Since he made his name at The Village Voice in the 1980s, Greg Tate has been one of America’s foremost writers on black music and the myriad ways in which culture collides with social and political movements. His 1992 anthology, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America, is one of the great collections of critical work, and now comes the sequel, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader, which brings us up to date on his essays since then, including thoughts on Michael Jackson, Joni Mitchell, Richard Pryor, Wu-Tang Clan, and more. (In-between: books on cultural appropriation and Jimi Hendrix.)
Since the turn of the century, Tate has also been a figurehead in Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, a psychedelic fusion band that takes off from a launchpad in the vicinity of electric Miles Davis, Funkadelic, and Hendrix. On Thursday, for free in Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium, Burnt Sugar plays a tribute show to Prince with the title “Under the Cherry Parade in a Day (You Sexy MF).” Tate spoke with Vulture from his home in Harlem’s Sugar Hill about musical mythology, Prince’s wild style, and the ways that music and race are intersecting in America now.
Your book collects writing going back to 1985. How much do you keep up with new music now, and how have your ways of keeping up changed?
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. Obviously that’s all changed. The city has changed. It’s not that open kind of space. And I got older: In the course of doing this work, I was 23 when I started and I am 59 now. But I’m still a hip-hop head, still a fan. When it became a more southern-centered music, I had to adapt. But I spend my time listening. I stay current like everybody else does: Pandora, YouTube, word-of-mouth again.
If we look at how Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are functioning in the culture, they take up that mantle in a way. We don’t just expect songs — we expect spectacle, we expect events. It’s difficult, this relatively early in their careers, to compare them to Prince or Bowie. Those legends were accumulated over time. The myth acquired even more mythic reverence because they were still around, they didn’t check out. We have other people who, if they had a spark or ambition or incentive, maybe could be that. I’m thinking of Lauryn Hill or D’Angelo. But they came into the game when artists were signing deals for the kind of money that maybe Marvin Gaye or Richard Pryor would have had to work 20 years to get. Those artists are under more pressure to produce masterpieces, despite what might be going on in their lives. That’s a function of a different age.
But the human species keeps throwing trailblazers, innovators, people who exceed the standards of the past. The delivery systems are just different. The audience and the sense of connection to the street is different too.
How is the connection different?
The Voice did a cover in ’85 called “Hip-Hop Nation” with about 50 folks on the cover. That pretty much was hip-hop then. It started small, a village kind of situation. There was an accessibility before these people became superstars. There were no bodyguards, just people going from club to club in the course of a night. But nightlife is not what it was once, that ability for people to just go out at night and live whatever their cultural predilection is. Music life, street life, and club life all being one and all concentrated — we’ve lost that.
In terms of that mythic reverence for the past that you mentioned, whose legacy are you most excited to see in 30 years?
I think Kanye is already there. He’s the guy people are going to be talking about the way we talk about Bowie, Hendrix, the Stones. It’s not just a matter of my taste or your taste but the impact that people have and ability to stand apart from their peers. I know people who thought Kanye was over five years ago, but he keeps coming back. “Ultralight Beam” [from The Life of Pablo] is a masterpiece. Kanye hasn’t made a bad record. There are records that people prefer over others, but pound for pound, they’re all classics. They’ve all proven to be game-changers. People who can’t stand his ass are going to eventually fade away, and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. He’s still vital, creative, significant.
Prince-wise, your band Burnt Sugar is performing a tribute to Parade. Why that album?
We gravitated toward Parade because it is a unique collection of work. It’s a soundtrack, for one thing [for the movie Under the Cherry Moon], but also the most pronounced collaboration he ever did, with the arranger Clare Fischer, who was a big influence on Herbie Hancock and a long list of R&B artists like Chaka Khan. That collaboration really pushed the music into some new areas: experimental cinematic-soundtrack work, marches, baroque music, neoclassicism, Brazilian stuff, even what some folks would call cosmic Americana. It also allowed him, because it was a film — I don’t know if I’ve figured out the best way to say this yet — to either step out of character into a persona or out of a persona and into a character. The songs are written from the perspective of a character, so it’s a projection of Prince but specific to the gigolo-vixen-Eurotrash narrative of the film. When you zoom in on the songs, it’s this great fantasia about sex, death, and melancholy, in the form of funk.
Playing Prince would seem to be daunting for anyone who is not, say, Prince. How do you approach it?
I work with world-class virtuosos who can handle any canon of pop music and also bring our own stank to it, as we say. We’ve done an all–Rick James show, a show called “Fleetwood Black,” Sun Ra with burlesque dancers, electric Miles, Bowie stuff. There are openings in the music that we can treat like a wormhole and come out on the other side.
