Greg Tate (1957–2021)

Greg Tate, a longtime contributor to the Village Voice and other publications, died last week. Here, four critics pay tribute to Tate’s influential, hyper-referential, bumptious, and generous writing and conversation.

Greg Tate. Photo: Nisha Sondhe/Duke University Press.
Greg Tate. Photo: Nisha Sondhe/Duke University Press.


By Daphne A. Brooks

Every conversation began in medias res because the truth of it was that he so clearly lived his life like a brother who had been chopping it up with you for centuries already, as if you and he had always been in the deep-water groove of one long, rolling and roustabout, everlasting, in-the-round, in-the-midnight-hour session, one that even in the weeks, sometimes months that might go by before the next tête-à-tête, email exchange, phone call, text, or chance meeting out in them streets was a free-flowing, always and forevermore all-the-way-live-as-a-hot-wire dialogue, a Black cognitive collaboration that had no end, only perpetually beautiful, surprising, and thrilling beginnings, electrifying middles, revelatory transitions, and suspenseful-until-the-next-episode pauses.

The fragments, non sequiturs, fugitive samples, and outtakes are what keep swirling around in my head right now like the grist material for an orchestral Basquiat tribute piece. A few examples:

On a Metro-North train back in the early ’00s: “There’s no place for [funk artist] Nikka Costa. . . . White folks don’t know what to do with her.”

On a street corner out near the Chelsea Piers, in response to the question “What are you doing here?!” (without missing a beat and with tongue planted firmly and oh-so-deeply in cheek): “I’m the mayor of Black Bohemia, doncha know, sis?”

In a Friday afternoon-you-best-pick-up-the-phone message: “Because it’s about to go down . . . I’m trying to protect you out here from these Radiohead fools who will never be hip to the Blackness of the situation . . .”

In the VIP section of Afropunk 2014, drink in hand, while wending our way through the Brooklyn, late-summer, Black-radical-sonic-tradition throngs [this riff I’m paraphrasing—both for length’s sake and because none of us will ever be able recreate his worlding way with words]: “Oh yeah—what you gotta recognize is that the astonishing pace, productivity, and genius of what Prince was doing in the ’80s, what Stevie was doing in the early- to mid-’70s, amounted to a lifetime of toil and struggle for the rest of us. We haven’t come to terms with that, what they each proved to be humanly and artistically possible over such a short period of time. . .”

I always experienced my time with him as a boisterous, sibling pedagogical session, the big brother with the cape throwing down wisdom for me to soak up with a combination of ease and trickster joy. He gently and warmly offered me the correct pronunciation of “chromaticism”; brought his cameo genius to too many of my classroom operations to count and found the humor in my overshot instructor’s ambition (“Sis, you trying to teach Greil Marcus and Fred Moten in one sitting?”); sent me Burnt Sugar performance set footage in response to my Gershwin queries; patiently listened as I reasoned my way through a fleeting affection for British retro-soulster Duffy’s moderate hit of an album; bemusedly bore witness to my angst-ridden battles with Amy Winehouse; patiently, generously, so kindly, and with great care created the spaces for me, for us, to grieve all of the losses, all of the sudden passings of our sonic heroes. He looked knowingly to our tears and offered us a salve in the massive wonder of epic sentences that captured the full scale of both our sorrow and the undying enchantment that lives on in the music. That weekend in April 2016 when our dearly beloved departed and Lemonade arrived, he likened our burning-the-midnight-oil labors as critics-on-call to charting a dizzying, earth-tilting combination of heroic and dazzling Black emergence and heartbreaking Black emergency. This was the bittersweet meaning of being simultaneously in mourning and on duty.

And so, here we are in that time again, having reached the unfathomable place that none of us could have imagined.

Many years ago, our dear mutual friend, the brilliant Black Studies scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin, invited me to introduce him for a public lecture he delivered at Columbia University during his tenure as the Louis Armstrong visiting professor at the university’s Center for Jazz Studies. This is how I started my remarks, and the way that I’ll end my reflections here—as raw and unfiltered, as first-draft-and-there-will-never-be-a-last-draft as they are. Forever on duty. Forever now in grievous mourning.


Soul Man, Preacher Man, Journey Man, Bluesman, Folk Man, Rock and Roll Man, Bad Brains Hardcore of Darkness Man. Everyman, Jazz Man, Joker Man, Gangster Man. Literati Man, Negrorati Man, Twenty-First-Century Man, Hip-hop Man, Political Man, Revolution Man, Lover Man, BANDIT. New millennium fugitive man on the run from the word police, crafting and shaping and improvising new ways of making sense of this our rhythm-and-blues nation.

