VOICE OF THE AGES

Flying High: Remembering Greg Tate

Funk, jazz, rap, painting, literature, sci-fi, race, film, history—the extraordinary writer could explicate and elevate any subject under the sun

by

I only knew Greg Tate to nod hello to in the hallways of the Voice offices, back in the late 1980s and early ’90s. I wasn’t writing for the paper yet, but like so many readers, I had long been dazzled by his uncompromising, often funny, always incandescent prose.

How about this, from a 1982 Voice Literary Supplement article, “Harlem When It Sizzled”: “Consider Harlem’s ’20s as a kind of funked-up Weimar Republic for bloods, and you’ll have a grasp on why that era has gone down in Afro-American lore and literature as a time of grand cultural renaissance. Which is to say, one where radical trends in Afro-American art and politics converged with the black bourgeoisie in a bacchanal of strident nationalism, new money, and bohe­mian revelry.”

C’mon! That is one dense ideas-per-sentence ratio, but man does it go down smooth.

So there I was, a painter with a day job pasting up ads, and I was too shy to do more than say hello to this guy with the intimidating intellect.

But now, as the editor of the Voice, I realize what a dope I was not to strike up a conversation with a writer who sometimes added “Iron Man” to his byline. Tate passed away last Tuesday, December 7, at the age of 64, and I’ve just finished editing a group of pieces by those who were inspired by him, worked with him, and called him friend. This was one brilliant yet open-hearted, generous guy, who would’ve been happy back in the day to school me on Jean-Michel Basquiat (“Flyboy in the Buttermilk: The Crisis of the Black Artist in White America,” November 14, 1989). Ultimately though, I didn’t completely miss my chance—because, as you’ll see below, Greg Tate always had something for everybody. —R.C. Baker

 

 

Sentence for Sentence, One of the Best

When I was in my 20s I was lucky to begin freelance writing at the Voice, largely because of its great music editor Robert Christgau, who’d built an amazing roster of Black writers. Most entered the paper through writing a “Riff” for Bob, and then began contributing throughout the paper. These were scribes who were documenting the vast array of popular culture that was rising out of the streets and clubs of ’80s NYC and transforming music, film, literature, theater, art, and all the spaces in between. Stanley Crouch, Lisa Jones, Barry Michael Cooper, Joan Morgan, Harry Allen, and Carol Cooper were among the folks whose bylines appeared regularly in those pages.

But there was no one with the style, insight, and range of Greg “Ironman” Tate, a D.C. native filled with enthusiasm for the bohemian, the adventurous, and the radical. Greg was a fabulous writer who understood rhythm, metaphor, and hyperbole like a master musician does harmony, timbre, and tone. Sentence for sentence, Greg was one of the best writers in a publication that was all about attitude, personal POV, and cultivating your singular voice.

Unlike some of my VV comrades, who boasted and strutted when they had a big piece in the paper, Tate was always easygoing and mellow, with a disarming manner that made him a natural leader. Off the page, he co-founded the Black Rock Coalition and a marvelous ensemble, Burnt Sugar Arkestra, which took his extensive musical taste and manifested it in covers of classics and original compositions that reflected his critical insights. In the community of NYC artists who came of age in the ’80s, Greg was a touchstone and mentor.

I haven’t cried yet about his departure. I have just moved through my days in a daze, stunned that I won’t read another piece by him, see him with his band, or sit down with him again in fellowship, talking about where the culture was, is, and will be. I do a lot of documentaries now and had plans to include him in several of them, because Greg knew so much and was great at sharing his knowledge. There’s no one who can fill the void he left. He was that unique and that brilliant. —Nelson George

 

 

Heart for Miles, Soul for Light Years

I was the music editor of the Voice from 1989 to 1994, and I edited Greg Tate during that time. Though let’s be honest here, editing Greg’s music pieces was a little like being the coach who looks up from his clipboard and says it’d be a good idea if Michael Jordan played that night. (And so long as we’re being honest, Phil Jackson did a lot more to help Jordan elevate his game than I ever did for Greg.) Then later, in 2016, I came back to the Voice as interim editor in chief, and Greg was willing to come back and bless us with his writing—a Pazz and Jop essay, reviews of Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar, a cover story on Barry Jenkins and Moonlight. I’d like to take some credit for that (and—keeping it 100—that Jay-Z piece actually needed some work), but I knew it had much more to do with the Voice than with me. The Voice was a place that let him run free, flex, shatter the backboard glass, rewrite the rules of what could happen on the page and in your mind, squeak and scrawl and squawk and skronk, blow his goddamn horn pretty much any way he wanted to, which was lots of different ways. And he wanted to make sure others had the chance to do the same. 

