Xavier Dphrepaulezz was cruising down Highland Ave. one night in 1999, living the dream of a musician with a major-label deal, the lights of Hollywood whizzing by, when in the blink of an eye his life changed forever.
Suddenly, an oncoming car collided into the side of his yellow two-door, ripping off the bumper and crumpling inward the driver’s side door and windshield. Dphrepaulezz survived, but barely: he didn’t wake from his coma for three weeks, and when he did, his hands and arms were disfigured, “rods and pins everywhere.” He didn’t know whether he would ever be able to play keyboards again.
For many, it would be the end of a career. For Dphrepaulezz, it was a new beginning.
While the car crash in many ways marked the origin of Fantastic Negrito, the raw blues-inspired project that that made him an instant star earlier today when he was announced as the winner of NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert competition, it was by no means the beginning of his career as a performer and an outsider.
Since meeting Dphrepaulezz in a chance encounter a year ago, I've interviewed him on a handful of occasions, both in his office near Jack London Square, and around the neighborhood, which he walks fervently in long strides. He’s always ready to sing.
Dphrepaulezz was born the eighth of 15 children in western Massachusetts, “a weird black guy with a crazy name,” who inevitably had to fight for his parents’ attention. “I’ve been performing all my life,” Dphrepaulezz told me. “Performing for food. Performing for socks.” He moved to Oakland as a teenager in 1979, where his foreign name and his strict Muslim family’s rules kept him apart from kids his age.
In Oakland he discovered soul, early hip-hop, and perhaps most importantly, Prince. “This guy was like ‘Hey, I’m gonna push the edge. [He’s] doing punk music and he’s a brother and he’s wearing garter belts and makeup and he’s straight!” Dphrepaulezz left Oakland for L.A. in the early 1990s, where his demo found its way into the hands of Prince’s former manager Joe Ruffalo. In 1996, Interscope released his only studio LP, X Factor. In press photos from those days, Dphrepaulezz is the embodiment of sexual androgyny; a pink Mohawk, silver eyeliner flashing around his brown eyes, his shirt unbuttoned and a pastel scarf around his neck.
At Interscope, Dphrepaulezz found himself faced with the calculated and calculating business of dealing with a major label. “First meeting at Interscope, they said, ‘Xavier, you’re black. You’re a black artist. And you gotta start doing things that black artists do…The day I [signed the deal] was the day things ended for me.”
Still, they gave him a million-dollar contract. He recorded X Factor. Although disillusioned by the industry, he had escaped his strict upbringing. He was living the hedonistic life of a rock star. Then the crash put an end to all that.
Dphrepaulezz calls the coma “the best sleep I’ve ever had,” the beginning of the third stage of his life, following his strict upbringing and his wild years in L.A. He awoke unsure of his future, yet filled with newfound gratitude. It was like “being born again,” he yelps, “without all the frills and thrills.” Interscope terminated his contract, and he moved back to Oakland, where he made money running a series of underground nightclubs and occasionally selling weed. Yet he never lost his compulsion to perform. And it wasn’t just on stages. “I’m a witness now,” he says. “I need to show what happened to me. I want to remind people that hey, your life is good.”
Music pours out of Dphrepaulezz like a fast-flowing fountain. On one of our strolls together he walked into a café and immediately had the wide-eyed barista touching the rod in his arm; she jumped back, howling. Minutes later he bolted into the Salvation Army near Jack London Square and made a beeline for the piano, belting Al Green and Beatles covers for the perplexed custodian. He loves busking on the street, and sings nonstop in his car. “I’m an exhibitionist,” he admits.
Fantastic Negrito is a synergy of his obsession with performance and his newfound appreciation for sincerity in his music; his track “An Honest Man” was used as the opening number in the Ron Perlman Amazon series Hand of God. Fantastic Negrito’s music is devoid of glamor; over stomping drums and bluesy riffs, Dphrepaulezz howls deadpan lyrics about believing in yourself and fighting your demons. Yet as NPR Music’s Bob Boilen put it, “his passion is undeniable.” Looking back on his Interscope recording, Dphrepaulezz calls it sound of a guy who has talent, but is “lost.”
Dphrepaulezz and his band fly to Washington, D.C. later this month to record a Tiny Desk Concert at Bob Boilen’s desk, a far cry from the rusty old freight elevator, complete with table saw in lieu of a desk, where he recorded his entry into the contest only a few weeks ago. The high-profile opportunity, along with his upcoming trip to SXSW, may be his second chance to make it big.
Yet whatever happens, one thing is doubtless: Dphrepaulezz will always take things on his own terms.
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Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED