Fly as Hell: An Interview with Greg Tate

This is the same period that the Black hip-hop writers showed up — Scott Poulson-Bryant, Harry Allen, Dream Hampton, Karen Good, and Joan Morgan. HOW TO SELL ZOMBIE WOOF TICKETS
It was the summer your friend the dead poet TJ made good on his promise to ghoulishly return. The music section was just kind of one place where there was pushback, and the pushback might come back with some teeth. No. It was like life or death to him, the quality of the section, the quality of the writing. In terms of the work, the day has 24 hours — and you have a gig, that’s like maybe four hours out of your day. Definitely working with Butch Morris on the Burnt Sugar album The Rites. He has these lofty thinkers in the pieces, but they are definitely pieces to be felt, more than analyzed. It was a review of a Pharoah Sanders album. That’s why a whole section of the Black staff just left one day. He just started talking about everything. It was a major part of what has happening in New York. I had this beautiful silk Indian shirt that I wore. What’s changed today though isn’t the base threat but the means by which it can be carried out. How did you get to interview Richard Pryor? “Twenty-Five things about Afro-Futurism” doesn’t have the bravado of your earlier pieces, but it’s still really bold, and has a different texture. Yes, you’re bold. His body had completely betrayed him, had failed him. Tate’s sentences, like Jafa’s film, beckon you to keep reviewing, rereading, rethinking, pushing past the boundaries of what we think is possible on the page and on the screen. I quote George a lot. It was the most exciting place, just hitting the ground. [Laughs.] This is just the way it goes. Yeah, it was really honest. That’s the gift. Who were you talking with as you read? So even in an interview they are that person that goes into the studio or goes onstage. And if it weren’t special, shit, Berklee College of Music would be turning out Miles Davises and Princes every week. [Laughs.] And, oddly enough, they were embracing the buccaneer machismo of hip-hop as their voice too. I mean, sometimes those pieces suddenly appear, whole, as a voice in my head. It’s an authoritative, definitive study, and nobody was looking at it that way then — looking at the social conditions of Black people and the aesthetic of the music as one conversation. I’ve spent a lot of time with Amiri’s work. But it’s great being directed that way. So, it’s not like he wasn’t already a candidate for the perdition of eternal literary obscurity. A whole other moment. Richard Pryor, Miles Davis, and Sade — all had an inimitable sense of control, and a sense of where they were professionally. Only a scant few will return home just the way they left it — as two halves of a whole and loving couple who dared stroll hand in hand in public, fully aware of the danger, exulting in the thrill. [Arthur Jafa]! Never get too high or too low. With Baraka, even if you don’t quote him directly, he’s there. Yeah, that was The Voice in general. In your talk with Arthur Jafa at the Hammer Museum, I remember he told the audience that for Coltrane, being a musician was his second choice. The flesh was weak, but his spirit was alive and still kicking comedic ass …
You’ve said that video of Michael Jackson sitting down with Oprah is still one of your favorites to watch. [Laughs.] When I think about journalistic rigor then versus now — yeah, there’s this editorial piece, but there was the intensity of the pushback, from your colleagues, and an audience, so you’re getting checked on multiple sides. In TJ’s case though, the punishment still seems to far outweighs the crime by massive, galactic-sized units of measure. Some of us are not gonna make it all the way back to The Breach. But the first thing I wrote from him was pretty restrained. So, when you showed up in New York, people knew you and knew your work? He wrote a full-length biography of Coltrane, and I would love to see that. It’s not accidental, you keep reminding us. With that recognition comes the knowledge that for glitches like us there now looms a horde of fates far worse than death. He kind of really sensed that I would have that nerviness about me. I hate saying “I” in the public domain. I just haven’t tried to publish many of them. What are the collaborations that you have either witnessed or been a part of in your own career that have been most significant to you? Bob was rough. The throwaway stuff — him talking about how his mom would bring art supplies home and one day he and his brother Alan made the red and blue armies of Russia doing World War II out of clay, fashioned a thousand soldiers …
The one that stuck with me for years was when I said to him, “There’s a lot of detail in your writing.” and he said, “You can have a penny without a million dollars, but you can’t have a million dollars without a penny. People were terrified for me. I had sent Bob Christgau a piece I had written in DC, something I wrote just for myself, because my friend Thulani Davis told me to — the great Thulani Davis, whom I had known from DC — and it took me about a year before I felt like I had anything. That’s the point of it for him — the whole idea that marriage is where you actually complete your purpose on earth. I think regarding the writing, I came to New York with that. Define the terms of our existence and existential threat. Totally. Vibe is the reason I got to interview Sade, Richard Pryor, Santana, Lenny Kravitz in the Bahamas, Lisa Bonet in Topanga Canyon, Erykah Badu in Fort Green. He’s like my literary dad. Glitches like us have been at odds with