Very first found by lots of when his explosive NPR Tiny Desk Show aired on YouTube back in 2015, Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz– or Wonderful Negrito, as you’ll more likely understand him– has one of the most unbelievable and special musical life stories possible.
Indeed fantastical at times, and calamitous at others, it would most likely be deemed too implausible by even the most fanciful of Hollywood motion picture directors– if it weren’t entirely true, that is.
After growing up in an Orthodox Muslim household in Massachusetts, Negrito’s cultural horizons exploded into complete technicolor when he transferred to California in the 1980 s, settling in “gorgeous, grimy old west Oakland”, as he calls it.
He learned to play and write music on multiple instruments by infiltrating classes at the University of California Berkeley, and by 1993, had landed himself a million dollar deal with Interscope Records. Around this time, he satisfied Masa Kohama– a Japanese self-taught guitar player who was living and operating in L.A. at the time, and they began making music together.
Then, in 1999, Negrito was involved in a near-fatal car accident, which left him in a coma for 3 weeks, and robbed him of nearly all mobility in his right hand and wrist. His future as an artist appeared doomed.
” I remember getting up from the coma,” he says. “It was three weeks– I had a complete beard, long fingernails, I weighed about a hundred pounds– and I remember, in my weak voice, I stated, ‘Are my hands all right?’ and the nurse didn’t say yes or no, she just shook her head. It was the first thing that I considered.”
In the wake of this disastrous accident, Interscope dropped him from the label, and only after extreme physical therapy was he able to begin playing music once again– this time, to an audience of passersby on the train, and for the first time, under the name of Fantastic Negrito.
” I was an old guy when I decided to do this,” he says. “I thought: ‘Nobody cares about what I’m doing, I’m just going to play on the street’. I actually had no concept that I ‘d go on to end up being an artist, I simply didn’t care. I think there’s something really powerful about not caring.”
It was a long roadway from there– it took him up until 2014 to get his first album out– but since then his profile has increased quick. He has actually won three Grammys, and now he is embarking on his most ambitious job to date– something that started during the pandemic, when he chose to check out his family lineage using an online origins tool.
” I just got a bit curious and I went down the bunny hole– you understand how that takes place on the internet.” What he found was mind blowing: “On day 2 of looking into my ancestry, I learn my name’s not real, my Dad was a total liar. On my mom’s side, they originated from complimentary black folks in Virginia who originated from a prohibited union of a Scottish white indentured servant and an enslaved, black African guy seven generations back.”
Motivated by this discovery, Negrito set about chronicling the lives of his rebellious family members, Elizabeth Gallimore and “Grandpa Nerve,” in the form of an album and accompanying movie, both of which are titled White Jesus Black Issues As Negrito himself puts it: “These were my loved ones. That’s some punk rock shit. I thought it explained who I was. I thought that all my life, this is why I’ve felt the method I have actually felt. So the album needed to match that audacity.”
In a blend of delta blues and country music, funk, soul and rock, relatively disparate genres come together on White Jesus Black Issues with amazing result and assertiveness. “It’s funny,” he describes, “all of those things came from American individuals in the 1700 s.”
Guitar responsibilities were divided in between Negrito and his long-time friend and collaborator Masa Kohama, whose tasty and classy lead playing is all over the record.
Like many of us, Kohama matured on a sonic diet plan of British Intrusion bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, before developing tastes led him towards jazz greats like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. He can play, it appears, just about anything.
Reviewing how his thirty year musical partnership with Negrito now works, Kohama describes, “He does not inform me that much about what he wants, but I can basically feel it due to the fact that we have actually been doing this together for such a long time. The majority of my parts on the record are simply freestyle and improvised, and he winds up picking from the parts I’ve played.”
Although many artists have actually recently had to get used to remote ways of working due to Covid-19, the set have actually been doing it this way for years as Masa lives in Tokyo and Xavier in California.
But the range between them has some unexpected advantages. States Kohama: “I feel it’s more comfy doing it that method. Sometimes when he’s standing right beside me when I’m tape-recording, he talks excessive and I get sidetracked. So it’s much better that I do my thing and he chooses what he likes.”
Below this pick ‘n’ mix approach to the record’s lead guitar parts lies the constant pulse of what Negrito refers to as “my very clumsy rhythm”. Through requirement and large decision since his mishap, he’s established a special strumming technique, which relies less on little movements in the hand and wrist and more on bigger motions of the whole right arm, with the thumb, he says, “acting sort of like this hammer”.
” I do all these odd rhythm parts that give the album its feel and its personality,” he discusses. “The engineer constantly states, ‘Male, if we do not have your truly bad guitar, there’s something missing!’ It’s that truly unsightly hacking that I do. I’m most likely exaggerating, however I think there’s something really special about what I give all the records.”
Normally, Negrito will likewise sample Kohama’s improvised rhythm parts and mix them with his own to produce something that he refers to as both “correct” and ” rugged”.
Discussing the physical and mental difficulties his injuries positioned, he reflects, “It took a great deal of time to get to the location where I might accept what I could and could not do. My thumb just doesn’t move. It will not move and I simply got ta accept it. My hands feel like someone poured concrete in them. They have no fluidity, so simply accepting things in some cases is very effective.”
