ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS 

 
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Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience, by Greg Tate (Lawrence Hill Books)

In his thin, but fascinating Jimi Hendrix primer, Greg Tate makes sense of White America's favorite Black artist

Twelve years ago, Greg Tate's amazing Flyboy in the Buttermilk raised the bar for b-boy manifestos, music journalism, and cultural criticism. Intellectual, liberal-arts heads have been waiting on Flyboy 2 ever since, and the closest thing has been Brit Kodwo Eshun's phenomenal, much overlooked, More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction. For 2003, Tate returns with Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience, an already heralded exploration of this much admired, yet often elusive subject.

This time around, Tate makes his purpose clear from the beginning. Midnight Lightning is, above all, as Tate accurately puts it, "a Jimi Hendix Primer for Blackfolk," i.e. "a user friendly introduction for all My People who don't get that Hendrix was a Black man who came from several Black worlds to make extra-terrestrial Black music for all God's children whether they got rhythm or not."

Tate's primary concern is to once-and-for-all place Hendrix within the pantheon of black musical geniuses like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. To this end, he examines Jimi's evolution as a musician, in addition to his fashion sense, sex appeal, and connection to the Black Power Movement.

Particularly effective is the "Can I Get A Witness?" chapter, a collection of first-person testimonies by some of Hendix's childhood friends and fellow musicians including Grammy-winning producer Craig Street. Arthur and Albert Allen, a pair of twin brothers from Jimi's pre-fame New York days - familiar to anyone who has seen the 1972 film documentary devoted to Hendrix's life - steal the first-person show (as they stole that film). Together they recount the vivid history of the Harlem music scene, and how a quiet guitarist from Seattle changed their lives. Also enduring is Xenobia Bailey, a childhood acquaintance of Jimi's, whose testimony describes Washington's black community during the '50s and '60s.

Lacking the mass of biographical information of other essential Hendrix books (David Henderson's Scuse me While I Kiss the Sky and Charles Shaar Murray's Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Post-War Rock ën Roll Revolution), Midnight Lightning's strength lies in Tate's ability to make immediate sonic and theoretical connections between Jimi and the generations of musicians that have come since. Particularly impressive are the links he explores between Hendrix and the subsequent hip-hop nation, specifically, sonic alchemists like Timbaland, DJ Shadow, and the Bomb Squad. Also of note is his insistence that contemporary MCs exhibit a far greater command of language and syntax than they are often credited for.

Midnight Lightning disappoints only in its length. At a speedy 157 pages, Tate's book ultimately reads as a blueprint for a much larger work. Although his prose and semiotics are sharper than ever, this is still a pretty slim tome for a writer who first championed black rock-and-roll and black science fiction for virtual Chicanos and hip-hop journalists way back in 1992.

Still, for better or worse, this is a book of strange ideas about a long-dead still enigmatic major dude whose contributions to the American race comedy only appear more and more curious and complex as time goes on. •


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