the Law of The Father since the Stone Age. I think one of them may have beat up an editor too. [Laughs.] Usually his answers are the length of our questions. So, we went to a sound stage and I was standing in the hall, and I could see the set in another room. Plus, everyone went out to get The Voice on Tuesday nights for apartment listings. Really, really ahead of its time, and the first appearance of Sun Ra’s band on film, when they were wearing suits and ties. They were still doing it because they still wanted to do it. What happened was I started this rock band called Women in Love, with my friends Mikel Banks, Flip Barnes, Marque Gilmore, Helga Davis, and Jason Di Matteo. Among the beuys there’s a meager few old enough to remember what it is to be hunted down and caged because of who you choose to love. They were all intellectuals, culturally avant bad-asses, and stylish, and I dug their sense of connection and outlawness. In fact, they are even more energetic in their 90s than in their 20s or 30s. They had nothing else to prove in terms of their work. Yep, yep. Friends who’ve read the novel, though, say, “You need to publish that shit, and just let it go.” [Laughs.]
Greg Tate has kindly permitted us to present two previously unpublished short pieces. Yeah, I come from the generation that when someone calls you a “punk,” those are fighting words. Our conversation touched on Tate’s evolution as a writer, his collaborations and influences, and previously unpublished fiction, which Tate has graciously given us permission to print. And we did. They were all paid for life. And that there’s a way in which the life and the work feed into each other. Well, yeah, they are powered by the ancestors. And since the day starts for them at 4:00 p.m., they might get up at 2:00 p.m., so what you do with the other parts of the day are pretty definitive. I’m not even gonna turn around.” But she spoke, and her voice has bass, like Grace Jones. He whooped all our asses. I mean, even athletes, they lose it. [Laughs.]
What you manage to capture is his capacity for joy, his spirit. So, you take that kind of energy, you give it Jimi’s performance prowess, and it becomes something supernatural. You realize, after a while, your thoughts are incendiary enough; the language doesn’t have to also be on fire all the time. But musicians can be phenomenal in their 90s. [Laughs.] That’s Wayne Shorter, man! It’s all about the sound and the fury. You’ve talked about the significance of cultural confidence and passing that down. This was an indelible part of what you received at Howard University. Your dead poet friend’s sin was just writing bad poetry and being amply rewarded for it. A lot of my fiction starts out like that too. Our day-long conversation about his books, his band, and his collaborations took place on October 14, 2016, Tate’s birthday. It was paradigm-shifting for me. Oh yeah, and for Wayne, marriage is the core of that. In their talk about Black aesthetics, and what Jafa has termed “Black Cognition,” at the Hammer Museum in June 2016, Tate and Jafa displayed their gifts for improvisation, perfected over decades of theoretical and intellectual discussions since they met at Howard as undergraduates. Those three I could point to most specifically. He’s repurposed that energy now into the work he does as a curator and organizer and event-planner. I was a dad, still trying to figure out my life. It becomes like a dance. I was at the bottom of the stairs, and upstairs was the makeup and dressing rooms, and I felt this energy coming at me — couldn’t see who it was. ¤
LEAH MIRAKHOR: From your interviews of other artists and essays I know you’re an astrology buff — you point out that Miles Davis and Bob Dylan are both Geminis. In your writing though …
Well, yeah, in my writing I’m a madman. Sometimes the first paragraph will show up like an oracular bit, like a transmission from somewhere else. Way, way, way before The Governess began offering a mortgage on our wombs and a lien on our souls. Every time you came to New York you felt the electricity and then, once I got there, I had work, I had a little bit of a reputation, and in your 20s you don’t mind couch surfing, sleeping on basement floors, girlfriend’s places … But then everything started to come together after five years. Well, I think that most of us are just not alive in that way. Didn’t you talk about how Eminem was mad at Benzino for kicking him out of The Source? I know Amiri’s work backward and forward — the poems, the fiction, the essays, the plays. Yeah, his spirit was alive. “I never feel freer than when I’m by right here, by the ocean,” Tate remarked toward the end of our conversation that day, overlooking Santa Monica beach. The cornerstone of this artist’s vision lies in marking and re-manipulating the ways in which those bodies warp and woof the curvature of space, transfix the flow of time and alter our perceptions of the world’s materiality with existential fluidity. Even though you step out of the way. He said, “The difference between me and everyone else is I want all the pussy.” He laughs. True, nobody told your friend to write all that awful verse. Because of how they harness the power in their bodies? There was a network of people. When you read your earlier pieces out loud, you have to keep up with them — the energy the cadence, the movements. The sentences sound sonically like rap lyrics. But I’ve really enjoyed working in that dance situation, because Stefanie Bland is such a brilliant visionary. That kind of aggression. And he was merciless and unsentimental. Miles had that. In that regard, he surely has