Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Love From Outer Space: Why Greg Tate Matters

This morning, I couldn’t write. Though I’m on deadline to finish a Village Voice critique about my favorite band Apollo Heights (whose disc White Music for Black People should be blasting from your boombox right now, since its the perfect soundtrack for the forthcoming narrative), I can’t wrap my mind around a review at this moment.
Instead, I sat down at the keyboard and chopped-up a textual testimonial to one of my favorite writers, once known as Ironman.
Last Friday evening at the Studio Museum of Harlem on a 125th Street, a bunch of the New York Niggerati (and a few palefaces) gathered to pay homage to cultural critic, short story writer, musician and Black aesthetic lighting rod Greg Tate. Looking as young as the day I first met him more than two decades before (black don’t crack), it was amazing that the brother was turning fifty years old.
With familiar folks like Vernon Reid, Dream Hampton, Kevin Powell, Maureen McMahon (whose 2004 tome Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race is a must buy), Charles Stone III, Trey Ellis, Bruce Mack, Karen R. Good, Arthur Jafa, Nicole Moore and others in attendance, all were gathered to celebrate the birthday and legacy of the Afro-American king of funky critical bop.
Though I try not to spend too much time around other writers (their mood swings and ego trips are often unpredictable), I was more than happy to troop from Crown Heights, Brooklyn to Harlem, U.S.A. to pay tribute to the man that “set it off” for a generation of “freaky-deke cult-nat” journalists, essayists, painters, screenwriters, directors, et al.
For better or worse, if it were not for Greg Tate, there would be no Bonz Malone, Harry Allen, Joan Morgan, Kris Ex, Scott Poulson Bryant, Toure, Danyel Smith, Michael Eric Dyson, Karen R. Goode, Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, Smokey Fontaine, John Caramanica, Jeff Chang, Amy Linden, Tom Terrell, Mark Anthony Neal, Tricia Rose, Sasha Jenkins, DJ Spooky (aka Paul Miller), Dream Hampton, Miles Marshall Lewis, Aliya King, SekouWrites, Kenji Jasper, Oliver Wang, Cheo Hodari Coker, Keith Murphy or myself.
Not to say that we wouldn’t be writing for somebody (perhaps medical journals or antique mags), but it was from studying Tate’s music writing mojo like cold lampin’ graduate students that helped give us form different options. Like Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, the Beatles and Oasis, Grandmaster Flash and DJ Shadow, it was Tate and all of us.
On that dreary evening last week, as the sky outside cried Mary, I strolled downstairs during the middle of former Village Voice music poobah Robert Christgau tumbling over Tate’s Tyrannosaurus sized word play as he read an essay that he had edited years ago. Please don’t ask me the title, but I know it was one of those funky joints that Tate had scribbled when he was still calling himself “Ironman” back in the early ‘80s.
One brief aside: Greg’s guitar strumming homie Vernon Reid later commented, “I always loved Greg because he had named himself after my second favorite Marvel Comics character.” Truthfully, I always thought the “Ironman” moniker was swiped from the esteemed Eric Dolphy disc. Who knows, maybe we’re both right.
While I never shared the same enthusiasm for the writing style of the so-called “Dean of American Rock Critics” that editors/writers Joe Levy, Ann Powers, Eric Weisbard, RJ Smith, among others have for Christgau, I will always be thankful to the man for being unafraid to be, as Tate himself once described him, “a one-man affirmative action committee in the 1980s…all because he believed Afro-diasporic musics should on occasion be covered by people who weren't strangers to those communities.”
In other words, it took more than a few youngbloods wielding fine-point pens, hostile attitudes and boogaloo styles to scare Bob. My homie Barry Michael Cooper, who would later become a great writer himself, told me how when he was a novice he called Christgau at home one night out the blue. In an interview we did for Stop Smiling magazine earlier this year, Cooper related this funny anecdote.
“I called him up at 12:00 midnight and said, ‘May I speak to Robert Christgau please?’ He said, ‘Who the fuck is this?’ I said, ‘My name is Barry Cooper.’ And he said, ‘Who the fuck is Barry Cooper?’ ‘Well, I’m a writer,” I said. ‘I just wanna tell you I love the newspaper. I love the music criticism, but that piece on Bootsy’s Rubber Band was bullshit. I used to get high to this in college and I can write about it.’ He said, “I’ll tell you what, do you have anything?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I wanna do something on Parliament- Funkadelic.’ At the time, they had an album called Glory A la Stupid. And he said, ‘Bring it to me. Let me take a look at it. If it’s any good, I’ll run it. If it’s not, if you call me again I’ll have you arrested for harassment.’”
