Hip-Hop Adds a Chapter to the Flute’s Epic History

The flutist and author Ardal Powell offers thoughts on the recent woodwind-laden beats of Drake, Future, and others.

A detail from Etrurian pottery showing a youth playing a flute and riding a dolphin, 360–340 B.C.E.
A detail from Etrurian pottery, 360–340 B.C.E. (Wikimedia Commons / National Archaeological Museum of Spain)

When Future’s “Mask Off” was released earlier this year, the internet remixed its bittersweet tale of drug use with video syncs of kids, cartoons, and Ron Burgundy playing the flute—mimicking the woodwind sample from Tommy Butler’s “Prison Song” looped in the beat. The meme highlighted the flute’s often-cheeky portrayal in pop culture, but also its relatively unusual place in hip-hop until recently.

Flutes have, in fact, been a part of rap throughout its history, as makes sense for a genre that freely combines musical traditions and has a close relationship with jazz. But many listeners have lately noticed an uptick in reedless woodwind loops, some of which are snippets of live playing and some of which are synthesized. Big songs from Future, Gucci Mane, Kodak Black, Drake, D.R.A.M., and Migos all fit the bill; at Hypebeast, HP Cheung has a good roundup that notes how the flutes fad, like so much in modern hip-hop, owes a lot to Atlanta artists.

But how does rap’s woodwind craze fit in with the history of the flute, which is believed to be the oldest kind of musical instrument on Earth? For some perspective, I spoke with Ardal Powell, whose book The Flute traces the instrument’s use across the globe over thousands of years. He professed to not follow hip-hop, so I sent him four recent notable rap songs to listen to:

This conversation has been edited.

Spencer Kornhaber: So you listened to these songs. What did you make of them?

Ardal Powell: Well, they are different, aren’t they? “Mask Off” is quite distinct from the other three in that it seems there is a live flute track. It’s kind of a throwback to Herbie Mann or one of those mid-20th-century jazz sounds, when sax players in sessions were suddenly expected to double on flute as well. There’s a style of playing in that genre that is very different from the classical style of playing. It’s very simple and almost naïve, and it fits with the “cool jazz” ethos.

So that was a clue for me. If there’s one thing that’s common to all four of these tracks—if you can ascribe a mood that the flute brings—the word that comes to mind is “cool.” Even when the video shows two people trying to kill each other, there’s still something in the background that is distancing and unaffected by the rage and the violence.

Tunnel Vision” and “Portland” both had some kind of ethnic or wood flute on a loop. They have that same coolness or distance, but there’s something about the wood sound that sets them apart as well, this connotation of outdoors, nature, sort of wild.

In “Get Right Witcha,” there’s a similar thing except that the main part that the flute has to play is just a three-note loop. There are a couple of other fragments, but the distinctive part is only three notes and it’s mixed in with high resonant percussion like, I don’t know, a glockenspiel. It’s probably sampled as well. But the word “robotic” is in the lyrics of that one. There are high-pitched sounds that sound mechanical, [recalling] movies from the ’70s—whenever you were on a spaceship or around the computer they’d make little chirps or tweets. Again, it’s a distance thing. It’s ironic and it’s the opposite of intimate.

Kornhaber: So you say that “Mask Off” stands apart from the rest because it’s live and it’s jazz-influenced?

Powell: The difference is that it’s clearly not a loop being played on a synthesizer keyboard. It’s an actual human being playing that in a studio. It has a whole phrase of music at a time, not just a couple of notes. So it kind of breathes in the same rhythm as a human being does.

And that is a key thing in the history of the flute going back thousands of years. It’s the closest instrument to the human voice because it uses nothing but the breath of the human playerit doesn’t have a reed, it doesn’t have a mouthpiece, it doesn’t have anything intervening between the breath that the player blows and the sound that the instrument produces. There’s something absolutely primal that transcends technology or social customs.

That’s why the flute has these associations with nature and with spirituality. It’s beyond the reach of human toil and trouble, if that makes sense.

Kornhaber: So the three songs that aren’t “Mask Off” are not attuned to breathing patterns?

Powell: Well, not in the same way. But I think the two that have the high-pitched wood-flute sounds [“Tunnel Vision” and “Portland”] are making reference to that kind of meme, if you can call it that. If you ever hear those South American end-blown flutes, that’s an instantly recognizable sound. You only have to hear one or two notes and you know what that is.

I could be listening with a particular set of ears that have been listening to flutes all my life. But to me, the other three tracks that don’t use a long-phrased piece of music are making almost a subliminal reference contributing coolness, otherworldliness, or distance. You can’t hear those sounds and be enraged. It doesn’t compute.

Kornhaber: Have there been other moments in pop-music history when there’s been a profusion of flute, in any genre?

Powell: Not a profusion, no. There’s an occasional thing—the one everyone knows is Ian Anderson in Jethro Tull, which was unusual enough that it stuck out and everyone noticed.

Even when you had quasi-orchestral backing for pop music, it was usually just strings and brass. It’s very unusual to have any woodwind at all in my recollection.

Kornhaber: Yeah. The saxophone is sometimes thought of as a rock-and-roll instrument, but the flute has never had anything near that status in popular music. Why do you think that is?

Powell: I really don’t know. It’s an oddity that the flute appeared in mid-century jazz the way I mentioned earlier—it was a surprise to people at the time that it became a thing. I don’t know that anyone can say that there was a reason for it. It was just a different sound, a fascinating sound.

There’s now very highly developed jazz flute playing—really great stuff—in American and European jazz. There are other styles of music around the world that have used flutes, and the one I think is the coolest is the Cuban Charanga. There are at least three, four different rhythms going on at the same time and the flute gets to sit on top and have a lark.

Kornhaber: As a flute expert, what do you feel about there being this flute moment in hip-hop?

Powell: The flute had been through a thousand years of history where all kinds of crazy things happened. The transverse flute seems to have fallen into disuse in Western Europe in the 14th century. Really the only reason it came back was because it was disseminated all over Europe by Swiss mercenaries who were using it as a signaling instrument. Everybody suddenly had to learn flute playing because you couldn’t win battles without it if you were going to fight these guys. So there was that extraordinary historical accident that moved the flute from almost disappearing to being fairly common again. And that took place within like 50 years.

So nothing surprises me, really. The Western wooden flute had almost completely disappeared in the mid-20th century because everyone thought that silver flutes were better. They were less fussy to take care of; people said they couldn’t hear the difference, which is a load of rubbish. And then suddenly people started playing wooden flutes again—it became trendy.

Whatever has happened in the past doesn’t prompt us to foretell what’s going to happen next. People are endlessly inventive with materials that they get from all sorts of places, including inheriting them from the past, and they’ll use them however it suits them. Something that has had a traditional value and a particular way of being done can become entirely new. And I think that’s great.