Fantastic Negrito doesn’t play the blues, he pulverizes it.
“Traditional 12-bar blues is boring to me,” he says. In its place he powers an edgy mashup of Lenny Kravitz-like guitar lines and wailing vocals a la Robert Plant, charting the story of the underclasses of the American urban landscape.
It would be easy to think that coming into this world as Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz would necessitate the name change, but it really wasn’t about that.
“Negrito didn’t come about till the third incarnation,” he says.
For the first incarnation, he and his 14 siblings were living with conservative Muslim parents in Massachusetts. One day in 1980, they moved the entire brood to Oakland by train. Xavier went from traditional Islamic chants to funkadelic in a single day. “I felt like I was home,” he says. “Free speech, the Panthers, Dead Kennedys, all of it. I thought we were about to rebuild everything.”
Then there was street life. Poverty. Addiction. Guns. One day, a masked man robbed him at gunpoint, and he was done. He moved to Los Angeles. Thus began incarnation two. He scored a high-powered manager and landed a million dollar recording deal, but gangsta rap was all the rage and Negrito was musically in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then a near-fatal 1999 car crash left him in a coma for three weeks and with a mangled playing hand. The record company dropped him and he returned to Oakland, left music behind, planted veggies, raised chickens, grew pot for money and finally relaxed. The third incarnation had begun.
Negrito rediscovered music through his son, Kyu. The youngster had been uncharacteristically listless and one day Negrito reached under a bed, grabbed an old guitar and played. “Kyu’s reaction was so real,” Negrito says. “He suddenly just came to life. It reminded me of how powerful music can be.”
Creative juices roared back as did his confidence. He caught the attention of the late Chris Cornell and trekked with him on the Temple of the Dog tours. His first self-produced LP, The Last Days Of Oakland won a 2017 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. His second release, 2018’s Please Don’t Be Dead, won the same category again this past year.
“Didn’t think I had a chance in hell,” he says of the second award.
“I spent my 20s looking for what music could do for me,” he adds. “Now I look for what I can bring to music to better the world. When you want everything just for yourself, you will suffer.”
FANTASTIC NEGRITO in KRML's "Live in the Vines" series, 7pm Tuesday, April 30. Folktale Winery, 8940 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel. $35-$45. 293-7500, folktalewinery.com