31 Jan 2017

The Last Days Of Oakland by Fantastic Negrito

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 31 January 2017
Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito Photo: Supplied

Nick Bollinger discusses the blues-infused music of Oakland-based Fantastic Negrito.

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This album opens with a roof-raising, bluesy piece of testifying I could imagine The Staple Singers might have done in their prime. It’s the debut of a guy who records under the name Fantastic Negrito -though his real name is the equally fantastic Xavier Dphrepaulezz.

Born to a Somalian family in rural Massachusetts, where he was raised an orthodox Muslim. At twelve, his family moved to Oakland, California, quite a cultural shift, and it was there – in the early 80s – that he discovered Prince, Parliament and funk in all its varieties. After teaching himself every instrument he could lay his hands on, he headed for LA where, by the mid-90s he had landed a deal with Interscope, and released his first album simply as Xavier. It was a set of slick and accomplished funk, which showed he had learned well from the masters, but sadly went nowhere. The next couple of decades read like a catalogue of disasters. The label dropped him and by the turn of the millennium he had given up, dispirited. Then a car accident put him in a coma and nearly off the planet altogether. But returning in Oakland, he began to put himself, and his music, back together. The Last Days Of Oakland is the result.

The songs reach deep down into gospel and blues, the grass roots of African American music. Fantastic Negrito tells it like he sees it on the Oakland streets: tales of injustice and the day-to-day struggles of the working poor. That is, when he’s not reworking that other traditional bluesman’s trope: the scary woman who done him wrong.

I imagine that for Xavier Dphrepaulezz, the blues, rather than being the music he grew up with, has been as much of a discovery for him as funk was in the 80s. And while The Last Days Of Oakland is undeniably bluesy, not all of his blues comes from sources as venerable or folkloric as Huddie Ledbetter. Some of it can be traceable to paler sources – Led Zeppelin, for instance.

But whether he’s drawing on Lead Belly or Led Zep, Fantastic Negrito spins it all into something identifiably his own. Having come of age in the synth-steeped 80s, he’s a dab hand with the tools of electronica. Even if he’s playing a guitar built out of a cigar-box, he will have looped and sampled it with everything digital technology has to offer. Which somehow seems right, when the blues he is singing on The Last Days Of Oakland aren’t those of some plantation past but of a bleak and desperate urban present.

Songs featured: Working Poor, The Worst, Scary Woman, Hump Through The Winter, Lost In A Crowd, In The Pines.

The Last Days Of Oakland is available on Blackball Universe.