Greg Tate wrote about race in a way that expressed a deep, sixth dimensional love for African American life. His music criticism moved like music. He was someone who believed in telling those around him that their work and their lives mattered. And now, following his sudden death on Tuesday this week at the age of 64, many who knew him are telling themselves how much his work meant to them.
On Tuesday night in Harlem, the Apollo Theater marquee shouted, “Honor the life of GREG TATE, writer, musician and producer.” From Los Angeles, actor and playwright Roger Guenveur Smith has praised Tate as “a universal negro improvement / for its own fucking me association.”
“How sad,” said James Fugate, co-owner of Black-owned Eso Won Books in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighborhood. “Boy, it’s just…” He let out a deep sigh. “The past two years have given us too much sad news. “
With Tate, there was the voice, and there was the voice.
The writing voice was the one that made him a common thread for so many budding cultural critics.
In his work for the Village Voice and in collections of essays such as The Revolutionary “Flyboy in Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America“(1992) and”Everything But The Burden: What Whites Get From Black Culture”(2003), Tate explored how artists such as Public Enemy, Miles Davis, William Gibson, De La Soul and Samuel Delaney have shaped our times.
He mixed forms of rhetoric – stump speech, rap, Stanley Crouch’s rant, sermon, 4 o’clock scream – placing them as part of his loud, quirky voice. In the late 1980s, he co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, a union of bands and listeners dedicated to the idea that Elvis was not the king of rock’n’roll and that Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee and Billy Preston had yet to get their due. This message is echoed in his work: What you love was shaped, if not designed, by African Americans.
On Tuesday, the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb tweeted, “It’s hard to explain the impact Flyboy in the Buttermilk had on an entire generation of young writers and critics who read every page of it like scripture. It is still a literary genius clinic.
In person, there was another type of voice: the warm and supportive one he offered to hundreds of writers who saw him as a role model. Kimberly Mack is an associate professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio. She’s writing a book on BIPOC and the white writers who helped invent rock criticism; the next one is from black rock band Living Color’s groundbreaking album “Time’s Up”.
In 2002, Mack graduated from Antioch University in Los Angeles with her MFA, and her program required her to select a mentor to whom she would send work and receive feedback. Out of the blue, she contacted Tate in New York, and he said, “Of course.”
The program was supposed to last around six months, but Mack continued to send Tate handwriting samples and talk to him on the phone, and Tate continued to weigh in for years.
“He took me seriously, probably before I deserved to be taken seriously,” Mack said. “Meeting him at the very beginning of my journey and having someone of that stature willing to read my work – he made me feel like it was possible.”
Tate spoke quietly and low, and many white writers found it intimidating. “Greg knew how to be the loudest person in the room without saying a word,” said Danyel Smith, reporter, podcast host and former editor of Vibe magazine. “His energy was that of a cool old school black man who can be intimidating. But for me and some of my black colleagues, it wasn’t intimidating, it was rewarding. It was who we aspired to be.
In the 1970s, alternative weeklies were like pirate radio stations in many big cities, presenting critical voices and topics that local newspapers would not have covered. Village Voice of New York had more outrageous, courageous and heretofore unknown voices than anywhere else.
Tate came to The Voice much like me, in the early 1980s. A lot was going on: New York was being remade by hip-hop’s three-headed beast: breakdance, graffiti, and rap. There was new underground art – Tate wrote stunningly about Jean-Michel Basquiat – and new noir cinema, with Spike Lee and the Hughes brothers and more. In record time, Tate was a great voice in New York public opinion.
The writing has influenced critics for decades so much that it’s easy to forget the controversy Tate courted at first. An indignant white writer from The Voice Ghost wrote a mocking parody of Tate from the perspective of a white New Yorker beaming with pride for, I believe it was Tony Bennett. The music publisher released it – why not?
Tate was a pop culture nerd, throwing references to Jack Kirby, “Dhalgren” and Malcolm X in his reviews. He was one of the earliest hip-hop columnists and has written about rock bands, gnarly pop and free jazz, Bob Dylan and King Sunny Adé. His mind was welcoming, yet stimulating – it could be difficult, and he adopted a confrontational posture. “I read it and I didn’t even know the bands he was talking about,” smiles Smith. She met her work at a newsstand in Oakland, where the new Voice came to town every week. “You had to run and ask someone who he was talking about,” says Smith. “I really didn’t care, because the lessons were in the sentences. “
Tate was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1957. Her parents, Florence and Charles Tate, were civil rights activists, and Florence was a pioneering black reporter for the Dayton Daily News. (His posthumous memoirs, “Sometimes women farmers become revolutionaries,Was recently posted.) Tate moved to Washington, DC when he was about 12 years old. In addition to Village Voice, he has written for Vibe, Rolling Stone and the Nation.
Over the past decades, talented guitarist Tate had formed the free-thinker groove ensemble Burnt Sugar, a worldwide consortium of like-minded people who were sometimes a big band and other times a stylish combo.
Having articulated race-conscious humanistic values in his writing and building a global community of peers, readers, and contributors, he now lived somewhat nomadically among them, continuing to write, definitely still as a mentor, playing music that radiated his collective, teaching, curating vision – being Greg Tate.
The voice remained resonant. “I always tell the same story. It never changes, ”says Smith. When she became a music writer at Vibe and was editing Tate, she took him to lunch to search for his brain. “I have a lot of questions. I try to be the tough girl, ”she said.
And then she just asked him, “How are you doing? She meant, basically, how did he do everything he did – wrap a poison dart against killer cops in a scholarly movie review or connect Kool & the Gang to the jazz greats of the 1930s and to 60s white rock. “And why is it so poetic when you do it?” Smith had questions. “And he was looking at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you? He said: ‘There really is nothing to do. You just have to get old. ‘ She was in her twenties, he was in her thirties by then. – That’s it, sister. Let go of the anxiety – you just have to get old.
“He said it then and it’s true now,” says Smith. “If you stay in the game and listen to music, be careful, it’s true.”