Reading Greg Tate’s criticism is like joining a conversation already in progress. His writing is fast on the eye and fast on the ear, full of play and delight in language for its own sake. At the same time, Tate knows writing isn’t talk. “DisCOINTELPRO”—his term for “a form of record industry sabotage dubbed ‘disco'”—would never work around a table but it stops you dead in a line of prose.
Since his work on music, art, politics—an ongoing argument with his colleagues, culture-makers, himself, and the esthetic weather—began appearing in The Village Voice in 1981, Tate has built up a head of steam that’s allowed him to blow past more borders and plant more theses in his signature lists than a lot of writers manage in their books. When “Brian Wallis laments that there’s never been a serious study of the relationship of black culture to institutionalized art,” Tate answers back “like don’t nobody know that since Cubism, black culture and Western modernism have been confused for conceptual kissing cousins; that since bebop’s impact on Abstract Expressionism and the Beats, black modernism has been confused with white alienation and social deviance; that since Duke Ellington compared Picasso to Miles Davis, black genius has been confused with the formal exhaustion of Western art; that since Norman Mailer wrote ‘The White Negro,’ black cool has been mistaken for a figment of white heterosexual anxiety… that since Ornette Coleman called Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Star Spangled Banner’ the most beautiful since Toscanini’s, the power to impose cultural democracy has fallen into the hands of black people with strange ideas…”
It still bothers me, though, that Tate’s 1985 proclamation of his “dream magazine,” I Signify—The Journal of Afro-American Semiotics, was apparently just a riff, albeit one a lot of people might envy. Reading Tate, you realize it could take any form—academic quarterly, fanzine, street flyer and it would, in the discourse Tate is creating, make perfect sense.