by Derek Malone
Fantastic Negrito is one of the most interesting new artists to arrive on the contemporary music scene in some time. His origin story, at times both tragic and inspiring, is a fascinating one, perhaps all the more so because so few people know who he is. Yet.
The Last Days of Oakland, dropped June 3, 2016 on Blackball Universe, Negrito’s own indie record label. The album has been nominated for a 2016 Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album.
The Last Days of Oakland is a concept album of sorts. A collection of tales from the city, born of bitter experience. It’s Delta blues, in the tradition of Robert Johnson and Skip James, leavened with gospel, soul, and rock, and encapsulated with a distinctly modern hip-hop sensibility. It is a people’s draft of inner city history. Root styles are used here as an optic in which to see the present.
Things kick off right with the first track, “Working Poor.” The sting of a B3 organ leads to a gritty, gospel-infused blues, in the manner of The Staple Singers, which portrays the sardonic reflections of ordinary city-folk grappling with the changes that gentrification brings.
On my first listen, I thought that Fantastic Negrito was a singing group of men and women, until I realized that most of the voices I was hearing were all him, sometimes overdubbed. His vocal contortions are legion: he can sing the blues like the old masters, but also mix it up with the sexy androgyny of Prince, or funky eccentricity of George Clinton. Occasionally, he sounds like Robert Plant in the early days of Led Zeppelin.
This is not a showcase for long, virtuoso soloing. It’s all about the songs. That said, the playing is solid all around, more complex than is immediately apparent. There is some fun, juke joint piano playing, plenty of slide guitar flourish, and dexterous press rolls on the drums from time to time.
To appreciate The Last Days of Oakland, consider some of Negrito’s history. Knowing the story certainly has enriched the listening experience for me, so I’ll share some of what I know of it.
Born Xavier Dphrepaulezz (pronounced dee-FREP-ah-lez, and if you can remember that, you probably drink a lot less than I do) he learned the guitar, and began sneaking into music rooms at UC Berkeley, where there were pianos. He learned the basics from watching students practice scales. He didn’t become a master soloist, but he learned how write songs.
By age 20, he began recording his own music, but the chaos of the Oakland “hustling life” nearly ended his. He had a near-death encounter with masked gunmen who held him down with a 9mm and robbed him. He hitchhiked to L.A. the next day, demo tape in hand.
After knocking on studio doors all over town, he was personally signed by Jimmy Iovine to a million dollar record deal with Interscope Records. Despite high-profile touring with The Fugees, Arrested Development, and De la Soul, his music didn’t catch on.
Negrito was released from his contract following a catastrophic car accident in 2000 that put in him a coma for three weeks. The damage was permanent. Steel rods were placed throughout his body, and grueling years of physical rehabilitation followed. His mangled playing hand was transformed into what he now affectionately calls, “the claw.”
Fantastic Negrito climbed his way back to his music and created a crude, self-produced audition video that made him the winner of a 2015 contest to appear on NPR’s prestigious, Tiny Desk Concert radio program, beating over 7000 entrants.
A star was born at age 45.
His entry, a bluesy, hard-rockin’ personal anthem of rage and disillusionment, entitled, “Lost in a Crowd,” spawned a single and subsequent EPs on his own Blackball Universe label. It is a high point of his first full-length LP, the apocalyptically titled, The Last Days of Oakland
Some albums demand the use of headphones to take in all the subtle details. Put the headphones on for Last Days of Oakland.
An arresting intro section sets the overall template for all of what follows– layers of sound– a rustic-sounding guitar plays, and somewhere, a distant ghostly voice sings the blues. Oakland’s storied history as a seedbed of outlaw rebellion and revolution, to its current wave of gentrification and displacement, are chronicled in a brief tableau of street voices that come at us in sampled sound bites:
“The Last Days of Oakland…the beginning of something, the end of something,” “The Black Panthers,” “crack cocaine,” “Hells Angels,” “I love the new Oakland,” “The seeds were planted long ago…let’s watch the tree grow.”
These sampled voices return again and again, and provide a kind of dramatic running commentary on the musical proceedings. In terms of the album’s structure and social content, I was reminded of Public Enemy’s masterpiece album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Other patterns emerge on The Last Days of Oakland. The plaintive hum of the plantation hymn, the work song chant, and the field holler, are a constant refrain in every song and in a few “interludes” between them. Organic rhythms such as hand clapping, of the kind widely used in the agrarian milieu of fieldwork, where use of the African drum had been prohibited in the days of slavery, are another leitmotif here.
Often a prominent backbeat is maintained with the loud and resonant thud of toms, with an electronic sample that sounds like wood being struck, or the looped sound effect of dragging chains; all of which suggest the toil of organized work gangs. These are the sounds of struggle, and the thematic parallel being drawn between the days of slavery and the present struggle to survive and endure prejudice in the contemporary inner city are obvious. And it works.
Lest you think that what I’ve just described is a formula for monotony, I also must say that this album is never boring. Just when you think you’re locked into a familiar groove, a refreshing new musical segue or change of style always appears.
And the Fantastic Negrito is a man of many voices, drawn from a vast wellspring of passions. His album reminds me that the blues are primarily a vocal tradition, one of feeling more than narrative. A background in R&B is also a major asset in the highly emotional tenor of songs like these.
Another standout track is a new and haunting rendition of the Lead Belly classic, “In the Pines,” which features a new twist on the song’s original lyrics. In this case, the “black girl” referred to is a single mother who has lost a child to gun violence.
Elsewhere, a consistent standard of high-quality, original compositions continues, from the nasty and visceral electric blues of “The Niggas’ Song” to the acoustic punk of “Scary Woman,” and the Zeppelin-esque “Hump Thru the Winter.”
“Nothing Without You” ends the album on a note of sadness, the very definition of the blues. It’s a gut-wrenching soul number.
The Last Days of Oakland