Northwestern professor: Hip-hop is dead

Clara Grayhack

Hip-hop is dead in the U.S., according to Richard Iton, professor of African American studies. He spoke Tuesday night about the downfall of the genre to an audience of about 60 in Annenberg Hall, 2120 Campus Drive.

Iton delivered the speech as part of the Controversial Blackness Series, a series of lectures hosted by Northwestern’s Department of African American Studies for Black History Month. Iton discussed the generations of hip-hop, the definition of hip-hop and the relationship between hip-hop and African American culture.

Weinberg senior Midori McSwain, who organized and led the event, said the lecture focused on topics that students discussed during the Controversial Blackness class, a class taught in the fall in the African American studies department.

“I thought it was a really, really good thorough analysis of hip-hop history as well as a critique of the trajectory that African American studies is going in,” McSwain said.

Hip-hop has been going downhill for years, Iton said.

“I have never seen or experienced a point where black popular culture is as static and tired as it’s been the last 15 years,” Iton said.

Iton said the limited definition of hip-hop and the exclusion of women in hip-hop caused the genre to stop growing. Hip-hop includes only music made in the U.S., Iton said. He also said since hip-hop’s birth, it has been made so that women would not like it.

“It was born dead when it said women could not be a part of it,” Iton said. “It was doubly dead when it said that anything outside the U.S. is not hip-hop.”

Iton, who divided hip-hop into six generations, said the genre had a complete turnaround during the fourth and fifth generation, which started in the mid-90s, Iton said. Instead of showing vulnerability like hip-hop artists of the past generations, singers made “flat, toneless” music, Iton said. For example, Iton said falsetto was more typical in earlier hip-hop.

The artists of the fourth and fifth generation “didn’t feel comfortable putting themselves out there,” Iton said.

In contrast, Iton said the first few generations were defined by higher standards of artistry.

The first generation, which lasted from 1973 to 1982, had artists like Grandmaster Flash and was associated with graffiti and break dancing. He defined the second generation, from 1982 to 1988, by a transition into more serious music.

“The album becomes emblematic of artistic achievement,” Iton said.

From 1988 to the mid-90s, the era of the third generation, Iton said that “folks are becoming much more afro-centric.” Artists such as Flavor Flav and Queen Latifah appeared.

During the fourth and fifth generations, artists began to focus more on album sales than the quality of their records, in part because of the increasing influence of Nielsen SoundScan, a sales tracking system.

Iton said he fears the shallowness of current hip-hop will begin to define the future of African American studies.

“Hip-hop might swallow African American studies whole,” he said.

Weinberg senior Nergis Cavitt said Iton touched on many aspects of hip-hop that she thought were interesting, especially hip-hop’s generations and lyrical changes.

“Lyrically, I was excited that he got that deep with hip-hop,” Cavitt said. “It was more than I expected.”

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