Greg Tate, an incisive and influential critic and essayist who focused on matters related to music, art, and other realms of culture, has died at the age of 64. Reports of his passing began circulating online early Tuesday, and his publisher Duke University Press confirmed the news. A cause of death was not immediately available.
Tate made his name early on as a studious and stylish writer about music and art for publications including the Village Voice, Vibe, and Spin—as well as ARTnews, for which he wrote a number of essays and reviews dating back to 2017. He was one of the most observant and important early chroniclers of hip-hop in the 1980s, in terms of music as well as all the elements of street art and fashion that continue to surround it.
In musical circles, he was influential for the ways he connected hip-hop and other sounds to an expansive lineage of avant-garde Black music and art by visionaries including Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and countless others. In Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience, a book about Hendrix from 2003, he wrote, “Black culture must produce demigods and mythological creatures: half-human, half-archangel winged things bent on saving the race, uplifting the culture, bearers of Black Redemption.”
Other books by Tate include Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (1992), Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture (an anthology he edited in 2003), and Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (2016). He was also a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition and the “conducted-improv big band” Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber. His work also extended into the field of curating when, last year, with Liz Munsell, he organized the exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation” for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
In an outpouring of grief among followers and peers on Twitter, the jazz writer Adam Shatz wrote that Tate was “to avant-Black music what Clement Greenberg was to Abstract Expressionism, a pioneering critic, canon-builder, curator, astronaut-explorer of planets unknown to most of his peers.” Doreen St. Félix, a writer for publications including the New Yorker, wrote, “The first step to it is mimicry and who we are all mimicking is Greg Tate…the greatest…and the kindest, so generous with his time and that brain.”
For ARTnews, Tate wrote about the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2017. Tracing its roots back to the slave trade, he wrote, “The broad outlines of the story should be familiar to most readers of these pages, but, as with most things regarding the nation and race, the devil is in the horrific details, as is the never-ending tale of endurance and indelible, creative transcendence of those horrors that occurred along the way. Great museums offer a range of opportunities and strategies not only for getting those devilish details right but also for killing us softly, as the song goes, while doing so. NMAAHC scores high on both counts.”
In 2019, Tate wrote an ARTnews review of the Whitney Biennial in relation to “The Institutional White Art World (henceforth to be referred to as TIWAW).” His memorable lede for the piece: “Like Miles Davis, every Whitney Biennial blows, haute and cool, and inevitably, for some bodies of opinion, that other way too.” In 2020, he wrote an ARTnews “Letter from New York” about the early stages of the pandemic. And, in 2021, as part of a series devoted to “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” ARTnews published four interviews conducted by Tate and Liz Munsell with figures surveyed in the show, including an archival discussion that Tate conducted with the rapper and artist Rammellzee.
For an interview with New York magazine around the publication of Flyboy 2, Tate recalled of his early days in the city: “I got to New York in ’81, just as hip-hop was blowing up. 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.”
In his ARTnews “Letter from New York” last year, he wrote about the thrill of seeing his friends and his city come back alive again (at least a little bit) after three months of coronavirus lockdown—”for a picnic on the Hudson River around 135th Street, while a very muted Black Lives Matter protest for George Floyd shut down the West Side highway nearby. The sun was in glorious spring bloom, the air was warm and tender, the curve had officially flattened, and once again New Yorkers were out on the grass at water’s edge, picnicking, parlaying, and kicking classic funk and soul out of their boomboxes and portable speakers.”