Jon Caramanica in the New York Times: “We Needed Greg Tate’s Peerless Imagination”

From a New York Times story by Jon Caramanica headlined “We Needed Greg Tate’s Peerless Imagination”:

There are sentences, and then there are the writings of Greg Tate, who died on Tuesday at the age of 64. A critic and historian of music, art and so much more for over four decades, he was a singular voice, a fount of bravura essays on the fantastical creativity, determined resilience and wry paradoxes of Black creativity and life.

His writing froze and shattered time, supercharged neurons, unraveled familiar knots and tied up beautiful new ones. It contained uncanny, elevated descriptions of sound and performance, offered grounded philosophical inquisitions and sprinkled in wink-nudge personal asides. It could have the cadence of smack talk, or a conspiratorial whisper. And it was patient, unfurling at exactly the pace of gestation, while somehow containing turns of phrase that appeared to be moving at warp speed.

It doesn’t matter which page you open to in his crucial 1992 anthology “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America” — just open it. Eruptions of style — of pure intellectual vigor and unhurried swagger — are everywhere….

To read Tate was to be awed by a gift that verged on the extraterrestrial. But he was as meaningful and influential for the words he wrote as for the possibilities he made room for. Aspiring critics, this one included, understood: You almost certainly could not do what Tate did, but what a revelation nonetheless to learn about all the available space between the ground where mortals pecked away at keys and wherever he resided. There were whole galaxies of possibility to explore, so many fertile places you might land.

Fearless isn’t exactly the word for how Tate approached his subjects — that would imply that to honor one’s own intellectual truth was in some way contingent on, or mindful of, the acquiescence of others. Maybe boundless is better. He rightly understood that the scope of criticism extended far beyond the borders of the subject work. The subject was the pretext, the intro, the foyer to a whole house.

Tate began writing in the late 1970s, and began contributing in The Village Voice in 1981. He moved to New York from Washington, D.C., soon after, and sought out the city’s creative spasms: jazz, art, literature, newly emergent hip-hop.

In that era, the alt-weekly was the medium most comfortable publishing writing with high stakes, open ears, indelible flair, infinite possibility. And in that ecosystem, Tate was the lodestar. Take “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke,” a visionary essay which appeared in The Voice in 1986 that called for a “popular poststructuralism — accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of Black culture.” It was a call to critical arms to rise to the “postnationalist” output of the time — in short, Tate wanted peers as ambitious and wild-minded as the culture he was covering.

When he loved something, he was bracing. On Miles Davis: “‘Bitches Brew’ is an orchestral marvel because it fuses James Brown’s antiphonal riffing against a metaphoric bass drone with Sly’s minimalist polyrhythmic melodies and Jimi’s concept of painting pictures with ordered successions of electronic sounds.”…

And he planted flags early. Critics before Tate had written about rap music, of course, but his early pieces on Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, De La Soul and others stand as the definitive critical engagements of their day. They also made the case not just for a hip-hop canon but for hip-hop as canon.

Not long after “Flyboy” came out in 1992, Tate brought his pen to Vibe magazine, which in its infancy was underpinned by a downtown New York cosmohemian sensibility that he helped shape with his mere presence.

His column, “Black-Owned,” was a staple and a megaphone trumpeting the most progressive creators across disciplines. In the October 1993 issue, one of the magazine’s first, he wrote a dynamic full-page poem called “What Is Hip-Hop?”: “Hip-hop is inverse capitalism/Hip-hop is reverse colonialism.”

In 1995, he sat with Richard Pryor: “You literally have to go to Shakespeare, James Joyce, or James Baldwin to find readings of human folly as incisive as Pryor’s. Yet Pryor has it one up on those masters of the word: He didn’t need exclamation points — his body movement was his punctuation.”

On D’Angelo’s “Voodoo,” in 1999: “There are times when the music on this disc sounds so raw, so naked and exposed, you’ll be tempted to throw a blanket over its brittle, shivering bones.” On TV on the Radio, in 2006: “Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe has a wandering tenor wail that seems undecided between Catholicism’s four-part chorales, doo-wop’s street-corner symphonies and New Wave’s girly-man blues.”

Full disclosure — I assigned the TV on the Radio review, one of my first decisions when I joined the magazine as music editor. The opportunity to bring Tate back into those pages was a gift….By that point, Tate’s sui generis brilliance was widely acknowledged in our circles, and still barely touched by others. Showcasing his critical pirouetting was meant to serve as a beacon, and also a simple acknowledgment of the way he affected every writer I cared about and learned from — we’re all Tate’s children. I still buy “Flyboy” every time I see it in a bookstore. I never want to be too far away from it, lest I forget how vast the cosmos is.

Jon Caramanica is a pop music critic for The Times and the host of the Popcast. He also writes the men’s Critical Shopper column for Styles. He previously worked for Vibe magazine, and has written for the Village Voice, Spin, XXL and more.


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