The compassion. That man’s compassion. It was in everything he wrote—heart for miles, soul for light years—but it was also there every time he walked into the room. The Voice music section published the great writing of Joan Morgan and dream hampton because Greg walked those writers over to my desk and introduced them. If a writer makes a difference one time out, that’s a lot. If they make a difference every time out, that’s god level. If they then make it their mission to open doors for others to do the same, they’re Greg Tate. 

Miles Davis died on September 28, 1991. It was a Saturday. Greg delivered his copy on Monday morning. I read it and wondered: How? There was stuff in there that would take a lifetime, and I didn’t quite get that part of it was figuring out how to put your whole lifetime into what you wrote. The piece is in Flyboy in the Buttermilk, and I’m going to quote the part I never forgot, the part that was like thunder and birdsong and the barbershop and a lecture hall and a prayer service rolled into one: “The reason black music occupies a privileged and authoritative place in black aesthetic discourse is because it seems to croon and cry out to us from a postliberated world of unrepressed black pleasure and self-determination. Black music, like black basketball, represents an actualization of those black ideologies that articulate themselves as antithetical to Eurocentrism. Music and ’ball both do this in ways that are counterhegemonic if not countersupremacist—rooting black achievement in ancient black cultural practices. In the face of the attempt to erase the African contribution to world knowledge, and the diminution of black intelligence that came with it, the very fact of black talents without precedent or peers in the white community demolishes racist precepts instantaneously. In this war of signifying and countersigning Miles Davis was a warrior king and we were all enthralled.” 

So too with Greg Tate, a warrior of the mind, a king to all who read him. —Joe Levy

 

 

Mind Zapper

On Tuesday, December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, writer-musician Greg Tate died. For many people who considered him a friend and mentor, as well as folks who knew and loved his work, it’s yet another day “that will live in infamy.” I first met Tate in the offices of the old Village Voice building on Broadway. It was 1986 and I’d joined the just begun Black Rock Coalition (BRC), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the complete creative freedom of Black artists, after meeting Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid in Sounds, a cool new and used record shop on St. Marks Place. 

Though I’d initially begged off with the “I’m not musician” excuse, when Reid mentioned that writer Greg Tate was involved, I knew I wanted to be down. As a wannabe writer since childhood, I was constantly searching for literary heroes who would inspire me higher. “You guys should meet,” Reid said. I had no thoughts of me and Brother Tate, as I sometimes affectionately called him later, becoming homeboys, but as an avid admirer of his work for four years, I was happy just to be in his aura. 

 In 1982, I was living in Harlem but rode the D train every day to Fort Greene, in Brooklyn, where I was attending Long Island University Brooklyn as an English major. In those years, the Village Voice was a weekly that came out on Wednesday morning. As an aspiring bohemian who relished provocative arts criticism and reportage, it was a necessary periodical purchase that I read while taking that long ride to campus. 

As a fan of various kinds of music ranging from Sly Stone to Led Zeppelin to the Sugar Hill Gang, whose groundbreaking 1979 song “Rapper’s Delight” was rap’s first big hit, I read the record reviews first. Over time certain names became familiar (Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, and Greil Marcus), but at some point the byline “by Greg Tate” appeared and instantly zapped my mind as though electric-shocked. 

The first review I absorbed was on funk master George Clinton’s then latest disc Computer Games. However, Tate’s critique (“Beyond the Zone of the Zero Funkativity”) wasn’t like anything I’d ever read. While I’d come of age in the era of new journalism (Tom Wolfe! Joan Didion!) and the gonzo dispatches of Hunter Thompson, Tate’s texts were all that and a bag of Blackness. Tate not only dropped dime on the P-Funk nation and the album, he wrote in an Afro language that rocked funky joint. 

