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Reflecting on the legacy of the flute in pop music

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Andre 3000 released new music for the first time in 17 years this week. But "New Blue Sun" is not what most fans may have expected. The record has no rap music. What it does have is the flute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDRE 3000'S "I SWEAR, I REALLY WANTED TO MAKE A 'RAP' ALBUM BUT THIS IS LITERALLY THE WAY THE WIND BLEW ME THIS TIME")

AUGUST BROWN: He's always had a very kind of mystically inclined presence, so I think it's unexpected but on par for him.

SIMON: August Brown writes about music and the music industry at the Los Angeles Times.

BROWN: Well, obviously, it's not the record I think a lot of Outkast fans in particular maybe were expecting. But if you've been following him for the last - I don't know - five years or so, he's been on a very different path.

SIMON: August Brown says that while the flute may surprise some of Andre 3000's fans, it's become almost a fixture in popular music.

BROWN: Starting in the '60s, there was a big interest in kind of bossa nova in America. And, you know, Herbie Mann's "One Note Samba" from 1962 was, you know, a lot of people's kind of popular introduction to it. And that's led by a very kind of repeating, undulating flute line that was a big hit at the time, and it still kind of stands up as a, you know, interesting kind of artifact of the flute and popular music kind of crossing over into American pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'")

THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS: (Singing) California dreamin'.

SIMON: Just a few years later, the flute reappeared on "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas & the Papas.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS SONG, "CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'")

SIMON: It wasn't long before the easy, breezy woodwind had a rebellious stage. Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson shredded rock solos on the flute and led the group to win the first-ever heavy metal Grammy in 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF JETHRO TULL SONG, "LOCOMOTIVE BREATH")

BROWN: He is ripping in the way that a lead guitarist would rip off a solo. You know he does it with, you know, virtuosity and aplomb. Know he's treating the flute like you would treat a - you know, a finger-tapping solo.

SIMON: And in 1994, the Beastie Boys came out with a song called "Flute Loop."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLUTE LOOP")

BEASTIE BOYS: (Rapping) So, so, so, just sit back and max and relax off the tracks that I kick. Come on and live it up 'cause I get funky like diaper rash.

SIMON: In 2017, the flute flitted its way from rock to rap when Future released the song "Mask Off." The sample came from Carlton Williams' "Prison Song" from the 1978 musical "Selma."

BROWN: Yeah. It's a really idiosyncratic sample. You know, Atlanta trap is kind of known for, you know, its very, like, somber sonics and very heavy, hard-hitting drums, and it's a very kind of glazed, sort of alienated, emotional feeling.

SIMON: But perhaps the most famous flautist of the last several years is Lizzo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ABOUT DAMN TIME")

LIZZO: (Singing) It's about damn time. Turn up the music.

SIMON: Notably, she even played James Madison's 200-year-old crystal flute on stage - on loan, of course, from the Library of Congress.

BROWN: She's extremely good at the instrument on its own terms, and her pop music kind of stands alone without it. But it's a very endearing and very exciting kind of trick during her shows that she can kind of play to that caliber of an instrument that you don't often hear kind of in the forefront of top-40 pop.

SIMON: But will Andre 3000 ever returned to rapping? Music reporter August Brown thinks so - eventually.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROWN: I think he knows that fans expect him to get back on the mic at some point soon, and this was obviously a passion project, but I hope more artists kind of feel free to take these kind of big leftfield swings like this, you know? And if you want to make your improv ambient flute record instead of your hip-hop comeback, I think that rules, and you should do it.

SIMON: Yeah. Like BJ Leiderman writing our theme music. By the way, that was August Brown, reporter for the LA Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDRE 3000'S "I SWEAR, I REALLY WANTED TO MAKE A 'RAP' ALBUM BUT THIS IS LITERALLY THE WAY THE WIND BLEW ME THIS TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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