Fantastic Negrito: Reimagining the blues for a new age — and audience

Fantastic Negrito: Reimagining the blues for a new age — and audience
Oakland musician Fantastic Negrito, shown at the Pig N' Whistle restaurant, is on a tour that stops at the Greek Theatre on Friday, where he will open for a fellow Grammy Award winner, Sturgill Simpson, (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The musician known as Fantastic Negrito arrives at an old-school Hollywood bar for an interview, fresh from a stop at a favorite thrift store not far away where he's scored a couple more colorful additions to his wardrobe, including a striking orange Ben Sherman blazer that he said was a steal.

"I love mom-and-pop stores like that," said Negrito, 49, whose given name is Xavier Amin Dhprepaulezz, and who notched an even bigger score earlier this year when his 2016 album, "The Last Days of Oakland," took the Grammy Award for contemporary blues album — a mighty feat for an independent artist putting out music on his own label.


"People want to talk to you, they're enthusiastic," he said of his experience at the Pineapple Mama boutique the Bay Area artist frequents when he visits L.A. "They remember you, as opposed to walking into a huge department store, where no one knows you, or cares about you. I think I approach life that way, and I approach music that way."

His approach has been paying off in significant ways in the two years since he started recording what would become "The Last Days of Oakland." One song from the album, "Lost in a Crowd," was singled out from among 7,000 entrants to National Public Radio's annual Tiny Desk Concert competition, earning him national exposure from the resulting NPR feature on him.

His music caught the ear of Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell, who invited him on tour last year as the opening act for Cornell's Temple of the Dog tour, and has gained placements in such TV shows as "Empire" and "Hand of God," the latter using his song "An Honest Man" as its theme.

He continues to build on the attention that has come his way with the Grammy win in a fall tour on which he's supporting Americana artist Sturgill Simpson, a tour that brings them both to the Greek Theatre for a Friday stop.

There's no sign, as he sits in a booth at the Pig 'N Whistle, that any of this is going to his head. When a photographer starts shooting for some portrait photos, he quickly removes the sunglasses he was still wearing after coming in out of a bright late-summer afternoon on Hollywood Boulevard.

"I like being photographed without glasses," he explains. "I don't want to be pretentious. These are $10 women's shades, and they look cool! But when I step out, I take 'em off. I don't wanna be that guy with the shades, trying to look like a rock star. I'm just wearing 'em for my eyes."

Negrito's attitude comes through loud and clear on "Last Days of Oakland," which NPR praised upon its release as "among the rawest pieces of music — sonically and emotionally — you'll hear all year. But it's also the work of a craftsman, full of subtlety and sophistication, along with the kind of scars that only a survivor can flaunt."

It also comes through in myriad ways in conversation, such as when he recounts the years he was living in Los Angeles during his first go-round as a recording artist, having landed a major-label deal with Interscope Records, which yielded his 1995 debut album "X Factor," released under the name he was using at that time, Xavier.

"My highlight of living in L.A.," he said, "was opening up illegal nightclubs — after-hours spots — and having live music in them. It was so counter to all the things [about the music business] that were making me sick. I had a loft at 41st and Main streets, and for years we were having after-hours music parties.

Despite the muscle of Interscope behind him, "X Factor" made few ripples. So he gave up on music, sold off all his equipment, except for one guitar, and moved to the Bay Area, supporting himself by growing and selling pot. It wasn't until his son was born in 2009 that he found motivation to reconnect with music.

"There was one guitar I couldn't get any money for," he recalled, "so I just kept it underneath his orange love seat in his room. One sunny day he was feeling a little bit sad, a little bit down, and I couldn't get him to feel good.

"I looked down at that guitar, and that changed my life that day. I picked it up, I strummed a G major [chord] on it and that kid freaked out. And I freaked out, like 'What's this?' He's like, 'Yeah!' He's loving it. I thought maybe there's something there. It's the universal language going on. I started playing it for him every day, and it became a slow walk back to music.

"At first I thought I'll just play for my son, and it grew from there," he said. "I love him so much. He's the gift to me. He was born and that was part of his purpose — to help me, and to be my teacher."

He's expanded that view of music's power to heal into the larger arena of recording and concerts.


"Doing a concert, I look at a room full of different people and I see you've got Muslims, you've got Jews, you've got Christians, you've got gays, you've got straights, you've got blacks, you've got whites," he said. "I think, 'How can I unite these people through song?'

"I think politicians look at the same room," he said, "and go, 'How can I divide people so I can live in a bigger house?'

"That's why I think it's important now that as artists we use our art to heal," he said. "It may seem a little corny, but I feel it when I'm doing concerts, it's important to remember: 'We've got to heal, we've got to bring people together along the lines of differences."

Negrito grew up in Massachusetts in a suburb that was largely Muslim until he was 12, when his family moved cross-country to Oakland. As detailed on his official website, "He went from Arab chants to Funkadelic in one day, living in the heart of one of the wildest, most infamous, most vibrant black communities in the nation."

He cites a variety of artists when asked about his prime musical influences, from the '70s funk of George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic collective, to the blues-based hard-rock explorations of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath to such rock 'n' roll pioneers as Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

Those influences come together on "Last Days of Oakland" in a grippingly raw and powerful sound that draws from those sources as well as hip-hop, the elemental blues of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson and the edgy R&B-soul of Prince's early recordings. His vocals often evoke blues-rooted white rockers including Robert Plant and Jack White.

"That's the garden," he said. "I call it the black-roots garden. We all pick from it, and when the English pick from it, it came out different, but it's all from the same garden.

"I'm not interested in re-creating the same blues I love so much," he said. "I'm interested in pushing boundaries. … I'm a child of hip-hop in a way, though, which is interesting. That's what I grew up in. So I just don't care [about labels]. I consider myself kind of a blues man, yeah, but maybe [part of] the evolution of the blues."

As a lyricist, he picks up the torch handed down by socially and politically conscious predecessors from Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield to Grandmaster Flash and N.W.A.


Here he is, in "An Honest Man," voicing a cry for help from someone enslaved by his impulses for instant gratification: "Now I'm alone again/Empty black and very cynical/I can't get enough/My condition is critical … When I'm not alone cryin'/Murdering/Wandering/I'll rip your heart out with my pretty smile/Help me!"

He's received accolades from older blues artists such as Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal and Bobby Rush, but he seems even more taken with the thanks he gets from rank-and-file people in his Oakland neighborhood.

With the Grammy Award, he said, "It's good that the mainstream big monster recognizes the little guy who came up playing the streets just a few years ago. That's awesome. And I think what's changed is that it's become an inspiration to other people, to other independent artists.

"That makes me very happy as a human being to know what I'm doing is an inspiration to people. That's a victory to me — a victory for that mom-and-pop store we're talking about."


Sturgill Simpson and Fantastic Negrito

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles

Cost: $29.50 to $75

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