Flutes are everywhere in hip-hop in 2017. They provided a wistful counterpoint to the grizzled trap of Future’s ubiquitous “Mask Off,” propped up Drake’s throttling “Portland” with a snaking melody, and popped up on tracks from D.R.A.M. (“Broccoli”), Gucci Mane (“Back on Road”), Kodak Black (“Tunnel Vision”), and Migos (too numerous to list off here). As trap continued to grow murkier and more psychedelic, the flute provided an otherworldly texture, a hypnotic counterpoint to hip-hop’s tougher, spare beats.
This, of course, is nothing new, and this playlist from Okayplayer provides a quick history of the instrument’s use in hip-hop. The great Beatnuts used the instrument as a rhythmic counterpoint on “Watch Out Now,” while the vaguely Eastern melody in 50 Cent’s “Just a Lil Bit” slithers through his teflon pimpin’ boasts. The instrument also provides a lightness to the shuffling, monochromatic beat for J Dila’s “Fuck the Police.”
The playlist largely ignores the South, instead focusing on the headwrap rap heroes Okayplayer tends to champion (Mos Def, Common, A Tribe Called Quest), and, as a result, it feels quite incomplete. But it’s still an enjoyable listen, and the presence of a particular instrument provides a throughline between a lot of disparate selections. It forces the listener to lean in and pay attention to the track, and consider the ways that different artists, periods, or scenes have used the instrument. It doesn’t exactly make the case that the flute has been “hip-hop’s secret weapon,” but it does demonstrate that it’s been central to some amazing tracks.