For over two decades now, Greg Tate has been whispering, shouting, squealing, and crooning the flavor in our ears, translating and interrogating the sonic fabric of our lives by providing us with a forum to reflect on and reimagine, to embrace, celebrate and struggle with the ways that Black music and more broadly Black popular culture matters and resonates in our everyday lives and in our collective political consciousness.

Through his groundbreaking music writing and on into the night with his renegade experimental collective the Burnt Sugar Arkestra, Professor Tate has modeled for his readers, for students, and for a generation of his fellow critics as well as cultural-studies scholars and teachers, a kind of exquisitely sly, dense, playful, and exhilaratingly challenging prose that, in its form alone, theorizes the ideological, social, and political work of Black musical praxis.

Like Soul Brother Number One, he has radically stylized a powerfully expressive repertoire of aesthetics. He toils with words like the Godfather toiled at the mic, finding the gritty, rigorous joy in making you work along with him in a brilliant reading of Ornette Coleman or a gorgeously wrought Michael Jackson eulogy. We await, in the work of Greg Tate, his T.A.M.I. Show splits, his spontaneous spins, and his exhausted panting and kneeling with cape draped around him before a final run of prose that takes us to the edge of the Black performative universe. Long live the king.

Daphne A. Brooks’s most recent book is Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound (Belknap Press, 2021).



By Robert Christgau

I was reading so much about Greg Tate after he devastated my cultural cohort by dying way too soon that before long I found myself craving prose he’d written himself. So to get back to the good stuff I resorted like almost everyone else to a literary form I always complain gets too little respect: his collections. Sadly, there are only two as of now, which seem findable as I write but may disappear for a while so get on it: 1992’s well-loved Flyboy in the Buttermilk with Simon & Schuster, which almost everyone who’s been singing his praises mentions, and 2016’s more obscure Flyboy 2 with Duke University Press. I read both avidly as soon as they were in my hands but never wrote about either, the first because as Greg’s first Village Voice editor I was one of five dedicatees, the second because I was working on a Duke collection of my own. But in the present context I figure I can do what I please, which is to input a tone-setting selection of Tate’s prose from each. With Flyboy in the Buttermilk I can begin right at the beginning: 1981, Tate’s first year at the paper, bounced off P-Funk’s George Clinton to lead into “Knee Deep in Blood Ulmer,” who lest you’ve forgotten was and remains a harmolodic guitarist then just beginning his legendary period.

The Funk has gotten uppity and gone “universal” on the everyday brothers and sisters, contaminating realms long defunked, namely black and white bohemia. Always eclectic, now it’s “funk-wave”; always hip, now it’s ‘avant-funk’; always a ho’, now funk’s crossed over with a brand new pimp (introducing Dick Dames and the Prophylactic Band). Funk used to be a bad word, now everybody’s trying to get knee deep. These days there’s a lot of funkploitation going down. But don’t read me wrong, ’cause pimping The Funk ain’t bad per se—truth is, pimping it’s always been half the game plan.

My second selection is altogether gentler, and doesn’t sound like anyone who’d make pimping his game plan. Instead it’s in the voice of a musician whose family values Tate would remark upon in other contexts later on: the first two grafs of a verbatim interview with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, which follows the Amiri Baraka farewell assigned by Ebony that opens Flyboy 2. Only three times in six pages is Shorter’s rap interrupted by questions, which is as it should be.

Every Saturday my mother used to come home from work (she had two jobs) and she’d bring clay, watercolor, and X-Acto knives. My brother Alan and I, we’d sit in the kitchen at a round table making Captain Marvel Jr., the Frankenstein monster, the Wolfman. One time we tried to make the whole world. He made a hundred people and I made about 150. We also made the Second World War. Remember the Red and Blue Armies in Russia?

There was a guy named Jimmy Tyler from Jersey City, New Jersey. He played almost exactly like Charlie Parker. And that almost made a wide void for me. The trying makes the void. And he was trying, but he got caught by the wayside. He got distracted by the so-called other elements of nature, not so organic. Along with others that age. I was sixteen, seventeen, didn’t know nothing about how to intercept, how to save somebody’s life.

