Last week, the news that André 3000 would be releasing an album of instrumental flute jams was greeted with enough head-scratching to draw blood. But don’t tell that to Jake Fridkis, who plays principal flute with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. If you’ve heard DJ Khaled and Drake’s “No Secret” or Roddy Rich and Ty Dolla Sign’s “llf,” among others, you’ve heard his instrument, which was woven into the fabric of those tracks. “It’s now hit the point where people are saying, ‘Flute is the new instrument in rap,’” Fridkis says. “Well, check your history a bit, because we’ve been out there.”
Rock has guitar solos; hip-hop, it now seems, has the flute. Over the last decade, the instrument — played live or sampled — has fluttered its way into Future’s “Mask Off,” DaBaby’s “Bop,” 21 Savage’s “X,” Young Thug’s “Hot,” A$AP Rocky’s “Praise the Lord,” Tyler, the Creator and Lil Wayne’s “Hot Wind Blows,” and Gucci Mane and Drake’s “Both,” among others. And Lizzo, of course, has made the connection between flute and modern pop and hip-hop even more explicit: She doesn’t just incorporate the woodwind into some of her records but plays it herself, including on Dolly Parton’s Rockstar album version of “Stairway to Heaven.”
“It’s not that surprising,” says Gareth McLearnon, artist-in-residence of the Wm. S. Haynes Flute Co., one of the world’s leading flute makers. “Flute has a voice in so many different styles.” The company, which dates back to 1888, claims its sales have grown 30 percent in the last three years, thanks to prominent flute wielders like Lizzo.
Still, who would have guessed that hip-hop would continue one of the most unexpected traditions in pop? In vogue instruments like the Mellotron, the Moog synthesizer, or the electronic Syndrum have come and gone, but the flute, it appears, is forever. Starting nearly 60 years ago, flute solos appeared on the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.” The instrument then made its way into art rock and prog, thanks to the Moody Blues (whose Ray Thomas played it prominently), Genesis (check out tracks like “Dusk” from the Peter Gabriel era), King Crimson (“I Talk to the Wind”), and, perhaps the most famous, Jethro Tull, whose Ian Anderson maniacally brandished his woodwind instrument in songs like “Thick as a Brick” while wearing a codpiece. (No easy feat.)
As the years went on, the flute ear-wormed its way into disco (Van McCoy’s “The Hustle”), Southern-fried rock (various Marshall Tucker Band songs, including “Can’t You See”), early yacht rock (Firefall’s “You Are the Woman”), and Aussie pop (Men at Work’s “Down Under”). And let’s not forget the solos in Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” Eric Burdon and War’s “Spill the Wine,” Traffic’s “John Barleycorn (Must Die),” Canned Head’s “Going Up the Country,” Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” and Chicago’s “Colour My World.”
Jethro Tull’s Anderson says he initially wanted to be a guitar player, but that changed after he heard Eric Clapton with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. “He was way ahead of everybody else, me included,” Anderson tells Rolling Stone. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should leave my guitar behind and find something else to play, preferably an instrument Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton could not play.’” Anderson says he happened upon a flute hanging on the wall of a local music store and traded his Sixties-era Fender Stratocaster for a $30 student model. “Somebody told me it would be a bit like blowing across the top of a beer bottle and you get a note. So I figured that out and managed to get a note out of the flute, and then I had the pentatonic scale and could throw in the flattened fifth and play the blues.”
Even though other acts, like the Moody Blues and Traffic, were using the instrument onstage by the time Anderson bought his, he admits the switch included a period of adjustment. “The reality of the flute is that it was something somewhat alien and ethereal and not something that seemed to match up to the obvious power of the electric guitar,” Anderson says. “The reaction from the audience was immediate and approving. But one of our managers didn’t take a liking to it and tried to advise me to not play the flute. Perhaps I should take up a seat at, as he put it, ‘rhythm piano.’” Adds Anderson sarcastically, “I thanked him for his useful managerial input and carried on standing in front playing the flute.”
Fast forward a decade or two, and flute samples began infiltrating hip-hop. They were heard in Snoop Dogg’s “Tha Shiznit” (lifted from Billy Joel’s ”Get It Right the First Time”), Beastie Boys’ “Flute Loop” (taken from the Blues Project jazz-rock-everything jam “Flute Thing”), A Tribe Called Quest’s “Keep It Rollin’” (its flute courtesy of Roy Ayers’ “Feel Like Making Love”), and Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” (a woodwind part originally in the soundtrack of the 1960 film Fata Ahlami that spawned a lawsuit).
Anderson, who thinks a bit of his instrument has been sampled now and then, can’t quite figure out why it’s become so prominent in the genre. “Some of us can play and some of us have to sample,” he quips dryly. “Perhaps they like it because it is an instrument associated with classical music and something rather refined musically, and therefore to bring it into something more musically fundamental may seem like a fun thing to do.”
Fridkis has his own theory about how an instrument known for sonorous beauty fits in with harder hitting hip-hop tracks. “I think it’s close to the human voice in a way,” he says. “It provides that shimmer. Maybe it’s the yin and yang.”
Although it might seem odd for a classically trained musician to become hip-hop’s go-to flautist, Fridkis was immersed in East Coast rap while growing up in New Jersey. After he’d started his orchestral career, he recorded an instrumental version of a Jay-Z track and sent it around to producers. People noticed. His first appearance was on British drill artist Mastermind’s “Crash It,” and, via working with Grammy-nominated producer Rex Kudo, his flute made its way onto tracks that ended up with Khaled and others. (Thanks to technology, he’s never met any of those artists: “All my friends say, ‘You met Drake?’ I say, ‘Calm down.’”)
In his world, Fridkis has noticed nothing but praise for Lizzo (“She’s an icon in the classical community”) as well as anticipation for André 3000’s New Blue Sun. “I always joked with my friends, ‘I’m going to make a hip-hop flute album,’” Fridkis says. “I guess it ended up not being a joke.”