Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito: Why I believe in independent venues

As Independent Venue Week kicks off in the US, this year’s ambassador Fantastic Negrito tells BBC Music how important the spirit of independence is to him and the industry.

It’s fair to say that Fantastic Negrito embodies the true spirit of independence.

Born in Massachusetts, Xavier Dphrepaulezz left home at the age of 12, switching to the West Coast and surviving through a life of petty crime. Music provided his inspiration in the form of Prince, and eventually his salvation. Dphrepaulezz taught himself to play instruments by sneaking into classes at the University of California, Berkeley. He was signed by Prince’s former manager at the age of 25, and under the name Xavier, he released a commercially unsuccessful debut album. In 1999, a near-fatal car accident left him without the use of his hands, and his record deal fell through not long after. After a spell running illegal nightclubs, he was encouraged to pick up the guitar again. He reinvented himself as Fantastic Negrito in 2014, and his fusion of blues, soul and psychedelic rock has been rewarded with two Grammys in the process.

All of which makes Dphrepaulezz perhaps the ideal ambassador for Independent Venue Week, which begins its second year of events across the US on Monday (8 July). More than 50 cities across 28 states will host shows from a range of artists including Soccer Mommy, The Beths and Cate Le Bon, and BBC Music is a media partner for the event. In advance of Independent Venue Week, we sat down with Dphrepaulezz to find out what independent venues and music mean to him.

What made you want to get involved with Independent Venue Week?

I think it's very close to my background. After I finished with major labels, I was not in sync with what was going on in the music business and the mainstream, which is usually always the point with me. But I had just came out of a three-week coma, and was dropped by my label. The first thing I did was open up an illegal night club that was very independent. We opened from midnight to six. It was some of the most fun I've ever had in my life. I did it because I had played on the Sunset Strip in LA, and I was like wow, $20 for parking, $20 for a drink, $20 to get in, and no one's really having a good time. I thought I could provide something a lot more interesting. And it was in South LA, so if you wanted to go there, you really had to want to go down to South LA. It had so much character, and I feel as an artist, you know, I'm always kind of outside of the box, so I think independence just fits my philosophy – spiritually and mentally.

What do independent venues mean to you?
Freedom. That's how I got here. No one was going to pick me, a middle-aged guy, playing non-genre-specific music. It's very independent. If you look at the beginning of hip hop and punk music, it's all very independent. I think greatness comes from independence, and from people not wanting to toe the party line. We could use some of that, I think, politically right now.

How does that spirit of independence help you musically?
I don't feel I need pressure. I mean, I'm a middle-aged guy who was playing on the streets with his guitar. No one expects anything from me. All the pressure is on rappers, pretty people singing pop, or the fancy Beyoncés of the world. So, there's an independent streak and a purity to writing and playing all this music, it's just you enjoying it. I think being in the mainstream takes a lot of joy out of it. Because they've commodified your spirit, you’re this commodity, and you have to do these things.

You're a package.
You're a package. And you have to stay in the package, so that you can keep letting people afford their yachts, the people that are betting on you. And I was never into that.

I think greatness comes from independence, and from people not wanting to toe the party line

It sounds like a lot of what you're saying is centered around authenticity.
I like authenticity. I have 14 siblings and my dad was 33 years older than my mother. And I was raised as an Orthodox Muslim, but ran away at 12. Everything about my story is pretty authentic. And I'm from the Bay Area. What's more authentic than the Bay Area? A place that gives birth to Hells Angels, and the Black Panthers, and the idea of free speech and all the authentic artists. I was raised by these crazy people. No one sounded like the Grateful Dead, whether you liked them or you hated them. And no one sounded like Sly Stone, no one. That's the standard. No one sounded like E-40, no one sounded like Too Short, you know what I mean? Even MC Hammer, as commercial as he was, no one had that concept or that idea. Or the Dead Kennedys. Or even Green Day. The Bay Area is a very strange tribe.

How would you define that strange tribe?
I'm no expert, but I think you had a bunch of the freaks, communists, gays, weirdos, everybody, white, that moved to that area. And then I think during World War Two, there came all of the black people from the south. And it's like this very strange mix of like hipness and cool and hippiness and freedom and openness. All mixed with pimping and danger. A real melting pot. The Statue of Liberty says bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. I think ours was bring us your weirdos, your freaks, and everyone that's trying to do something different.

What advice would you give to new emerging artists?
Don't try to write hit records. Don't try to be famous. Don't follow trends. Let your freak flag fly, as my publicist says. I think we need that, we need more individuality in terms of creative people. Not so much community, because we've got a lot of that, but I think in terms of creativity, yes. This is coming from an old guy who grew up when all the MCs sounded completely different, to now where they sound the same. It's an era of a bit of copycat-ism, and it makes independence and things that are unique and authentic brilliant, and very inspirational. There's room for people who want to do something outside of the box. There's room for the truth. I think if you really are visionary, and you really have something real right now, this is an amazing time to be alive and to be an artist. If you're feeling a little uncomfortable about what you're doing, you're probably on the right track.

Don't try to write hit records. Don't try to be famous. Don't follow trends. Let your freak flag fly

How do successful artists like you support that?
I think that part is simple. I think with Chris Cornell, when I met him and talked with him, it was just no strings attached. He was like “Man, I just love this, I love the spirit and the energy of this, and let's roll with that”. It was just very old school thinking. What if they're not going to sell 10 million copies? Who cares? What if it's not a billion likes? Who cares? I was doing Soundtrack of America here in New York a few months ago, and sitting with Quincy Jones. One of the things he said was that he didn't try to write hits when he was doing Thriller. It was just that they loved it. He said something like, "God walks out of the room when you start trying to write hits, or trying to be relevant or cool." That's where it is, and that's where it should be.

What do you hope music fans get out of Independent Venue Week?

Well, I hope that they get inspired. I hope that they have an open mind and want to try something different. People that come to independent venues are looking for something different. They want to feel something. Even if it's not good, it's something, they want to feel something. You look forward to that, and there's always a diverse group of people, different ages, not very hipster-ish. I hate to say that, you know. It's kind of the anti-hipster thing.

You're championing the anti-hipster movement?
I don't know. I try to champion love, but yeah, maybe. I tend to see that in the movement that I'm involved with. It's for the people that want to feel something. And they want to feel something real.

For more information about Independent Venue Week 2019, visit the official website.

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