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Remembering Greg Tate: Godfather of Hip-Hop Journalism

Greg Tate, writer, critic, musician, educator, former Hilltop writer and Howard University alumnus-whose work is considered by many to be the paradigm for cultural journalism- died on Dec. 7.

Photo Courtesy of Nisha Sondhe.

“I was a student at Long Island University and I used to buy the Village Voice every week, and one morning,  I believe it was in 1982, I bought the Village Voice, and, I came across this great Tate review of… George Clinton’s new album at the time Computer Games. So this is 1982. I just remember reading the story, and I had never read anything like this before. He was writing in this language that was uber cool, uber-hip, but it was also very black and very intelligent and very smart. Even though the word wasn’t popular at the time, he had this kind of swag that no other writer was doing at that time. Greg was kind of like the pioneer of new black journalism.” -Michael Gonzales, friend of Greg Tate

Greg Tate, writer, critic, musician,  educator, former Hilltop writer and Howard University alumnus-whose work is considered by many to be the paradigm for cultural journalism- died on Dec. 7.

For many writers, including music journalist Marcus J. Moore, Tate’s critiques published in The Village Voice from 1987-2005 set a precedent for the quality and authenticity of contemporary music journalism and cultural criticism. His work emerged around the same time as hip-hop itself, and during a time when the beauty of art and music wasn’t a topic of in-depth discussion within many publications. 

“He connected dots that no one else was considering, then expressed those thoughts with a clarity and dexterity no one has been able to replicate,” Moore said in an article for Pitchfork. Tates ability to draw connections between seemingly irrelative artistic pieces and genres was one of his defining characteristics in the eyes of many readers.

Michael Gonzales, a longtime fan-turned friend of Tate, was able to recall the first time he read one of Tate’s pieces in The Village Voice. 

“I don’t even know how to describe it. Being a young, black writer, it just struck me. That sense of pride that you get when you’re like, ‘Oh, a Black person did this!’ It was like getting struck by lightning or something and I just wanted more of it,” Gonzales said.

During his time at The Villiage Voice, Tate would produce the articles Bad Brains: Hardcore of Darkness (1982), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk (1989) and Black Like Who? Love and the Enemy (1991).

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Rhea Combs, a Howard alumna and the current director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, described the pivotal role that Tate’s upbringing played in shaping him into the ardent “polymath” that would become her close friend of 20 years.

“So he had this middle-class kind of Southern grounding as well. He understood the rituals, the… cultural mores of Southern Black life and at the same time, he had the peppering and the mixture of the Dayton, Ohio, Midwest funk, Midwestern work ethic,” Combs said.

Tate’s parents, Florence and Charles Tate, were both civil rights activists who spearheaded a variety of local, national and global initiatives calling for Black liberation. They lived in Dayton, Ohio, for the beginning of Tate’s life. As the first Black woman to report for the Dayton Daily News, Florence Tate’s connection to pan-African activism would lead her to use her journalistic aptitude to educate the masses on the issues that she wanted to change, an attribute that would greatly impact her son and his work.

“He was someone who was influenced by his parents and their dedication to community, who were revolutionaries and who were activists, but at the same time, he was in this nexus and blend of a civil rights baby coupled with a mother who grew up as a Southern belle,” according to Combs.

In the 1970s, Tate’s family moved from Dayton, Ohio, to Washington, D.C.. It was in the crucial years of his adolescence that Tate would develop the appreciation for art and culture that he would carry with him throughout his matriculation into Howard University, where he studied journalism and film. 

“In my mind, I was always thinking like a music journalist, music critic, because of that inspiration. But I didn’t really start writing music journalism until I got to Howard. I wrote for the Howard Hilltop. The two pieces I remember the most from that are these interviews I did with Betty Carter and Dexter Gordon,” Tate told CapitalBop in 2015.

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“He was so proud to be a Howard student, it was formative for him,” Combs affirmed.

