INTERVIEW: Spanish production duo Cookin Soul discusses their working relationships with American artists and the evolution of Spain's hip hop scene.
The phrase “classic never goes out of style” was invented to describe artists like Cookin Soul.
Comprised of Big Size and Zock, Cookin Soul hails from Valencia, a city of two million on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Lush, decadent, and almost exclusively sample-based, Size and Zock’s aesthetic is deeply reminiscent of Gang Starr, Pete Rock, Erick Sermon, and other luminaries from hip hop’s golden era whom they grew up worshipping.
Cookin Soul’s beats are soft as talc, smooth as silk. They are the sound of luxury, the soundtrack of slow motion. Size and Zock’s heavy use of soul samples from the ‘70s and ‘80s imbues their music with a nostalgic quality. How many other modern hip hop producers has released a tribute mixtape dedicated to Teddy Pendergrass? Ultimately, their beats are best experienced to enhance good times, perhaps while sitting on the beach, smoking a fat blunt, or while cruising down your local arterial five over the speed limit in the summertime, smoking on a fat blunt.
Over the course of their decade-long career, Cookin Soul have collaborated with artists from Bogota to Amsterdam to Tokyo. They worked extensively with rappers in the United States, most notably The Game, YG, Nipsey Hussle, and Curren$y’s Jet Life outfit. Despite their status as arguably continental Europe’s most valuable hip hop export, Cookin Soul remains somewhat of a mystery on this side of the Atlantic.
HNHH recently had the opportunity to speak with Big Size on the phone. He & Zock had just gotten back from an extensive DJ tour through Asia and were getting ready to fly to Paris for a DJ set the following day. From his home studio in Valencia, he discussed in depth his upbringing, artistic process, working relationship with American artists, and the evolution of Spain’s hip hop scene.
Big Size was born into hip hop. He was no older than 10 when his older brother took up DJing and let Size toy around on his turntables and spin his old school records.
Size began making beats on a his family’s computer at age 16. He asked his father for a new computer with better specs to sate his voracious appetite for hip hop production. His dad told him to get a job, so he found a temporary one building closets. “I wasn’t even building, my boss was building [them] because I couldn’t even build that shit,” Size explains.
After two and half months he quit and bought the computer he wanted. He started making beats full-time and never looked back.
Size had been making beats for a couple years when he met Zock. Zock lived in the same neighborhood as Size and was friends with his older brother, the DJ. They shared a penchant for warm, smooth soul samples and they formed a production collective with a guy named Milton, who would later leave the group. They would make beats at Milton’s parents house, in which the studio was immediately next to the kitchen. Hence, the culinary inspiration behind the name: Cookin Soul.
Size has always worked from home. His setup is spare -- a computer, turntable, MIDI keyboard, and a good pair of monitors -- and he collaborates with Zock almost exclusively via email.
“We actually don’t make beats together,” he says. “He makes his beats, I make my beats, and we show each other the beats that we have made. And maybe sometimes I’ll be like ‘oh, pass me the file and I’ll change the bass or play a new kick there or snare.’ But it’s usually a small detail.
Size’s DAW of choice is FL Studio. After hearing several producers recommend the popular program, he switched over from Cubase two years ago and never looked back. He gave me an endorsement of FL that the company should strongly consider making it an official testimonial.
“I was always like, ‘I don’t know if that’s going to be my thing,’” Size says. “But when I started using it, I was like, ‘Wow.’
“It’s easy to use. There’s nothing I can’t do on that program. On the other programs, I always have something I want to do and can’t do it. This one, I can do whatever I want. I have never found nothing where I’m like ‘Shit, I can’t do this.’ It already comes with a lot of things to mix and to master, and it just sounds great. It’s easy, fast. I love it, man! It changed my life. It made everything way better.”
Size has cultivated functional artistic and business relationships with dozens of American rappers. He even considers some of them friends. (“Young Roddy, that’s my homie”) Despite having visited the States twice, Size and Zock have only met two rappers in person: Fiend and Nipsey Hussle.
“I talk with people online a lot,” Size explains simply. “I just never met them face to face.”
Take for example Cookin Soul’s relationship with OG Maco or Curtis Williams. Last year, Size sent the Atlanta rappers a beat pack. They flipped two into a pair of scintillating summer tracks, “Money” & “Holeman & Finch,” and promised fans that they were piecing together a joint mixtape called OG Danco produced entirely by Cookin Soul. Zero tracks from OG Danco have been dropped since; it appears that the project has been shelved. Neither Big Size nor Zock were kept in the loop prior to the release of the two songs or in the afterman. “I don’t know if they gonna make more or not,” Size says. “You have to ask them that. My job’s already done.”
The relationship between producer and rapper is tenuous in the United States, where it is common for a rapper to drop a track without first alerting the producer that the song includes one of their beats. According to Size, this a less common practice in Spain and other countries. He maintains something of a “Que Sera, Sera” attitude towards this arrangement.
“If it’s mixtapes, sometimes this stuff just gets recorded, it’s already out, and then it’s like, ‘Yo, what now?’” he says. “You can’t do a lot of things about that. So sometimes you are a little bit exposed – I mean what are you gonna do – you can’t sue everybody over a mixtape track from Spain. You don’t have a lot of power there.”
Despite the inherent power imbalance, Size and Zock have managed to make a decent living off beats, which Size indicates is at least as profitable as Cookin Soul’s (seemingly) lucrative DJ tours.
“I have a lot of royalty money,” he says. “I have big records in Spain, in Europe, Asia, and of course in the States. You can get paid [off a mixtape]. You have to know when it’s possible.”
Big Size speaks of the Spanish hip hop scene with a note of pride in his voice. “Spanish hip hop has its own scene,” he says. “Spanish hip hop is not like American hip hop. Or French hip hop.”
Spanish hip hop has drawn influence from the United States and France in equal proportions. Now, the scene is thriving on its own accord and is directing trends throughout Latin America, though its trends seemed to emerge in parallel with those in the United States.
“Spanish hip hop has always been about lyrics,” says Size of the ‘90s. “You have to have dope lyrics. Lyrics that you take time writing. It’s almost like movies or like books. It was like that. Now it’s more about the flows and the beats. The beats have to be dope. If the beat is not dope, I’m not gonna listen to it.”
While Spain has not adopted American signifiers of machismo and wealth such as guns or making it rain at the strip club, Size notes the rise of a new generation of Spanish artists influenced by Atlantan trap. “Now it’s starting to become more about club music,” he says. “People are mixing it with reggaeton and trap music. People are saying ‘swag’ and all that.”
As with many items in our rich cultural cornucopia, we Americans are quick to forget the artistic and commercial impact hip hop has had abroad. (We enjoy the smell of our own farts, as it were.) Hip hop is at this point a surging, self-sustained lifeblood in nearly ever corner of the globe. Big Size & Zock's humble beat-making operation out of Valencia is a reminder that, against all odds, worlds of consequence actually exist outside our own.