Remembering Greg Tate

Sound and Vision
Larry Mizell, Jr.
photo by Nisha Sondhe / Duke University Press

KEXP's Larry Mizell Jr. and Riz Rollins pay tribute to the iconic writer and artist Greg Tate. This segment previously aired on Sound & Vision, you can read or listen to the piece below. 


Last Tuesday, December 7th, the world lost a giant of the written word, of cultural criticism, advocacy, and understanding. I speak of the beloved writer Greg Tate, who’s often called “the godfather of hip-hop journalism”. If that title feels reductive, considering the peerless range and depth of writing that Tate left to us, it’s only because the term “hip-hop journalism” might ring to the ears of some as “not actual journalism”. But seeing as Greg Tate understood, perhaps better than anybody, the explosive, all-encompassing, universal nature of the ingenious machine we call hip-hop culture, I don’t think he would trip.

Tate contained multitudes; along with members of Living Colour and Fishbone among others, also co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to promoting the creative freedom and works of black musicians. He also co-founded an experimental, improvisational band called Burnt Sugar, who combine everything from funk and hip-hop to jazz and heavy metal. Tate understood, or rather exemplified a truth I hold to be self-evident: that to truly be hip-hop is to be fluent in everything, especially the stuff that some couldn’t imagine you even could be.

In his poem “What is Hiphop?”, published in the October 1993 issue of Vibe magazine, he laid his game quite flat: “hip-hop is inverse capitalism. Hip-hop is reverse colonialism. Hip-hop is the world the slavemasters made, sent into nigga-fide future shock.”

Anything under his byline in Vibe, where I first discovered his writing, was guaranteed to be a thrilling, intimidatingly intelligent, yet loving stress-test of language and what and how we were supposed to engage with our culture and ourselves. Bars like Baldwin, painted by Pedro Bell.  His book of essays, Flyboy In the Buttermilk, should be assigned reading to any aspiring writer that wants to meaningfully engage with anything that is at all derived from the 20th-century cultural output of African-Americans, which is to say, just about everything in this world that is cool, fly, hip. No really, look it up. I’ll wait.

Part of the reason I discovered Greg Tate was because I was such a fan of writers a little younger than him, who were indebted to him, other New York-based writers like dream hampton or kris ex, writers who inspired me to want to write myself one day. This week I had a conversation about Tate’s legacy and spirit with a writer and DJ based here in Seattle, whose example informed my idea of what was possible: KEXP’s Riz Rollins.

Larry Mizell Jr: How did you first encounter Greg Tate's work?

Riz Rollins: Village Voice. (Laughs) That was easy. I think I started reading Greg Tate in the beginning when he started publishing for the Village Voice, and it provoked my thinking—this is before I did any writing and I didn't have any aspirations to be a writer—but I would tell myself that if I ever did this, if I ever wrote, you know, I would write like Greg Tate. He was just a lion of a synthesizing culture… Greg Tate was like, You can be interested in all of this music. it all is yours and its various offshoots and synthesis, and he took it out of the academic… Greg Tate kept it fresh and contemporary and then Flyboy in the Buttermilk came out and I thought, Wait a minute. You could actually put this in a book and demand, you know, and that's how much demand respect. But expect respect. You know, for all the different parts of the culture that you write, about was mind blowing. And I still wasn't writing, right? And yet, once I started writing, it was just...he was the perfect immediate ancestor. Of course he's a godfather then. And then he started playing music…from helping found the Black Rock Coalition, which took Black Rock out of academia and just kind of released it onto the rest of the world. This culture that had been happening and these people have been playing music for a while, just I don't know. It's like all the black rock nerds came out of the woodwork and said, Finally, I'm not doing this by myself. But then I was living in Seattle. So what did I know? 

I was so immensely impressed with the fact that this guy who is revered as a writer by the people I revered as writers had this later act with this improvisational ensemble. His band, Burnt Sugar. And he was so involved in advocating for a unified consciousness of black music in so many ways through the Black Rock Coalition, absolutely blew me away.

And then you hear it.

Right, right.

You know, I mean, conceptually it’s one thing. But when it hits, your behind, there's a whole other thing, you know, and it's a liberating hit. For me, it kept that idea fresh that I needed to continue to refer to black artisanship as my point of reference. Even if you like something else, you know, say if you like classical, for example, or if you God forbid like Steely Dan, you know, come at it from the framework of… blackness black centeredness and then expect to have a cogent conversation with other people.

What does Greg Tate’s writing and example mean to you?

It represents the breadth of life. It represents the complexity of of of the kinds of culture that we're raised in and immersed in. And it's a kind of even a call to arms to represent, you know, if you could string a sentence together, you know, then watch the way Greg Tate brings the sentences together to continue the life of the culture. And that doesn't die, right? Right? It just doesn't. And it replenishes. 

What I carry is the inspiration from him being alive, you know, in the same neighborhood as my life and to see, what I continue to what we continue to do rather as. Life-Giving, you know, it's a charge to give life to…the art we enjoy. 

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