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Flowers for Greg Tate

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021

Greg-Tate.jpeg

Greg Tate, the legendary music and culture critic who wrote for many years at the Village Voice, died this week. A few laudatory notes follow.

Rolling Stone, one of Tate’s post-Voice outlets, published both a notice and a quickly-written tribute by Rob Sheffield. From the first:

Tate joined the staff of The Village Voice in 1987 and quickly established himself as a challenging, encyclopedic, and brilliantly witty voice on everything from hip-hop to hardcore and free jazz. (His first cover story was on Nigerian singer King Sunny Adé.) “Being a 25-year-old music freelancer for the Voice meant your number-one goal in life — free passes to any show at any venue in the city — was answered,” Tate wrote in a 2017 remembrance of his early days there. “But it also gave you street cred you didn’t even know you had among a wide swath of characters — club bouncers, burly Latino locksmiths from the Bronx who took your check and proclaimed themselves fans of your byline, label execs, musical icons, and rising rap stars.”

And the second:

“Hip-hop is ancestor worship,” Greg Tate wrote in The Village Voice in the fall of 1988. He always chronicled music with that fiercely worshipful spirit of sacred ritual. Reading Tate was a revelation, then or now, because he was a writer who celebrated all kinds of music, from every era — an Afrofuturist rebel without a pause. That’s why the news of his death hits so hard today. To sum up his voice, you have to go back to the words he wrote about Chaka Khan back in 1992: “She is to singing what Jimi Hendrix is to guitar playing: the only wail that matters, the roar and the resonance against which all contenders are judged.”

That was Greg Tate. He was a giant of a cultural critic, hugely inspiring and influential to the heads taking music seriously, making you hear the connections between hip-hop, jazz, rock, the blues, every cry of love under the sun. He treated criticism as an art in itself, and in his hands, it was, because he knew how to do justice to the raptures of listening.

From NPR:

Greg Tate was born on Oct. 15, 1957. He spent his teenage years in Washington, D.C., where he first got interested in music. Upon moving to New York City, he co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, which existed to push back against stereotypes of Black artists. He also founded Burnt Sugar, a sprawling avant-garde orchestra that melded elements of free jazz and fusion, R&B, funk and contemporary classical music through conduction, a system of real-time arranging pioneered by improvising conductor Butch Morris. The ensemble issued its most recent recording, the EP Angels Over Oakanda, in September.

Maiysha Kai at The Root:

“I realized that the meaning of being Black is summed up in who comes to bury you,” wrote Greg Tate in his landmark 1991 article for the Village Voice “BLACK LIKE WHO? Love and the Enemy, “who gathers in your name after you’re gone, what they have to say about how you loved, and how you were loved in return.”

From Jon Caramanica in the New York Times:

It doesn’t matter which page you open to in his crucial 1992 anthology “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America” — just open it. Eruptions of style — of pure intellectual vigor and unhurried swagger — are everywhere.

Page 123, leading into a review of Public Enemy: “Granted, Charlie Parker died laughing. Choked chicken wing perched over ’50s MTV. So? No way in hell did Bird, believing there was no competition in music, will his legacy to some second-generation be-boppers to rattle over the heads of the hip-hop nation like a rusty sabre.”

Page 221, on Don DeLillo: “DeLillo’s books are inward surveys of the white supremacist soul — on the run from mounting evidence that its days are (as the latest in Black militant button-wear loves to inform us) numbered.”

“When you’re younger, it’s all about expressionism, it’s all about trying to make as much noise as possible,” Tate said in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2018. “I was trying to literally approximate music on the page.”

In Artforum:

In 1986, Tate penned the essay “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke” for the Voice’s literary supplement. This landmark work of cultural criticism limned the artificial divide imposed by white supremacist culture between Black intellectuals, expected to be repressed cultural nationalists, and Black artists, expected to be “freaky” and unhinged purveyors of exotica. “Somewhere along the road to probable madness or a meaningful life,” wrote Tate in its opening lines, “I decided that what black culture needs is a popular poststructuralism—accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture.” Tate would go on to provide exactly that for the next three decades and beyond, as the Voice the following year hired him as a staff writer. The paper was “the only place in journalism where you weren’t expected to specialize,” Tate wrote in these pages in 2018, “where you could go off in your own cherry-picked vernacular about whatever form of aesthetic glory or political fuckery got your typing trigger finger ready to rumble on fish wrap.” He stayed there until 2005.

From Pitchfork:

Tate’s life began in Dayton, Ohio in 1957, and his family relocated to Washington, D.C. in his early teen years. Tate remained there through his years at Howard University, but after publishing work for The Voice via Robert Christgau, he left for New York in 1982 to follow the city’s busy, up-and-coming hip-hop scene more closely. “It was like writing war dispatches right there on the ground. There was all this incendiary work coming out. It was unprecedented. It didn’t sound like anything that had come before. There was a lot to talk about,” he recalled to Pitchfork in 2018.

From Questlove:

Greg was the first person who validated the art that I loved and made it intellectually viable. I never heard anyone speak of hip-hop in those terms before him. I had never heard of Afro-futurism. I had never encountered a writer who made the case that Public Enemy was just as important as the Beatles, and who made it with such intelligence. This was during a time when my dad and I were really at odds about culture for the first time. My dad was a person who made binge record shopping (something I do to this day) an event. Music was our thing!! Now we are at odds. My dad was turning into a grumpy cynic and I didn’t like it. So there was a 10 year gap in which I had noone to bounce ideas off of like I did with my dad in the 70s. Enter Greg. To see a Black person write so eloquently about this music—hip hop, but not just hip hop—gave me confidence and clarity. It saved me. He made the music high art with pieces that were high art by themselves. I didn’t even know that he was a musician yet but I knew that his best instrument was his pen.

The New Yorker dug up Hua Hsu’s homage to Tate from 2016:

For a generation of critics, Tate’s career has served as a reminder that diversity isn’t just about a splash of color in the group photo; it’s about the different ways that people see, feel, and move within the world. These differences can be imperceptible, depending on where your eye lingers as you scan the newsroom. What made Tate’s criticism special was his ability to theorize outward from his encounters with genius and his brushes with banality—to telescope between moments of artistic inspiration and the giant structures within which those moments were produced. “Flyboy 2,” published earlier this month by Duke University Press, largely consists, like its predecessor, of critical essays, interviews, profiles, and short riffs. But, a quarter of a century on, the question animating his work has come into sharper focus. What he’s been exploring through his criticism has been something “less quantifiable,” as he puts it, than culture, identity, or consciousness. What Tate wants to understand is “the way Black people ‘think,’ mentally, emotionally, physically,” and “how those ways of thinking and being inform our artistic choices.”

Meanwhile, Crack Magazine curated a list of six seminal Tate essays (some of which are already linked above), covering everything from Bad Brains to Basquiat.

For those new to Tate’s work, it’s as good a place to start as any; for longtime fans, it’s a chance to both mourn a voice that’s been lost and celebrate one that could sing so brilliantly.