- Negrocity:An Interview with Greg Tate*
As a cultural critic and founder of Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, Greg Tate has published his writings on art and culture in the New York Times, Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Jazz Times. All Ya Needs That Negrocity is Burnt Sugar's twelfth album since their debut in 1999. Tate shared his thoughts on jazz, afro-futurism, and James Brown.
Tell me about your life before you came to New York.
I was born in Dayton, Ohio, and we moved to DC when I was about twelve, so that would have been about 1971, 1972, and that was about the same time I really got interested in music, collecting music, really interested in collecting jazz and rock, and reading music criticism too. It kinda all happened at the same time. I had a subscription to Rolling Stone. I was really into Miles Davis. He was like my god in the 1970s. Miles, George Clinton, Sun Ra, and locally we had a serious kind of band scene going on. All the guys in my high school were in a band. You were either in a band or you were just deep into music. That was definitely the major activity that all conversation and passion flowed around. More than sports, more than politics. For our generation it was definitely music and live shows, going to see a lot of live music, and in DC it was pretty much possible to see everything. There were a lot of great venues. Major venues, small venues. I started to do radio too when I was in high school. I actually got opportunities to go on two or three of the local radio stations, and program and announce, and kinda did all that up until I got to New York. I came to New York in 1982, but I started writing for the Village Voice in 1981, at the invitation of the music editor, Robert Christgau.
And what kind of music were you into then?
Musically, I was really into the punk funk scene or the punk jazz scene. We liked bands such as Defunkt, Ron Jackson and the Decoding Society, Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, Bill Laswell. Definitely checking out all the stuff they were doing, and then I was already into hip hop from DC. I was already following it then. When I first got here the main phase that was coming out was Sugar Hill, or others on really small labels. There wasn't a whole lot of hip hop at the time but you could go to places like The Kitchen, or [End Page 621] Mud Club, or the Roxie, or the Roller Rink and see different things. But I was also, you know, when you move to New York your main focus is on survival. But it was a good time.
How did the Black Rock Coalition come about?
Vernon [Reid] and I knew each other. I'd checked him out when he first came to DC to play gigs with Defunct. So, that was around 1980. We hooked up. We just kind of met each other then, and one of my first assignments in New York was for a magazine called Musician. I did a piece on Vernon, and another good friend of ours, a guitarist named Ronnie Drake. That was 1983. So we really became tight after that. Then summer of 1985, Vernon called the first meeting of the coalition. But he just wanted to have a discussion group really, to talk about some of the problematics of race and rock, which were pretty extreme. Now just because of the way the business has changed there's not the same kind of difficulty getting your music heard, but there is the same kind of underwhelming support for black bands doing rock music. It is still difficult to get the center stage position, but at the same time, this generation of black musicians who want to do rock-oriented music don't tend to be that kind of guitar-oriented band anyway. The music has shifted in a different kind of way.