Nisha Sondhe/Duke University Press
Nisha Sondhe/Duke University Press
Greg Tate was the coolest person I ever met. As I write this I feel like a teenager, leaning wonderstruck into the corner of the school stairwell as my most idolized upperclassman wanders by. In my early days at The Village Voice, when I first encountered Greg, I felt like that sometimes — here was a writer who'd not only mastered the mode of writing to which I aspired, but had reinvented it, right down to the vocabulary, so that music criticism became music itself. It was the 1990s and hip-hop was beginning to define musical America the way it had already owned New York. And here was Greg, in his beret and dreadlocks and scarves, floating butterfly-like through the office holding copy that would push its evolution even further. I saw Greg as cool in the All-American James Dean sense, but immersing in his work I soon realized he was cool in the African diaspora sense: equanimous, seeking in his words and maintaining through his presence a sense of balance that was always expanding, flexible, musical. I think of words he once used to describe Miles Davis: concentration, condensation, stonecoldboldness. That was Greg. The power of his polyryhythmic mind shone through in the tranquil bemusement of his smile.
What I came to know later is that thinking of Greg as too cool was a huge mistake, because over the years I saw how this groundbreaking culture-shaper, who died on Tuesday at 64, was also a life-changing mentor, loyal friend, intuitive bandleader — a being who created a vast community by remaining open and giving all his life. The outpouring of grief at his sudden passing was marked by disbelief: for culture writers and musicians and anyone involved in the life of hip-hop, the absence of Greg Tate is unacceptable. Here we have gathered thoughts about Greg's writing and being from friends, colleagues, elders and proteges. They are just a wave on the water of his influence. Cool? He was cool. Like the universe. —Ann Powers
To be brief, I always love this piece that Greg Tate wrote on Bad Brains, because it came to me at a time when I was hoping for further confirmation of my experiences, of what I was living and seeing: the reality that my hardcore scene and so many hardcore scenes I knew and loved were rooted in a rage (and love) inextricably linked to blackness. —Hanif Abdurraqib
I grew up in Landover, Md., a small town along the northeast border of Washington, D.C. Though I sport more than a few gray hairs now, I was just a kid when the city's hardcore punk scene was gaining notoriety, and when groups like Bad Brains were stomping through the old 9:30 Club. Even as a child I was fascinated with the band: Why are these brothers doing such things to these instruments? This isn't ... rap? They were free.
Years later, during an archival dig of all things Bad Brains, I'd stumble across this article. By this time, I'd already started covering music in some capacity, but I didn't feel seen as a Black man who loved hip-hop but also loved jazz, soul, rock and experimental music. I didn't see a way into an industry that seemed to pigeonhole my kind. That was until I read Greg Tate. Like Bad Brains, he was a free Black man in a land that didn't encourage such liberty. To see Mr. Tate, who covered everything from jazz and poetry to rock and hip-hop, he set the blueprint for me to do what I do. His writing was abundant, rich in nuance and beauty; his perspective clear and brimming with love. He loved Black culture, in all its depth, subtlety and virtue. He fought for all of it through the written word. He made me feel seen.
