The Flute Enjoys Its Hip-Hop Moment

Mar 31, 2017
Originally published on April 3, 2017 6:10 pm

The flute is featured in some of the biggest songs on the charts, from Future's song "Mask Off" to Drake's song "Portland." Brendan Frederick, director of content for the music site Genius, tells us about the history of that sound in hip-hop music.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASK OFF")

FUTURE: Call it how it is.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

This song is one of the biggest on the charts right now. It's called "Mask Off" by Future. We're not going to talk about his brooding persona, his rhythm, his lyrics. What we want to talk about is the flute.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASK OFF")

FUTURE: (Singing) Percocets, molly, Percocets, Percocets, molly, Percocets, Percocets, molly, Percocets, Percocets, molly, Percocets.

BRENDAN FREDERICK: The flute has become the hottest instrument in hip-hop in 2017.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That's Brendan Frederick content director for the music site Genius. "Mask Off" is one of the latest hip-hop songs featuring the wind instrument, and Frederick says it's not the only one.

FREDERICK: Flute has quietly been creeping up over the last six months. Last summer, D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty had a song called "Broccoli" that was a huge hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROCCOLI")

D.R.A.M.: (Singing) In the cut, I'm rolling up my broccoli. My weed, my weed.

FREDERICK: Lil Yachty was seen playing a recorder in the video. Gucci Mane has a song that he put out late 2016 called "Both" that prominently features a flute.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTH")

GUCCI MANE: (Rapping) I got so many felonies, I might can't never go to Canada. That boy Drake said he going to pull some strings, so let me check my calendar.

FREDERICK: And Drake just released a song called "Portland" that uses a somber, sort of quirky flute sample.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PORTLAND")

DRAKE: (Rapping) Yeah. My side girl got a 5s with the screen cracked, still hit me back right away.

FREDERICK: But, you know, for all these songs that were coming out, it seems like people didn't quite notice the trend until Future released "Mask Off." It's a sample from an old '70s song that was in the "Selma" musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREDERICK: We have a sort of real soulful '70s song being sampled, which is sort of a sound that you're not used to hearing in modern trap music. And then it really contrasts nicely with the sort of harder, like, more traditional trap drums that you hear in the song. And that gives it sort of a throwback sound but something that's still connected to modern hip-hop. The flute is not necessarily a new thing in hip-hop. It's been used a bunch of different times in different eras. But I think it's always sort of in a different context.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAID IN FULL")

RAKIM: (Rapping) Thinking of a master plan 'cause ain't nothing but sweat inside my hand.

FREDERICK: The sort of first example of the flute in hip-hop that comes to mind is Eric B. and Rakim's "Paid In Full" from the late '80s, which kind of has that Middle Eastern vibe to it. And then even in the '90s, there were many uses of flutes, sampling old records from the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLUTE LOOP")

BEASTIE BOYS: (Rapping) So just sit back and max and relax off the tracks that I kick. Come on and give it up.

FREDERICK: I don't think we're going to see them driving the flute down into the ground because I think the name of the game is really just trying new things and continuing to push the sonic boundaries of what you would expect to hear in a rap beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLUTE LOOP")

BEASTIE BOYS: (Rapping) Music to rock the nation.

MCEVERS: That's Brendan Frederick of the music site Genius.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLUTE LOOP")

BEASTIE BOYS: (Rapping) Music to rock the nation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.