When we first watched last year's NPR #TinyDeskContest winner Fantastic Negrito perform, it was admittedly with a bit of trepidation. We were pulling so hard for several Charleston artists, including Stefanie Santana and Conor Donohue, to appear on the highly regarded Tiny Desk Concert series. But within seconds of listening, Oakland, Calif.'s Fantastic Negrito sold us, hard. Their submission for the contest was a no-frills performance with no mic, no expensive video equipment — just the gruff, phenomenal voice of Xavier Dphrepaulezz and the accompaniment of a percussionist, upright bassist, and guitarist, all crammed onto a small freight elevator. "The idea was to try to convey the rawness of where we were at in our lives and where the music comes from," says Dphrepaulezz.
The thrilling five-piece, who describe themselves as "black roots music for everyone," almost didn't enter the contest. "I was exhausted the day we shot it," Dphrepaulezz says. "It was down to the wire, too. I think it was the last day for submission, and I didn't even want to do it. I'd been grinding hard, playing shows for a few hundred bucks, playing in the streets, busking — so my voice was hoarse. I was in such struggle mode that I couldn't imagine NPR would get behind this music."
But one of the partners from his Fantastic Negrito collective wouldn't let it go. That same friend, who also shot the video on an iPad, knew they'd won before NPR's Bob Boilen did. "He flipped out after the first take, before we even submitted it," says Dphrepaulezz. "He was telling everyone we won. Said he knew it the moment he saw it. Then when we actually won, he lost it. Completely lost it. He's a street dude, tough-guy personality, but he was literally screaming like a cheerleader when he heard we won. He said he'd never won anything in his life."
Weeks later, Fantastic Negrito made its NPR Tiny Desk Concert debut, where they performed both the winning song "Lost in a Crowd" and "Night Has Turned to Day," the latter of which Dphrepaulezz wrote 10 years after waking up from a four-week coma. He says it was the best sleep he ever had. "It's about things that are broken, that are fucked up, and how to take them and make them better," he says.
And make them better, he certainly did. Walking into NPR was a surreal confirmation for Dphrepaulezz that his life was on the correct path. For him, NPR and the Tiny Desk series are both representative of something that's right. "It's not polished," he says. "Great musicians from every walk of life play Tiny Desk. And so when you walk in, you know you're walking into something big. It was definitely a watershed moment, and I definitely felt it. The experience is everything. It's what catapulted us. NPR got behind this music and, I can't speak for them, but from what I can tell they just do things they really believe in. Tiny Desk is special. You can't get an entity as powerful as NPR behind you for free — not anywhere, except NPR. They don't ask for anything — they just support. And Bob Boilen has just been open and real and available. It's not like he just said, 'Oh you won, see you later.' He's continued to support. No words can express that experience."
What Fantastic Negrito has experienced since then is priceless. Here's what they've accomplished this year alone: They were featured in a scene on the television show Empire. They've played major festivals as far as Australia, and their debut LP, The Last Days of Oakland, dropped last week. The band toured Europe, and now the U.S. with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell. "It says a lot about him that he's not afraid to take risks on someone people don't know," Dphrepaulezz says.
In September, it's back to Europe for the crew. The whole band will be in tow, so they'll be on a shoestring budget. But that's nothing for a band that got its start on the streets. "We're gonna just try to kill it out there at tiny venues, the way bands did it in the old days," says Dphrepaulezz, who doesn't take a single portion of his success for granted. "
"I gotta say, every single person who clicks like or retweets or does any small thing to support this, I need you to understand that that is all I've got," he says. "It all adds up to everything I've got. So thank you."