Meet Pop Wansel, the Philadelphia producer behind the hits of Lizzo, Nicki Menaj and Kehlani

Pop Wansel is on the move. The Philadelphia hip-hop and pop producer is on the phone from Los Angeles as he drives across town from his home to his recording studio.

“Can you hear me?” asks the 34-year-old songwriter. “I’m in the back of an Uber so I’m wearing my mask.”

Yes, you speak loud and clear. The first question: what are you working on?

The answer to this question: It is complicated.

Wansel is perfectly willing to talk about his love of music.

It could mean remembering making beats while hanging out after school in the 1990s at the Philadelphia International Records office of his producer-arranger father, Dexter Wansel, known for his work with Patti LaBelle and Teddy Pendergrass. .

Or it could recall how he cold-contacted a young rapper named Nicki Minaj on MySpace in 2006, and Annie Lennox’s sample song “Your Love” ended up scoring Minaj her first No. 1 hit.

Before that, Wansel – who loves cooking as much as he loves writing songs – was planning on going to culinary school. Instead, the music industry beckoned.

These days he’s so successful he must be shy about what he does. Because in the stratosphere of pop music, secrecy is valued.

“I’m working on a few things,” he says. “I can tell you it’s huge, and I can tell you the world probably knows that this person and I work together. But I can’t tell you what.

It looks like Lizzo, whose Special — the continuation of his 2019 Because I love you – is expected on Friday. Wansel, whose first name is Andrew, has songwriter and producer credits on “Grrrls,” the second Special single, which uses a sample of the Beastie Boys to deliver a message of empowerment.

Wansel will neither confirm nor deny. “You could be right, or you could be wrong,” he says, though he acknowledges he’s contributed to “a few” Special Songs.

Over the past decade, Wansel and his producing partner Warren “Oak” Felder have built up a lengthy resume. Together they teamed up with Usher, Ariana Grande, Rihanna, Miguel, Alicia Keys, Demi Lovato and Elle Varner, with Dexter Wansel helping with arrangements on the latter’s 2012. perfectly imperfect.

And Pop Wansel is now in the spotlight thanks to the acclaimed new album from hip-hop/R&B singer Kehlani, who will perform on the Skyline Stage at the Mann Center on August 15.

Wansel and Felder worked with Kehlani in 2017 SweetSexySavageand Wansel took the reins blue water roadexecutive producer and co-producer of all 13 titles.

He shaped the inviting sound with touches of airy folk and old-school R&B as well as the delicate strings he grew to appreciate as the youngest of eight children in the home of his classically trained cellist father.

blue water road is an emotionally charged record, based on songs Kehlani originally recorded for a deluxe version of his 2020 album It was good until it wasn’t anymore. With Wansel’s help, it became a complete work.

“We’ve made so much music over the years,” Kehlani wrote on Instagram in a heartfelt thank you to Wansel in April. “Long before this album, I entrusted my life to you. … I am forever in awe of your God-given talent, your warm, selfless Taurus heart, and your ability to make everyone around you better. Their best. Thank you for doing this with me.

Wansel’s path to becoming a top producer begins with his father, his family, and Philadelphia.

Dexter Wansel “wasn’t just a cool dad,” he says. “He was the coolest. Just really gentle and patient and uncompromising manners.

He recalls a moment that changed his life: Michael Jackson fan at the age of 6, Wansel realized that Nas was rapping over “Human Nature” on his 1994 song “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”.

“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.’ But I didn’t get it. So my dad sat me down and showed me what a sample was. And that’s when I was like, ‘OK, that’s what I am going to do’. “

“It started very early,” says Dexter Wansel, speaking on the phone from his home in Chester County. “At the age of 15, he was on his way.”

“I was selling beats to neighborhood rappers when I was 10,” Pops Wansel recalled. “I would make tapes or CDs and just sell them for $200.”

Wansel received an education from his sisters and brothers. “Having seven siblings in the cradle,” he says. “Everyone had different tastes,” ranging from Prince and David Bowie to gospel music to West Coast rap. His mother, Judith, listened to doo-wop and classic soul. His father turned classical and jazz records.

Dexter Wansel had also been one of the first to start. “From the age of 8 in 1958 and 1959, I was an errand boy backstage at the Uptown Theatre,” on North Broad Street, he says. A number of artists he met at Uptown – including Jerry Butler and LaBelle – the elder Wansel went on to work with at PIR.

He passed on a behind-the-scenes perspective to his son.

“The people I worked with were like family to him. Lou Rawls was Uncle Lou. Patti LaBelle was Aunt Patti, Phyllis Hyman was Aunt Phyllis. Billy Paul was Uncle Billy. He could see them in action.

Dexter Wansel started giving his son piano lessons “a couple of times,” Pop recalled. “I just never had the attention span.”

“But I’m so inspired by the times my dad thrived in,” says Pop Wansel. “Real music, real instruments. You can’t beat this feeling. … Just being in Philadelphia, having good soul music in my genes and having access to the best musicians in the world.

Wansel was inspired to go “Pop” by the 2005 horror film The Skeleton Key. “This Papa Justify character would take souls. I was like, ‘I’m taking soul samples! I will be Papa Justify.’ ”

Dexter Wansel still performs regularly and released an album titled The story of the flight crew to Mars in 2021 which serves as a bookend to his 1973 album Philadelphia International Life on Mars. He says he’s most impressed with “the sound” of his son’s production. “When he writes a song, he’s trying to get a message across. But mostly as a producer, I hear the quality of the sounds he gets from the instrumentation. It’s amazing.”

Pop Wansel is grateful that his father “taught me the mistakes he made on the business side. He gave me everything I needed to know to make sure I wasn’t taken advantage of.

Wansel, who calls himself “very private,” lives with his girlfriend and sons Hendrix, 11, and Ziggy, 4, in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where he moved in 2017. “They are Angelenos he says of his son. What he misses the most in Philadelphia is “the food. The variety of culture. Philadelphia is a great city for Caribbean food, Jamaican food, Puerto Rican food. I can’t find any of that in LA.”

And: cheese steaks. “I am a boy from Dalessandro. Also just across the street is Chubby’s. Respectfully, there are plenty of places that do cheesesteak, but there’s nothing like it here.

Wansel raves about teenage singer Ally Salort from North Jersey, with whom he works. And on her wish list? “I would love to work with Adele. And Pusha T. He’s my favorite rapper.

To be perceived as hot – as it is with blue water road and Lizzo’s music about to drop – that’s good. But not a priority.

“I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be,” he says. “How do I explain it?” I got my first check from a label for producing in 2009. So that’s 13 years later and I’m still doing that. Probably 95% of growers don’t have that shelf life. So I don’t really get into the “who’s hot right now?” I’m just here to serve the artist and serve the people, and give them the music they love.

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