Not only did this piece uphold a vital band in D.C.'s history, it was written from the perspective of someone in the community. Mr. Tate spoke the language and understood us. Without him, you don't get many, if not all, of your favorite Black music journalists and cultural critics. He showed us how to be free, how to be cool, how to write with sincerity and compassion. —Marcus J. Moore
I am 14 standing in Swensen's ice cream parlor in Palo Alto, Calif. circa 1984, and what I would give for that thick, swagger humor, that don't give a f***, through-a-glass-darkly vernacular shade, that on-the-corner bravado, straight-no-chaser wisdom, call-'em-like-I-see-'em color commentary, that flavor-in-your-ear-just-between-you-and-me wicked, all night long philosophizing, that duck-walk-meets-moon-walk, pirouetting, electric-sliding language all souped-up with a century of modern sound and four hundred years of the 'isms coursing through its veins, the language of the "oh-to-be-us" dispossessed marauders gleefully flipping and reversing the love-and-theft silly games we play, (re)claiming our punk blue print for breaking things, reinhabiting "a hardcore dialect" all our own, "a messianic message of youthful unity, rebellion, and optimistic nihilism..." If I'd had your fugitive prose back then, My Big Bro' GT, intergalactic prose that found its VOICE just a few years later, tucked away somewhere in the seams of my Cali suburban high school-yet-striving-wishing-wanting-to-become-a-cult-nat-freaky-deke sartorial armor, I would've had the right rejoinder for the Quadrophenia white boy who didn't take too kindly to my appraisal of Never Mind the Bollocks. I would've been able to tell him like you told us that "very few people mourned the fact that Sid Vicious fulfilled his early promise...," flip him the bird and crowd surf into your oceanic kingdom of "Black Cognitive thinking," ride the ferocity of your worlding storytelling, saturated with namechecks and citations — from JB and Jimi and Bobby Z to Cecil and Ornette, from Dick Hebdige to your dear brother at the Bad Brains show — bobbing together in the mosh pit and moving like a hurricane across the page. I would've been able to tell him that as much we all welcomed witnessing Black folks pierce the heart of darkness of this underground scene, it was you who so boldy and sagely reminded us that "where punk's obnoxious energy is an attack on the parent-community..." the ingredient that we missed in that Bad Brains moment was a way to pipeline and infuse the full spirit of "Rasta-influenced reggae" which "draws" its "strength from the ideal of a black community working in harmony...." into punk agitation. Through and above and beyond the intoxicating din of this music, you invited us again and again and again to return to ourselves to recognize how beautiful we are and how precious and mighty and very necessary this thing called Blackness is. I almost feel sorry for the guy with the scooper in his hand. —Daphne A. Brooks
Greg showed us how to be a cultural activist, deploying the boldness and breadth of his skills. Musically, by refreshing harmolodics and conduction; by helping evolve the written African-American language; and also, crafting journalism that was wise, unflinching, hilarious and compassionate — as was he. I assigned this Bad Brains piece to my NYU Punk students just last week. Tate delivers it with his singular, juicy knockout punch. Indeed, Tate's brain really was baaaad. —Vivien Goldman
I kept this one close as an undergrad lit major with music crit aspirations: a dizzying breakdown of late-'80s Black literary theory debates around poststructuralism that lands on hip-hop as the time-traveling ur-text that was here to teach us all. A whipping hurricane of references (Hurston and Chomsky, Barthes and Ramm El-Zee, Ellison and the Fat Boys) and then an eye of the storm: "Perhaps the supreme irony of black American existence is how broadly black people debate the question of cultural identity among themselves while getting branded as a cultural monolith by those who would deny us the complexity and complexion of a community, let alone a nation." —Josh Kun
I didn't know it at the time, but "Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke" would help introduce the mainstream media world to concepts I already felt in my bones, and which Greg Tate illustrated with knowing, muscular prose. His style mixed phrases from academia and the street, insisting there was an ethic which could unite ideas across those very disparate worlds. More than that, he held that there was a marriage of bold intelligence, wide-ranging influences and creative intuition at the heart of Black culture, Black music and Black art which could and should be elevated by Black intellectual leaders, including critics. And he wasn't shy about challenging everyone to recognize and respect that. When this piece was originally published, I was still in college; a young musician in a band just signed to Motown and not sure if my future lay in work as a professional musician or – in my wildest dreams – a critic for a major media outlet. But Greg's legendary essay spoke to all those parts of me and more. When I learned years later that he was also a musician who co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, I felt like I had stumbled on somebody who was already living the reality I was reaching toward in my own way. And he was challenging Black intellectuals – particularly critics like the one I hoped to someday be – to help lead the charge. We would force the world to accept Black artistic work on its own terms, outside the tidy boxes some people, including some Black leaders, wanted to keep it in. He wrote: "The future of black culture demands that this generation bring forth a worldly-wise and stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups who can get as ignant as James Brown with their Wangs and stay in the black." I'm not sure I have ever achieved that lofty goal. But even without realizing it, I have been striving to meet Greg's ambitious benchmark — a standard set by his insightful prescience and impressive example. —Eric Deggans