In black music now, there are a lot of artists getting attention for playing in a sort of boundaryless zone between genres, like Kamasi Washington, Blood Orange, Janelle Monáe, Frank Ocean. Does that seem different to you compared to the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s?
Definitely. Race and genre have been joined at the marketing hip since the beginning of the American popular-music industry. I’ll take that back to 1880s piano rolls and ragtime sheet-music sales. The marriage of technology, marketing, music, and race — these things have always been conjoined. And then of course the post-Napster generation exploded that.
If you go back to Parliament, Funkadelic, or Rick James or Prince, you had people who were making records that defied classification all along the way, but the rubric of R&B was always attached to them in the marketplace. It was an apple cart that nobody wanted to upset. Even those of us who know have forgotten the stranglehold that record companies had on the music business, particularly from the ’70s on. They were the only conduit, and all of that was tied to the way that music was marketed and labeled, distributed, toured. Relative to what we have now, it was a very mono-dimensional economy, but all of that got blazed away with downloads. If you were a black artist playing around with genres, like Prince and George Clinton, you were still an R&B artist. The idea of R&B was very hidebound. The music was always progressive and experimental and evolutionary, but people had a conservative idea of what it meant. It was just a bunch of old guys, black and white, who were really controlling things.
Does the way it remains evolutionary seem different to you or part of the same trajectory?
All of these artists we think of as being boundaryless I would argue are actually in the tradition of R&B. On a certain level everything that happens in black music usually begins with some outsider status. Everybody makes the distinctions early on, like they did between hip-hop and R&B — they were considered miles apart, in every way. Don Cornelius stopped doing Soul Train because he just didn’t understand hip-hop. But over time, since it’s culturally the same people but just a younger generation, the sound is going to be reflective of their modernity. And eventually, everything, when you get to the stage when you’re talking about it from a historian’s standpoint, is all R&B. It all reverts to R&B. Everything from Flying Lotus or Kamasi or Janelle, we can reference all of that back. Somebody like Herbie Hancock, man — he was doing ambient records, techno records, and jungle records in ’72, ’73, ’74.
Some of those artists seem to be resonating politically too in a way that hasn’t been the case in recent years, or at least feels pitched-up now versus even just a few years ago. Would you agree?
No one, even the folks inside the justice movement, could have predicted that Black Lives Matter would have such a dramatic impact on consciousness left, right, and center. Just the fact that the words themselves are so provocative and incendiary for the Fox News crowd is still stunning to me. It speaks to how viral the tools we have at our disposal are. It’s like Marshall McLuhan’s idea that the medium is the message and that each advance in technology creates its own ability to reframe consciousness. The fact that “black lives matter” immediately translated for the right wing to “black people want to kill cops” speaks to the power of that idea to define and identify an oppositional politic for a generation. Whether the interpretation was accurate or not doesn’t really matter. It was as incendiary in its launch as the Black Panthers on the steps of the Sacramento poorhouse with guns and bandoleros. That’s where we’ve moved in terms of technology’s ability to advance a radical idea in society. The Panthers had to do something that was big enough for the three networks to put on the six o’clock news. Citizens today just put three words together with a hashtag and it immediately politically defined a generation.
There’s a tendency to think that, for music in the ’60s and ’70s, the political stakes were higher and there was more possibility of change, whereas music now is all just a gleaming commodity or an entertainment channel that we stream as life goes on. Do the stakes seem different to you now?
This is about myths taking on greater mythic reverence over time. If I really think about the heyday of socially conscious or socially aware R&B, I’m really thinking about maybe between ’68 and ’74, which was really the height of the Black Power movement, the Black Arts movement, the Black Student movement.
How does our current state compare to then in terms of music’s ability to do something that moves the needle?
It’s an interesting chicken-and-egg thing. James Brown gave a voice and a presence to the Black Power movement with “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” but he was responding to questions that were already on the street, so it followed in the wake of activity on the street. I think artists now are also following — their consciousness follows what the streets are feeling about where their generation is. If your most radical, intelligent peers are out on the street taking social justice and social change very seriously, if you’ve got any kind of sense you’re going to respond. I was waiting to see in the wake of Ferguson what the artistic response was going to be, and it came really quickly.
What stood out to you?
There are a lot of things. There are some records that people have already forgotten. But the way that Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar responded was definitely as powerful as anything that folks did in the ’70s. They were taking up the mantle and the burden of trying to do this within the context of careers that had already blown up into major phenomena. It was not a risk they had to take; their fan base was more than secure. But I feel like these moments always produce artists who are up to the task, in my experience. It’s a rarefied gift. Writing a song that has any kind of political message that actually works might be the most rarified gift of all. To make something that actually has street appeal and movement appeal and radio appeal — you’re only going to get a handful of those in any generation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.