From J Dilla & Nujabes to Future & Drake: Woodwinds in Hip-Hop

Tracking the flute from underground secret weapon to mainstream hip-hop's newest sensation.
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Tracking the flute from underground secret weapon to mainstream hip-hop's newest sensation.
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It’s difficult to track the significance of an individual sound. Saying that ‘x’ sound leads to ‘y’ effect is like deciding which part of a factory produced the finished product. The rise of the internet, meanwhile, only complicated things, since now every producer has access to the sounds of cultures they couldn’t reach otherwise.

In the last year, producers have increasingly tapped into a vein that’s been around since the early days of hip-hop but doesn’t often flash its influence: the flute and other woodwind instruments. Until mid-2016, flutes moved like dolphins through the rap game, maintaining a constant presence below the surface, only occasionally rising to the mainstream. And, with few exceptions, pre-2016 woodwinds were used for two reasons: to coax the listener into contemplation or to signal light-hearted indulgence.

A flute player's breath cuts through the sharp drums on Isaiah Rashad’s “Shot You Down” and makes you hang on Zay’s every word, while that same aspiration cranks Snoop Dogg’s “Tha Shiznit” up from neighborhood gathering to block party.

Instead of fitting neatly into these categories, recent hits like “Portland,” “Mask Off” and “Tunnel Vision” fall somewhere in between by providing space for contemplation without actually delivering substance to contemplate. That’s not meant to be an indictment of these tracks; our current woodwind revival has a different purpose. However, before we analyze novelty we must have an understanding of what came before.

I’m not going to make a claim about the “first” woodwind used in hip-hop because that’s a dubious venture at best. There are hints of its use in Eric B. & Rakim, so it’s reasonable to say it’s been around for decades and, as I wrote above, it assumes a clandestine role. You didn’t hear flutes dominating charts in the ‘90s and 2000s the way horns (which are always dope) and strings (usually dope but sometimes too much) did. Instead, they gained traction over time by working their way into the toolbox of beloved underground producers.

It’s a crime that J Dilla and Nujabes weren't able to enjoy their current reach while they were still living. Both iconic producers permanently impacted hip-hop production and were known for flipping samples as easily as coins, and that includes flute samples. As I was listening to more flute-based beats than I’d care to reveal, I noticed that Dilla and Nujabes used their woodwind sounds when they wanted to entice the listener further into the composition. Drums will always be the base of a hip-hop instrumental, but secondary instruments dictate our level of interaction.

When Dilla placed René Costy’s flutist at the beginning of his 2001 track “Fuck the Police,” its mildly dark timbre acted as a warning for run-ins with the cops. It’s placed prior to Dilla’s verse, suggesting that even if you assume his mentality, you should do so with caution. Dilla uses woodwinds elsewhere too; the pipe serves a different purpose on “Requiem,” his collaboration with Detroit jazz legend Allan Barnes. It’s smooth and glides freely between Dilla’s drums, used to stir more abstract thinking and reflection, instead of giving a concrete warning. Barnes could take you in any direction while playing with his band The Blackbyrds, and all the paths are clear here, too.

While Dilla didn’t rely on the flute to make his points, only using it when necessary, Nujabes felt more comfortable exploring its possibilities. Nujabes had an intimate relationship with the flute. His penchant for jazz also made it sync well with his production. There are too many Nujabes tracks to cite, so I’ll only focus on a few, but his mission was the same as Dilla’s: to engage the listener in active thought.

On “Beyond,” once the flute dances in around the fifty-second mark, the song feels softer. His drums don’t pop as hard, making it easier to reflect on and overcome the contradictions in your personality. Sort yourself out quickly, though; Seba doesn’t give you much time before he drops out the flute and evicts you from the headspace he created.