I once summed up the secret of bebop as “the casually hyperintelligent aura of guys sitting around talking to each other.” To me, Tate’s 1985 Wayne Shorter interview, uncollected until 2016, puts that metaphor into action. It’s not the first thing we who love Greg’s verbal dazzle and high-tone trash talk associate with him. But without positing an absolute dichotomy, the evidence of my recent collection-skimming suggests that as Greg got older he also got mellower and more humane, emphasis on the more because no matter how bumptious his rhetoric there were almost always warm feelings and an occasional chuckle nearby. All of us who edited him at the Voice became accustomed to how effortlessly he seemed to mix the tone of the screeds he generated, so that he could sit at a keyboard and devise some dazzle on the spot to patch a hole or right a stumble some overseer had groused about. Did he sometimes just let it roll out of him unbidden? So it seemed to most of us.

I saw too little of Greg after his fiftieth birthday party on 125th Street, where I did my ofay best to read a recent piece of his I’d admired. But it’s definitely my impression that in the fourteen years since then he’d mellowed some without losing a step intellectually, spiritually, or aesthetically, and without surrendering many laughs, either. His death too soon was a loss to all of American culture. Here’s hoping and predicting that in his vast oeuvre there are at least two more collections waiting to happen.

Robert Christgau’s 2018 collection Is It Still Good to Ya? (Duke University Press) was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award.



By Sasha Frere-Jones

New Yorkers of a certain age share a common story that begins with Bad Brains. If you saw them live at A7 or CBGB, you’d found a standard that needed no revision. Nobody else was forcing as much spiritual presence into the physical space. When Greg Tate wrote about Bad Brains for the Village Voice in 1982, he matched their fire hose of life and gave us a second standard.

I was a fifteen-year-old discovering things: race was an idea you pull out of art and hold in your hands, the family brawl of popular music gets ugly, and you can fulfill an ethical stake through work. Starting with Tate, I had to start with the stakes, because he made the quiet parts louder than Dr. Know: “Unlike Hendrix or Funkadelic, the Brains don’t transmute their white rock shit into a ridimically sensuous black rock idiom: When I say they play hardcore, I mean they play it just like the white boy—only harder.”

I’d only just learned a few weeks before that the band I’d been listening to on WNYU—“Pay to Cum” was in heavy rotation—was Black. I called into the radio station and won a copy of their ROIR cassette (a red one, as opposed to a green or yellow copy). There they were on the inner sleeve with their big woven hats. And why did they play reggae? Tate entering at this point was almost too walking-down-the-hall for Sorkin but there he was.

“While only three tunes on the Brains’ cassette are Ital—if mediocre—roots musics, Rasta permeates their hardcore via a catch-phrase they use liberally: P.M.A., or Positive Mental Attitude.” Nobody got a pass with Tate. He started his fights in the center of the canvas and that felt right, because that’s what the music was doing.

That’s what Bad Brains and Nona Hendryx and David Murray and James Blood Ulmer and DNA did. Catharsis was the mission, and New York was holding the ark for possibly for the last time. When Charles Atlas called his 1989 NYC documentary Put Blood in the Music, it wasn’t an exaggeration. The point was to fill the cup and Tate knew it. He convinced me that the critical project could keep pace with the music.

And this was a lie. Tate could keep pace; the rest of us could not. I felt like a wise guy getting thrown out of the Bonneville when Tate rapped my knuckles in public, and like a member of the X-Men when he’d say something lightly approving. Greg’s work went beyond the paid gigs and deep into the everyday weave of community.

In the last twenty years, I heard more often about Tate from the people I played music with. His writing popped up everywhere, not just in fancy magazines. He knew the institutions were failing and was already in the wind. One of my favorite bits he wrote about hip-hop came from a Facebook post somebody screen-capped and texted to me. How did Tate make a Facebook post worthwhile?

I was pissed when he wrote about Leaving Neverland without seeing it. Greg knew how power worked and I’m sorry he didn’t go the extra mile. But he left us so much homework and so much music and so many examples of putting the life before the gig. I am as shocked to learn that we have to move forward without him as I was to find out that you could live through the music just by listening. Who knew?

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village.



By Carl Wilson

I guess everybody who tries to teach a subject falls back on the way they learned it, so when I’ve occasionally stumbled into giving classes or workshops on pop-culture criticism, I inevitably want to show them pieces from the 1980s and 1990s Village Voice. It was my own main schooling in this field that best functions, I think, as a pro-am undiscipline. (It still blows my mind that people can sign up for it in some colleges.) Everyone knew that the most advanced seminars in those pages often came from Greg Tate, who even by the Voice’s standards achieved a peak hyperdensity of embedded reference, code switching, and pyrotechnic showers of psycholinguistic brain candy.

