What began as a plan to further Elyon Barrera a.k.a. Young Cocoa’s studies in the Philippines has evolved into more of a pursuit of his passion to create tunes that he’d be proud to share with others. Filipino by blood Young Cocoa recalls spending 16 years of his life in Jakarta, Indonesia. “You’d almost have the same experience growing up in the city like Manila. It’s very urban. There’s a lot of cars and motorbikes. The people there are very friendly. Overall, it’s such a tropical vibe and the food there is great,” says Young Cocoa. He was planning to search for a scholarship in Europe for his Masters but then the pandemic hit, which made him decide to study Industrial Design in the Philippines instead.
“It came out of nowhere,” Young Cocoa says of discovering he can actually rap. He’s no stranger to hip hop and rap music, with Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, Ugly God, and a slew of 90s rap artists (thanks to his older brother’s influence) dominating his playlist. But it was listening to meme raps and thinking that he could make something similar or even better that pushed him to try his hand at writing his own verses. The 25-year-old rapper has been independently dropping tunes since 2019 but now the first hip-hop artist signed under OFFMUTE, a new pan-regional label by Sony Music Entertainment focused on championing new and emerging Southeast Asian artists from across all genres. Four years ago, one of his songs caught the attention of a popular Korean rapper and idol from BTS, which he dismissed thinking that it wasn’t true until the recognition happened again. “It happened twice with RM. I think first was with my my song “Quezon Don.” I saw RM’s playlist and I’m like, “there’s no way. I never shared it to any of my friends, never posted it on my stories, I didn’t think of capitalizing on this moment. It wasn’t until the next playlist add when I said, ‘Oh, he’s for real!’ Because I didn’t think it’s for real at first, by the way, maybe it was just some person naming their playlist RM or something. It’s just when this second time that I really checked and it was really him, this happened in 2022,” explains Young Cocoa. The second track by Young Cocoa that RM from BTS shared on his playlist was “Manila,” a song he wrote to pay tribute to the city that has been his home for four years. Other K-pop artists who acknowledge the song included Taehyun from Tomorrow by Together, Jay from ENHYPEN, Yeri from Red Velvet, Eric from The Boyz, Omega X, Dawon from SF19, and Lia Kim from 1Million Dance Studio. Viewers also noticed that BTS’ Jungkook has the track on his playlist after hearing a portion of it being played during a recent live stream. When asked how he feels about all of his co-artists’ recognition, he says he’s overwhelmed but has the utmost respect for people who like his music, whether or not they’re musicians. “They don’t have to put my stuff on their playlist, they can just listen to it on their own. But to actually put it out there, that means a lot to me,” he says.
I hopped on a quick call with Young Cocoa and we talked more about his upbringing and his music.
Hi, YC. What were you doing before this interview?
I was actually playing video games. I dabble a little bit in FIFA; I play online sports games with my friends.
Does music runs in the family?
Surprisingly, no. No musicians in the family but I grew up in a musical home. My mom would dabble into singing and dancing but my dad, when he was growing up, he was a performer. He’s was a theater guy. In college, he was very active in the theater community. That was imparted to me when I was younger. I also had a theater background growing up because of my dad.
What made you decide that hip-hop would be the genre that you want to focus on?
It just seemed like it’s the most natural route for me. I was ingesting a lot of rap in my playlist. I kind of have a reputation of always listening to rap in college. And I can’t really sing, so rapping was more feasible.
Which artists do you look up to and inspire you?
A lot of the people that I look up to aren’t people who I really look at and say sonically they influence me. I try not to do that a lot. People who have career paths whom I really admire, those are the people that I look up to so my influences range from people like Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, recently, it would be Smino, Aminé, a lot of those people who are similar to each other but very different.
Briefly, can you take us through your songwriting process? Who do you usually collaborate with?
Quite recently I’ve been collaborating a lot with my producer, who’s also an artist as well, his name is Trizzy. He’s a very talented kid. He’s going to be executive producing my stuff.
I usually like to have a beat on hand first and I do my own song writing. A lot of other artists they start writing first and then they’ll go to the producer and say, “Hey, I have this idea…” I’m on the opposite of the spectrum, I start with a beat first and let my ideas flow. In terms of thematic and ideas, I like to switch up my flows and cadence when I write. I try to figure out my cadence first and filling it in with lyrics. I do this thing wherein I like to title my songs before I write. It’s fun for me. It’s like a puzzle that I’m trying to solve.
You wrote the songs “Manila” and “J-Town” to pay tribute to two places close to your heart. Why do you believe you feel the need to do this?
“Manila” was really a product of urgency for me. At that point in time, I really wanted to continue my studies. The original plan was to go to Germany or anywhere in Europe to seek out a scholarship for Masters to continue doing design. But the pandemic hit and everything just changed. That was right around January when I felt like I’m going to leave the Philippines for sure. I wanted to make a song that’s been my home for the past four years, because Manila for me at that time, felt like my new home. Even though I’m Filipino and grew up in Jakarta, the place where I stay when I go back to the Philippines would be Iloilo not Manila because my parents are Ilonggo. Manila for me is a new place. I wrote “Manila” and put it out there as a tribute. “J-town” was just a reaction to “Manila.” I spend four whole years in Manila but 16 years in Indonesia. If I were to have a discography, how can I not have a song about my history in Jakarta? A lot of my music so far are not based on feelings or emotions yet, that’s something that I’m going to step into. A lot of what I write is about my narrative, trying to express my story and see if people relate.
Any chance that you’d produce tracks in Tagalog soon?
I had my very first taste of stepping into that. I released a collaboration song with one of my friends. Hicci, he’s in the OPM rap scene, a week before I released “J-town” it’s called “Prinsesa.” That was my first step into Tagalog rapping. I’m so open to it, I just need to get my grammar down, then I think I’ll be okay.
Anything that you’re most excited about, career wise, this year?
I’m really hyped with the mixtape that I’ll be dropping; it’s going to be called Sari-Sari. That’s going to be dropping within the quarter of this year. This year is the year for me to explore. I really want people to understand what I can do and the genres that I want to poke into and see what I can get from each. I’m also really excited by the idea of collaborating more with Southeast Asian artists in particular. There’s a whole world out there to collaborate with anyone but I feel like Southeast Asia as a music scene is growing. The more that we collaborate with each other, the more that we can identify as one group. That’s something that’s necessary and inevitable, for us to unify. There’s so much potential for us to work together. I really want to be part of that wave. Now obviously, I really want to collaborate with Korean artists.
Follow Young Cocoa on Facebook and Instagram.
Special thanks to Sony Music Philippines