We Interviewed Future's Flute Player

We take the mask off of Elena Ayodele to talk performing with Future, flute memes, and the instrument's untapped potential in rap and hip-hop.

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27 April 2017, 8:50am

This article originally appeared on Noisey US. 

You've probably noticed a lot more flutes in rap lately – or at least a lot more flute memes. The instrument is the musical dark horse behind the pensive-yet-banging production on everything from 21 Savage's "X," to Gucci and Drake's "Both" and "Back on the Road," to Kodak Black's "Tunnel Vision" – to say nothing of "Broccoli."

At the centre of the trend is arguably Future's "Mask Off," the Future fan favourite that ascended to unlikely success as Future's highest charting solo track to date, hitting number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week.

The flute has since taken on a life of its own – Gucci's "Coachella" and Drake's "Portland" are just the latest to get on the Ron Burgundy tip – giving rise to an entire meme subculture that includes the Mask Off Challenge, endless Anchorman mash-ups, Power Rangers throwbacks, and, my personal favourite, this.

It was only natural, then, that Future enlisted a flautist for his Coachella gig. Meet Elena Ayodele, the 22-year-old flautist enlisted by Future's team to regale the festival masses with the beloved Metro Boomin flute sample on "Mask Off." After Future posted the flautist-singer's bananas contribution to the Mask Off Challenge, Ayodele was jetted out from New York to play his Coachella slot, where she ascended an LED platform, silhouetted with woodwind in hand, the instrument's very appearance causing the crowd of tens of thousands to lose its collective mind before she even played a note. That, my friends, is what success looks like.

Ayodele has already established herself as something of a go-to in the jazz and hip-hop worlds, performing and recording with Common, Esperanza Spalding, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, and Christian Scott. An artist in her own right, she's currently gearing up to release a solo project later this spring after she graduates from Manhattan School of Music.

"My personal music that I make is much more in the Future lane, it's not the jazz stuff that I did before," Ayodele explains. "So it was really great for me to do this Coachella gig because it was really in line with what I'm about to put out. It has a little bit of a hip-hop vibe, a little bit of an R&B vibe—all of that, but with a little bit of a different sense of musicality because the flute brings something different to it."

We tracked down Ayodele to talk about performing with Future, flute memes, and the instrument's untapped potential in rap and hip-hop.


Noisey: How did you get involved with performing with Future?

Elena Ayodele: This was my first time with them, they're really awesome. I got a call from them about playing and they asked if I knew the song and could play it. I was super excited because, you know, I love his rapping, I love him as an artist. I knew all his stuff, of course. "Mask Off" has been so huge, and I think they wanted that live element.

I'm based in New York, so they flew me out just for Coachella. I play with a lot of different artists. I've been doing a lot with Common, I sing with him too. So it was really cool that they called me for this because it's right up my alley. It's funny because I did a Mask Off Challenge video and they actually reposted it, so it's cool because his followers go to kind of see a thread that way. I'd never done one of those challenges before, but I think I also probably had some recommendations with somebody somewhere. The call was really random.

Are you going to be performing with him again?
I'm not sure, hopefully! They're about to do a tour and maybe I'll get involved with that. This time, I just played "Mask Off" and we were going to do a little bit of a longer thing, kind of an open flute solo thing, but we ended up running short on time. But it was still really cool, they had me climb all the way up on this ladder and get lowered down on a platform from the top. They wanted it so that when "Mask Off" hit, it would be a thing. It was funny because as soon as the crowd saw me they went wild, because they knew it was gonna be "Mask Off" as soon as they saw a flute. So that was awesome.

I bet as a flautist you don't get too many rock star moments like that, where you arrive on a platform in front of a screaming festival crowd.
Interestingly enough, I've been really lucky to have kind of a featured role with the flute on most of the things that I've done, which is kind of crazy. On the Common gig I get to solo and do a bunch of different things like that too. It's been awesome to see how it's been able to be used. But on a stage like Coachella, I don't know when it was the last time that they saw like, a flute on a major moment like that. And with a rapper!

What was rehearsal like?
I actually didn't rehearse with them. They called me and told me what they needed me to do. I got to Coachella and met the whole team there. I didn't know anyone, except the drummer who I met before from knowing different musicians around. We got fitted for wardrobe, we did sound check and line check, and then we hit the stage. And that was it. Everyone was talking about how excited they were to have a live flute be a part of it because the song has been so big. Future was really awesome, he wanted there to be a spotlight and then to have me start playing as I got lowered down. There was so much going on, it was a 50 minute show and they had so many guests. It was very free. They knew that I knew what I was doing, so it was very like, "Here, do your thing." Like I said, if we had had more time I was gonna solo over it, but otherwise I just had to vibe to the track and play with it.

