Cookin Soul: “Limitations make music production fun. If you want to get good at something, you have to love it”
The Grammy-winning Spanish producer reveals his journey to the top and tells us how his celebrated Christmas mixtapes came to life.
Image: Isolde Woudstra for MusicTech
It’s only a few sleeps until Christmas, and Grammy-winning beatmaker Cookin Soul isn’t sure if we’ll hear one of his profane, festive mash-up albums this year. “I don’t even know if I’m gonna release one,” he tells us on 21 December. “If I don’t release it today, I’m just gonna keep it for myself.” Six hours after our call, he posts WU XMAS artwork across his social media pages along with a tracklist, indicating the digital and physical drop of a Christmas mixtape. Within 24 hours, his followers snapped up all four editions of the vinyl release.
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We’re hardly surprised. Cookin Soul’s 2019 DOOM XMAS and 2020 Notorious BIG – READY FOR XMAS mixtapes have amassed millions of streams on his YouTube channel, where he also posts videos of him making beats to more than 400,000 subscribers. Now, it’s practically a Christmas tradition for Cookin Soul fans to listen to these albums ahead of the big day. “They’re putting pressure on me now,” the enigmatic producer says with a grin. “I feel like if I don’t drop this thing, people will be like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Where is it?’ They’ve already been sending me ideas in the comments and messages.”
For his mixtapes, Cookin Soul digs deep into his impressive vinyl collection – which features a section especially for Christmas – to seek out jolly samples to chop and flip into boom-bap beats. Layered on top are acapellas from rap legends: DOOM XMAS paid tribute to MF DOOM, and READY FOR XMAS features Biggie vocals – guess what WU XMAS has in the stocking? Sure, these rappers aren’t singing about Santa Claus, but there’s something oddly addictive about DOOM rhyming over a sample of You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch.
Why was the Spanish beatmaker unsure about releasing WU XMAS? Mainly because these albums are spontaneous – Cookin Soul doesn’t need to overthink his craft anymore. “I knock out mixtapes in four or five days,” he says, “I’ve been making music for a long time so I know what I want. I have my studio set up in the fastest way for me. When I’m looking for sounds, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I can use this drum or this drum pattern’, or, ‘This acapella is going to fit.’ When I did DOOM XMAS, I knew that I was going to use something from The Grinch. I just had to find the right part.”
Cookin Soul has been making beats since he was 16. He’s developed a keen ear, always listening for the prime sample to flip. He’s heavily inspired by old-school hip-hop culture, which is rife with soulful samples and aesthetics laid down by previous generations. “I’m a very visual artist,” he says. “A lot of the time, when I make beats, I have movies on in the background. That’s why I have so much stuff. I just get inspiration from those kinds of things.”
Look around his Amsterdam-based studio and you’ll see a diverse collection of music gear, retro video games and consoles, action figures and decor. Look to his many albums and their artwork, and a pattern emerges. His Whatever series features cartoon album covers inspired by Crash Bandicoot, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Madlib’s Quasimoto. “It’s all about my life; the things that I like and that represent me or that have inspired me through the years.”
He ensures that his idiosyncrasies make their way into the music too. “I work closely with my design team, and I have a lot of details in each of the artwork. It’s the same with the music; there’s always a detail here and there on the beats, like little treats for the ears. Sometimes there are things that you only hear after, like, 20 listens.” Ultimately, Cookin Soul wants to leave messages in his art and music that pass on the legacies of his influences and inspire the next generation of beatmakers.
The humble artist never dreamed of being a superstar DJ or producer. “I always wanted to be a basketball player,” he says. “I was in love with basketball; Michael Jordan is my biggest influence. That’s why I have a hard-work mentality. I watched all his tapes and was like, ‘Wow, it’s insane what this man can do’. So that has always stayed with me, his mindset.”