So formative, in fact, that he would meet the other half of the dynamic duo that is Arthur “AJ” Jafa and Greg Tate in what was then the African-American Resource Center of Founder’s Library. Jafa, now an artist, filmmaker and cinematographer, was an architecture student at Howard when he first met Tate. 

They were initially introduced to each other by E. Ethelbert Miller who served as the director of the African American Resource Center in Founder’s Library at the time. Then, before the start of that summer, Jafa, returning a pile of books, encountered Tate in the library when they talked about their plans for the break. At this point, Tate, who had already introduced himself to the WPFW radio station as Greg “Iron Man” Tate (a nod to the 1968 Eric Dolphy album, not the Marvel hero), told Jafa about his plans to “check out” New York.

“And I had this book, Euripides, one of his plays, and I remember his saying, ‘Euripides ain’t nothin’ but rock and roll,’” Jafa said. That day, the two spoke from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., thus beginning their lifelong friendship.

Jafa, having met Tate in college when he was just starting his journey as a writer, observed Tate’s rise to the figure that he is today. He is able to recall how quickly the demand for Tate’s work rose, and how awaiting Tate’s next Village Voice article was “like waiting for a record to come out.”

“It’s kinda like, you’re in the midst of a Renaissance, but you’re running around with Michelangelo or DaVinci,” Jafa said, explaining what it was like to witness Tate’s emergence amidst the burgeoning of cultural staples like hip-hop and street art.

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By the time he graduated from Howard, Tate had already established himself as an extraordinary mind with revolutionary ideas, and in the early 1980s, he moved to New York City. He wanted to cut the strings from the way that Black people were “supposed to” produce and perceive art, and strip the barrier preventing equality and acceptance, especially in regards to Black alternative music. Thus, in 1985, he became a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition guitarist Vernon Reid, and video and film producer Konda Mason formed the Black Rock Coalition, or BRC. 

According to Gonzales, the organization filled a cultural gap that was often overlooked. Genres were being gatekept from the very people that helped establish them, as Black artists struggled to prosper from behind monoliths and stereotypes. “[The BRC] was just this very cool black collective being proud to be nerds” Gonzales said.

Tate was constantly challenging the status quo in favor of ventures that represented his view of Black art and culture as multifaceted and complex. As a result, 1999 would see the foundation of “Burnt Sugar,” Tate’s musical group, which Jafa would describe as “a culmination of his music journey.” 

Tate’s co-founding of, and involvement in “Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber”, was described by Jafa as difficult at times. Tate’s work as a music critic would attract numerous music critics to his work as an artist. Still, Tate maintained his integrity as a musician and journalist, an ability that Jafa described as, “ a Testament to how he was doing it for the love of the music,” rather than for approval or acclaim.

Pulling inspiration from artists like Duke Ellington, Chaka Khan, Nina Simone and Jimi Hendrix, according to the groups website, “Burnt Sugar” aimed to “freely [move] amongst many styles, eras and genres to devise its own exciting hybrids.” 

In 1992, Tate published his first book, an anthology comprising 40 of his essays entitled Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America, widely accepted as one of his seminal and essential works.

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“The wisdom. The cadence. The swagger.  The way Greg Tate spit bars on the page so that the sentences thumped with a muscular downbeat. May he rest in rhythm with the ancestors,” The Washington Post’s Michelle Norris tweeted

Friends, family and fans will remember Greg Tate as the man with the ability to attach rhythm, intensity, wit and charm to his words. They note the exceptional lens through which he viewed the world, and how his mind was an even balance of the qualities that make a talented writer and artist. “Sometimes people have to choose between intellect and soul, and Greg showed how it’s possible to operate without sacrificing either of those polarities,” Jafa said. 

As the world mourns the loss of the “godfather of hip-hop journalism”, readers recognize that he remains a pioneer within the musical and journalistic domains of influence. 

“I would describe him as someone who had the observant eye of a poet. Who saw life sort of as a screenplay and saw every single person as a character in the arc of this incredible story called life,” said Combs, “He will be missed. He will be sorely, sorely missed.”

Copy edited by Jasper Smith

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