Beat Construction: Meet Andrew “Pop” Wansel, the Producer Behind Nicki Minaj’s Soft Side

The Philly-based producer talks work with Kanye, Usher, and Nicki’s new album

June 17, 2014

"Hip-hop shit is so high school. Most rappers are not innovative or open to different shit. They chase whatever’s working.

The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. Every now and again we aim to illuminate these under-heralded artists with Beat Construction. This week we spoke to Philadelphia-based producer/songwriter Andrew "Pop" Wansel, one half of production duo Pop & Oak, about sweet Philly soul, life-changing leaks and the cheat codes behind Nicki Minaj's brilliant, bright-pink pop.

So starting off, legendary soul/funk artist Dexter Wansel is your dad. Absolutely.

His “One Million Miles from the Ground” is one of my favorite songs. Of course that had a huge influence on you doing music. My earliest memories of music are my father's music. At 4 years old, I had all his tapes, all his vinyl, all his CDs, and I just played them around the house. It set the bar for me so high, I thought that’s what music was supposed to be. I related more to all of the vinyls in the basement that sounded a little more like my dad’s shit. The Stanley Clark’s, George Duke’s. I come from soul, I come from jazz, and I come from, to me, the most soulful city on the planet.

Philadelphia is crucial for soul. Detroit gets credited so much because of Motown, but people don’t realize that a lot of what they associate with soul music, especially what ended up getting sampled by hip-hop artists, is from Philadelphia. I can’t say Motown wasn’t soulful. I love Motown, and [writing/production team] Holland-Dozier-Holland is one of my biggest influences. But to me, that was more black pop music. It was white songs sang by black folks.

And that was the purpose. Absolutely, it was on purpose because Berry Gordy is an absolute genius, and Holland-Dozier-Holland were the men for the job. But Philly guys like Smokey Robinson, Gamble and Huff, Thom Bell and Dexter Wansel, they was soul brothers. They were making black music that crossed over to pop.

Were you in the studio with your dad as a child? Touring with him? By the time I was born, my father’s career had tapered off. It sucks because that was due to politics and cruel side of the business. But I was very involved, very early on, by choice. I wanted it. There was nothing forced upon me. He won’t admit it, but I’m pretty comfortable saying that my dad probably did not want me to do this because of his experiences. But I was around OGs, I was around people that set the standards so high for black music today. And that has always been with me, man. I been in the studio since I was 5 years old, and when I say in the studio I don’t mean just sitting there looking cute, being a little boy, or being Dexter’s son. I was in there paying attention, I was focused. I started making beats when I was 6.

One curious thing that I noticed was that your dad is credited on “Unusual” by Trey Songz & Drake. Was he involved in the making of that record? Absolutely. All of the loud instrumentation that you hear: the horns and the strings, the guitars and things like that—I know people think that’s a sample, but it’s not, it’s my father.

That’s amazing. I mean, yeah. That was fun day (laughs).

You just picked up the phone like, “Pops, I need you on this Trey Songz record?” Occasionally, my dad makes pieces of music for me to sample and chop up—that was one of them. When I heard the shit I was like, “Wow.” I started chopping it, put the drums, then my production parter Oak had came to Philly, he was fresh off a flight. He came in and he did his shit to it. I did the beat for Kanye, I really wanted him to have the beat. Then, somewhere or another—I’ll never know how, I never ask questions—[Atlantic A&R] Mike Caren got the beat. Mike Caren’s a genius, he had an R&B song written to it.

It was so bugged to me to think that your dad is not only aware of all of this contemporary music because of your career, but has hands in it in some places. That’s dope, man. You kind of got the cheat codes. I do (laughs). I do, I do. I acknowledge it, though.

"I dare after her album comes out for a motherfucker to say 'Nicki Minaj can’t rap.' She is going the fuck off."

Your breakout record was “Your Love” by Nicki Minaj. Her first single “Massive Attack” had flopped, and then “Your Love” leaked and it sort of saved her album. How did all of that play out? First and foremost, I gotta say that woman… what a woman. She’s amazing. She helped change my life. I’m forever indebted to her, I love her. I’ve known her since 2006. I sent her a message on Myspace, and she went on my page and listened to my beats and was like, “Yo, your dope. Send me some shit.” I cooked her some beats and we’ve always worked that way ever since then. I started placing records, she got a deal and became Nicki Minaj. She just always made sure I was in tow with her. I did “Your Love” in my basement in my mom’s house. My sister, Jackie, loves Annie Lennox and she was like, “Yo, you should sample this shit.” And I was just like, “Oh, I fucking hate this song. It’s so annoying.” She was always playing it when she was cleaning and stuff. And the one day this shit was just in my head, so I went in my basement and looped the sample up. I put a kick and a snap on it, and that was all I did because I just wanted enough for me to be able to lay my hook down before I forgot it. I didn’t think nothing of it. That song was for me at the time. I was sending Nicki some beats, and I attached it to the email by mistake. I texted her like “I didn’t mean to send you that one.” She called me right away and was like, “Yo, what the fuck is this? This shit’s crazy.” And then she did the record and it sat there. And that was it.

