Date of Interview: 04/08/2012
Over the past two decades, Greg Tate has garnered a reputation – and eventually dubbed by The Source magazine – as a “Godfather of hip-hop journalism.” Much of his most-popular writings were published during his stint as a staff writer with New York City’s Village Voice between 1987 and 2003. Greg Tate’s publications extended beyond the outlet, however, and include the following titles: Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture (New York: Broadway Books, 2003) and Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003). His forthcoming works: Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (Duke University Press) and James Brown’s Body and the Revolution of the Mind (Riverhead Press).
A co-founder of the Black Rock Coalition, Greg Tate also serves as the leader of Burnt Sugar, an improvisational band that fuses funk, jazz, rock, and African music through experimental – yet cohesive – performance. Currently, he is serving as a Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. In 2010, he was awarded a United States Artists fellowship, an organization whose mission statement is “to invest in America’s finest artists and illuminate the value of artists to society.”
In response to a “special request,” in support of the body of literature composed during his incredible journalism career, Greg Tate managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on his love of hip-hop, the founding of Burnt Sugar, and an “unappreciated” De La Soul emcee.
Clayton Perry: As a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, what life events and/or activist philosophies guided you during its founding and the preliminary years?
Greg Tate: I grew up – in Dayton, Ohio, and later DC – in what’s been identified as a ‘Movement Household’. My parents actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement and the US-based “support wing” of the African Liberation Movement. Black/Pan-Afrikanist collective, cultural nationalist politics framed my early understanding of what it means to be Black in America. My mother was the first DJ I ever paid attention to because she kept five radical recording orange artists in heavy rotation around our household: Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Lenny Bruce, Otis Redding and Pete Seeger. The first black American I know who dug reggae and Afrobeat was my revolutionary mama. She added the soundtrack of The Harder They Come to that playlist in the early 70s and the music of Fela. About that time is when I discovered Leroi Jones’ [a.k.a. Amiri Baraka] book, Black Music, which converted me into an avant-garde jazz fanatic and wannabe jazz critic, on the spot. I began seriously collecting vinyl as a teen; and later as a young adult, I deejayed a lot on local radio in DC. I saw as many shows as I possibly could by jazz, rock and reggae artists. When I moved to NYC in the 80s, it was to pursue a career as a freelance writer at The Village Voice, as one who described himself as a ‘Black Bohemian Nationalist’ and an Afro-Gonzo journalist, betraying my Hunter Thompson influence there. Other writers pivotal to the development of my writing would be Toni Morrison, Samuel Delany, Clarence Major, Jaynbe Cortez, Thulani Davis, Pedro Bell, Stanley Crouch, Robert Christgau, and Ishmael Reed. When Vernon Reid contacted me about forming The Black Rock Coalition (BRC), we shared many ideas about the need for Black artists to come together and contribute to the anti-racist struggle in America. Our parents and the times and the communities we grew up within had also influenced us both – as far as combining politics and music.
Clayton Perry: Burnt Sugar is a band that is noted, “like [your] writing, that binds jazz, rock, funk, and African music in a lyrical, exploratory and improvisational manner.” What central element(s) mind these genres together?
Greg Tate: Coming up in an era where everybody you knew listened to all forms of music and didn’t accept artificial boundaries between the various Black musical idioms especially, the best answer to the question is that those forms have never been ‘unbound’ to me, although we do find ourselves in Burnt Sugar having to often do some ‘unchaining’ of other folks ears. This was also an era where there ere many great bands–all of whom created their own hybrid form of styles based in R&B, rock, jazz and Pan-African music.
Clayton Perry: Taking these genres – jazz, rock, funk and African – into consideration, what unique element(s) from each do you most-appreciate?
Greg Tate: Jazz represents the highest form of individual development of musical virtuosity and musical identity. The greatest jazz musicians encapsulate the totality of music in their playing and they have their own readily identifiable sound. We call those cats the ‘One Note Muthas’–you know who they are from the first four bars. Rock is the form that offers the most freedom in terms of extreme performance and openly borrowing from other musics. Funk – and R&B – is where you got get the Holy Ghost in secular popular music. Traditional African music is our window on the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth on this Earth. Modern African music like Fela’s tells you how much African-Americans have influenced the sound of music elsewhere and how much we’ve lost in terms of our African cultural identity in America.
Clayton Perry: The Source magazine acknowledged you as being one of the “Godfathers of Hip Hop Journalism.” What do you consider to be your greatest contribution to the field of journalism?
Greg Tate: Creating a style that fluidly combined critical theory and esoteric spiritual knowledge with a twisted personal take on street musicology.
Clayton Perry: And in regards to the “Godfather” title, what do you consider to be your primary function in this capacity – within the present day and future?
Greg Tate: Since I made the transition out of doing full-time musical journalism to teaching, playing music and writing books, I would say my present and future contribution is more in the area of mentorship and conversation with younger up and coming writers.
Clayton Perry: Over the past two decades, what do you think have been the most drastic changes in the field of music journalism, for better or for worse?