Despite the fact that I never worked with Christgau, I clearly remember when he contacted former Set to Run publicity honcho Leyla Turkkan in 1992 (who at the time, handled most of the Def Jam acts, the Delicious Vinyl artists and Ice Cube), and he was on a serious mission to recruit more “urban writers” to vote in the annual Pazz & Jop poll; it might not seem like such a big deal today, but back then…”
Hell, that was during the same period that one prominent Caucasian music editor (who is still in a position of editorial power today) told the same publicist something along the lines of, “…black music writers don’t write that well.” It’s crazy what some people believe. However, if you’ve taken a glance at Rolling Stone, Blender, GQ and Esquire magazines lately, that opinion still seems prevalent in 2007.
Though I haven’t looked at Spin thoroughly in recent months (with the exception of their cool ass “Punk ‘77” issue last month), I can honestly say that former editors John Leland, Frank Owen, Simon Reynolds, Sia Michel and Charles Aaron (who still slaves there) were more down with the Negroes (Barry Michael Cooper, Bonz Malone, Quincy Troupe, and Sasha Jenkins) than any other music glossies. Hey, I’m just saying.
But, rewinding back to the subject at hand: in the early ‘80s, when crack first emerged in Washington Heights and I still lived uptown in my grandma’s 151st crib, I chanced upon Tate’s byline in the Village Voice. Though I had wanted to be a writer since I was a one-finger typing kid ripping-off Twilight Zone plots and, later, hoping to sell scripts to DC Comics when I was thirteen (oh, the wonders of youth), I was a voracious reader who at the time was addicted to the so-called New Journalism posse.
A geek college dropout, I went to the library everyday after my midtown messenger gig and devoured old magazine stories by my lit heroes Nik Cohn, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin and Orde Coombs. At the time, between delivering packages to random Broadway actresses on the upper west side and superstar designers in the garment district, I wrote small stories for random magazines, but nothing major.
Truth of it was, there weren’t many options for a young Black writer who hadn’t grazed through the ivy of Yale, Brown or Harvard; or, so I thought. Truth of it was, there was no such thing as The Source, Vibe or XXL, and being a hip-hop writer meant either tagging subway walls or writing rhymes in your notebook. Truth of it was, none of us had any idea how big this monster called rap would grow before it started to eat itself, but we loved it (I’ve never thought of hip-hop as HER, but maybe that’s my own lack of sensitivity) with a serious passion.
As my Brooklyn bred homeboy, acclaimed journalist and director Nelson George once said on some N.Y.U. symposium in 2004, “I remember receiving hostile reactions from many editors when I tried to write about it [hip-hop]…as if hip-hop were an infection that could be cured by simply ignoring it.”
While my mind is now slightly weary and more than a few brain cells have been blunted away in project staircases, I’ll guess it was sometime in late early ’85 when I plucked down my single dollar at a shabby newsstand and picked up that weeks Village Voice. Yes kids, we actually had to BUY it back thenthere were no free lunches or free Voice.
Boarding the subway at 145th and Broadway, I copped a squat on the #1 train. “I love the smell of ink in the morning,” I thought, opening the paper. God, how I wish I could remember what was the first Tate piece I devoured, but that’s not the point at all. What I’m really trying to say is, “Dat nigga changed my life!” The last time that had happened was when I heard Mile's Water Babies in 10th grade, flipped the fuck out.
In a few years other folks of color (as opposed to, er, colored folks) like Nelson George, Lisa Jones, Barry Michael Cooper, Carol Cooper (no relation), Pablo Guzman and Harry Allen would also bum rush the post-soul/hot funk/hip-hop journalism show in the Village Voice, but it was big brother Tate who led the way.
“Mommy, what’s a semiotic?” I wanted to scream after reading that first piece. Yet, since this was a time before computers, aspiring writers actually had to leave the crib to do research. It wasn’t long before I was buying old James Brown and Funkadelic albums at the Music Factory in Times Square (where cranky, cigar smoking Stanley Platzer reined supreme), reading dusty paperbacks by Samuel R. Delany and Ishmael Reed, tripping through the post-structuralism weirdness of Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida and having my mind blown by Clement Greenberg as well as a mothership of other musical and literary others.