I first read [Greg Tate's piece on Wayne Shorter] shortly after I had spent an evening at Bradley's listening and talking to Jimmy Rowles, who loved Wayne's compositions and played a couple just about every night. Jimmy was fascinated by the way they were put together and how they generated improvisation, which is really the point of most jazz originals, to serve as a gateway for a musician to expose stuff that he or she might not otherwise get to. Greg's piece, however, was far more attuned to the emotional impact of Wayne's writing and playing and the visionary ideas underpinning it all. At that time, I had responded emotionally to a few of his pieces, like "Infant Eyes," the teeming "The All Seeing Eye" and the heartbreaking version of "Dindi," but found most of his work brainy and cool, even the unforgettable melodies like "Footprints" and "Orbits;" I admired him more than I loved him. Tate's writing changed my assessment, brought me closer to the heart of his music, so that I listened deeper and with far greater returns. I also remember the look on his face when I mentioned that the first time I heard Miles's arrangement of Wayne's "Nefertiti" — where the theme is played over and over and over, with only the rhythm section pushing it a bit — it put me to sleep. His jaw slightly dropped and he looked at me with what I recall as horror. I said something like, "Well, live and learn." I played the Nefertiti LP that night and felt I had picked up something I didn't have before, and from that point on reviewed him every chance I got with ever increasing wonder. In short, the gift of Wayne was in part a gift from Greg. —Gary Giddins
Greg's essay on Public Enemy is quintessential Tate: dense with ideation, insider references (such as the Village Voice feud between Harry Allen and Stanley Crouch obliquely described in the first paragraph), and literary gems: "hip-hop being more than a cargo cult of the microchip." It captures how feminism was integral to his writing and worldview, a talk that he also walked: I'll never forget how supportive he was of me as the rare female music editor at the Voice. —Evelyn McDonnell
The piece I want to mention is a list. Seventeen points, or fragments, about hip-hop in 1988 (the greatest year in hip-hop, and let's not argue about it until you've finished your homework, which consists of memorizing every word Big Daddy Kane rapped or wrote that year). The point, or one of them, is that hip-hop is made up of fragments, so this piece about hip-hop will also be made up of fragments. Except two things: Unless you were reading it in The Village Voice back then, you might not also know that it was jacking the format of Greil Marcus's "Real Life Rock Top 10" (which the Voice then published), and adding another seven to that Top 10, because game recognizes game (the first item in the piece is a shout out to Greil) and then beats it. And also, much of it is about real life, not hip-hop. I remember how thrilling it was to read in the paper, the way it broke form, or broke out a new form, and made sense of things by flipping through things, changing channels in Greg's brain, showing the process of receiving and broadcasting that went on inside there, the levels of citation and interpretation accreting item by item, sentence by sentence, into something so much more powerful for its simple, bite-sized approach.
"A giant of African cultural scholarship no longer walks among us but along what Sun Ra called The Celestial Road." That's Greg on Facebook on November 29th informing us that Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson had completed his tour of the four moments of the sun at 88. That was just eight days before he himself took to the Celestial Road. God bless you, Greg. Thank you for spending time with us here. —Joe Levy
Even re-reading it today in the pages of my 29-year-old, tattered copy of FlyBoy in the Buttermilk, I still see it laid out as it originally was on the page, no doubt because it was a piece that I saved and went back to often after its publication in the voice in 1988. To my mind it was mythical, as much for Tate's use of language – a sort of teenage mutant b-boy cadence that has no literal translation in this moment, or in that moment. But yeah it was mythical, seventeen fragments, as if Tate was sharing a download on what might have crossed his mind on some random Tuesday or Wednesday – the kind of piece that a lesser talent and intellect might have thought was a cute way to make a deadline. But in Tate's hand: gems, nothing but gems.
Admittedly my only knowledge of Fitzgerald – who rates a citation in that first fragment – was Gatsby, and not The Crackup, Fitzgerald's collection of essays that was published in 1945, and in an era when the internet was Al Gore's wet dream, there was no easy fix, sitting on the uptown Lexington Ave Local, the number 6, as I was when I first sat with "Diary of a Bug." One of Tate's many superpowers was to crowd-source information that you didn't know that you needed, his mind an algorithm for a burgeoning Black creative class.
