The immortal influence of Greg Tate

Although hip-hop defines American youth culture, dominates music charts and streaming services, and perfumes all manner of late-capitalist enterprises, many people—fans, detractors, and critics among them—refuse to think about it critically. Every second, every day, the unwary are taking the rap stream from screens, newsfeeds, forums, and pundits, and being treated as fact. Critical reviews and informed reporting are the only bulwark against this tide.

Last December, we lost a pillar. For generations of critics, Greg Tate, who died of cardiac arrest at 64, was our dean. As a contributor and editor for The voice of the village from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s, and as a freelancer for outlets such as rolling stone, Atmosphereand low beathe pioneered a vein of music criticism that dared to be as free and bold as the art it covered.

Tate not only showed that music criticism could be expressive as well as analytical; he insisted that he had to. Like intricate graffiti, his writing arched, curled and exploded with color and size. With quick, clever strokes, he could connect contexts and distill sounds. His review of a Public Enemy concert in 1988 is emblematic. In a few sentences, he captured the authority of Chuck D’s voice, the intentional contrast between Chuck D’s activism and Flavor Flav’s flamboyance, and the unique way Public Enemy polished the lens of music influenced by the black nationalism:

Chuck is music’s answer to the oratory of sonic pads that Baraka bequeathed to the black poetry movement for Coltrane’s sake. Coltrane never got comic relief like Chuck’s aide Flavor Flav. Chuck takes to the stage like a wild stallion while Flav pogosticks. He’s an infallible professor of ig’nance whose incompatibility with the main man derails the tradition of ass-naked loudmouths who can’t laugh at themselves.

His essays and reviews overflow with sensations. Sounds ricocheted off his paragraphs. His sentences pulsed with rhythm and measure. His verbs, like “pogosticks”, were energetic, playful and imagistic. Even when he wasn’t reviewing a live event, he tended to invoke the specific moment or setting he encountered the music he covers, an approach that allowed for a panoply of voices – members of his family and friends, musicians, other critics. , strangers – to mingle with and shape his thoughts. Even if you didn’t pick up or consider his scholarly references to post-structuralist theory, black feminism, and Marvel Comics, he never felt like he was talking to himself. Tate was a critic in conversation with the world.

Jate was born in Dayton, Ohio, to politically engaged parents who were active in civil rights organizations and later in official politics. When the family moved to Washington, D.C. during Tate’s teenage years, he became a staple of the city’s literary and music scenes. At Coolidge High School, which was teeming with musicians and bands, he was inspired to take up the guitar, an interest he later maintained as a member of several bands and the Black Rock Coalition. When he went to Howard University, his connections to the stages deepened by attending songwriting workshops, hosting a radio show, and covering music for the college newspaper. After his studies, he wrote for The voice of the village and eventually moved to New York, where he worked freelance and at an art gallery.

When he became a Voice a staff writer, his writing was known to match his appetite. Wherever black innovation and expression could be found, be it film, painting, fiction, or comedy, he followed. His 1992 book Flyboy in buttermilk, which collected essays and reports written between 1981 and 1991, presented this range. The title essay focuses on Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose legacy Tate uses to rebuke the racism of art institutions and celebrate the many media and milieus that inspired the painter. In one passage, he confronts the condescension of art critics Michael Brenson and Peter Schjeldahl, and defends the integrity of black artists:

Most serious black artists I know know as much about art as their white contemporaries, but would certainly have no interest in proving their blackness to Schjeldahl or taking a quiz. [on Western art history] of Brenson. Trying to help other white men figure out what weird woogie magic Basquiat and Puryear got out of Coontown and into Cracker Heaven, Brenson and Schjeldahl regurgitate two very old and tired schemes. Divide-and-Conquer is what we call one, One-Nigger-at-a-Time-Puh-Leeze names the other.

Even when Tate focused on a particular subject, his gaze still took in the whole landscape.

Pilot and its 2016 sequel, Flyboy 2, are Tate’s defining works, but I particularly like his obituaries, many of which were written in the 2000s. against flow, acrobatics against punch – changes that made his songwriting more intimate. His reflections on the lives of Richard Pryor, Amiri Baraka and Prince are pinnacle of form. Tate addresses these much-vaunted artists as parents rather than icons, dwelling on their journeys rather than their successes. He was able to honor black artists without deifying or diminishing them, common responses to exceptional black creators in life and in death.

Between touring with his longtime band Burnt Sugar and adjunct teaching at Columbia, Brown, and Princeton, Tate’s writing output slowed towards the end of his life. But I think his tutelage of other writers is as integral to his legacy as his criticism. Stories abound of him fielding calls late at night, mentoring young journalists and researchers, and listening to people. Coon Bidness, a literary magazine that he launched with the artist and poetess LaTasha Diggs in 2011, is full of prestigious names (Arthur Jafa, Wangechi Mutu) and little known. Only one issue was published, but the effort seems inseparable from his constant recognition of the colleagues, collaborators and muses who shaped his writing and his career: Thulani Davis, Robert Christgau, Nelson George, Vernon Reid, Lisa Kennedy, Mama Tate. In its reflection and collaboration, Tate was committed to creating and honoring spaces where art and the madmen obsessed with it could flourish. While those spaces continue to shrink, thanks to Tate, the plans are in many hands.

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