Greg Tate, known to the world as the “Grandfather of Hip Hop Criticism“ and a profound voice in Black culture, shared his unique, Boombastic, ironic voice with the world as a longtime journalist for The Village Voice from 1987 through the 2000s. He was also the founder of the Black Rock Coalition, giving a powerful platform to Black rock and roll musicians who made undeniably important contributions to the genre but were largely unacknowledged by the white media in America. His debut book, “Flyboy in the Buttermilk,” published in 1992, became an essential collection of cultural criticism often read in university courses across the world. Not only did he cover rock and hip hop, but he examined jazz and Black films with his humorous and insightful understanding of what would become staples in music and entertainment history.
He wrote like no other, his writing voice displayed in colorful, often made-up Black colloquialisms that could not be duplicated. As he got older his voice did not become more refined by the standards of white colleagues but smoothed out, became more buttery than rebellious, honing his mind-expanding, at times eccentric linguistic stylings into vivid and imaginative descriptive offerings.
In one of his last pieces for the Criterion Collection he wrote a thoughtful critical exploration of Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999) in which he writes, “Whitaker’s man-strong eyes are a Technicolor dream machine for any director whose protagonist is a mercurial, silent hulk of an antihero. And most especially for the director of ‘Ghost Dog,’ whose script requires his leading man to convincingly deliver stoic savant, vulnerable puppy dog, self-possessed everyman, effortless charmer of precocious but wary hood children, shark-eyed triple-tap professional assassin.”
I personally am a humble disciple, mentee and journalistic descendent of Tate’s. He took me under his wing while I was writing an article for The Village Voice on the Black shoegaze rock group, The Veldt, who are mutual friends of ours. I was having some trouble with one of the editors at the Voice (it’s all under the bridge, thanks to VV for the opportunity), and Danny Chavis of the group exclaimed “Don’t you worry about it, baby girl! We gonna call Greg Tate!” Danny connected us via instant messenger, but it wasn’t until I wrote an essay-manifesto entitled “Black Voices in Music Criticism are Essential” for East Bay Express that Greg reached out. We quickly became collaborators, as I hosted the Baltimore book release of his book “Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader,” and added him to a panel of the same name as my East Bay Express essay at the Baltimore Book Festival. Over the years, we’ve sat on panels and shared coffee as he listened to my woes at the best hangouts in Harlem.
Greg knew everyone, he was at the center of the International Black glitterati––he was a connection and source of love and friendship between Black intellectuals and artists who only grew in stature and prominence while in association with him. Nonetheless, Greg was humble and never boasted of his worldwide acclaim and never spoke of his A-list friends, giving everyone attention as if we were his only comrade. He was far from intimidating and as wise as an owl in his prime––sharp senses, clear vision and deeply aware of his surroundings.
I can tell stories, but I cannot find the words to truly express how important he was to me. I called him Baba Greg Tate. “Baba” is a Persian word for a father or grandfather who is wise and honorable. He guided me through life and I felt comfort knowing he was in the world to spread good cheer and support Black artists who were pushing the envelope, advancing Black culture and making art that would become world-renowned. He had an eye for those who were pure at heart diamonds in the rough, while he simultaneously grew in stature with every passing day as more and more lovers of literature learned of his iconic writing.
I know many of us are asking “What will we do now?” That was the first question I asked myself when I heard of his death in one sentence in an email from a colleague. Greg and I had plans for him to speak to my class at The New School and celebrate our birthdays (his Oct. 14th, mine the 16th) but he had a family engagement and the plans fell through. I had texted him just a week before he died. I told him I’d interviewed Pete Rock who was funny and kind and that I hoped he had a good Thanksgiving Holiday. He replied “Awesome bout Pete. Holidaze was sweet with DC fams.” That was the last I’d heard from him. His death was unexpected. The news was sudden, nonetheless, I don’t wish I’d said or done more. That text gives me solace that we hadn’t gone weeks or months without communicating. And honestly, after the initial shock, I feel peace as if he’s still around and able to do even more work in the world now that he is a spiritual being who does not have to grapple with overcoming the limited powers we have on Earth. His power is infinite now and he has the freedom to support us without pain and the obstacles of tangible reality.
With this said, I don’t know what the world is going to look like without Greg. I fear the Black artistic world may fall out of touch with one another, like families who lose their matriarchs and patriarchs. I hope that we will not get lost in our work, busy with raising our kids and running endless errands now that we don’t have the pleasure of making time to have coffee and meals with Greg whenever we land in Harlem. I hope we will all become closer in light of this loss. I hope we will honor him every day by creating outstanding articles, films and art. I pray we will navigate the politics of this world as gracefully as he did.
Only time will tell.
We will dedicate my conversation with Nate Chinen and Greg Bryant for The Year in Jazz: A Jazz United Podcast Live Taping at The National Jazz Museum in Harlem on Dec. 15th to him, a day before this article is published. It is the very least I can do, and in the future, I hope to do more.
We love you, Baba Tate. Rest in Power.