But it was that third fragment, familiar territory, perhaps – Rakim Allah – for which there should have been several books written about by now and for which Black literary theorists should have been salivating for, were we all not too engulfed with the sociological meaning of the beats and rhyme. Tate was on another plane, quoting Rakim, "In this journey you're the journal I'm the journalist Am I Eternal? Or an eternalist?" and flipped it into a portal – for me at least – into post-structuralism, beginning with Roland Barthes and his essay "The Death of the Author," with a quick shout-out to Levi-Strauss.
A few years later, when in early grad school, and deep into my Flyboy phase, I can remember a faculty mentor chiding me for not following the more up-to-date theorists of that moment; everybody was reading Foucault and the-still-unreadable Derrida. And even Tate resolved that quandary for me, before I know there would be one, deploying Rakim again to relieve the tension between modernism and postmodernism: "I'm about the flow, long as I can possibly go / Keep you moving because the crowd says so" to which Tate adds, "Here Rakim locates his immortality in African culture's call-and-response continuum." The point: Rakim – and by extension hip-hop – was every bit the theorist that those old and mainly dead, French theorists were, and that the Black worldview, what Clyde Woods, another gone way too soon, would describe as "Blues tradition of investigation," was bigger than any intellectual trend. —Mark Anthony Neal
One of my favorite Tate essays is "Nobody Loves A Genius Child: Jean Michel Basquiat, Flyboy In the Buttermilk" in which he quotes Frederick Douglass, Vladimir Nabokov, Amiri Baraka, Miles Davis and his own grandfather. In the piece Tate explains how tough it was for Basquiat to maintain his Blackness — "to be a race-identified race-refugee is to tap dance on a tightrope" — and also proves that the great painter surely does. Tate notes that Basquiat's obsession with putting words into his paintings fits interestingly into the history of people who were "once forbidden literacy by law on the grounds that it would make for rebellious slaves" and he brilliantly lands on the place of affirmative action within the Basquiat story. Did affirmative action help Basquiat rise? No, but Basquiat's success is proof that we deserved to be included all along which is all the affirmative action is trying to do. "If the past 20 years of affirmative action have proven anything it's that whatever some white boy can do, any number of Black persons can do as good, or, given the hoops a Black person has to jump to get in the game, any number of times better. Sorry, Mr. Charlie, but the visual arts are no different." Ache. And this: As much as I love Basquiat's paintings, and I am a superfan, once again Tate's essay is as great of a piece of art as the art he's covering. He will be missed. —TOURÉ
Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (Simon & Schuster, 1992)
Like many, my introduction to Greg was through his 1992 collection of essays, Flyboy in the Buttermilk. Up until that point, I had read album reviews but I credit Greg (as well as Nelson George) for showing me what music criticism could look like. In the case of Greg, there's many aspects to his writing that floored me — both then and still now — but two things stand out the most. First was the expansiveness of his cultural knowledge and the acumen to make linkages across art, literature, politics and of course, music, bringing this panoply of ideas together in conversation with each other. Second was his utter elan as a writer; the inventiveness of his vocabulary, the brazenness of his diction. Even reading his Facebook posts felt like I was in the presence of genius (not a term I'd ever throw around lightly). Some writers inspire your own writing. Other writers, like Greg, simply inspire, period. —Oliver Wang
The "Black-Owned" column in Vibe Magazine
As a curious Black kid growing up in the '90s, Greg Tate's "Black-Owned" column in Vibe magazine was a portal to unfamiliar realms of Black thought and aesthetics. Whether he was celebrating the film work of director Julie Dash or unpacking the cosmology of Sun Ra, Tate used his words to lovingly and critically explore the most radical corners of Black creativity. —John Morrison
Brooklyn Kings: New York City's Black Bikers (Powerhouse Books, 2000, with photographer Martin Dixon)
My favorite essay by Greg remains the revelatory text he created for the photography book Brooklyn Kings, an unexpected look at the sociological significance of black motorcycle clubs. One of Greg's strengths as a writer was knowing that there were many more underreported Black American subcultures than Black American journalists willing and able to do them justice. For me, this book proves that many of Greg's most trenchant insights were written outside the realm of music criticism. —Carol Cooper