himself to blame for a life spent not writing well. What is the significance, to you, of being a Libra? And, because I was writing for The Voice, I was encouraged to be as loud and critical and vulgar as possible. The sound they produce can be even more energized. That’s when I got the staff position at The Voice. I was just hanging on for dear life. What reading material was important to you? It’s like a hammer or screwdriver or something — it’s just a way of applying energy to a particular task or objective. That’s why it’s rapture. He vibed with us — with me and Craig Street — intellectually, artistically. Stefanie also just won a Jerome Robbins Award — the first time they’ve given it to someone that is not his protégé. With Miles, that’s the chattiest interview I’ve ever read with him. This also reminds me of “The Gikuyu Mythos versus the Cullud Grrrl from Outta Space: A Wangechi Mutu Feature,” where you wrote about Wangechi Mutu’s regal, mystical, mythic energy: “Wangechi somewhat resembles Kenya’s famously tall, long-necked, nomadic, cattle-blood-drinking, hand-to-hand lion-killing, gorgeously coiffed, pierced, tattooed, and adorned Maasai people.”
Oh, yeah, Wangechi has that energy — that impalpable, sexual, creative, mystical energy. They figure out if you’re someone they can trust from the moment you walk in the room. 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. [Laughs.] Then, in the time I was there, over a 20-year span, the paper got sold three or four times. A. He was in that wheelchair till the day he died. This was because of what was going on politically, because of the anti-racist, anti-crack struggles and conscious hip-hop, and the way writers at the paper were also addressing homophobia, misogyny, sexism in hip-hop. They’d see my I.D. That was your ass out there, walking up and down the same streets, going to the same clubs. In “Sade: Black Magic Woman,” you described this palpable eroticism that was present in and with her. They knew what the standard was and they held writers to it. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Dream found out later that there were guys reading her in jail, who could quote chapter and verse from her pieces. I remember one friend had said she felt like she had gone through college with a bed strapped to her back, she was having so much sex. I would love to see some of that. Because I showed up the day before for the video shoot and Vibe had told me, “Don’t try and talk to her.” They had gotten that instruction from her people. I write about myself in the third person on Facebook. They were like gangsters in that way, classic Capone, eating well, dressing well, hanging out with fun people, being surrounded by sexually alive people in a sexually alive environment. What was significant about the vibe of The Voice overall for you as you were establishing yourself as a writer? They’re the ones who like to tell all the juicy details — tell whoever will listen how no loving could ever be hotter than the love you make freely and recklessly under the threat of combat, prison, multiple forced impregnations, repeated brain deaths. When you got to Pryor, he was not at the top of his game, physically. said, “Well, you didn’t think about what it was doing to us!” So he never had an intellectual remove from the human devastation that existed in the South. And the thing was, that Source review meant so much as far as your credibility in hip-hop. Because New York was the mecca? Imagine being such the dullard that even at the gates of hell you’re be taken as an automatic candidate for the D-list. In almost every piece, you write about the biological and historical circumstances that led these persons to make the art they make. He wanted to design cars, but thought, “What Black man is going to be allowed into this space?” This speaks so much to what you say now about the instrument being a vessel. GREG TATE: Well, I’m a ’70s kid. Benzino gangstered his way into The Source. The musicians who do read the reviews, they say, “Yeah, I read that, but that’s not even what was going on.” They’re so masterful, and so prepared to do what they do every night, that thing they do onstage. So, I sent this review of a Nona Hendryx concert, and he said I can’t use this piece, but the more writing I get like this in the paper, the more I’ll like it. Especially if you have really great grandparents around. This is a chopped-down version of us; generally, if you see us on tour, you’ll see about nine to 10 people, and in the city, about 17 to 20 people. Did you think in your early 20s, when you showed up to New York, that you’d make a career of writing? Really, any changes that happened with the writing, it was just maturity. So, before I left DC, in my late teens, I made a lot of friends in the Black Lesbian art community. I attended a series of talks he gave at UCLA’s Hammer Museum (with Sanford Biggers and Arthur Jafa) and at the MOCA (on Kerry James Marshall), as well as a performance with members of his band Burnt Sugar, the Arkestra Chamber at the Underground Museum. [Laughs.] That’s the Sade sound. Oh, Bob Christgau. People were connected to each other. And totally in control of all of it. It shows his capacity to do something with his body, brain, and spirit that was joyful for him and also created joy in others. It’s showy, but it’s a different show. I didn’t connect with that community in the same way in New York until years later. Love this kind of thing — working with other artists who are also open to improvisation. [See in particular Tate’s eulogies for Amiri Baraka, Ornette Coleman, Michael Jackson, and James Brown.]
