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The art and style of Greg Tate


For the New Yorker, Hua Hsu write about the writer Greg Tate. A critic for the Village Voice in its 1990s heyday, Tate published several collections with paragraphs that to Hsu reverberated like “throbbed like a party and chattered like a salon.” Read the profile in partial below, in full via the New Yorker.

Greg Tate published his first book, a collection of essays titled “Flyboy in the Buttermilk,” in 1992. It drew from his work at the Village Voice, where he had initially been hired, in the late eighties, to help the alternative weekly cover black music. As he would wryly note years later, the opportunity was born of the paper’s unusual belief that “Afro-diasporic musics should on occasion be covered by people who weren’t strangers to those communities.” At the Voice, Tate became known for the slangy erudition he brought to bear on a range of topics, not just hip-hop and jazz but also science fiction, literary theory, movies, city politics, and police brutality. His best paragraphs throbbed like a party and chattered like a salon; they were stylishly jam-packed with names and reference points that shouldn’t have got along but did, a trans-everything collision of pop stars, filmmakers, subterranean graffiti artists, Ivory Tower theorists, and Tate’s personal buddies, who often came across as the wisest of the bunch.

By the time I learned about “Flyboy,” it was out of print. A friend lent it to me, and, for the first time in years, I contemplated theft. Most critics can recall the encounters with art that left them so entranced that—motivated by mystery, ecstasy, or something in between—they felt compelled to reckon with the experience through writing. And most critics can also recall the critical essays that convinced them that this form of writing could be as exhilarating as art. When I first read Tate, I had cycled through a few of the more obvious approaches to cultural criticism, from the twisty and gonzo to the arch and obscurantist. But, reading Tate, I was drawn to his sense of otherness; he wrote from a perspective that felt both inside and outside. The possibilities of that perspective struck me when I got to the piece in “Flyboy” about Don DeLillo. Tate admires DeLillo, but, in the essay, he muses playfully on the vast literary terrain available to the alienated white male writer.

For a generation of critics, Tate’s career has served as a reminder that diversity isn’t just about a splash of color in the group photo; it’s about the different ways that people see, feel, and move within the world. These differences can be imperceptible, depending on where your eye lingers as you scan the newsroom. What made Tate’s criticism special was his ability to theorize outward from his encounters with genius and his brushes with banality—to telescope between moments of artistic inspiration and the giant structures within which those moments were produced. “Flyboy 2,” published earlier this month by Duke University Press, largely consists, like its predecessor, of critical essays, interviews, profiles, and short riffs. But, a quarter of a century on, the question animating his work has come into sharper focus. What he’s been exploring through his criticism has been something “less quantifiable,” as he puts it, than culture, identity, or consciousness. What Tate wants to understand is “the way Black people ‘think,’ mentally, emotionally, physically,” and “how those ways of thinking and being inform our artistic choices.”

*Image of Greg Tate via the New Yorker