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Marvin Tate’s D-Settlement Box Set: Partly Cloudy, The Minstrel Show, American Icons
D-Settlement were Chicago’s best-kept secret: a trailblazing, diverse band mixing R&B, soul, punk, gospel and funk with biting wit and political commentary. Led by Marvin Tate — a poet, artist, playwright and raconteur who wore pipe cleaners in his hair — and supported by a large, dynamic cast of characters, their music was both of and ahead of its time. From the 1990s to 2003, across three self-released albums — Partly Cloudy, The Minstrel Show, and American Icons — D-Settlement told Tate’s nuanced stories about transgender rights, gun violence, systemic inequity and gentrification from an unapologetically Black perspective, drawing from his life in and around Chicago’s West Side. Their music grew to encompass Americana, opera, cabaret and theatre, intersecting in ways that only Tate could conceive. Their concerts brought these influences to bear so often, and with such force, that stealing the show was a matter of routine. Their creative vision left imprints on people like Angel Bat Dawid, Ben LaMar Gay, Theaster Gates, avery r. young and Angel Olsen, relating traumatic experiences, skewering organized government, religion, corruption and poverty, and imagining better futures through an Afrofuturist lens. But record labels didn’t know how to handle such pathbreaking work. Twenty-plus years on, American Dreams’ reissue, Marvin Tate’s D-Settlement, is the music's worldwide release.
Tate began D-Settlement at the center of Chicago’s vibrant spoken-word scene. He began performing slam poetry in the mid-‘80s; by 1990, he was Chicago’s poetry slam champion, and in ’94 won a poetry slam presented by Lollapalooza. At the same time, he began incorporating his work within a musical context, performing with jazz luminaries Jeff Parker and LeRoy Bach in the band Uptighty, which morphed into an early version of D-Settlement. Tate’s poetry and lyrics are arresting, plainspoken, and often darkly funny, equal parts Gwendolyn Brooks, Richey Edwards and Ivor Cutler, able to inhabit characters all over the underclass. He’s an aggrieved poet reflecting on the indignities of reading poetry to a majority-white audience: “This shit went over well with the brothers from Omega last week: ‘Kill Whitey, Whitey did it! Went to the moon and fucked an alien. Whitey, Whitey, Whitey…’” He’s a churchgoer telling off organized religion on “Trouble A Come”: “Daddy was a preacher man / He loved the choir singers / He’d meet them ‘hind the pulpit / They played underneath their robes and…” Tate developed his ability to inhabit such diverse characters as a child, playing the Dozens at school, reciting “We Real Cool” to a rapt playground, and telling stories to his brother, Melvin, and cousin, Jerome, in a storytelling group called the Kooky Boys. Tate and his five siblings, raised by their single mother, grew up without radio or television; they’d take out a box and make up TV shows. In 1969, when he was nine, his mom was shot in front of him. “This dude had a silver gun and he said, ‘you let that bitch kick your ass, man?’ I was helping my mom fight. My mom pushed me out the way, and the dude shot at her.” His characters include children missing a father figure and adults grieving family members lost to heroin addiction; they span the breadth of human emotion, and they’re fiercely independent.
D-Settlement brought these stories into view with kaleidoscopic arrangements inflected with their members’ varied skillsets: guitarist George Blaise, bassist Olin Langley, singers Tina Howell and Renee Ruffin, drummers George Jones, Virus X and Debi Buzil, multi-instrumentalists Adam Conway and CJ Bani. Conway talked himself into the band, variously wearing singer, drummer, producer, engineer and accountant hats; Ruffin became adept at imitating flutes and birds; Blaise and Langley often spearheaded arrangements and production. All hands were always on deck. On Partly Cloudy, the band’s music serves as a foil to Tate’s poetry: raucous funk (“Turn Da Fuckin’ Lights Back On,” “Charlie of Washington Square”), reggae (“Who Sold Soul?”), slow-burn piano blues balladry (“Insomnia in NYC,” “Marching in the Mist”). The game-changer is Tate’s elastic, incisive voice, which raps, pleads, soars, crackles with a preacher’s fire. Over the course of their discography, Tate works more and more as a bandleader, directing his multifaceted ensemble through stunning performances with heavy melodic interplay, whether imbued with Afrofuturism (“Brown Eyes (Miss D),” “Planet D-Settlement”) or stark confrontations of racism (“Have You Ever Seen?,” “Hangman,” “Jury Duty”).