Cookin Soul’s introduction to music came by way of his older brother, a DJ infatuated with ’90s hip-hop. “When he used to go to work, I went into his room and made tapes. I was 10 years old – I’d pop up the cassette and record my little mixes. Then he would come home and beat my ass!” he says, chuckling.
“And I said ‘I’m gonna work so hard on this that I’m never gonna have to go back and work for somebody else’.”
His passion for shooting hoops was still burning into his teens. But he couldn’t stay away from the decks. Eventually, his “little mixes” landed him DJ sets at local venues, spinning beats in his home city of Valencia. “On weekends, I’d play a bit of hip-hop. I couldn’t even get in [to the venue] because I was like 16 or 17 but I was already almost two metres tall, so they didn’t ask me for ID or anything.”
After getting paid for these sneaky DJ gigs, he soon realised that music could be a viable career path – but he had to make a choice. “I started having some problems with the basketball team and the coach,” he says. “And it was almost because I was getting more into music. So I thought, ‘If I want to do something, either I stop with music completely and go for basketball or I stop with basketball and go for music completely. If I want to be good at something, I have to focus on it 100 per cent and give it my all.’ So that gave me a lot of pain. But I quit basketball and went for music, and I think I made the right choice.”
Upon making this decision, Cookin Soul set out to land himself some music tech gear to bring his new dream to life. His parents, reluctant to provide him with the money for it, presented a solution. “I asked my dad, ‘Yo, can you give me some money to buy a computer because I want to start making some music?’ My dad was like, ‘I’ll do you one better’.
“The next day, at eight o’clock in the morning, he took me to a closet-building company that was hiring. He told me, ‘Yeah, I got you a job’.” Cookin Soul laughs and sticks a thumbs up. “Nice”, he says sarcastically.
“I always wanted to be a basketball player. Michael Jordan is my biggest influence. That’s why I have a hard-work mentality – because of him.”
After a month or so into the job, the soon-to-be-producer had the money he needed for a basic PC and audio interface. So he quit. “I still had a contract of three months but I never went back. And I said, ‘I’m gonna work so hard on this that I’m never gonna have to go back and work for somebody else’. That was my motivation. And I was just reminding myself of Michael Jordan’s teachings. Instead of getting the championship rings and the MVP, I was going for making music.”
Growing up in Valencia, a city known for ports and paella, Cookin Soul seldom happened across musical peers. There weren’t many other locals idolising Pete Rock and DJ Premier for their head-bopping cuts. As luck would have it, though, a few streets down from his home was Milton, a producer who would soon help him form the original Cookin Soul in 2005. Back then, our interviewee went by Big Size.
“It was almost impossible that somebody would be into soul and making beats at like 17, 18 years old, and doing similar stuff to what I was doing,” he says. “So I told [Milton], ‘We should make a group,’ and we started Cookin Soul and made the first remix tape.” This is where the producer’s dream started to take shape. Soon, they would receive calls from Spanish artists to produce for them, and he’d receive his first substantial paycheck from music-making.
“I got my first cheque of €6,000 for royalties and stuff, went home to my mom and was like,” Cookin Soul holds up an imaginary check, beams from cheek to cheek and nods his head. “That’s what started everything.”
“It was always through the internet. I never went to the United States and had meetings or went to the studio with artists. It was always through my computer in Valencia.”
Although they released music as Cookin Soul for several years, the group would soon shrink to a sole member. “Even though it was a group, we never made beats together. Everyone was making beats in their own studios and we would put the beats on a mixtape or album. And I was making 95 per cent of the Cookin Soul beats you hear, so when I went solo, it didn’t make any difference.”
Cookin Soul, the now-solo producer, was armed with a collection of his beats he planned to pass onto vocalists to start building his reputation. He didn’t have a team, a manager or anyone to help him, but, fortunately, he was making music during the internet’s early YouTube and MySpace era.
“It was always through the internet. I never went to the United States and had meetings, or went in the studio with artists. It was always through my computer in Valencia.” Presumably, this method worked. In 2013, he won a Latin Grammy after being asked to produce music for Mala Rodriguez’s Bruja album, and he’s also collaborated with the likes of Freddie Gibbs, Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, Nipsey Hussle and more.