Though some stuff I still don’t get (“…yo Kidd, what’s up wit dat bugged mofo Cecil Taylor shit anyway?”), I am more than happy that Greg Tate had put up the signposts for this black boy to follow. In fact, one of those signs might have read: Enter At Your Own Risk…This Means You!
Unlike today, (I say as I shake my big daddy cane at the kids throwing rocks at my window) where one can rant opinions on a blog until they’re red, black and green in the face, that luxury wasn’t an option in our yesteryear.
It wasn’t until almost a year later that I wrote two music reviews for a friend’s punk zine called Misspent Sonics that I finally got a chance to test the waters of my future profession. Since I wasn’t that much of a punk since hanging-out at the Marble Bar in Baltimore (hell, even David Byrne and The Clash had discovered Africa by 1986), I offered to review Fishbone’s self-titled EP and the Beastie Boys debut Licensed to Ill .
Written in a fog of reefer smoke and malt liquor (by that that point I had discovered Hunter Thompson and Lester Bangs too), I sat in front of a black, electric Smith Corona and banged to the boogie. Once the pieces were printed, it didn’t take long for someone to point out that I had Xeroxed Greg Tate’s mau-mau/voodoo/ post-bop/pirate-radio/hoo-doo style.
“That’s not true,” I lied. “We’ve just been both influenced by the same writers.” Yeah, right. True, I too drank from the well of wild stylists like Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange and Clarence Major, but it was Tate who had guided me to that black water in the first place.
After joining the Black Rock Coalition in 1985 at the urging of guitarist Vernon Reid (whom I met by chance in Sounds Records over on St. Marks Place), I would see Greg on a regular. Yet, much to my dismay he didn’t talk much; at least not to me. That is, not until I had penned a story about Living Colour in a now defunct East Village rag called Cover when I was twenty-three.
One night, as I stood in line at the long gone Lone Star Café, I saw Tate in front of the door. “Yo, Michael,” he said. I looked at him, shocked that he even knew my name. “I read your story in Cover. It was pretty good.”
Staring at him, baffled by the compliment, I simply mumbled, “Thank you,” as I thought my head might explode. Stepping out of the line with my then girlfriend Fran, I ducked around the corner, breathing deeply.
“Are you all right?” Fran asked. "You have an asthma attack or something?"
“He liked it,” I muttered, still unbelieving. “The nigga liked my story.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Greg Tate. I can’t believe it, he liked my article.” Fran stared at me as though I was nuts. Grinning like a fool, I hoped that nobody saw my silly ass losing my mind. It was crazy, but for at that exact moment that I felt like a true writer.
Twenty-one years later, as the ever-lovely writer/director Dream Hampton stood in front of the Studio Museum podium sprinkling accolades on Greg Tate’s formerly dread-locked head, I thought about the few real times I had spent within the presence of the master: can’t forget the nigga’s party in ’88 when he played an advance of Public Enemy’s instant classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back all night long; can’t forget the night he first played guitar in public at the old Houston Street version of the Knitting Factory, while a few “real” musicians talked shit in the back of the joint; can’t forget the night we shared a cab back uptown one ‘80s night, with guitar extraordinaire Jean Paul Bourelly and future wunderkind producer Craig Street; can’t forget that recent night this past July, when a bunch of the Bronx Biannual literary magazine crew including editor Miles Marshall Lewis, Sun Singleton, Carol Taylor, Reginald Lewis (& his wonderful wife Melinda) and brilliant singer Stephanie McKay hungout all night long, talking mad shit at NoHo Star until last call.
Though I won’t front that Greg Tate and I had ever became real friends (sure we know each other, slap five on occasion and talk much smack when we’re standing next to one another at an event), I can honestly say, if it wasn’t for his early writings in the Village Voice (as well as the Musician, Record, Down Beat and other magazines), who knows where I might be right now.
To paraphrase a line from the gangster rappers interview handbook, if it wasn’t for Greg "Ironman" Tate, I might be robbing your house right now.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On Shaft