Damn near 40 years gone, I can’t remember the exact words, but reading the piece straight felt as though someone put a mojo on me. Tate’s review was hypnotic and I was in a trance until the last word. You must understand, in the early 1980s there weren’t many (any?) Black writers in mainstream arts publications, let alone a wordsmith utilizing poetic prose, sci-fi references, swaggering syntax, and other textual trickery that brought the subjects (music, books, art, and film) alive. 

Tate’s sentences were sprawling fire-breathing dragons of many colors. The end of that story was the beginning for me, the moment I realized that a Black writer could be smart and street simultaneously, a cool nerd who could hang on the corner with the dice throwers, chill in a jazz club with the sax blowers, and, later, lean over a typewriter until the morning light knocking out the many paragraphs that make a dope story. 

While decades later it might sound hyperbolic, Greg Tate, both the man and his work, changed my life: the way the crime writing of Chester Himes changed my life, the way soul godfather James Brown changed my life, the way funnyman Richard Pryor changed my life, the way Harlem, Pablo Picasso, Gordon Parks, and my book- and movie-loving momma, Frankie, changed my life. 

Between that first Tate article I read and our first meeting four years later, his work schooled me on numerous subjects that included post-structuralism (and the Harlem Renaissance), free jazz (especially Cecil Taylor), cyberpunk, the hopscotch narratives of Ishmael Reed (and Don DeLillo), and the noir shoe-gaze drone of AR Kane. 

In addition, Tate put his stamp on the sonic/art/dance phenomenon that was/is hip-hop culture and rap music, becoming a town crier for the culture as he championed Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and De La Soul. One of his titles is “pioneering hip-hop journalist,” but, like flyboy Jean-Michel Basquiat, he wore many crowns. 

When I wrote my first record reviews for a small punk zine in 1986, dropping pseudoscience about Fishbone and the Beastie Boys, I bit Tate’s style so hard he must’ve woke up screaming. Over the past few days, digging various memorials and memories, I realized I wasn’t the only one. “We imitated Tate’s writings the way hopeful be-bop musicians in the ’50s tried to play like Bird,” I explained to a friend hours after I heard he was gone. 

I was blessed to discover Greg Tate’s black magic realism when I was in college and used his artistic beacon of bugged-out Blackness as the guiding light in how I heard and viewed the world. For a generation of writers that followed in Greg Tate’s giant steps, he taught us how to transcribe sounds and visions into textual worlds of wonder, WORD! —Michael A. Gonzales

 

 

A Man You Could Trust

Greg Tate was the Voice music section, for me. I first encountered his writing in 1982, when I was 15, well into my decision to be a musician and start a band. As far as I could tell, music criticism was written by people who’d never been in a recording studio or played a show. Tate’s writing was different, as if he were there with us, feeling the same surges of disbelief and wonder. 

The early ’80s was an almost implausibly healthy time for music in New York. Alongside the rap and detuned guitars, there was a third stream that has been slightly obscured by history. The variants of jazz and improvised music coming out of the loft scene and the cohorts around Ornette Coleman were white-hot in 1982. There’s no single reason why this chapter doesn’t have the same profile now as, say, “Beat Bop” or Glenn Branca, but I am glad that Tate wrote about Cecil Taylor and David Murray and everyone who was creating that wave of live music in downtown Manhattan. All of that was as important as the stuff getting press beyond the Voice, and without Greg Tate, much of it had no critical corollary in the press. As much as we love him for the bigger pieces, his work on downtown jazz was an important intervention that changed my focus. I trusted him because of what he said about Bad Brains in that 1982 article, and that translated into my feeling OK about trying Cecil on Greg’s word in 1983. The coin of the realm when connecting people is trust, and few generated it like Greg Tate. —Sasha Frere-Jones

 

 

The Parade of Black Excellence and Beauty

When I think about Greg Tate, I don’t think about his writing, I think about him as a person. I picture his kind face, I see his sly smile, I hear his warm chuckle and his low, smooth voice. I see his colorful array of hats and scarves and tinted glasses, his nonchalant way of holding court, which was commanding and effortlessly cool, nonetheless. I think of one summer afternoon sitting on the steps of BAM, taking in the “parade of Black excellence and beauty,” in Greg’s words, basking in their glory.