Ruminating on his own experiences in relation to those of his forefathers informed by the album’s story, he includes, “It ends up that I came from generations of people like that and I just never understood.”
Beyond rhythm, Negrito also set some lead parts on the record, consisting of those on its heaviest track, Male Without Any Name— which he refers to as “James Brown meets Black Sabbath.”
Humorously, he recommends that, for anyone attempting to distinguish between his and Kohama’s lead playing, the tell tale sign is: “Anything strange, that’s me!” Dynamically, this track is also fascinating, and particularly fascinating point comes when the cool verse groove shifts into the much heavier Sabbath-esque chorus. Here, there is a 6bpm shift downwards in pace, which helps the shift in between light and dark moods. “You can’t really hear it,” Xavier says, “however you can feel it.”
Somewhere else on the album, other categories and state of minds crash together with magnificent narrative-enhancing results. Trudoo, for example, pairs Nashville country blues with funk to produce a celebratory ode to liberty, while the album opener Venomous Dogma transitions from dreamy pop to ominous blues rock riffage to communicate the contrast of both Grandma Gallimore and Grandpa Nerve going from extreme freedom in their particular homelands, to severe chains in Virginia.
When it comes to business of talking about guitars Negrito chuckles, “My guitars are normally the ones that other people do not desire! But I have some really great ones as well.” His rags to riches collection covers whatever from a beat up $50 guitar he used to busk in the train shortly after his healing, to a Gibson Les Paul Gold Top, a semi-hollow Chapman ML3 Pro and a traditional Gibson Hummingbird acoustic.
For the album, Kohama likewise pulled out some intriguing choices, consisting of an H.S. Anderson Mad Feline, which you’ll most likely have actually seen prior to in the hands of Prince. “It’s kind of like a Tele,” he discusses, “I didn’t utilize this guitar on the last three albums, but I used a lot of the Mad Feline on this one — particularly for those country licks and a lot of the funky rhythm things.” For much of the bluesy lead work on tracks like Oh Betty, Kohama channels a BB King ambiance with a Gibson ES-335
Elsewhere, he uses his own Schecter Masa Kohama Signature model– a Stratocaster– style guitar with humbuckers in the bridge and neck positions, and a single coil in the center position.
Kohama was very first inspired to try this configuration after seeing New york city session legend and sideman to the stars, Hiram Bullock, do so back in the 1980 s. He explains, “Nowadays, a great deal of individuals put humbucking pickups in the front on a Strat, however in the ’80 s, very few individuals were doing that. Hiram was, and I began doing it too.”
The advantage of this set-up is flexibility. He describes, “I can have a fat humbucker jazzy sound, a funky treble-y noise and a heavy rock sound all on the very same guitar.” On an album where Negrito charged Kohama with directing a lot of tastes and styles, the Schecter was the ideal tool for the task.
Similarly, on Kohama’s own adaptability and ability to stay up to date with the album’s numerous innovative instructions, Negrito remarks: “Whatever lane I decrease, he’s like, ‘No issue!’ I have actually never fulfilled another guitarist ever that could authentically follow me down any lane that I’ve wished to decrease.”
The set have actually been in everything from punk to R&B unite for many years, so there’s a long history of putting each other through their rates and breaking brand-new musical ground together.
When it comes to experimenting with pedals and effects on the record, Kohama reveals, “I didn’t use many at all– just a wah and a volume pedal, and possibly simply a little booster.” He includes, “Live, I utilize a lot of pedals– I’m a pedal addict. Negrito hates that. He’s always informing me I do not need a lot of.”
Still, Kohama puts this limited selection to great and stylish use throughout. A particular emphasize is the funky, wah-laden track, Greatest Bidder, which sets lyrical themes of human greed and the flaunting of wealth to a delirious soundtrack of blues-meets-disco.
What’s striking about the whole record is that very few normally-adhered-to guidelines appear to apply. Simultaneously it feels vintage and speculative, its moods are both celebratory and oppressive and there’s merely absolutely nothing to be gained from attempting to classify it as any specific category.
Says Negrito, “I actually wished to smash the walls on this record. As artists, we’re just attempting to get to that reality, and it indicates everything, specifically in today’s world.”
Reflecting on the enthusiastic and extremely conceptual nature of the entire task, Negrito describes, “I simply reached a time, age and place where I create with the liberty of a 17- year-old, integrated with the knowledge of a grandpa. I don’t have the hangups. I’m not trying to be a superstar.”
Throughout the course of the interview, Negrito makes it extremely clear that the word “limitations” is not in his vocabulary– musically or otherwise. He selects to concentrate on what can be done, rather than what can’t.
His next project– an acoustic reworking of the whole record– is already near completion, and the inspiration simply keeps coming. “It’s the spectrum of life that I enjoy,” he says, “and I simply type of walk towards that– like Grandmother Elizabeth Gallimore. It can all be done, you know?”
- White Jesus Black Issues(opens in new tab) is out now via Store Records.
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