For “Prayer,” from his posthumous Spiritual State release, the flute is more constant and works with the other instruments to invocate in his own way. If we think of this instrumental as a liturgy, or worship service, Nujabes’ flute is the reading of the Psalms. It laments the depravity around us while holding the caveat that hope is not lost. It claims loyalty to a higher power, yet asks why the divine face is hidden from mankind. It’s messy and contradictory, joyful and awestruck; the way we move through life, at least in my case. The cover of Spiritual State features a body of water and Nujabes’ flutes will undoubtedly pull you into a current of reflection, but be careful not to get swept away.

Woodwind instruments don’t have to be so serious, though. We’ve all heard “Broccoli” and countless other hits that adopt woodwinds for a lighter purpose. In these cases, it adds an extra level of carelessness, but not necessarily to the song’s detriment. You wouldn’t believe Knoc-turn’al “didn’t give a fuck” when he joined Dr. Dre on “Bad Intentions” if the beat wasn’t punctuated with flute chords. Action Bronson was able to tap into his niche market with similar help on “Shiraz.” And who could forget Scott Storch’s work pitching the pipe on 50 Cent’s “Just A Lil Bit”? Let’s be honest, 50 needed a lil help. All of these songs push you out into the world, encouraging you to engage in simple pleasures and indulgences, whereas Nujabes and Dilla make you retreat into yourself. Sometimes you need to embrace the party.

That brings us to the current state of woodwinds. It’s clear the modern iterations serve a purpose separate from the above dichotomy. As “Mask Off” makes its rounds through bars, car speakers and internet challenges, it doesn’t fit into either category. Mr. Hndrxx doesn’t take himself so seriously that he really wants us to weigh out the benefits of wearing a disguise, but it’s a mistake to call it “light-hearted.” In face, before HNDRXX, I’d argue Future never made a “light” song.

So what’s the flute doing on “Mask Off” and others like it? The same thing the creators of the park in Westworld give their guests: the feeling of peril without actually being in danger. Metro Boomin artfully draws us in and primes us for contemplation with the Tommy Butler sample, but we’re met with a laundry list of Future’s drugs instead of a jazz composition working us through grief or a socially-charged tale of injustice. The flute’s nature still gives you a sense of fulfillment at the end, though, as if you’d worked through a deep problem. It’s catharsis-lite, diet redemption, a low-calorie epiphany. Same thing with “Portland” or [insert track here]. The flute sample bestows power, especially when mixed properly with the vocals and other instruments, but a cursory investigation reveals we have nothing to empower us.

Like I said in my introduction, this isn’t an indictment of Metro or Murda Beatz or anyone else who creates a song that feigns contemplation without delivering. Sometimes baby steps are necessary to work up to the real thing. It’s no easy task to begin sorting yourself out psychologically and you might even cause yourself more chaos if you do it without adequate preparation. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t train ourselves to eventually tune into Dilla’s message or be washed by Nujabes’ sound, but you can’t condemn these recent flute manifestations. They could be used to prepare you for the real thing. Do you blame the father who lifts his son up so that he can slam the basketball through the goal? Can you say a mother falls short by letting her toddler “swim” strapped with more than his or her body weight in floaties? These actions mimic similar ones with actual danger and prepare the child for the real thing. It doesn’t always work. We often shy away from tasks that are difficult and demand rigor, and letting a woodwind instrument draw you into being vulnerable isn’t a light pursuit. Perhaps getting your feet wet by listening to “Mask Off” will prepare some for the dive into deeper exploration. I hope it does at least.

The earliest flutes are believed to be over 40,000 years old, so exploring the possibilities of this simple instrument has been a part of the human narrative. Using flutes for a “higher” purpose is embedded into culture; that purpose has simply changed with the advent of new, interacting worldviews.

In the 13th century, Sufi mystic and poet Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi wrote his magnum opus, the Masnevi. The first eighteen verses are dedicated to the nay, a type of flute made from reeds. Rumi quickly moves on to other topics that seem more “fitting” for a mystic, but not before he gives us a line that distils the flute’s relationship with us better than I ever can:

“Who can ever find a healing friend like the flute?”

Times have changed and Rumi is long gone, but the divine power he describes continues to move us.

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