Greg had an aura, if you believe in such things, that vibrated. Standing next to him was like standing next to the sun. Compared to many people, I didn’t know Greg that well—or that deeply— but that didn’t matter. He treated you just the same. 

In 2000, I was newly hired at the Voice as an editorial technical assistant, which was slightly more than a glorified intern. I sat across from the communal computers and it was my job to help writers get their stories into the archaic ATEX editorial system. Greg would banter with me as I set up a Hotmail account for him and imported his pieces. Once, I glimpsed a rough draft of an article and ribbed him: “Mr. Tate! Where is the punctuation!” He chuckled, “Gotta give the editors something to do.”

We developed a rapport—he would tease me for not liking jazz (my father was a jazz bassist) but loving epic deep house and techno (“You like the jazz of today,” he said, to which I had no comeback). Years later, when I had written something about my father and jazz, he emailed: “Awwwww—another victim of jazz snobbery at home and work … the apple never falls far from the tree/we become our parents by and by … but let me know how many jazz fanatics offer to send you jazz they know you’ll like—you’ve made yourself a target and we’re relentless, like jehovah’s witness! GT.”

As the Voice went through its many iterations, I began to work on an oral history book about the paper, and when his band stopped in Seattle, Greg and I went out for Chinese food. I expressed my reservations about doing a project of such magnitude. Who cared, except us? He told me to have faith in the subject, and in myself.

“Because,” he said, over the din of the clanging dishes, “they still write books about Hamilton and Beethoven and shit. The beauty of the reading public is there’s a huge film-going and music following for this, with no hype. A hit can be a book about the history of salt. Or the natural history of the senses. The millions of people who bought those books probably never thought about salt before or were curious about it, nor were they curious about the history of perfume. Those writers brought them into the show. Right?” he said, looking at me through his tinted glasses. 

“People who read—they’re like an intellectual silent majority. For books, you just do your work. You do it right and they will find you. So don’t think about it. You have to completely get out of the journalistic mindset of it being topical or trendy—they’re gonna read it because you make it interesting to read.”

Later, when I wrote a Facebook post asking for title advice, Greg’s submission inspired the title I tentatively settled on: Commies, Hippies, Pinkos, Queers!: An Oral History of the Village Voice—the Newsweekly that Changed the World

“Fred McDarrah used to lovingly and jokingly refer to it as ‘Our Commie Pinko Fag Rag,’” Greg posted in the comments. “Uptown when I told folk I wrote for The Voice they said ‘Oh You Write For That Gay Paper.’ And not as an insult but just as a matter of fact. Cause nobody asked if I was gay—they just recognized the paper had a bold uncompromising sexual identity in a time and place when being gay was equated with being loud proud and militant like being Black was. 

“All that said my hat in the ring is—with all apologies to 80s rap sensations Whodini—The Freaks Came Out To Write, then sexy retrospective subtitle…….Alternately I got Once Upon A Time At The Voice: The Oral History Of A Black, White, Commie, Pinko Queer Rag Red All Over.

A genius, as always.

A few years later, I went to re-interview him in NYC. And I had another request: I wanted (finally) to go to a jazz club with Greg Tate in Harlem. He must have been amused—all those years of ribbing had finally paid off. He emailed: “I’ll be Black in town and down.”

But he had a family emergency, so we never got to do it. It is one of my greatest regrets. Greater still is that he will never be able to read the book he encouraged me to write. —Tricia Romano

 

 

These Three Words

Grief can punch you full in the face. And the legs will wobble, like Zab Judah catching a bad one from Kostya Tszyu. But when it waylays you, then grief seizes your heart, chokes your chest, and even the scream that you fucking need to give voice to right now dies stillborn in your throat. The way I felt looking at three words on my phone in the middle of a meeting. 

Greg Tate passed. 

I don’t have a unique claim to calling Tate friend, mentor, or creative lodestone. What I do know, what I hold dear in this moment, is the memory of being a young Black man learning to write in the pages of the Village Voice of the early and mid-’90s under the tutelage of Greg Tate. Not that he would have claimed such an assignation had you asked him. Tate was only being, well, Tate. The sun just shines. We’re the ones who bathe in the light. 