Not much has changed. Cookin Soul’s YouTube channel is now a hub for the producer’s music videos, mixtapes, sample pack promos, and quirky, lighthearted production walkthroughs with retro and modern samplers. He tells us that he wishes he had the opportunity to watch his favourite producers – Pete Rock, J Dilla, DJ Premier – create tracks the same way his followers watch him.
“I used to see Pete Rock with the SP-1200 and I was like, ‘Oh, I got to get SP-1200’. But drum machines have no soul; you have to make the magic.”
He has a penchant for sampling machines such as the Akai MPC 2000XL and E-Mu SP-1200, using their dated features to impart unique characteristics into his lo-fi productions. Their workflows are not as intuitive as contemporary sequencers and DAWs. The SP-1200, for example, can be limiting with its meagre 10 seconds of sampling time. But Cookin Soul uses such restrictions to his advantage.
“The limitations are what makes it fun,” he says. Going to the studio is different every time. With no set plan of what gear to use or what samples to flip, creating a workflow is challenging and rewarding. “It has to be fun,” he adds. “Because if you really want to get good at something, you have to spend a lot of time, and you have to love it.”
Vintage gear is fun, he says, but it’s important not to get carried away and senselessly buy more instruments. “I used to see Pete Rock with the SP-1200 and I was like, ‘Oh, I got to get SP-1200’. But drum machines have no soul; you have to create the magic.
Cookin Soul uses his longtime passion for basketball to hammer this point home. “When I was watching Michael Jordan, I saw him using the Jordans and was like ‘Yo, if I get the Jordans…’ but when you get Jordans, you still stuck at basketball. Or you can still be good. It’s up to you.”
Still, he can’t deny that these vintage machines are part of his daily motivation. Even when the SP-1200 is switched off, he says, its history and legacy remind him of the masterpieces his idols created with it. “I listen to so much stuff that was created on that machine and the MPC and the Roland SP-303”.
He’s also learning new workflows, whether it’s this year’s Roland SP-404 MKII or the 1992 Ensoniq ASR-10 sampling keyboard. After seeing revered producer Alchemist chop up beats on the ASR-10, Cookin Soul wanted to see how he could use it. “I had Alchemist in my studio like a month ago and I showed him the ASR-10 manuals because I just bought a mind condition unit. He was like, ‘Yeah, I have a few of them. They break all the time’. Of course, he’s one of the biggest legends of the ASR-10. I wanted Alchemist to give me a few tips on how to use it, but I still didn’t have my unit in the studio.”
Cookin Soul’s search for inspiring sounds led to creating sample packs full of drum hits, patterns and instruments that he wanted to use in his productions. Eventually, he realised he could pass these original sounds onto fellow producers – who can hear those same sounds across Soul’s oeuvre – for an affordable price. “I have to test every sound because sometimes, you make something and it sounds nice but then you use it on a beat and it doesn’t sit nicely,” he says.
“When you hear my releases, you’ll hear my drum packs. That’s really what I use, it’s no mystery.”
It’s a miracle Cookin Soul still has time to whip up mixtapes, create sample packs, design merch, and hunt for new workflows and gear. He barely has time for our interview amid his family life and career. “I don’t do any interviews,” he tells us. “You’re the only interview that I’ve given in years.”
“Okay, man,” Cookin Soul says as we wrap up the call. “I’m gonna go finish the Christmas project.” He maintains his vague and uncertain demeanour on the mixtape from the start of the call. Does he think he’ll get it done in time? “I think so. I mean, I hope so.”
For him, time is everything. Whether it’s just naming files correctly on his computer or making sure he’s not overstretching himself. “Especially since I started a family, I have to make sure that every second counts.”
Check out Cookin Soul’s WU XMAS and Soul Supreme sample pack at cookinsoul.com.
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