Greg Tate: Fewer places to publish, to be professionally edited, to develop your craft as a young writer, and to develop a critical, literary community of peers and older veteran colleagues. That’s what the Village Voice and VIBE provided a whole generation of writers in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The editing and writing back then had more of an impact on the public conversation about the music then today.
Clayton Perry: During the early years of your career, as you were crafting soon-to-be groundbreaking work on hip-hop’s “social, political, economic and cultural implications,” the genre was largely considered a fad. In the interim, hip-hop has transformed itself from a regional form of music into an international form of cultural expression. What inner/innate strengths have allowed the genre to maintain such longevity?
Greg Tate: Hip-hop began as a very futuristic form of African folk culture in America. As such, it draws upon all the creative and innovative strengths that have made Black music so dominant globally for most of the 20th century. On a certain level, hip-hop is just an extension of the history of African griot music – Black poetic, political, religious and “street corner” oratory R&B, funk, jazz, reggae, etc. It has such rich resources to draw upon that are so tried and proven in terms of their ability to impact folk – and move crowds worldwide. Hip-hop also packages all that in a form that is youth-centric. Unlike other musics that only gradually open up to meddlesome young peoples’ desires, hip-hop is as unsentimental about its ageism as Hollywood is about the “shelf life” of cute white female starlets. The hip-hop music industry isn’t much interested in fans over the age of 25. The prime demographic has always been 14-25 years of age. This is what keeps the styles, looks and sounds in sync with the next generation coming up. No other form of pop music is in as much a rush to throw performers “under the bus” once their expiration date starts showing. Hip-hop thrives on novelty and the shock of the new.
Clayton Perry: What is your response to claims by media pundits and contemporary fans of hip-hop that “rap” – note that I did not say hip hop – “is dead”?
Greg Tate: To be certain, the era of hip-hop music that I love – the fabled, lyric-driven “Golden Age of Hip-Hop” circa 1979 up to 1998 – has been dead for a long time. But [Afrika] Bambaataa told me a long time ago that” hip-hop will never die as long as people are still talking because rapping isn’t nothing but talking.” I laugh sometimes when I hear some of my friends complain about young people and their ‘garbage’ music compared to what was made back in the day. I tell them that it’s a pointless argument because young people got a secret weapon to shut all that down when you come trying to sell them on your music versus theirs. Namely, they tell you: ‘That sounds old’! That’s a conversation-stopper right there. Let me also say though that I think that hip-hop and rap music have pretty much become one and the same for the black community – as far as those five elements are concerned. I live in Harlem and kids aren’t tagging, b-boying, breakdancing or even turn-tabling so much anymore – but they are still free-styling on the corner. Rap is what’s left of hip-hop culture in the 21st century, if we’re defining culture as ‘what people do now,’ as opposed to what they used to do 20 years ago and have forgotten or simply fell out of practice.
Clayton Perry: What hopes and fears do you have about the future of the socio-political and artistic aspects of rapping as a cultural form of African-American – and international – music production?
Greg Tate: No hope or fears really. It’s already everywhere on the globe and people use hippo music to address local politics, desires and dreams. But popular music isn’t the most definitive form of culture in the 21st century – it’s running a pale fourth now to social media, smartphones and video gaming. I haven’t seen any kids sleep on the streets for concert tickets in a long time – but hordes of them will bring a sleeping bag out in 30-degree weather to be first in line to buy a new Apple gadget when the store opens its doors.
Clayton Perry: Using the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s and benchmarks, what do you consider to be three defining moments in hip-hop’s storied history?
Greg Tate: I think you can’t discount the 70s – especially because all-city wide subway writing was the world’s first wake-up call that a corner had been turned in terms of how a generation expressed itself. But far as the 80s, I’m going to go radical and say the phenomenal career of Jean-Michel Basquiat. As far as the 90s, it would be hip-hop taking over MTV after years of marginality and racist resistance – killing a taste for white boy rock gods among American suburban youth. Far as the ‘00s, it was the international connection made by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement with international audiences in Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, South Africa and Palestine.
Clayton Perry: Throughout the course of hip-hop’s illustrious history, several rappers have been pegged as the “greatest of all-time,” by fans or through an act of self-proclamation. Is there a particular rapper that you think is often overlooked in these discussions?
Greg Tate: I would have to say that would be De La Soul’s “Trugoy the Dove” – [David Jude Jolicoeur] – who was way unappreciated for his creativity with language, his vulnerability and his storytelling.
Clayton Perry: You are currently serving as a Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University – teaching a course entitled “The History of Afro Futurism and Black Science Fiction.” As you prepared for this course, what are the crucial intellectual questions that you desire your students to explore in their academic work – or study – for your course?
Greg Tate: More than anything, I want them to come away with respect for the complexity of cosmological vision, humanity and artistic virtuosity one finds in the works of Sun Ra, Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler and Miles Davis.
For more information on Greg Tate and Burnt Sugar, visit the band’s official website: http://burntsugarindex.com