by Michael A. Gonzales

Behind every great music critic is an indulgent parent. You know, that long suffering parental unit who didn’t scream when you temporarily changed your forename to Vicious or Elton (as I did in the fifth grade), didn’t curse you out when you blasted reruns of The Partridge Family and treated them as though they were real relatives — nor did they have a heart attack when you wore your grandma’s wig while pretending to be the Beatles.

In any case, it was my codependent mom who kept me supplied with enough pop life-stimulants to get hooked on spinning black vinyl forever. From bingeing on glossy fan magazines (Tiger Beat, Right On!) to overdosing on a prized 7” of Queen’s painfully beautiful “Somebody to Love” and blaring the latest orchestrated Gamble & Huff production, Mom made sure her baby boy had his fix.

Still, no matter how many blunts have been passed over the years, I’ll never forget that fall day in 1971 when I was eight years old and my black wax supplier brought me my first album: Isaac Hayes’s majestic soundtrack for Shaft.

Even though I had not seen the movie, the lyrical storyteller in Hayes brilliant single brought the character to live for me. At the time, I had no idea Isaac was a bad mother who had helped build the sonic brick house of Stax Records in the Sixties. Along with his then-writing partner David Porter, the duo composed some 200 songs under the name the Soul Children. Reeling off a string of hits for Stax luminaries like Sam & Dave ("Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Comin'"), Carla Thomas ("B-A-B-Y") and Johnnie Taylor ("I Got to Love Somebody's Baby," "I Had a Dream"), these boys had the Midas touch for gutbucket soul.

Indeed, my introduction to the musical magic of Isaac Hayes was the hypnotic hi-hat intro and the watery wah-wah guitar of the title track “Theme from Shaft.” A funky overture that baptized the nation with the nectar of muddy waters of Memphis, the song was played on a zillion radio stations, hitting #1 on both the pop and R&B charts. Still, no matter how many times the track was pumped over the airwaves, I wasn’t content until it was spinning on my own clunky stereo.

Though it might be hard to believe today, in the post-civil rights era of 1971, there were no black super heroes seen on screen. But once that badass black private dick swung through the tenement windows of urban American pop culture, we too had a champion to call our own. Before the blaxploitation days of swaggering sisters and mumbling macks, the boys in the ’hood had to be content with pretending to be either Bond or Batman (I don’t even want to think about the amount of times I was forced to KA-POW! my little brother for refusing to play Robin).

Shaft was directed by former Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks, whose gritty pictorials of rowdy Harlem street gangs and roguish Chicago detectives proved he had the right eye to convey the hard rock dynamics of the titular character. As the Negro link between John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese, the masterful Parks used the romantic decay of Seventies New York City as the perfect character, and not merely a backdrop.

Hearing Haye’s ultra-cool “Theme from Shaft” as actor Richard Roundtree strutted past the B-movie marquees in Times Square or the tense “Walk From Regio’s” as he strolled through Greenwich Village was enough to make this Manhattan-centric uptown boy drool with Big Apple delight.

After Quincy Jones, who had constructed jazzy scores for a handful of Sidney Lumet films (his exciting music from The Anderson Tapes was a favorite), Isaac was only the second black man to compose a major Hollywood soundtrack.

“Having never written a score before, I was a little nervous that I would mess up,” he admitted in a 1995 interview. Yet, in a record-breaking four days, holed-up in a MGM recording studio with studio rats the Bar-Kays and the Memphis Strings & Horns, brother Hayes created a funky template that later inspired the soulful musings of Curtis Mayfield (Super Fly), Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man), James Brown (Black Caesar) and Willie Hutch (The Mack). After Shaft, black film soundtracks would never be the same.

