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Remembering Greg "Ironman" Tate

Greg Tate, the great writer of cultural criticism and music reviews for The Village Voice during the '80s and '90s, author of the Black Rock Coalition manifesto as well as four books, including 1992's acclaimed 'Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America' died on December 7, 2021 at the age of 64. He was also a guitarist and leader-conductor, since 1999, of the Burnt Sugar Arkesta. I had just seen Tate leading the Burnt Sugar Arkestra at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT on September 26, which also happened to be my 67th birthday. The Arkestra was particularly brilliant that night under Tate's conduction and between sets we had a pleasant chat. And then he was gone.

I had known Tate from the NYC scene. We both arrived there around the same time -- me from Milwaukee in 1980, he from Washington D.C. in 1981. He very quickly gained ascendancy in music criticism circles for his pointed observations in The Voice, whether it was on the connections between James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and electric Miles Davis, the extreme 'badness' of King Sunny Ade, the genius of Richard Pryor and Nina Simone, the brilliance of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ralph Ellison or the importance of Public Enemy's Chuck D, of whom he once wrote: "When he’s on, his rhymes can stun-gun your heart and militarize your funny bone."

Reading Greg Tate’s imposing prose for the first time was intimidating, slightly disorienting; like encountering the music of Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman after a steady diet of straight ahead swing or seeing Picasso and Dali after assuming that Rembrandt was the final word in visual art. Tate rocked my journalism school-bred world in much the same way that Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion upset the journalistic establishment of the ‘60s and ’70s. This was a fresh new voice. And there was nothing gimmicky about his inventive use of the language, dubbed “slangy erudition” by one wag. As fellow writer Hua Hsu so brilliantly noted in a Sept. 21, 2016 article for The New Yorker: “His best paragraphs throbbed like a party and chattered like a salon; they were stylishly jam-packed with names and reference points that shouldn’t have got along but did, a trans-everything collision of pop stars, filmmakers, subterranean graffiti artists, Ivory Tower theorists, and Tate’s personal buddies, who often came across as the wisest of the bunch.”

There was an underlying logic and intelligence to Tate’s writing style that lent authority to even his most experimental forays into criticism. His ideas were always solid, penetrating, insightful. I especially admired the way he made connections between seemingly disparate types of music — how James Brown informed Miles Davis’ electric band of the ‘70s, which in turn was influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Jimi Hendrix and maybe even King Crimson to some degree. Tate could always trace the connections — from George Clinton to Romare Bearden to Sun Ra to Michael Jordan to King Sunny Ade to Butch Morris to Chuck D. Tate thought globally. His mind was as expansive as the Grand Canyon and as tight as a JB groove. And his lexicon of hip phrasing and cadence that anticipated/mirrored hip-hop spoke of his playful intellect — part Jean Paul Sarte phenomenology, part Bootsy Collins cartoon mind, part Sun Ra extraterrestrial traveler. We aspiring writers, critics, journalists who read him religiously every week in The Village Voice during the ‘80s stood in awe of his expressive virtuosity. And it was not something that you could copy. There was no template for this style of cultural criticism, this Afro-futurist way of thinking. All one could do was admire the skill, the vision, the daring creativity. As he wrote in 1986: “My mission is clear. The future of Black culture depends that this generation brings forth a worldly-wise and stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups who can get as ignant as James Brown with their Wangs [computers] and stay in the Black. Give me such an army and we’ll be talking total cultural Black rule by the time the eco-system collapses, SDI bottoms out Fort Knox, the Aryan Brotherhood is officially in the White House, and Wall Street is on the moon.”

You can’t touch that.

In the 2000s, when I moved up to northern Manhattan, I'd often see Tate on the uptown A train late at night when we were each coming home from our respective gigs -- me to Washington Heights, him to Sugar Hill, that neighborhood wedged between Harlem and the Heights. We'd talk about music and invariably get around to talking about our daughters -- his Chinara, my Sophia. That always made him smile. Two proud papas heading uptown.

The day after Tate passed, I put on the most recent Burnt Sugar Arkestra album, Angels Over Oakanda, which was released in September. It sounded to me like his requiem. We'll miss you, Ironman.

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