But then the sun sets. We’re left in the dark. Trying to remember the feel of that heat on mind and soul. Trying to sift every fragment of memory. Mine have been tumbling fast and free since I read those three words, like a run of Coltrane quarter notes, to use an analogy that befits Tate.  

I’m the kid in college sustained by the Village Voice, my daily bread. The 22-year-old walking into 36 Cooper Square already enthralled by my personal trinity of the word—Nelson George, Lisa Jones, and Greg Tate. They were all wizards, but Tate was my Gandalf. I certainly followed him around like a Hobbit. Terrified that I’d annoy him, but helpless to do anything else. 

Some days that meant munching lunch on Astor Place as Tate schooled me on the finer intricacies of Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle. Some days it meant Tate listening to me struggle with young writer anxieties, like the time this magazine called The Source wanted to hire me as music editor and I was waffling until Tate said go take the damn job. 

You were never going to be Greg Tate. You were never going to imitate him. Which was, in a way, freeing. What he did was give you permission. To fully invest yourself in the art of the word. To find your own balance of rhythm and melody. To seek a poetic beauty even in the context of writing critical narrative. And to paint it unambiguously Black.  

I am now far older than Tate was when we first met. Something I find astonishing. A fact that has less to do with my own inevitable graying than with the stature Tate held even as a man in his 30s, the weight we all invested in him, and the grace with which he bore it. 

All of which, in the end, gives me three different words to hold onto.

Greg Tate lives. —Selwyn Seyfu Hinds

 

 

Black It Up a Bit

Quoting from memory: “What color were the ancient Egyptians? Blacker than Mubarak, baby.” * I think that was the lead, or nearby it, to an essay Greg wrote on Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. It was a very Tate flip-and-twirl: The heated late-’80s debate over Black Athena concerned race and the ancient world, but Greg plopped it on top of the morning paper. He made it impossible to look at Egypt’s president/dictator Hosni Mubarak in the same way again. Greg embraced the performance of race with consistency, devotion, compassion, and playfulness; taken all together, that was unique to him and a public service.  He was fun; thus, “baby.” I remember editing him once when he said, “We’ve got to black this paragraph up a bit.” Greg’s pieces read like live performances, which they assuredly were not; extracting an essay from him could be as fraught as surgery. He was absolutely serious about getting his role right—Greg “Ironman” Tate from Harlem U.S.A., as he used to sign himself on the Voice’s Letters page. He appeared there frequently, often under attack, usually making offense the best defense. He believed in revolution through music, a public-private revolution, and on the occasions when that wasn’t enough he pushed outward into his beloved science fiction, flying the Afrofuturist flag. It’s weirdly easy to imagine Greg, with his laughing sweet smile, revolutionizing the hereafter. —Scott Malcomson

[*Editor’s note: Those classic Tate lines opened a 1989 multi-page feature with the equally Tate-ian headline “History: The Colorized Version, Or, Everything You Learned in School Was Wrong.” ]

 

Lessons We Didn’t Know We Needed

I first met Greg Tate in the flesh the same summer day I dropped LSD in Fort Greene Park, July 1995. I remember asking him his favorite Beatle straightaway (John, obviously), as if that were the most important conversation to get out of the way. Publishers were giving Tate the runaround for his unpublished novel, Alter’d Spayde, and—tripping on acid or not—I couldn’t fathom a world where a Greg Tate novel could get rejected. (I’d learn the vagaries of the publishing industry myself years later.) I was 24. Though I’d already been reading him since high school, Tate was only 37.

When my mother thought Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video was so fantastic back in 1987 and I had reservations that I couldn’t articulate (being 16 years old), the Village Voice published Tate’s “I’m White! What’s Wrong with Michael Jackson,” and I knew I wasn’t crazy. Reading Tate’s Miles Davis obit in the Voice years later, he wasn’t afraid to say Miles “went out like a roach” for how he abused Cicely Tyson. When he dissed Public Enemy for the misogynoir of “Sophisticated Bitch” and “She Watch Channel Zero?!,” I got lessons in feminism I didn’t know I needed. Reading Flyboy in the Buttermilk the same summer of my Vibe magazine internship, I’d also worked downtown as an elevator man, and some rich older tenants laughed at the book’s marketing tag: “Are you ready for the hiphop nation?” (I still spell “hiphop” without the hyphen mainly because of Greg’s propensity.) My thought was: The joke’s on you, jack. Greg Tate is one of the strongest, most creative critics of culture in America, period.