The interviews you’ve done have a lot of you, too. It’s just beautiful. He told me once that his father said, “If I had girls, I never would have moved my family to such a barbaric, decadent, depraved place as Tupelo.” [Laughs.] And A. I mean, that interview is like 30 years old, and we still haven’t caught up with Wayne, we never will. Only thing that makes this any different is what The Governess did. Structured improvisation. Ed Bland was also this amazing modern classical composer. Or to accept all those shamefully, undeservedly flattering, ass-kissing prizes, publications, and awards — OK, grant you that. When we say someone is gifted, it’s that ability to communicate. When Lisa Jones and the Yale mafia showed up at The Voice, they were all three or four years younger than me. And they practice four to six to eight hours a day to maintain that level of craft. Shorter said that so much of what he and Miles did together wasn’t about music per se. So, it was major in terms of that. The thing I really don’t have an answer for is what the fuck was going on in Newark in the ’50s? Everything that I loved was happening right there, and at that moment — hip-hop, jazz, rock. Which editor most shaped you? I believe that. Even those you aren’t intimate with. All the music writers. So, we are playing in this big warehouse, and I think because of the hip-hop celebrity factor, I thought it was going to be this lipstick Lesbian scene, and then I went in there and went, “Oh, damn, there’s like 2,000 sisters from the hood in here.” And it made me realize the whole social ecology of Black female gay culture in the working-class Black community, in the projects. They’re the ones who live by our code to the fullest. And that’s probably the most personal, the closest I’ve been to an autobiographical or memoir-like kind of piece. You had to encounter people on multiple levels. We’ve performed with her company about 10, 12 times in different spaces. Hell no. What that said about familial relationships, kinships, the displacement of the male population — how the prison-industrial complex affected the upbringing of kids, the whole thing. She teaches at Yale University. Maybe the second piece I wrote for The Voice, I really knew how bold I could be. If you weren’t in New York, that’s sort of how you knew what was happening. And, being that age, you feel like you know everything about everything anyway. Your brother Brian Tate introduced you to Bad Brains, another huge influence on you. Their interviews are all about this other stuff. They’d send you out to Los Angeles for like a week, set you up at some great hotel, you’d go hang out at Richard Pryor’s house or Sade’s hotel room. Would you do that now? It was like the movies, where there’d be some wavy-shapey shit moving toward you, and I figured it was her. Assessing his own position in African-American writing in Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (2016), Tate writes, “I have come to occupy a somewhat unique position in the constellation of African American writing by keeping one ear to the street, one ear to the academy, and a phantom third hearing organ to my own little artsy-fartsy corner of Gotham and Brooklyn’s Black bohemia.” Tate has called his essays “a little something of a tool kit” for the next generation, who “wants to take on all of Black Culture, Sexuality, Consciousness and Cognition, high and low, hood and hermeneutical.” Tate’s works include Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture (2003), Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (2003), and Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (1992). They’re living it, they’re not just visiting. You could also order sex out of the back pages. That’s my great lesson to share. It’s their ability to push and ply their personalities through these pieces of metal. It just meant you were weak. And there was that sadness of realizing that all these people who used to come around, because you had $50 million in the bank, have abandoned you, and at the end it was just his ex-wife Jennifer Lee Pryor — she was the only one showing up. This seems to be a recurring thing with a lot of the jazz musicians in your interviews. She is really specific about what she wants and doesn’t want. I did that interview with my friend and Howard University J-School classmate Peter J. I’ll tell you this: Those kinda people read you the second you come in the room. It’s not a funk concert — it’s not a landing of the Mothership — it’s chamber jazz. Yeah, and with him it was always intense, because he was 1,000 percent present. I had this apprehension that he was going to be some kind of psychic wreck, but he was the Richard Pryor you knew — that mind, that intellect, that wit, that perception, that vulnerability — locked into a wheelchair. They told me, “We realized that if this guy was a street sweeper we would be talking about how this is the most magnificent display of street sweeping anyone has ever seen, in the history of street sweeping.” It’s funny, because I’ve been in delis where the