This 2001 Village Voice review of Miss E...So Addictive is classic Greg Tate: obsidian-sharp insights about black music (and black humanity) delivered by way of exhilarating hepcat phraseology. Tate bent the English language the same way be-boppers go ham on a traditional melody. He raised the bar for music writing in the way that Rakim, in his prime, elevated rhythmic flow and existential truth in hip-hop. Tate kicks-off his review with the wry disclaimer "love my people" but nobody needed to be convinced. Reading Greg Tate, you were always aware of how abundantly and multi-dimensionally he loved Black folk: He loved our peerless genius and our beauty, and he loved us enough to call us out on our contradictions and shortcomings, too. —Jason King
Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (Lawrence Hill Books, 2003)
In 2003, Greg Tate published a book about Jimi Hendrix designed to draw the guitarist out of the canon of "white boy music" where he was languishing, and restore him to his rightful place as not only a Black icon but "a Black man who came from several Black worlds to make extraterrestrial Black music for all God's children whether they got rhythm or not." Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience was the kind of book only Tate could have gotten away with, or conceived: a highly informative polemical biographical treatise on Hendrix's mind-bending musical-spiritual innovations, followed by a section of interviews with Black women about the guitarist's sex appeal, interviews with others that didn't fit in the body of the text, a short experimental novella that Tate seemed too abashed to foreground but too fond of to cut and an astrological reading of the guitarist by Tate's friend Stefanie Kelly. Among the book's many stunning, hilarious moments was this:
"Feedback — the shrill, ear-damaging noise that occurs when an amplifiers signal overmodulates — became for Hendrix a means of expanding the instrument's sustaining capacity, as a violinist does with her bow or a horn player with her breathing. Nearly every piece of sound-enhancing gear available in a modern recording studio has been devised to emulate some musical effect of Hendrix's. The lyrical, composerly way he laced his songs with such staples of contemporary pop as flangeing, phasing, chorusing, multitracking, pitchbending, tapesplicing, looping, delay, reverb made them register as far more than novelties and "ear candy" (that handy studio rat name for those sonic tricks meant to impress the world with what clever boys we are). Hendrix made all such devices and conceits emotional landmarks in his songs, largely because he privileged emotional projection as much as he did innovation."
Here is Tate's signature energy and scope; the self-aware gender politics; the big claims (however counterintuitive — that all the studio gear is indebted to Hendrix's electronic effects, not the reverse). But there is also a feature of his writing that is less often remarked: his gracious desire, not simply to convince but to instruct. The analogy he draws between Hendrix's work with feedback and the "sustaining capacity" of other instruments — a gesture of generosity on par with his taking the time to explain what feedback is — is designed to help those untutored in rock virtuosity understand the beauty of Hendrix's art. Tate was, like Hendrix, a master of his effects — which he deployed not in order to call attention to himself (or not only to do that), but to explain why he loved what he loved with the utmost vividness, clarity and passion. He was going to extend his meditations on Hendrix into a standalone book on "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" for a series I co-edit. He was supposed to do so many things, and I wish he were still here to do them. —Emily Lordi
Both volumes of Flyboy are essential canon. But this galvanic piece, commissioned by Jason Moran for his art zine LOOP, is the sort of big swing that nobody but Greg Tate would even attempt. An argument for the inherent political consciousness of 1970s electric jazz, an eternal subject for him, it ropes in everything from Italian futurism to Black nationalism to "Neo-HooDooism," copping the latter from Ishmael Reed. From one sentence to the next, you're peering either through a telescope or a microscope, considering "the intonation of our hungering Blacknuss reconsidered as a forcefully tactical musical ideation." —Nate Chinen
For any culture writer in the 1990s and 2000s, the name Greg Tate was synonymous with critic. He was so intellectually colloquial that, of course, you wanted to emulate — but only he could sound like him. So you relinquished that maybe, likewise, all you could do is try to sound like yourself. There are so many classic pieces of his to choose from, but my selection is a fairly recent piece, his 2017 review of Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. for the Village Voice, where he offers his usual marksman-like balance of wit and critique. "Super heavy is the well-paid, well-pleasured, well-attended, and well-pissed-off head under the crown on DAMN, one equally beset by the fickle flea-buzzing of fans and Fox News apparatchiks alike," he writes. And also: "How'd B.B. King put it? Nobody loves me but my mama and she might be jiving too." —Clover Hope
