street to let the people decide,” Dphrepaulezz said.

In 2015, a video of Dphrepaulezz performing his song “Lost in a Crowd” was selected by NPR as the winning submission in a contest for its Tiny Desk concert series. A year later, Fantastic Negrito is touring with Soundgarden guitarist Chris Cornell, who stops by Spokane on Wednesday. It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind.

“But now I’m older, I’m wiser,” Dphrepaulezz said. “I’ve gotten to know myself better. That always helps.”

Dphrepaulezz says his first musical inspirations included early Prince and old school hip-hop, but the work of Fantastic Negrito is inspired by the black roots music that his parents often played when he was a child.

“I’d heard it as a kid, but I never really felt that drawn to it,” Dphrepaulezz said. “It just sounded old, and it didn’t have drums. But listening to it as a grown man, it resonated with me, and I could relate to the naked rawness and the idea of surviving. Because these cats were surviving in such turbulent and troubled times when you weren’t even treated like a man.”

Fantastic Negrito’s debut LP “The Last Days of Oakland,” released last month, blends soul, R&B, funk, folk and bluegrass and applies the sonic fuzz of early blues recordings (it’s fitting that the album features a cover of Lead Belly’s “In the Pines”). Filled with handclaps and gospel-style harmonies, it also has the fervor of a revivalist meeting or a crowded jam session, though Dphrepaulezz says he’ll be up on stage with just a guitar and piano when he’s opening for Cornell.

“When you’re playing by yourself on a stage, it’s naked,” he said. “You can’t hide. Either your song sucks, or it doesn’t.”

Dphrepaulezz’s arresting voice is front and center on “Last Days,” but the record is also interspersed with the voices of people he encountered in his own neighborhood, a stylistic choice that recalls his busking days.

“I just went out on the street with an iPhone and started running my mouth,” Dphrepaulezz said. “I developed Fantastic Negrito while busking on the street, and these are the people that endorsed me first. … I wanted their voices on the record. I love that energy on the album, of people going through real things.”

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