There’s nothing pedestrian or ordinary about blues music. Muddy Waters once said that when he played Chicago it was a different kind of feeling he got from blues music compared to when he was young. Still others have said that blues is centered around creating a feeling, hence its changing nature. Today, that belief lives on through artists like Oakland-based musician Xavier Dphrepaulezz, better known by his professional moniker, Fantastic Negrito.
Fantastic Negrito When: 5:30 p.m. June 10 Where: Chicago Blues Festival, Millennium Park, Michigan & Randolph Info: chicagobluesfestival.us
“As Muddy Waters said, ‘the blues is just a feeling.’ And I just figured that since I’m from a different generation and time and really strive for originality…I didn’t want to do the exact same thing that everyone’s been doing over and over again,” Negrito says.
“I come from an era of sampling and that sort of thing. I take the purest and hardest forms of music…and come in completely fresh from a production standpoint. It’s like hip-hop production, because there’s a lot of taking the best parts and a lot of the repetitiveness. But the most important thing is that you’ve got to have the song. You have to have that feeling.”
Mavis Staples, Fantastic Negrito among 2018 Blues Festival headliners
He’s indebted to Waters as well as other blues greats such as Robert Johnson, Skip James and Howlin’ Wolf, he says. It’s a reason he tours as Fantastic Negrito.
“There are people who didn’t know the names Robert Johnson and Skip James. I thought if I called myself Fantastic Negrito, I get to say those guys names every time I do an interview,” says Negrito. “I really want to bow my head in humility and appreciation for these gods, these architects of modern music, as I call them. I just want to give it up to them every time I have the opportunity.”
Negrito’s blues influences can be heard on his new album “Please Don’t Be Dead,” which comes out next week. When he was growing up, he was exposed to blues through his large family. But he didn’t personally connect with the genre until he was an adult.
“I think once I had lived life, once I had failed enough in this lifetime and got back up a thousand times from failing, I really connected to the blues,” he says. “There was one time I heard it as a grown man and I almost started to cry. It really influenced me and was the catalyst of the rebirth of my musical ambition as Fantastic Negrito.”
“Please Don’t Be Dead” is the follow-up to his 2016 Grammy Award-winning album “The Last Days of Oakland.” Unlike that album, he was less observational and more aggressive in expressing his views.
“On this album I wanted to come out swinging. I wanted to come out embracing the roots, the universal riffs, the blues in E,” he says. “There’s seems to be an ideological battle for the hearts, minds and souls of people right now. No place to be but the front lines. I wanted to come out aggressive and swinging and embracing the chant, the groove and bass. …People didn’t expect an album like this after ‘Last Days in Oakland’. That’s the beauty of being an artist. You keep pushing the boundaries.”
He came up with the album’s title after a visit to Europe. After hearing the locals question what was happening in America, he realized that “maybe we’re taking America for granted.”
“It made me appreciate the country that I came from and what we stand for,” Negrito says. “What we say we stand for, that’s a great thing that have, to keep striving to be that. …Liberty, justice, equity, welcoming of all people all over the world. We became one great nation from many, we became one. I long for that again. It feels very divisive out there.”
He hopes his music can bring people together.
“Nothing unifies people more than music, more than that universal riff,” he says. “The one thing that unifies us and the hope that we can have, especially being an artist, is that we can create music that can build bridges and smash down very bad ideas. I love the power of music and artistry and feel a responsibility having a platform to preach good things.”
“So please don’t be dead is please don’t be dead, hope; please don’t be dead the idea of being in love; please don’t be dead the idea of being neighbors. I was like ‘America, please don’t be dead. The world sees you as a shining light on the hill.’”
One of his favorite Chicago memories is when he opened for Buddy Guy.
“What’ he’s brought to the game is just unprecedented and amazing. His reach and influence and genius,” Negrito says. “Just so I could touch the palm of his hand, I have to say that was my highlight of Chicago.”
He’s most looking forward to seeing Mavis Staples this time through town (she headlines Blues Fest at the Pritzker Pavilion on June 10).
“She’s such a giant in music,” Negrito says. “I’ve heard her since I was a wee lad. It’ll be interesting to catch that vibration, that power.”
Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.