The Immortal Influence of Greg Tate

Though hip-hop defines American youth culture, dominates music charts and streaming services, and flavors all manner of late-capitalist enterprises, many people—fans, detractors, and critics among them—refuse to think critically about it. Every second, every day, careless takes on rap flow from screens, newsfeeds, forums, and pundits, and are treated as fact. Informed criticism and reporting are the only bulwark against that tide.

Last December, we lost a pillar. For generations of critics, Greg Tate, who died of cardiac arrest at 64, was our doyen. As a contributor and staff writer for The Village Voice from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s, and as a freelancer for outlets such as Rolling Stonevibeand DownBeathe pioneered a vein of music criticism that dared to be as freewheeling and audacious as the art it covered.

Tate didn’t just show that music criticism could be expressive as well as analytical; he insisted that it must. Like intricate graffiti, his writing arced, looped, and exploded with color and dimension. With quick, artful strokes, he could connect contexts and distill sounds. His 1988 review of a Public Enemy concert is emblematic. In a few sentences, he captured the authority of Chuck D’s voice, the intentional contrast between Chuck’s militance and Flavor Flav’s flamboyance, and the unique way Public Enemy tweaked the optics of music influenced by Black nationalism:

Chuck is the music’s answer to the sheets-of-sound oratory Baraka bequeathed to the black poetry movement for love of Coltrane. Coltrane never had comic relief like Chuck’s aide-de-camp Flavor Flav though. Chuck rides the stage like a wild stallion while Flav pogosticks. He’s a surefire professor of ig’nance whose mismatch with the mainman derails the tradition of cul-nat loudmouths who don’t know how to laugh at themselves.

His essays and reviews brimmed with sensations. Sounds ricocheted across his paragraphs. His sentences pulsed with rhythm and meter. His verbs, like “pogosticks,” were energetic, playful, and imagistic. Even when he wasn’t reviewing a live event, he tended to summon the precise moment or setting where he encountered the music he covers, an approach that allowed a panoply of voices—of his family members and friends, of musicians, or other critics , of strangers—to mingle with and shape his thoughts. Even if you didn’t pick up or care for his learned references to post-structuralist theory, Black feminism, and Marvel Comics, it never felt like he was talking to himself. Tate was a critic in conversation with the world.

tate was born in Dayton, Ohio, to politically engaged parents who were active in civil rights organizations and later in formal politics. When the family moved to Washington, DC, during Tate’s teenage years, he became a fixture in the city’s literary and music scenes. At Coolidge High School, which was full of musicians and bands, he was inspired to pick up the guitar, an interest he’d later sustain as a member of multiple bands and the Black Rock Coalition. When he went to Howard University, his ties to the scenes deepened as he participated in writing workshops, hosted a radio show, and covered music for the university’s newspaper. After graduating, he wrote for The Village Voice and eventually moved to New York City, where he freelanced and worked in an art gallery.

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