For a white kid in Canada who first picked up the Voice at the magazine shop to read about punk rock and experimental theater, Tate’s concerns and style were also a doorway into a canon of Black culture whose extent and power I was appallingly ignorant about. It was helpful that music was his main subject, as at least I had some raw data about jazz and funk, but I’d have eaten him up as hungrily if he’d happened to be the restaurant writer. He and his colleagues of that era not only convinced me that criticism could be an art form of its own—a semi-parasitical one, granted, but so are the other arts, because being human is a semi-parasitical state, or more kindly put it’s social. They also alerted me that outside of poetry, criticism might be the genre of writing that would most synch up with my own cockeyed outlook. What appeared to be just a record or concert review could be, maybe ought to be, a mini-manifesto about being alive in a world you didn’t make, and the more potent for having been camouflaged as mere entertainment.

Trying to make all that palpable to people under thirty-five gets me searching in Tate’s most important book, the 1992 collection Flyboy in the Buttermilk, for a subject they’ll at least recognize. So I’ve often selected “I’m White!: What’s Wrong With Michael Jackson,” Tate’s 1987 broadside against Jackson’s Bad, which he slams as Jackson returning from the triumph of Thriller with an altered face and complexion “to sell his own race hatred.” For balance I’ll add his Jackson obituary, “The Man in Our Mirror”—one of his sporadic Voice comebacks in the later 2000s, and collected in Flyboy 2—which was, fittingly, more loving but still concludes: “Now that some of us oldheads can have our Michael Jackson back, we feel liberated to be more gentle toward his spirit. . . . Michael not being in the world as a Kabuki ghost makes it even easier to get through all those late-career movie-budget clips where he already looks headed for the out-door. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise both for him and for us that he finally got shoved through it.”

Do students fall all over themselves loving these Tate pieces? Not often. They think those passages are way harsh. Nothing they’re used to reading from serious people reads like that. It’s troll-speak. Why’s he gotta be so rude? In truth Tate was more appreciator than fire-starter, and like many critics, as he grew older, he leaned even further to illumination and less to feuding. But in the high era of the print alt-weekly, it was a given that you could do both at once. So along with the loss of Tate himself, I’ve been mourning the mixture of intellectual ambition and creative wildness those near-vanished venues could incubate. Tate acknowledged inheriting the iconoclasm not only of Amiri Baraka but of the gonzo writers at 1970s rock rag Creem, only with a far more thought-through perspective. Tate would have been brilliant no matter where he wrote. But that he found his voice at the Voice, with the editorial prodding of Bob Christgau, made him the specific writer he was. That included being rude when the occasion called, and dictionary-bustingly ecstatically logorrheic a paragraph later. Nobody could do it like Tate even then, but today it’s tricky to name many places writers are pushed to try, when capital’s click-metering tends to mandate either smoothly ingestible praise or box-ticking hot takes.

Among music-writing friends the past week, as we’ve commiserated over Tate’s too-soon-goneness, we also wonder where the honors he should have garnered were, the fellowships and book prizes and genius grants. That’s partly about race and subject matter and style, of course, but it’s also that Tate never seemed on the hustle for that glory. As a lover of the form, I’m inspired that he stuck almost entirely with essays instead of the “big books” publishers must have tried to solicit, like a short-story master who passively resists the allure of the novel. And while his rep as a writer continued to expand, Tate shifted more to his own music-making and published only selectively in the past two decades. I was never lucky enough to get to know him personally, so I can’t say why. But from a distance it seemed like he was just going where he spotted the sweetest chance to make meaning. He was too genuinely cool to be suckered by anything else. It’s damn rare for the coolest practitioner in any area also to be the best; those interests are often competing. No wonder, then, that Tate wrote so much about Miles Davis; among other things, Tate’s the origin point for why everyone eventually came around to loving electric Miles. What Tate wrote in his 1991 obit for Davis might be said of the author, too: “It was his clarity about where he came from that gave him his urgency to keep moving on, a fugitive for life.”

Nobody wanted Tate to move on this far, this early. It’s gutting. But there’s nothing to be done, in this world we didn’t make, except to keep reading him, and to keep struggling to create places—physical, social, political, racial, virtual, cosmic, phantasmagorical, even academic if you can somehow swing it—where writers have half a chance to reach for a quarter of the horizon of all that Greg Tate was.

Carl Wilson is the author of Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (Bloomsbury, 2014).