Were you nervous?
I wasn't nervous. It was really fun. Our outfits were really tight, the band was really cool. The song is great. I've been performing for a long time, so I was just really, really excited. I had never been to Coachella before. It was crazy! Me and my friend went the whole weekend and it was amazing, I had the time of my life. It was such a good lineup. From Kendrick to Gucci Mane to Future to... everybody. It was so dope.

Are there other flute players who are working in the live game with rap? Like is it competitive?
I actually don't know any. It's cool because I've actually been recommended for tons of stuff from different people for this exact role. I'm sure there are, and I would love to meet them, but I actually haven't met any. There's one guy who used to play for Erykah Badu who's really dope, but it was a while ago.

Have you ever met Metro Boomin? Are you a fan?
I've never met him! I'm actually dying to meet him, and I would love to play on one of his tracks and have him like, chop it up. I would love that. That's a dream of mine actually. I love his production.

What do you think of all of the "Mask Off" flute memes, and this kind of "moment" the flute is having in rap and hip-hop in general?
I think it's awesome. It's so funny to me that it's becoming so relevant right now because I've been playing it my whole life. It's cool because people are used to hearing it in so many songs, but it wasn't in the forefront in the same way. So it has this trail – it's been in our music since Gil Scott Heron, since Marvin Gaye. All these incredible artists have been using it for years. So mass audiences are used to hearing it in a way that they're maybe not as aware of, and now it's like right in their faces. So it's cool, I think the memes are funny.

Do you have a favourite one? I'm sure everybody's sending them to you all the time, like, "Hey, check this out, you play the flute!"
[Laughs] All the time. I don't have a favourite one. It's so funny how many people have sent me "Mask Off" things since it came out.

Do you ever get annoyed with all the flute memes? Like does it feel like people aren't taking it seriously?
No, I take it all in stride. What's really cool about "Mask Off" is that it's not corny. It sounds really dope, and it reminds me of some of the old records that had flute on them where it wasn't funny, it's some real shit, and it sounds kind of bluesy and soulful. I really love that about it. It's in the beat, but it feels real slick, so I like that.

Why do you think the flute is getting so popular in rap and hip hop right now, versus, I don't know, five or ten years ago?
Well to me, the instrument that sounds and matches closest to the human voice in its character is the flute. And I think that's probably what draws a lot of producers to using it. I think that producers really love it because it sounds super dope and it sounds almost like it can speak like a vocal can. It's also not quite as in-your-face sometimes, like it can be a part of the background but still really hit. To me, when I hear it, that's why it's such a big part of a lot of different songs. It's also great to sample. Like it can fit in with a beat like butter. It makes you feel very grounded. It just hits.

Who are some other artists you'd like to collaborate with?
Kendrick Lamar, because he uses such a diverse range of instruments. Oh, and Frank Ocean. The two of them for sure.

How did you first pick up the flute?
My older brother plays piano, and I wanted to be just like him, and I went to a show and there was a flute player at the show. I literally looked at my parents and was like, "I want to play that one," and I pointed. I don't know if it was because it was shiny, or if it was because there was something within it that I loved. But I always feel like it chose me because it's the perfect instrument for me. I started with improvisation, not classically, so because of that it made me very versatile and kind of the perfect fit for these kind of gigs. I guess my youth, as well. I grew up dancing and listening to pop radio and things that are very my age and contemporary. So I just played along to those records, I would practice to the shit I would hear on the radio. Like I practice to Top 40, to Travis Scott, or to Future. It's no different to me than another record – it's the shit that I like. If I'm in a car bumping that, or if I'm at home bumping that, I'll just play to it.

What kind of an impact has "Mask Off" and your involvement with it had on you?
The big thing is that this whole year, and my whole life, I've been trying to figure out how to put the flute on the main stage like that. So the world can hear it and appreciate it in a way that's in their regular music – the shit they hear at the club, the shit they hear on the radio, the shit they hear when they're kicking it. So for it to be a big part of a song like that that people are playing all the time is huge, especially because I've been making music like that, and I'm about to release a bunch of music like that. It's vindicating, like wow, this is awesome, this can be done. People appreciate it and can like it if it's done in the right way, if it's done authentically. It's almost like a part of hip-hop culture right now.

Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast Editor. Follow her on Twitter.