way someone prepares food stands out to you, because they’re putting mad personality into it. In addition to writing consistently, you were constantly reading. [Laughs.] I did the interview with my friend Craig Street, and we were both Wayne addicts since we were like 16 years old. The Wayne Shorter interview you conducted with Craig Street is a philosophy of the erotic according to Shorter. Her father, Ed Bland, was a composer and a filmmaker — he did The Cry of Jazz (1959). M. They were at the height of their powers. It’s part of their psychic armor. The simplest shit, the most profound shit, and it was mind-blowing. I thought you were just some old motherfucker with an Afro.” I said, well, yeah, you’re right. It got a little out of control. I mean, I’m in control of whatever frequency I have in writing, but these people have control of it in life. On to the next question. Harris. What man is that honest? If we do a repertory project like our Prince or Bowie shows, then we would need multiple singers, a full horn section. Oh, yeah, I had a girlfriend in the ’90s, who didn’t know that I was the Greg Tate she had been reading. A prophetic film, years ahead of its time in terms of explicitly essaying the connection of jazz to Black working-class culture. Vibe. It was bo-ho artists, and this is just true of artist communities. Then The Source came out, and there were people like Dream Hampton who migrated between the two. But, the shit Jennifer and Pryor drop in that interview is just hilarious — ol’ bickering couple shit. I mean, it’s funny, because The Source was as read as the internet. and me has to do with his proximity to the “Primitive South” and me coming up in the “Cosmopolitan North.” So I didn’t see the kind of violence he actually saw, or even hear the kind of stories he heard — not just in what white people were doing to Black people, but what Black people were doing to each other in that environment. He referred to it as a rocket ship. The instrument is really just that — just a tool to transduce something. If the penny ain’t in there, it’s jive.” [Laughs.] Life lessons. As it turned out the first person that ever approached us about being a manager was a gay sister named Angel Williams. The Richard Pryor interview is from the days when Vibe was ballin’. He wrote so much; I know that he wrote works in the style of The Dead Lecturer that are as rich, but he never published them, because he was so reflexive. You know? Yeah. But it was cool. I think that’s why he can make the work he does and generate the emotion he creates in the work. Difference being all my glitches are being hunted down for not loving people we got no love for at all. It becomes interesting to figure out more modulated ways to be as effective and political and polemical even. They could just bring it out at a moment’s notice. In person, Tate is soft-spoken and disarmingly shy, effortlessly shifting topics from Duchamp to Rammellzee, astrology, and his family. There is a direct contrast between his desire and the inability to fully express it. That ability to make a sound with this horn, that reaches you, hits you in the gut, makes you cry. But, the thing I knew was that I had to get to New York, I had to be in New York. They really made a difference. They were like, “I’ll bring the Black part.” It was a calling — a call to prayer almost. I was trying to literally approximate music on the page. You learn a lot about yourself and your community. It was a clue-in that it wasn’t just my family or friends. and say, “Oh, you’re the cat that writes for The Voice.” Everyone read The Voice then, clearly — locksmiths and bouncers included. To just be explosive. But I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna be cool. You hear it in his music — this syncretism of deep emotion, deep skills, and deep space exploration on the saxophone. Mark, Kit Rachlis, Ross Wetzsteon — all these people were sterling, superb, top-of-the-game editors. That’s why we are all so caught up in it. It’s kind of like now with me and the writing: you don’t have to be as showy, you’re more interested in how subtle you can be. Mikel and I used to joke that our one ambition with the band was to be the Black Rock Coalition band with the biggest Black Lesbian audience. Never mind we all grew up feeling that way anyhow — that we’re all the kind of glitches who’ve always understood dancing close and risking annihilation to be on the most intimate of terms and how those polarities come with the price of the ticket. Oh, yeah. In the Midwest, I remember people would line up to get the newest issue of The Source. And hearing what comes out of us under someone else’s hand. This was my experience — and it was also borne out by what I was seeing, what was happening for other folks. I had my daughter when I was 22. Some of the jazz musicians of the ’60s and ’70s were interested in life, in the good life. There’s a point where he asks, “Y’all musicians?” And for Miles Davis to ask you if you’re a musician — for Miles Davis to ask you that shit, like … you know … for that even to be something he asked you. Could you talk about “Born to Dyke: I Love My Sister Laughing and Then Again When She’s Looking Mean, Queer, and Impressive”? He was more advanced in terms of art, film, visual theory. The ones basically be on some shit like “If tonight is going to be last time we make love let’s make the kinda love that burns this house down, turns it into a pyre and enshrines our ashes…”