Among the band’s strongest songs are true-to-life. “The Ballad of Corey Dykes” is a potent example of D-Settlement at its most provocative: atop a gritty, funky rhythm section and backing vocals evocative of gospel, Tate spins a yarn about a fourteen-year-old student who shoots his teacher. “There was a real Corey Dykes,” Tate says. “I was a teacher on the West Side, man. And this young man just bullied everybody, man. And one day he said, ‘man, I kill you.’ I just blew him off. Charged and shit. But you can never tell what youth will do. You know? Young men had no idea of what loss was, what the boundaries were, you know, and so I tried to recreate that classroom scene, because, oh, there’s some other fourteen-year-old Corey — that’s the narrator.” “Gerald” shows a neighborhood struggling to accept a transgender child — at a time when there was scarcely a Transgender Day of Remembrance. “We’re doing songs about a young transgender person before it was fucking cool to talk about it,” says Blaise. “This was our community.” Other songs provide sardonic social critiques a la Ida B. Wells or Jane Addams. “Governmental Wolf” critiques gentrification, redlining and systemic racism; “Turn Da Fuckin’ Lights Back On” police violence, Com-Ed corruption and systemic poverty (“Somebody tell me honestly, do you think po’ people dig living like this?”). The soulful closing track “A Great Day (in the Neighborhood)” synthesizes all these threads, building stories of community members to a stirring crescendo pocked with police sirens, birdsong and their surroundings.
D-Settlement gave countless concerts in Chicago, pursuing their cause with an intensity reminiscent of Black Flag, sometimes getting banned from the venues they played. They regularly blew the roof off of the HotHouse, where they maintained a residency, and supported Antibalas, Ken Nordine and Bernie Worrell, garnering rave reviews from the Chicago Tribune. They were primed to break out beyond the city. But their rising star coincided with the pressures of the internet, and in 2003, as the band reached its apex, it disbanded. Tate’s creativity has bloomed since then: he’s published poetry books and performed poetry on HBO, made music with Angel Olsen, Tim Kinsella, LeRoy Bach, and countless others, directed plays and musicals, quietly pursued a personal sculptural practice. But he’s done it all under the radar, without the fanfare accorded to those he’s influenced. It’s time to give him and D-Settlement their flowers.
American Dreams Records presents Marvin Tate's D-Settlement: a deluxe 4xLP/3xCD box set, designed by Field of Grass (Numero Group, Paradise of Bachelors), collecting their three albums with an oral history book of the band featuring words by Angel Bat Dawid, Jaimie Branch, Ben LaMar Gay, among many others.
"Marvin does Marvin and is deeply authentic, making him a favorite among fellow artists. Now he’s ready for his proper recognition." – Yvette Marie Dostatni, Chicago Magazine
"By merging ferociously honest poetry with various black musical traditions, Tate stands as heir to Chicagoan Oscar Brown Jr., the veteran urban griot whose lyrics long have decried racism and social injustice." – Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
“I met Marvin during my last winter in Chicago. Leroy Bach had set us up together, he thought I’d be a good candidate for singing Marvin’s poems and taking on characters for his songs. Marvin is a Chicago diy legend and it felt like the perfect way to spend my time saying goodbye to a chapter of my life there in that scene. At the end of the recording process Marvin gave me a snow globe he had made himself. I remember wishing more people thought of these kinds of gifts, and years later I still feel myself and where I was through those songs. It encapsulated a very big moment for me personally.” – Angel Olsen
released November 4, 2022
Partly Cloudy (tracks 1-9) was written and produced by Marvin Tate and C.J. Bani.
The Minstrel Show (tracks 10-20) was written, arranged and produced by Marvin Tate's D-Settlement. Engineered by Don Grayless, except 11, 16 and 20, engineered by Garfield Dyer. Mixed by Adam Conway and Olin Langley, except 17, mixed by Peter Andreadis.
American Icons (21-32) was written and arranged by Marvin Tate's D-Settlement. Produced by Adam Conway, George Blaise, Olin Langley and Adam Nelson/Q Studios. Engineered by Adam Nelson/Q Studios.
All albums remastered by Mikey Young.
Boxed set produced for reissue by Jordan Reyes and Marvin Tate. Oral history edited by Jordan Reyes and Eli Winter. Photographs and ephemera supplied by Marvin Tate.
Art direction by Field of Grass. Design by Timothy Breen and Ben Chlapek, with archiving by Caroline Mort.