Greg Tate, a music and cultural critic who elevated hip-hop as a cultural phenomenon worthy of the kind of respect and admiration jazz has received, has died. He was 64.

Laura Sell, a spokeswoman for Duke University Press, which published Tate’s “Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader” in 2016, confirmed his death Tuesday.

The cause was not immediately available.

Tate began having an impact on popular music and criticism in the 1980s as a staff writer for New York’s Village Voice, and he eventually contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post and Vibe. He was a Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor at Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies and lectured at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The Source magazine called him “one of the godfathers of hip-hop journalism.”

Tate praised the Voice’s music critic, Robert Christgau, for hiring him in 1981. He has been quoted as saying Christgau “believed Afro-diasporic musics should on occasion be covered by people who weren’t strangers to those communities.”

Early hip-hop, however, was rarely a topic for Rolling Stone. When it did draw the attention of pop’s mostly white critical establishment, it was often seen as a bubble-gum fad responsible for bright, baggy and tasteless fashion. It was rarely taken seriously.

Tate rolled it up, smoked it and exhaled dissertation-worthy observations.

Today it’s hard to find a greatest-emcee list that doesn’t feature Rakim near its very top. In 1988, Tate reviewed Eric B. & Rakim’s latest single by clearing space for the duo on the top shelf of American musical greats, including Miles Davis.

“The music on ‘Follow the Leader’ is spooky, a science-­fiction score that sounds straight out of the Tangerine Dream songbook,” he wrote in the Voice. “Rakim’s on an elocutionary speed-trip, a black bullet train slitting through hyperspace.” 

He also wrote about rock ‘n’ roll, hardcore, jazz, street art and “the post-nationalist black aesthetic.” He played guitar, co-founded the Black Rock writers’ coalition and founded Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, described on its website as “a sprawling band of musicians whose prodigious personnel allows them to freely juggle a wide swath of the experimental soul-jazz-hip hop spectrum.”

In the 1986 Village Voice essay on the Black American aesthetic, Tate wrote, as a parenthetic aside, “It is our music, especially jazz, which confronts Western culture with its most intimidating and improbable Other: the sui generis black genius.”

He studied film and journalism at Howard University. 

“I got to New York in ’81, just as hip-hop was blowing up,” he told New York magazine in 2016. “Radio wasn’t playing hip-hop. There were no videos. The way I found out about KRS-One, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy was word-of-mouth. It was very much an underground conversation, but being in New York in the ’80s we were basically at the epicenter of world culture.”

One of Tate’s earliest feats, New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu noted in 2016, was to “help to establish jazz and hip-hop as part of the same continuum of expression.”

For the hip-hop generation, now old enough to feature on the obituary page, Tate’s nods could be revelatory. “His form of writing could be as exhilarating as art,” Hsu wrote.

Tate was celebrated among peers and artists. Read More

By Ian Dei

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