In the run-up to his last album, 2018’s game-changing Please Don’t Be Dead, Fantastic Negrito had a Chuck Berry moment. He wanted to write a song with the same irresistible impact of Berry’s indomitable classic Johnny B.Goode, and came up with Plastic Hamburgers.
Ostensibly the two songs are very different – the latter fuses plantation-era Mississippi and cutting-edge Oakland in a way that would have been unavailable to Berry – but they do have one thing in common, something central to all the most enduring, irresistible treasures of rock’n’roll.
"The riff! Man, that riff that comes from the blues tradition,” the man born Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz says with a smile. “That’s something you just can’t deny, no matter who you are. I remember being in Norway [for a show]. I thought: ‘Man, let’s start off with that song’, cos in Norway they seemed really reserved. But when we started off with that it was like, ‘Woah!’ And I thought: ‘There’s that universal riff’. That’s my version of Johnny B. Goode.”
He stops, then adds with a sly smile: “I’m not as good as Chuck Berry.”
Dphrepaulezz’s music is as dynamic and densely packed with twists as his life, which began in an orthodox Muslim household in Massachusetts, where he was one of 14 kids. Trips to see family in rural Virginia provided initial exposure to the blues, but at that time it didn’t sink in. When he was 11 the family moved to Oakland, California, where his strict upbringing jarred with the hip-hop, punk, funk and classic rock he was being exposed to.
“It was all a big mash in my head,” he says, “I didn’t care what it was as long as it was great.”
The impact of this music was such that he ran away from home at 12 and began a life of hustling, drug dealing and sleeping in abandoned cars, wearing whatever outlandish threads he could scrape together, and sneaking into UC Berkeley practice rooms to teach himself piano. People thought he was strange, but in some ways his childhood had prepared him for that.
“My mum was, what, thirty-three years younger than my dad,” he says. “My dad [a Somali-Caribbean immigrant] was born in, like, 1905. So yeah, I was quite the outcast. It was okay. That happened and things happen. I don’t hold anything against them.”
What do you think your dad wanted you to become?
“Jeez, that’s a good question…” He pauses and thinks. “Who knew? What I’ve learned through my dad is that everybody’s going through something. It helps me not judge people as much. Why’s this person being a complete asshole? Maybe they’re going through something, maybe they had a particular upbringing. It makes me cut people a break.”
As America’s crack epidemic took hold and shit got ugly, he moved to Los Angeles. There he got a deal with Prince’s management. Then he suffered a devastating car crash that put him in a coma for three weeks.
After that he stopped making music and moved back to Oakland to start his own artistic collective, Blackball Universe, co-founded with old friend, Empire TV show writer Malcolm Spellman. He didn’t make his own music for about five years. Until one day….
“They kept challenging me,” he recalls of his Blackball colleagues: “‘What do you really wanna do?’ I went: ‘Well, I love that blues shit…’”
And so it was that Dphrepaulezz, then in his forties, rediscovered the old blues greats that his grandparents and great uncles had played for him in rural Virginia all those years ago. The music of Skip James, Robert Johnson, RL Burnside and Elmore James began to feature heavily in his life.
“I loved this music,” he says. “I thought: ‘Fuck everybody. Who cares.’ I started channelling my black roots, my ancestry.”
He pauses, then continues: “There’s something strange about being a black American. I think we’re probably one of the most musically innovative groups of people in the world… But we have a very short memory.
"The community I come from, they don’t know who Robert Johnson is. They don’t know Skip James. But when people ask me about Fantastic Negrito I get to say those names. And maybe some kids will pick ’em up and get inspired.”
Fantastic Negrito's third album Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is released on August 13 and is available to pre-order now (opens in new tab).