Still, not everyone was as thrilled by symphonic soul and bawdy lyrics as I was — least of all my third grade teacher, Miss Wilson. Attending a proper Negro private academy called the Modern School, we were expected to be perfect ladies and gentleman at all times. Needless to say, this was easier for some than others.

Though the Modern School was in the heart of the ’hood, it was the kind of classy joint where the teachers played Mozart during lunch. I had once been forced to prance on stage at the Audubon Ballroom (the same spot where Malcolm X was slain) in black ballet slippers and colorful balloons tied to wrists while the Fifth Dimensions wailed “Up, Up and Away.” Forget about Martin Luther King’s dream — this was his acid trip.

Every Friday afternoon our class was encouraged to bring their own music to school to play for the other students. Of course, I couldn’t wait to share the wicked Shaft soundtrack with the class. Regally sitting at a paper cluttered desk, Miss Wilson instructed me to walk over to the antiquated stereo — I think the needle was made of wood — and put on the disc.

Yet, once Isaac sang the songs raunchy (by ’71 standards) first line, “Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? (SHAFT!) Ya damn right!” the fun was over. Clad in a quaint print dress and an ill-fitting wig, light-skinned Miss Wilson leapt from her paper-cluttered desk and sprinted across the carpeted floor like Wilma Rudolph. “What kind of music is this supposed to be?” she screamed, accidentally scratching the needle across the wax. Cringing as Miss Wilson ruined my record, I was stunned by her blushing reaction.

Carelessly shoving the damaged record back into its sleeve, Miss Wilson curtly dropped the album cover on my desk. Having regained her buppie composure, she hovered for a moment before screeching through clinched teeth. “Please, don’t bring anything like this to class ever again.”

The following year, at the 1972 Academy Awards, Isaac Hayes’ revolutionary soundtrack won an Oscar for Best Score.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Gangster Boogie

Though I am not easily impressed, yesterday proved to me that even an old-school music journalist with a tape recorder the size of a car battery could be moved by the kindness of a rapper. Though I can’t reveal the "why" of my meeting, I was summoned to a Chelsea recording studio to interview Jay-Z for an upcoming piece.

Walking into a room that was perfumed with the scent of strawberry candles, Jay sat by himself at the mixing board and greeted me kindly. Though I had not interviewed him since a piece in The Source ten years ago during the “Streets are Watching” days, I had seen him a few times over the decade.

In the process of putting the finishing touches and flare to the upcoming American Gangster companion album, the tracks that Jay played this Harlem boy resonated in ways that the film didn’t touch. “I think this record plays like a movie as well,” Jay pointed out in the beginning of our discussion as the flick played overhead.

Given that the first single “Blue Magic” has been in heavy rotation at Gonzales Manor since I saw a screening three weeks ago, I was ready for the 8-track flashback of Hova’s journey. Indeed, there were moments when I felt the songs like “Party Life” (which, as Jay points out, “has that seventies soul feel”) and “Success” (with its ill organ) interpreted the legacy of Frank Lucas and the yesteryear landscape of Harlem better than the big screen version.

The fact that Jay-Z is a New York City boy who grew-up hearing hustler legends about uptown characters like Lucas and Nicky Barnes (while also reading Iceberg Slim novels and looking out his bedroom window) truly comes out in songs like the hardcore head bop of “Rock Boys” and the equally hot “Pray.” Both tracks, produced by Puffy and the Hitmen (who have five songs on the album), have the kind of superfly swagger that is pure 125th Street.

From the suites to the streets (I never tire of that one), the Frank Lucas of Jay-Z’s imagination combined with the stark realism of his own autobiography reshapes the character in a kind of musical/textual metamorphous that is truly inspiring. American Gangster is what us Jay-Z fans who once rocked “Cashmere Thoughts,” “D’evils” and “Song Cry” have been waiting for since he first announced he was going back to rock the mic.