Like Stevie Wonder and Prince, soul-funk-rap upstart Xavier is a multi-pronged talent. He wrote, sang, played and produced virtually all of the music on his 2-month-old debut album, “The X Factor.”
Yet unlike Wonder and Prince, the 26-year-old artist didn’t grow up a musical prodigy who dazzled with his musical prowess at an early age.
Far from it.
Xavier, who opens tonight for De La Soul at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana, didn’t become active in music until he was 17.
Born into a strict Muslim household in Massachusetts to an Oxford-educated Somalian father and an American mother, the young Xavier Dphrepaulezz was forbidden to experience many aspects of American pop culture. A lawyer, his father helped lead the first Somali delegation to the United Nations.
“There wasn’t pop music or television [at home] when I was growing up,” said Xavier, whose album consists of a number of silky but propulsive R&B-flavored; numbers.
“My early musical exposure was to a lot of African music and things like Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. A lot of kids in school would talk about stuff like television shows, and you would kind of feel weird [not knowing about them]. Just my name alone [made people aware] that I was different. You do feel like kind of an outsider.”
Xavier began to rebel at age 11, soon after his father moved the family--which included 13 children--to Oakland. He began to hang out with local kids who exposed him to African American culture and music for the first time.
The sounds of R&B;, funk and hip-hop intrigued the adolescent. When he heard the 1979 George Clinton/Funkadelic song "(not just) Knee Deep,” he bought a copy and played it every night.
Unfortunately, Xavier’s new social environment also helped to steer him into delinquency. At age 12, he was banished from home and subsequently lived in foster homes. At 14, he found himself mired in reform school. Around this time, his elderly father died.
“It was two years of hell,” he said. “I got into a lot of trouble.”
Xavier began to straighten out his life after a class field trip to San Quentin made him realize the harsh consequences that could result from a wayward existence.
But in high school it was boxing, not music, that consoled him and gave him inner discipline. Realizing he didn’t have a future in prizefighting, Xavier decided to produce tapes for aspiring rappers in the neighborhood.
“I got a four-track [tape recorder], and I went into business,” he said. “I didn’t want to work a regular job.”
Xavier also began writing and recording his own material. At that point, he decided it was time for a change.
“I moved to L.A. four or five years ago to be a singer in a band,” he said. “I had no interest in being a solo artist. But I couldn’t hook up with anybody.
“No one was interested in doing something that was original,” he said. “They were interested in copying what the latest trend was. I wasn’t going to do that. I didn’t care what kind of record deal [was possible] or how much you were going to get paid. It’s not what I wanted.”
Instead, Xavier continued his tape-producing business while living out of a dilapidated Datsun that barely functioned. “I was starving. There were a lot of days without food,” he said.
Insecurity prevented Xavier from pursuing a deal as a solo artist. But a client passed along one of his demo tapes to Joe Ruffulo, head of the Lexington House record label.
Before long, the label signed Xavier. He fought for full creative control of his first album and got it.
Even though he’d helped produce a number of rappers’ albums, he had little experience in a professional studio. Nevertheless, in 1994 he found himself working in one, essentially alone (engineers were sometimes on hand to assist).
“It was one of my first times being in a studio,” he said. “I had to learn the studio from the bottom up. Everything looked really huge to me at first. . . . It got [easier] as I improved my connections with the [studio and equipment].”
He spent six months in the studio and would sometimes work 15-hour days. He wrote more than 40 new songs during this period and taught himself how to play several instruments.
“I basically learned to play the guitar while I was making the album,” he said.
After recording “The X Factor” (distributed by Interscope Records), Xavier began to perform before audiences for the first time.
“Playing live was another huge experience,” he said. “It was tough. I was losing my voice. I was getting so excited. There was so much adrenaline. My whole thing is I need to calm down! But [performing] now is [easier]. I think I was made for live music. It’s just great.”
Xavier hopes his music will find a wide audience. But he also feels fortunate that he’s been able to turn around a once-desperate life.
“I just take things one day at a time,” he said. “I’m just thankful that I have my legs, my arms, my eyes. . . . I don’t have any physical problems. I try to be as positive a person as possible. People forget about simple things. If you’re fully functional, you can do anything.”
* De La Soul, Xavier, Avenue C and Pak-Yippeez play tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $17.50. (714) 957-0600.