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 then—there 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 hung—out 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.
Labels: Greg Tate