Producer Andrew 'Pop' Wansel, inspired by Philly

In his Old City apartment , Andrew "Pop" Wansel kicks back with an image of one of his heroes, Jimi Hendrix. He has produced some of the hottest acts in music, including Nicki Minaj's latest album. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
In his Old City apartment , Andrew "Pop" Wansel kicks back with an image of one of his heroes, Jimi Hendrix. He has produced some of the hottest acts in music, including Nicki Minaj's latest album. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 27, 2014

At 18, Andrew "Pop" Wansel made a promise to himself. Before he died, he'd work with both Kanye West and Alicia Keys. He did, all before his 30th birthday.

The 26-year-old two-time Grammy-winning songwriter/producer sits in his new Old City apartment. His jovial demeanor warms the room, as his arms drape his plush couch. Wansel has just moved in, but the dining room table is topped with enough tableware to be the envy of the next issue of Good Housekeeping. He admits he wasn't the interior designer, but a painting of Jimi Hendrix, one of his earliest influences, at the head of the table reveals Wansel's touch.

He's home.

"This city represents me in my truest form," Wansel said. "Any song that I've done that has been a hit I've made in Philadelphia."

Despite traveling the country, he can't imagine himself living anywhere else full time. What he loves about music, he loves about Philadelphia. He smiles broadly as he describes the city's distinct and diverse culture that has made its way into the ears of millions.

"I'm in a city with so much history and so much soul," Wansel said. "Soul is a very important part of my sound. It is my sound."

Wansel grew up in Olney, where, he says, there was "a lot of crime and a lot of good moments, too." He's the youngest of eight and the son of Philadelphia musician Dexter Wansel, who is credited as one of the architects behind the Sound of Philadelphia.

"What parent doesn't want to see their child do what they do and kill it?" Wansel said. "I'm literally my dad's child."

Wansel inherited that same ear for sound, chord progressions, and minor sevenths. By the time he was 9, Wansel was selling music to local rappers, making $100 or more per beat.

Now, he's a big kid, in an even bigger playground.

One morning, he woke up singing "Don't nobody kiss it like you. Bang, bang, bang." He immediately scoured iTunes to download the tune that was stuck in his head. To his surprise, it wasn't a song - at least not yet.

"Good Kisser," sung by R&B titan Usher and produced/cowritten by Wansel, has become the sensual anthem of the summer. The multilayered single is equipped with a funky bass line and a rhythm that transitions between sultry smooth and effervescent staccato. It became Usher's 13th No. 1 song on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, and 14 weeks after release, the single is still steady at No. 5.

"This is the first time ever that I've expected a song to be big," he said.

His discography expands across the hip-hop/R&B spectrum from Trey Songz's "Unusual" to K. Michelle's "V.S.O.P."

By age 17, Wansel had dropped out of George Washington High School to pursue music. He began sending out messages on Myspace asking artists to listen to his beats. Donnie Meadows, managing partner at Starr Island Group, was one of the receivers of that message. Meadows was intrigued by the profile picture of the young man with big hair holding a vinyl.

When they met in the parking lot of a Friday's, Meadows was surprised to see Wansel get out of the passenger seat.

"He brought his mother along," Meadows said. "I remember thinking, 'This is a big kid!' "

After hearing a few tracks, he knew the young producer had talent.

"I knew at that moment I was going to do whatever I had to do to make sure he got where he needed to go," Meadows said.

It didn't take long. Wansel's Myspace messages also got the attention of an up-and-coming rapper from Queens by the name of Nicki Minaj.

In 2008, he sampled Annie Lennox's "No More I Love Yous" and created Minaj's "Your Love," which was leaked in 2010 and launched both Wansel and Minaj's careers.

He worked with Kanye in 2011 on "Marvin Gaye and Chardonnay" for Big Sean's album Finally Famous. In 2012 he produced "To the World" on Kanye's Cruel Summer album.

Everyone wanted a Wansel hit with the "Your Love" sound. He turned down work in order to keep his music original and evolving.

"Everything I do is its own moment," Wansel said.

Wansel is adamant about making his music irreplaceable. When it comes to his playlist, Wansel is an old soul, drawing inspiration from James Brown, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Holland Dozier Holland, Prince, and his father.

One of his biggest inspirations however, is Philadelphia.

"We have the best musicians in the world," Wansel said. "Every major artist comes to Philadelphia to put their band together."

He admits he's unsure what draws such a diverse array of talent, but he suspects there's something in the water or the sandwiches.

"Cooking and creating music are very similar," Wansel said. "Sometimes you have to add some things, it may not be ready yet, and then you serve it to people; you hope that they like it."

They do.

Last year, Wansel received a Grammy for coproducing Alicia Keys' "Fire We Make" featuring Maxwell, which was No. 1 on the Adult R&B Billboard charts. The song appeared on Keys' album Girl on Fire, best R&B album of 2013. He was also awarded Broadcast Music Inc.'s "Top Producers" award at the BMI R&B/Hip-Hop awards.

Wansel also took home a Grammy last year for coproducing "Numb," featuring Eminem, on Rihanna's album Unapologetic, named Best Urban Contemporary Album.

"I knew it was going to happen," Meadows said. "I told him early on he was going to go down as one of the best producers."

Despite his accolades, compliments about his music cause his normally boisterous voice to lower to a hushed and whispered "thank you," his eyes bright with astonishment each time.

"It's an amazing feeling," Wansel said. "I've had people say some songs have changed their life."

When he hears his music on heavy rotation on the radio - "I turn it off," Wansel said. "It's so awkward."

He stresses the importance of maintaining a sense of normalcy that is vital to his creativity. Wansel spends at most five days a week in the studio and will never be a member of what he calls "Team No Sleep," especially now that he is the father of 2-year-old Hendrix, his proudest creation.

The man Fader calls "the producer of Nicki Minaj's soft side" is working not only with Minaj but also Miguel, JoJo, Elle Varner, Jill Scott, Gwen Stefani, and Usher. He has also produced Ariana Grande's new song "Break Your Heart Right Back." Next on Wansel's dream-collaborator list are Beyoncé, Pink, and Taylor Swift, who "has some swag to her."

"People couldn't finish an album without coming to Philly first," Wansel said. "You can expect me to start the process of making Philadelphia a musical mark on the map once again."

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