Someone gave me his phone number for a Meshell Ndegeocello story I was writing for The Source magazine, told me to call him at 2:00 a.m., and there he was: available, wide awake, full of brilliance for a kid he didn’t know. He complimented me on the piece that hallucinogenic day in Brooklyn; Tate reading me, encouraging my writing, was HUGE to me. As I got a much better handle on my writing process over the years, I felt as if I could see the matrix code of other writers’ work as I read it. I could never read the matrix of Greg’s work. To say his writing was one part Amiri Baraka, two parts P-funky Afrofuturism, with some Black cultural nationalism, arcane musical references, and a few million-dollar words thrown in is to say nothing. The code of his writing was far too heavily encrypted for that. Reviewing DMX in the Voice, I once got away with the word “floccinaucinihilipilification”—it didn’t bring me any closer to sounding like Tate. Nothing could, for any of us. Young padawans with the pen all tried to write like him and failed; it’s how we found our own village voices.

I named my LLC “Furthermucker Films” last year because Tate used the word consistently. His “Hardcore of Darkness” essay (1982) talked up how surprised he was that his brother Brian loved a new dreadlocked punk band called Bad Brains: “goddamn, these furthermuckers must not be bullshitting.” Later that year, in “Beyond the Zone of the Zero Funkativity,” he mentioned that George Clinton’s Computer Games (the one with “Atomic Dog”) was “one signifying furthermucker 20 times over.” For me, furthermuckers muck further. It’s folks who stretch the envelope, think outside the box, go beyond the pale. Like Tate himself. Fourteen years ago, Greg permitted me to “Go forth & let the furthermucker fly and multiply”—we were talking about my old blog, Furthermucker—and so I did, making my roots clear to folks who know their Tate-isms.

Just last week I texted Greg, asking him to make a cameo in my short film, Numbers Up. He’d be on an Amtrak that day, he said, but “congrats on the directorial turn.” He donated to my film-fundraising Kickstarter last year. He was famously supportive, always down to look out for the cookout. I published him in my lit journal, Bronx Biannual (a speculative fiction story he called “Pangborn”). He published me in his lit journal, Coon Bidness. I tapped him for my latest book, a biography on Kendrick Lamar. We weren’t best friends, we were something more Algonquin Round Table-ish on the Black-hand side, something more literary and unique. He was the greatest mentor I never had.

 Then there’s his music. I’d first see him perform with Mack Diva, one of the many proto-iterations of Burnt Sugar, at Kokobar cybercafé, in Fort Greene in the mid-’90s. (My favorite tune: “Blessed,” from The Witches of Bushwick.) Me and writer Karen Good Marable once had a special moment ringside at the Blue Note watching Burnt Sugar take flight. Living in Paris for seven years, I’d catch Burnt Sugar a few times at the annual Sons d’Hiver festival in Val-de-Marne. I filmed him in Paris for a documentary of mine. After Greg and I conversed onstage at Morehouse College some years ago, producer Chuck Lightning, of Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland posse, whisked him off to hear some early Dirty Computer demos. Despite Tate’s co-sign, an invite wasn’t extended. (Insert “LOL” here.)

For years, I lived in Harlem right between him and my father, on Edgecombe Avenue, and that felt right. (I hit up one of Tate’s annual New Year’s parties that he used to throw at his apartment like a literary salon.) I watched him and my father in Summer of Soul this year (my dad, Darryl Lewis, attended the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the subject of Questlove’s documentary), and that felt right, too. Always been a proud son of Tate, one amongst many. I’ll never again get to yell “TATE!” down the block when I see him coming first; that gets me choked up. Ase, furthermuckers. —Miles Marshall Lewis

❖ ❖ ❖

Highlights