In December of 2021, we lost the effervescent, warrior soul who was Greg Tate.
Some know Greg Tate as the chest-beating activist, who solemnly swore to fight for equal rights, which he steadfastly did until the very end of his life, which was cut short when Tate went into cardiac arrest on December 7th, 2021.
Others will remember Tate as the “Godfather of Hip-Hop Journalism,” where his masterful criticism and uber appreciation for the genre, could make or break burgeoning MCs both young and old.
As an artist and musician, Tate took listeners on sonic journeys not often seen since the likes of Sun Ra and John Coltrane graced this earth. With his collective, Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, Tate pushed boundaries and expanded listeners’ minds to universes previously unknown, and in doing so, intertwined his love for jazz, hip-hop, and rock with his thirst for equal rights.
In life, Greg Tate was a pioneer and trendsetter on many levels. In death, his message of hope, unity, and get-down-on-it funk will continue to reverberate throughout the halls of future listeners’ minds.
Yes, it’s true, Tate cast a wide shadow, and from that shadow, gentle dawn will break way to a light which will illuminate the minds, hearts, and souls of generations to come.
Greg Tate’s overarching career can be boiled down to one simple message: hope. Well, Greg…message received.
In what has sadly and unexpectedly amounted to Greg Tate’s final interview, among other things, Greg and I chat on his musical origins, the formation of Burnt Sugar, his newest music, his thoughts on the music industry today, and a whole lot more.
Andrew Daly: Hello, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today. How have you been holding up over the last year or so? What have you been up to?
Greg Tate: All things considered, I consider myself and my families blessed – both the blood kinfolk and the Burnt Sugar kinfolk. Professionally, I’ve been doing a lot of Zoom panels and lectures, and a lot of writing for the art world, as usual, these days. I also co-curated an exhibition at MFA [Museum of Fine Arts’ Boston called “Writing The Future: Basquiat and The Hip-Hop Generation,” which, after a delayed spring 2020 opening, ran from October 2020 to July 2021, and was acclaimed for its exhibition experience and its catalog. And of course, I helped prepare [the Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber] Angels Of Oakanda for release.
AD: Before we dive into your professional career, let’s go back a bit. What first got you hooked on music?
GT: Like everybody who grew up in 1960s Black America, music was everywhere – home stereo, car radio. My mom played her favorites on heavy rotation – Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the speeches of Malcolm X. Some people don’t know Malcolm was a popular vinyl artist. My big sis was a Motown baby. But the first album I remember digging was adapted from a Disney animated short of Sterling Holloway narrating Peter And The Wolf to the music of the Russian composer Prokofiev. It was quite enchanting.
Towards adolescence, I fell in love with The Temptations’ psychedelic period, [and songs] produced by Norman Whitfield: Cloud Nine, Runaway Child, Running Wild, Message From a Black Man, and [also], Sly and The Family Stone’s Greatest Hits. Around age 16, I read Amiri Baraka’s Black Music, and became converted by his writing into an avant-garde Jazz vinyl addict, and eventually, a music journalist.
AD: Who were some of your early influences?
GT: The usual suspects: Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Miles Davis, LeRoi Jones, Ralph Ellison, Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison, Toni Morrison, Betty Carter, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Wayne Shorter, Jimi Hendrix, Sun Ra, Frank Zappa, Santana, Mandrill, Earth, Wind & Fire, Cecil Taylor, Betty Davis, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Labelle, Joni Mitchell, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Gil Scott-Heron, and Nikki Giovanni.
AD: Let’s talk about recent events. Tell us about your new release, Angels Over Oakanda. This is your first album of new material since 2017. What can fans expect?
GT: Angels Over Oakanda is a four-song suite that draws on multiple creative sources from within the group. The first song is mostly live in the studio and is an 18-minute conducted Improvisation, with three horns, bass, guitar, keys, drums, and laptop. I say mostly because the original recording was augmented by flute, tenor saxophone, and a second guitar for overdubs. It thumps and kicks like a locomotive furthermucker, with a smooth dynamo of an engine under its hood. It runs hot and cool. Marque Gilmore created his own interpretation of the ethereal liberation theme in his “Oakland Overdrive,” which is a free-bopping, freedom-swangin’ transfiguring of the loop by Jared Nickerson and V. Jeffrey Smith that ignites track one. The final track is a collaboration between our very soulful vocalist Lisala Beatty, [with] myself as the lyricist and her choice of a section of Gilmore’s composition. It’s very Afro-anthemic and Afro-angelic.
AD: I want to touch on the origins of Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber. Tell us about how things came together, and how the group has evolved to what it is today.
GT: Back in 1999, I was curious about what a modern version of a Bitches Brew-type band would sound like – especially if it deployed our late sensei, Lawrence Butch Morris’ Conduction system for improvisational ensembles. I used Conduction to conceptually push things beyond a jam band scenario. We gave it a test run for a few weeks in a midtown New York rehearsal room, and a short while later, we did our debut gig at CBGB. A month after that, we recorded our debut album, Blood On The Leaf Opus No. 1, which was the first of many [recorded] at Peter Karl Studios, in Brooklyn. In the early aughts, [we] were given a $75,000 grant from a now-defunct organization called Arts International, which facilitated overseas touring, and more recording. It kinda made the whole thing as official as getting a major label would’ve. Another case of the universe meeting you halfway…if you take a bold step forward into the void.
