Flyboy In The Buttermilk: Essays On Contemporary America
The Wire, spring 1992
by Simon Reynolds
One of the most intriguing phenomena in recent years has been the rise of the "postmodern Black". From hardcore punk rastas Bad Brains, through the Kraftwerk influenced Afrika Bambatta and Derrick May, to rap's strange infatuation with heavy metal (Motley Crue-fan Ice T's Body Count) it's become apparent that racial tourism is no longer just a one-way traffic, with whites spoiling the black scene(ry). As a staff writer for Village Voice, Greg Tate has spent the last decade formulating a critical language to deal with this anything's-up-for-grabs state of play. (He's also been a co-founder of the Black Rock Coalition, which really got the crosstown traffic goin' on).
Tate's writing is produced out of interesting tensions: between his academic/radical background and his yen to be down with street culture, between his gung-ho fervour for African-American art and his fondness for some white artefacts (his fave LPs of last year included My Bloody Valentine, Nirvana, and bizarrely, Van Halen!). The most crucial, productive tension comes from his desire to build a bridge between Black cultural nationalism and post-structuralism; Tate wants his criticism to be proud-and-loud, but not to succumb to any fixed notions about what constitutes "authentic" Black culture. This is probably why Miles Davis is such a totem for him, Miles being the example par excellence of the Black artist who could incorporate white arthouse ideas and riffs (Stockhausen, Buckmaster) into his groove thang, and make them bad to the bone. Miles is the paradigm of the Black innovator (see also: Hendrix, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Jean-Michel Basquiat) who fused the superbad Stagolee tradition with an intellectual sophistication that white high culture couldn't deny. Their threat lies in being 'neither one thing nor the other': they're neither naively, instinctively passionate (the trad, racist idea about Black creativity) nor do they conform to the arid, restrained proprieties of white highbrow culture. Tate sees "signifyin'" -the ability to disguise meaning, to appropriate and remotivate elements from hegemonic culture - as a survival skill intrinsic to the Black American tradition.
Tate inscribes this "neither/nor" factor in a style that mixes in-your-face Blackness with po-mo riffs. Sometimes the onslaught of 'muhfukhuh's and 'doohickeys' can be a little alienating (possibly the point!). The idea is probably similar to the old Lester Bangs/Richard Meltzer notion of rock'n'roll writing that throbs like the music. Tate wants to write with the swank of a Bootsy bassline, and more often than not succeeds. Some of his neologisms are inspired: I particularly like "furthermucker", an inversion which manages to combine the swaggering Stagolee persona and the far-out cosmonaut of inner/outer space tradition, thus becoming the perfect term for Miles, P-Funk, et al.
A hefty portion of Flyboy In The Buttermilk consists of stimulating essays on Black culture--theorists like Henry Louis Gates, writers and artists like Samuel Delany and Basquiat. There's even some pieces on the occasional, honorary Caucasian, like novelist Don de Dillo, who's acclaimed for documenting the paranoiac death throes of white American culture. But for Wire-readers, the most interesting essays are about music. In some of his earlier pieces, Tate has yet to shed reified notions about musical "Blackness". In the 1982 piece on Clinton's Computer Games, he's flummoxed (as an unabashed Santana fan well might be) by the phenomenon of Black kids turning onto electro's "Monochrome Drone Brainwash Syndrome beat". At this point, he seems to share Chuck D's view of disco as soul-less, "anti-Black" shit. This notion of Black music as hot, sweat, funky and frictional, is uncomfortably close to the white stereotype, and it's a fix that Black youth have being evading throughout the Eighties. I wonder what Tate thinks of acid house or Detroit techno?
Elsewhere, though, Tate acknowledges that Bad Brains were most authentic and innovative when playing ultra-Caucasian hardcore thrash, but totally jive when they tried to play roots reggae. And in his piece on the Black British but not "Black" sounding A.R. Kane, he acclaims their radically polymorphous swoon-rock for opening up the possibility for a Black avant-pop that isn't "in the pocket" but out-of-body.
The Kane boys acknowledged only one influence, Miles Davis, who coincindentally is the subject of Tate's best two essays, "The Electric Miles", and the elegy "Silence, Exile and Cunning". The former is the best piece on Miles' most feverishly creative, least understood phase I've yet encountered, with Tate anticipating the now emergent critical doxa that the late Sixties to mid-Seventies albums constitute the alpha and omega of furthermucker music, pre-empting Can, Eno/Byrne/Hassell, Metal Box, even dub and late Eighties freak-rock. Miles and his floating pool of players explored "a zone of musical creation as topsy-turvy as the world of subatomic physics". Tate's metaphors are vivid and precise: "He Loves Him Madly" is an "aural sarcophagus", Dark Magus sees Miles "scribbling blurbs of feline, funky sound which under scrutiny take on graphic shapes as wild and willed as New York subway graffiti". To say that he's mapped only the surface of Miles' planet, not probed the demonic, unclassifiable emotions that seethe at its volcanic core, is no diss to Tate, only a tribute to the inexhaustible nature of the music, of how far we still have to go (there will always be "further" when it comes to Miles).
An excellent book.