Leah Mirakhor’s essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Yale Review, African American Review, and Studies in American Jewish Literature. There’s no way you could go through that process and not become a better writer. He was in the clubs, slam dancing, pogoing, wearing weird-ass clothes with safety pins in them and shit, but he turned me onto so much music. It wasn’t even a sexual thing. The questions you ask yourself in the piece are risky, non-rhetorical, and honest. It was very kind of casual, a part of the everyday. Prince and Michael were more like jazz musicians than pop musicians, because the music was just in their bodies at all times. So, the next piece I wrote was on James Blood Oval or Bad Brains (they were back to back). The other editors there were as talented, less intense, but you learned as much from them too, because you realized they knew the craft. Do you feel there’s one thing that has changed most about how you write over the past 20 years? It was the Yoda moment, man. Oh yeah, I already have. And Jennifer comes back with, “I think you’ve had enough for this lifetime.” I thought, “Yeah, for like 10 lifetimes.” And he says, “There’s no such thing as enough.” He was devoted. Which is why I always tell young artists, “You gotta give New York five years to let you know if you are supposed to be here.” Like if something doesn’t break for you, then you probably need to go somewhere else. Who knew the high lords of the Bibliophilic underworld were such vicious literary critics? I was already reading Pauline Kael, André Bazin. Some of us came here tonight with gitches we love. I started writing, and I had no idea they were going to put it on the cover — you never know those things — and it was the cover story that week. You saw him shuffling about the ’hood, wondering as he wandered, looking all lost, rudderless, and shambolic without purpose or direction. J. He couldn’t deal with it. It’s real specific to that moment, Brooklyn, the East Village. We’re so far behind. I had broken up with my daughter’s mom before I moved to New York. You know, the ’80s and ’90s were just a real sexual time in New York. No, actually, that’s the first thing she said during the interview. And being in concert with these amazing dancers. He was fully committed. Did that stability change how you wrote? My mother was always excited too — she always loved New York. And New York just excited me, just the idea of being in New York. The pieces kind of made me in New York, before I moved up there. The thing is, I don’t like writing about myself. We both got interested in reading critical theory stuff. So that community was kind of like home to me, intellectually, culturally, aesthetically. So we will tour this piece around the country and Europe over the next couple of years. Sell her own kind out to The Law of The Father to save her own ass and, in the process, cut our chances of survival and resistance down from percentages to mean fractions. It’s like you’re watching living music when you see the things they can do with their bodies. It’s a chamber piece. He wasn’t physically in command, but mentally he was all there. That was the thing that was the most painful. Sisters would ask us, “What you guys think you know about women in love?”
My standard response was like that a woman in love could be your best friend or your worst nightmare. I can’t remember how early in our meeting she realized I was the guy that wrote for The Village Voice, and she said, “Wait you’re that Greg Tate? Five of us from Burnt Sugar. She sings in her head voice, as opposed to a chest voice, but I realize that she has like a natural reverb chamber up in there! How simple it would make things for the dead if they really could come back as zombies, ghouls, or vampires rather than as just homeless black ghosts. For my father — New York required too much loss of control, even as a driver. And there are a bunch of short stories, novellas, and flash fiction. And you couldn’t hide behind digital anonymity. He was himself till the end. She edits the band as much as she edits the dance. Even so, returning him to Harlem for a rootless bohemian after-existence was an injustice that ranked beyond even the Luciferian pale. He has also taught courses at Brown and Princeton, and is an avid musician. You’ve commented on how people don’t really do real editing anymore, and that writers now don’t have to deal with editing. That’s why I’m usually on your side of the table. This was a moment in the 1990s where there were more Black writers in the paper, on a weekly basis, than had been at the paper for the past 20 years. [Laughs.]