It might seem strange that the Greg Tate piece that tarries with me most right now is his tribute to Geri Allen upon her passing in 2017. Here, he wrote lovingly about the Howard University days that nurtured them, the music that bonded them, and the dreams they made realities. I was fortunate to witness Greg and Geri together and sense the deep love and mutual respect they shared. Earlier this semester I shared this piece with students in my Jazz History class because just in paying tribute to his friend, Greg Tate presents a history of jazz and rock that is often decentered, he reveres a jazz master in a way that is most often reserved for men, and he illuminates the worlds of young Black jazz fans and musicians who remade the music in their own image. I reread this piece and I think of his genuine curiosity and enthusiasm for what his friends would create next. He was never just about him. His writing and his life testify that he not only left us with a legacy of brilliance but a legacy of love because he was not just a revolutionary writer but a sincere fan of his friends. He didn't feign distance and objectivity, it was the intimacy with which he wrote that shook up our worlds. And for that, I'm forever grateful. —Fredara Mareva Hadley
The outpouring of shocked grief and unalloyed respect inspired by Greg Tate's sudden death December 7 reached an apotheosis on the brightly illuminated marquee of 125th Street's Apollo Theater, the pinnacle of African American showbiz for nearly a century. As I write, that marquee reads on all three sides:
[smaller caps] HONORING THE LIFE OF
[larger caps] GREG TATE
[smaller again] WRITER, MUSICIAN AND PRODUCER.
All that could have rendered this tribute more astonishing is that it could have read not just WRITER, which is amazing enough, but CRITIC. Because while his subject matter reached beyond music into theory, visual art and what-have-you, and while he created music in profusion with his ever-evolving Burnt Sugar avant-jazz ensemble, Greg Tate inspired this outpouring of love predominantly as a specialized and frequently disparaged kind of writer: a critic. True, like most arts journalists he did also publish features and interviews. But even in his second collection, a 2016 follow-up to his Village Voice-dominated 1992 Flyboy in the Buttermilk titled simply Flyboy 2, they're scattered among the screeds, position papers and not so mere reviews he wrote for Vibe, Wire and other outlets as well as the Voice.
Moreover, Tate was beloved as a special kind of critic — in the parlance I stubbornly stick with, a rock critic. As the co-founder, with Living Colour's Vernon Reid, of the Black Rock Coalition was OK with Greg, who always opposed the perverse Caucasianization of the term "rock," not least because Black people invented it — in particular one born Charles Edward Anderson Berry. And while many of the posthumous tributes to come his way identify him with hip-hop — about which no one has written better, in part simply because this is a great writer we're talking about here — that was an accident of timing. He came up just as hip-hop did, arguably for many of the same sociohistorical reasons, so of course he covered it extensively. But he was passionate and knowledgeable about a wide range of musics, mostly Black one way or another but "rock" included. His favorable, as yet uncollected Rolling Stone review of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication famously moved bassist Flea to tears.
In some respects, the loss Greg's most parallels is that of Lester Bangs in April, 1982, when I was editing both of them for the Voice's Riffs section, although Greg didn't move up from D.C. until around then and I doubt they ever met. More than any other rock critic ever except R. Meltzer, both were masters of highly personalized wildstyles, to borrow a graffiti term, and this loosened up younger writers — who imitated him at their peril, don't get me wrong, so it's fortunate that most of them were too smart to try. I had always encouraged unconventional stylistic and structural ploys in Riffs, but it was Bangs and Tate above all who rendered that principle inspiring and alluring. The most impressive tribute to Tate's influence I've encountered this week was by Rob Sheffield, now the lead voice of Rolling Stone, a writer so fluid he somehow had his 1400-word tribute up at 4:06 p.m. December 7, mere hours after Tate's death became public. If Sheffield has any flaw as a critic, it's that he doesn't write much about Black music. Yet on Tuesday he told the world that for decades he's had a 1992 Chaka Khan review by Greg Tate taped above his desk. —Robert Christgau