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Journalist Greg Tate appears at The Delancey March 22, 2005 in New York City.
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Greg Tate and the Righteousness of Real Rap Writing

Greg Tate helped establish in me a belief in the beauty and the power of writing about Black music.

As news of the prolific music writer's death circulated, I sadly reflected on how much his work had meant to younger music writers such as myself. Tate was one of his generation's foremost cultural critics and journalists, a towering figure in Black criticism who helped redefine music and cultural critique before his passing at age 64. The news was confirmed by a spokesperson at Duke University Press, his publisher, as luminaries such as Jelani Cobb and Questlove paid homage to Tate's life and legacy.

Having become an era-defining writer at the Village Voice in the 1980s, Tate was one of the best and most influential writers critiquing Hip-Hop. His first book, 1992s Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America was an acclaimed dissection of race, art, class, politics and music and a must-read for anyone who followed in it's stylistic and cultural wake. He would spend the next three decades expanding upon and expounding upon those themes through his unique lens, and in doing so, he blazed a path from the 80s to the 2020s.

“Amiri Baraka once said that rhythm and blues would always be the accurate reflection of the emotional condition of Black America," Tate wrote in his 2017 review of Kendrick Lamar's DAMN for The Voice. "Hip-hop is but the latest streaking comet in the metamorphic and meteoric continuum of rhythm and blues, the latest measuring stick and black mirror for all of America’s entropy. The truths spoken by hip-hop’s prophets are thus democratically applicable to all living under the reign of Mein Trumpf.”

I didn't appreciate his work with the Black Rock Coalition until my own rock reinvention in the early 2000s. Once I found myself, late pass in-hand, diving into Bad Brains, Living Colour and Betty Davis, it was Tate's commentary that served as a guiding light. And his legacy with the BRC became of the utmost importance as I dissected my own experiences as a Black rock fan and critic. In his band Burnt Sugar, Tate and bassist Jared Michael Nickerson corralled musicians whose talents pushed their art through a maze of jazz, Hip-Hop, rock and soul fusion. Forged in the 70s Black essence and raised in the righteous raging of the Reagan era, Tate's was creativity unbounded.

And his writing connected. "I had a guy change the lock to my apartment," Tate recalled in a 2018 interview with Leah Mirakhor. "And I had lived in the city for about two years. He came to fix the door, he was a locksmith from the Bronx, and I wrote him a check and he said, 'Oh, you’re Iron Man, I read you all the time.' And it happened with bouncers. They’d see my I.D. and say, 'Oh, you’re the cat that writes for The Voice.'”

It was writers like Greg Tate, Nelson George and Barry Michael Cooper who made me understand the power of writing about Black music. I'd come to those names somewhat in reverse: tipped off by other names, like dream hampton, Kevin Powell and Scott Poulson-Bryant, and other platforms, like VIBE and The Source, who furthered my belief that this is important work to be taken seriously. It made me go back to earlier Village Voice criticism that, because of age and geography, I'd missed the first time around. Tate's incendiary eloquence, in particular, was always evocative and sharp.

"Hip Hop was destined to cast long shadows over the 21st-century cultural landscape. Like the Black popular artforms which had preceded and inspired it – blues, jazz, rock and roll, soul, funk and disco – Hip Hop fast-tracked itself from the extreme racial and social margins of the nation to the commercial mainstream."

- Greg Tate (2020, Sotheby's)

He wrote about Hip-Hop with wit and honesty. "Nation of Millions is a declaration of war on the federal government, and on that unholy trinity--black radio programmers, crack dealers, and rock critics," he penned in a classic 1988 Village Voice review of It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, while not holding back on the record's misogyny. "As much as I love this kind of talk, I got to wonder about PE's thing against black women," he wrote. "And my dogass ain't the only one wondering—several sisters I know who otherwise like the mugs wonder whassup with that too."

Sometimes it feels like writers are a dime a dozen these days. We're bombarded with content ad nauseum, and it only takes a quick peruse of the latest news to realize that thoughtful commentary and critique often give way to clickbait and hit-pieces. When it comes to Hip-Hop, gossip and statistics seem to take priority over the assessment of creativity, an art that Greg Tate perfected. Make no mistake, there is most definitely an art to critique, even if our constant wave of information often neuters the impact of that art.

It's because of the writing from greats like Greg Tate that I've always believed in the high standard of Hip-Hop journalism. This music and culture is more than this week's chart numbers, it's more than the latest Twitter beef and the newest album rollout. This is the documentation of art, an appraisal of expression, and we have to look back with the same standard of excellence Tate had as he reviewed this art in real time. I believe in classic Hip-Hop because writers like Greg Tate taught me how to see it. It's only right that we pass that down to the younger commentators and creatives. The best we to uplift the legacy of Greg Tate is to remember the standard he set for all of us.

Thank you, Greg.

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