When I was at Howard, one of my mentors told me, “Writers need institutions.” So that was my institution for about 20 years. I don’t know how we are going to fix it.” And after a couple of hours you would fix it — well, you would fix it together, because in The Voice system, you actually sat with the editor and went through the piece line by line, real old school. And given that platform you just feel empowered. And he said, “This is cool, but I really want to see something like you showed me in the sample.” He was really seeing me as the Black Lester Bangs. Mikel and I had our own fascination-fetishization-love relationship going on with Black Lesbians as a genre. All twenty-four of us acting like we don’t know no better than to be caught dancing close to another glitch in a large public space. And when you work with dancers on that level, you get to be an audience member too. Is there a piece or moment where you realized you had that? [Laughs.] You know what Flaubert said, right? (This conversation was a significant part of our day-long conversation, even though all of it has not been transcribed below.) Their discussion was the fruit of a lifelong commitment to disciplined engagement with Black life, art, and experience. And they asked him, “What’s the one thing that you want people to know about your talent that you think they don’t understand?” Carter replied, “That this gift that I have came from God.” No follow-up on that. He’s there. J. The women of that generation were incredibly sexually liberated, felt incredibly comfortable because of their feminist experiences, and their relationships with their own bodies — maybe because of Prince. Been that way for quite a while now. We started Women in Love to write songs about love and relationships from multiple perspectives. Now having one-night stands is more organized — there are all these apps. I was trained by old motherfuckers with Afros. He, like a lot of Black kids of his generation, just heard themselves in that music — that was their “rebel yell” — and so they didn’t even think about it racially. In his essay “The Changeling Mise-en-Scène — Arthur Jafa’s Meta Love and the New Black Reportage,” on Jafa’s film Love is the Message, The Message is Death, Tate displays one of his brilliant vernacular constructions to describe Jafa’s work:
Repeated viewings of Love Is the Message reveal the artist’s microsurgical attention to cinematically apprehending the dynamism of culturally and rhythmically-confident Black bodies in swooning, swaying, sanctified, synaptic, erotic, choreographic, athletic, cognitive, and violently-assaulted motion. Some take the risk because they love how hot the loving will be once they’re safely spaces where The Governess can’t reach them. When Shorter broke down the difference between a “direction” and a “value-creation,” I was mesmerized. And sometimes we would have to clear the office because of bomb threats.  
Most nights this is an all-boys club but tonight the beuys have graciously opened their house to any glitch in heat, any glitch off the street. I met Stefanie because Vernon Reid’s wife, Gabri Christa, adopted the Butch Morris conduction system to choreography. Too much chaos. Because of the investigative journalism we were doing — on city politics, corruption, the worst landlords — people would write threatening letters to The Voice writers every week. You become very aware of the erotic activity going on. But as a writer, Tate has been, in his own words “all about the sound and the fury.” His criticism over the last four decades has advanced a distinct poetics and politics with a Tateian mix of bravado, sonic play, and masterful connections between experience, aesthetics, and cultural politics. Scaring the shit out of people, sucking their blood, eating out their intestines could be easily become a full-time job for someone who was truly undead and not just a derelict of a man walking. I was still using The Voice during those five years as if I had a job there. I had a guy change the lock to my apartment, and I had lived in the city for about two years. He’s just so well integrated. Then Vibe came along. As close as I may have come. Stefanie thinks like a director and composer as a choreographer. When you get to Ornette, Shorter, Coltrane, Sun Ra, then you start to get these very cosmic philosophers, interested in making connections between music and life in really profound ways. And we got each other, in terms of the sophistication of the cultural conversation. It just told you, he totally sussed us out. Because you know he would say that: “This is unpublishable. They were some of my favorite people, and we would hang out and talk. They have a living relationship with music. I moved up in ’82, got the staff position in ’87, and that kind of stabilized things financially. There’s these guys … I did an interview with the Aleem Brothers, who came up with Hendrix in Harlem. One of your ongoing conversations with Jafa is about how Blackness is and is not related to horror. It was really amazing. All the other young Black writers that came right behind myself — Barry Michael Cooper and Nelson George. I learned a lot. What inspired you to write it? One day, maybe about a year after working with the band, Angel got us a gig up in this thing, brought us in there. And then you also learn a lot because you know other people’s stories. The mecca. I started coming up on the weekends in the ’70s, when I was at Howard. But it all works out. Some of us will not be going home with the glitch we came in with tonight. He had to have a caretaker. But I love the city. He said — and this is when Thulani Davis, myself, Stanley Crouch, Nelson George, Barry Cooper were all at The Voice — he said, “All my Black writers write like preachers.”