AD: Circling back around to the new record, Marque Gilmore played a significant role here. Tell us about what he brought to the table and his relationship with the group in general.
GT: Marque and his brother David (who’s played with Steve Coleman, Me’Shell [Ndegeocello], Cassandra Wilson, and Wayne Shorter) go back to the very beginnings of the Black Rock Coalition, which they joined in the mid-’80s while they were students at NYU. Marque was the drummer for my band, Women In Love, in the ’90s, which also contained future Burnt Sugar members vocalist Mikel Banks, trumpeter Lewis Flip Barnes, and bassist Jason Di Matteo (who took over that chair from Me’Shell Ndegeocello when she launched her solo career).
He was also in twelve other New York bands – BRC affiliated and non [affiliated] at the same time. From the beginning, we all knew he was one of the most energetic and original voices on the kit. We also peeped there was a mischievous, futuristic, hyper-creative personality behind the kit. One who shed early digital music technology to foment a new kind of fusion between acoustic and digital drumming. Marque was making drum and bass music before it was even a thing, which explains why he was able to move to England and be innovative enough to be the only drummer in ’90s London who could match the Jungle DJ’s software-driven warp-speed tempos on the kit. Thirty years later, he’s evolved into a formidable composer and arranger in his own right. Angels Over Oakanda is his first opportunity to use a Burnt Sugar album as a blank canvas to paint his own masterpiece in tandem with our crew.
AD: Is there a musical through-line or statement you’re looking to make with Angels Over Oakanda? If so, tell us more about it.
GT: For myself, it’s an abstract poetic homage to the five-hundred-year Pan-African liberation movement from the first revolts on slave ships, and onward through to the Black Panther Party – hence “Oakanda,” which is in reference to the party’s birthplace – right up to the stalwart and combative young activists of Black Lives Matter.
AD: Easy questions now. What are a few of your favorite albums, and why?
GT: Bitches Brew by Miles Davis is my favorite album of all time, which spawned Burnt Sugar as much conceptually and procedurally as sonically. Miles conducted that album into being with a group of musical geniuses, who said they didn’t know what was happening until they heard the results months later. Bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin, said Miles pulled him inside during the recording and told him to “imagine that the music we’re creating is a simmering cauldron and that we’re the witches, and bitches stirring the pot.” Miles also said, “The only way you get anything new in music is by making the best musicians in the world play beyond what they knew.” Burnt Sugar is built on that idea by never playing anything the same way even once.
Jimi Hendrix’s Axis Bold As Love for the innovative songwriting, and experimentation with the studio as an instrument. [His] Electric Ladyland for its variety and perfect sequencing, and Band Of Gypsys, which proved a rock guitarist could be as epic and ingenious as Coltrane with long-form improvisation.
Betty Davis’s debut for being so audaciously raunchy, and masterfully funky thanks to her chosen band, which drew from the best of the Bay Area, and included cats from Sly, Graham Central Station, Santana, Tower Of Power, The Pointer Sisters, and Sylvester.
Of more a modern vintage, we’d cite everything by OutKast, Radiohead, and Kendrick Lamar for their non-stop commitment to artistic excellence, and introspective self-reckoning.
AD: What other passions do you have? How do those passions inform your music, if at all?
GT: I am a lifetime student of cinema, modernist painting, African sculpture, and dance. I draw upon the hallucinatory, and immersive storytelling qualities of each, while making Burnt Sugar music, live, and in the lab.
AD: In your opinion, what is the state of the music business these days? Should artists be hopeful? Scared? Both?
GT: People have all the tools to make music at home and globally distribute it over the web. Some folks are being well paid through the revenue sources the web provides. The music business has never been a meritocracy or democracy, but it’s still the most accessible, democratic entry game in all the arts, and is the best way for young talent to reach the public, and forge a career.
My iTunes and Spotify apps tell me there’s no shortage of music being made, and sold in vast quantities despite the pandemic. As for the re-(ab)normalization of live gigging, festival, and stadium concert-gigging, let’s see where we’re at next summer before venturing to answer that one. We’re still in unknown uncharted waters when it comes to all that entails moving forward. We gotta see what Ms. Rona and their non-gender-binary discriminating mutant variations have in store for us next.
AD: Last one. What’s next on your docket, Greg? What are you looking forward to most in the post-COVID world?
GT: We’re not getting a post-COVID world. Ain’tcha heard? No more than we’re getting a post-climate-change world. The virus has not only mutated us, and asserted dominance over the seasonal flu, but it’s also altered the world as we knew it in the process. Some variation of COVID is going to be with global humanity for a long time to come, and we’re going to have to become riskier, and more adaptive to sustain our love, and support for cultural expression.
Header image of Greg Tate by Nisha Sondhe.