Like a Baldwin sentence that’s a whole paragraph. He had a kid at a young age too. And you write about why their bodies needed to morph, and how beholden they were to their bodies. One evening Linda Bryant, who hired me at the JAM Gallery, ran me through the who’s-zooming-who of the previous generation, and I remember saying, “Damn, this sounds like a soap opera.” Then five years later, oh, you’re living the soap opera too! They talked about the focus and intensity Jimi had when he was in a room with an un-amplified guitar, practicing licks over and over again, with his back to the door. There’s some of me in the eulogies. Instead of getting it back, and someone saying, “Just do this.” You had to sit there and learn. He explains:  
Another word I don’t like it “direction.” If something is a style and it stays there, then people ask, [adopting a pompous British accent] “What direction are you going in aesthetically?” If you put on a style of clothes is that the direction? You know, when you’re younger, it’s all about expressionism, it’s all about trying to make as much noise as possible. Yeah! We’ve been doing a collaboration with the dance group Company SBB, led by Stefanie Batten Bland, for the last four years. One of the most striking things about meeting Tate in person is his unabashed embrace of the mystical and sublime. The Voice was a real piece of what was happening in the city — very important culturally, politically. Libras are supposed to have a very balanced response to situations, able to look at things from all sides, are good negotiators, generally are artistic, collective, we’re oriented kinds of people, and usually maintain a very calm demeanor. In the Bohemian artistic communities, a lot of women felt as sexually bold as most guys. That Wayne Shorter, Amiri Baraka, and George Clinton all emerge from there … Those three cats are probably, philosophically, the three most important people on my poetic radar. That was the very first thing she said, before we sat down for the interview. I rather like instead the term “value-creation.” Direction to me is blinders. J. I’d thought it was unfinished for decades. But I mean, that’s when I felt, like, whatever “That Thing” is … It came down the stairs with her. MARCH 1, 2018

BETWEEN 2016 AND 2017, I had several opportunities to see Greg Tate. The Yale crew was so present at The Voice that people thought I had gone to Yale. Yeah. Gabri put a bunch of bad-ass New York choreographers together with the band, and we called it Burnt Sugar/ DANZ. I learned that you don’t have to be as brash or volcanic or profane to say what you need to say. We would talk about everything — films, music, politics, personal stuff. Did you ever think about writing a novel? I just saw an interview with Ron Carter, who played with Miles. We did about six shows with that group. Did that enforce a kind of responsibility and integrity — if you were going to say it, you’d better stand behind it? Me and my glitches could all die up in here tonight. It was a real epiphany. They had to get bulletproof glass in the reception area. Because if someone got one mic or half a mic, they’d be ready to fight, ready to take someone out. He might have had six other writers to see that day, but you were all going to get the full brunt. There were these “Girl Parties.” I believe MC Lyte was one of the organizers, but it was a very covert scene. But value-creation is taking off the blinders and making value out of every moment. He told a friend of mine who became a successful writer, when he first started sending stuff in, he straight up said to him, “Your work isn’t good enough to be published by this paper and I don’t think it ever will be.” Bob was good at absolute declarative statements like these. Well, I’ve settled down. Can you talk a little more about “your Black Lesbophilia,” and why this was your most memoir-like piece? He would turn me onto folks like David Bordwell and Christopher Metz. There were cats — in terms of the music piece — that I could always talk to in DC, but they weren’t as interested in literary theory. And Angel was a part of a whole community of sisters. Those first conversations happened at The Voice. [Laughs.] Yeah, Christgau said something interesting once. For hip-hop, it was the internet. One of the funniest lines to me from his 1970s comedy skit is when he is arguing with his woman, and he says, “I’m gonna go get me some new pussy.” And she says, “There’s some new pussy right here, if you had an inch more dick.” Come on, man. In your talk at the Hammer, Jafa said, “The Delta is like the Afro-Am Jurassic Park.”
It’s funny that one of the main differences between A. That was a major collaboration. First thing Sade said to me was, “I really like that shirt.” [Laughs.] She went straight into seduction mode. Wasn’t the whole band, as I recall. Yeah, I mean, the thing is, jazz musicians almost never talk about music, in the way that even critics who know music talk about it. Be as bourgeois as you can in your life so you can be a total madman on the page. But to be just shuffling about these broken-down parts for an eternity seemed like a hell reserved for those the devil deemed too dull to deserve more creative punishments. So I just decided I wanted to write about that, and some of my own history in terms of the Black Lesbian community, and that was the piece.