Two years later, somebody from Atlanta at Hot Beats Studio changed my life. They leaked it--that was January 20th, I’ll never forget. Nicki was horrified. She called me like “Oh my god, I sound so bad. The Auto-Tune is so bad. I’m singing and people have never heard me like this. I hate this shit.” But it was a leak so we figured the world would forget about it at some point. “Massive Attack” came months later, and whatever happened with that song happened, but “Your Love,” that leak was still not going away. That leaked, unmastered demo charted on Billboard on its own. I texted Nicki like, “Dude, this shit charted.” She was like, “Wow.” And so I had to go in with Oak and we had to replay the sample because Annie Lennox would not clear the master. I sent her the new beat, she rerecorded it. Baby, Cash Money, they were like “We puttin’ this shit out. They put it out June 1st. Six months after it leaked, they released it, and by July we had a #1 record. #1 for eight weeks.

So every step of the way that song was an accident? Every step of the way was an accident. Some people on Nicki’s end didn’t want to put the record out. Her management at that time. But the world was lovin’ it and the world didn’t want to let that song go. They would not let the song die. Everything about it was an accident.

It’s a crazy record to revisit now because so much of the conversation about Nicki is her pop sound versus her rap sound. “Your Love” was one of the first times we heard Nicki Minaj make a pop song. That’s why I fuckin’ hate people. Their job is to like something or not like it and to go on about their day. If you don’t like it, don’t support it. If you like it, support it. It's that fuckin’ simple. But for Nicki, I love when Nicki is being Nicki. I love when she’s embracing what she is and what she wants to be. “Your Love” is Nicki. Nicki loves that kinda shit. “Pills N’ Potions?” That’s Nicki! That’s Nicki! Singin’ those little parts, raps in the verses, bein’ real. She loves that. She loves those airy, piano, vibey-type serious kinda sounds. People didn’t really get to see that much in the beginning, with the wittiness and the characters, Roman and all that shit. It was all epic, but I love when Nicki follows that balance, and that perfect balance to me is that new single “Pills N’ Potions”. It’s incredible.

What kind of stuff are you and Nicki working on for the new album? I’m good at bringing out her softer side. Songs like “Your Love” and “Save Me,” which is a fan-favorite, “Right by My Side” and “Fire Burns.” I’m good at that with her. In regards to the overall sound of her album, all I can say is she’s going the fuck off. I dare after this album comes out for a month for a motherfucker to say, “Oh Nicki Minaj can’t rap” again. I’ll never understand that, but there’s nothing you could be able to say.

“To the World” by Kanye and R. Kelly off Cruel Summer is one of my favorite beats of yours. But there was also a version of that record by a dude named Sterling Simms, right? (Laughs) How’d you hear that? You’re the only person in the world that heard that.

Well you know, I know these kind of things happen with producers. Especially the way Kanye and the G.O.O.D team works, beats get sent around and there’s lots of collaborators. Yeah, well I’ve never spoken on this. I didn’t really know people knew about that but, um, Sterling is my brother. He’s Philadelphia home grown. I’m always workin’ on music with him and you know, we were doin’ a mixtape. Kanye knew he wanted that beat way before the mixtape came out. He already had all he needed, the files and everything. I don't know, someone from the studio had leaked some songs or something like that and that was one of the songs and you know, that’s what happened.

So Sterling’s was a leak? Was it recorded as a reference? It wasn't meant to be out anywhere? Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, we did this song for Sterling, for his album we were working on at the time. And we decided to scrap the song, and somebody, you know, leaked it.

I only ask because I know that whole world of placing beats and people putting licensing on beats, like all that stuff gets messy sometimes. Well, I haven’t really experienced that too much, thank god. Here’s the thing, 80 percent of the time all the people I work with I have really good relationships with, personal ones. I have respect for them and actually care about them. So when I give them a beat, that’s usually that. Now some people operate like, “it ain’t nobody beat till I get a check.” Now, I can’t say I don’t operate like that either because I do, but it’s usually when it’s someone that’s business to me, not someone that I take personal.

I would imagine most of the time you’re not in the studio with artists that you end up sending tracks to. Usually no, believe it or not. I’m here in Philly at the end of the day, and I like to be here. I create well here. My best shit happens here. It wasn't really until recent that people ended up flyin’ out to Philly and comin’ to Philly to work with me. I had Miley Cyrus out here for a long time. Yeah, yeah I love her man. She’s family. I was one of the first people in hip-hop that she worked with when she was workin’ on the Bangerz album. I had Kelly Rowland has come. Ty Dolla $ign comes all the time. Man, that’s my brother, and y’all just put him on the cover. That’s what’s up. He loves comin’ to Philly to work with me.

You did Usher’s new single, “Good Kisser.” I think everybody’s happy to hear Usher come out with a solid R&B record. How’d that come together? I woke up singing that song. I thought that was a song that existed already, then I realized that it didn’t exist and I said, oh I got something cool. The next day, we were having a party upstairs from the studio we work at, and while everyone was occupied, we snuck down into the studio and I looped the sample up. About six months later, we were going through old ideas to see if anything was worth fucking with and we came up with that. I went to LA and passed it to an A&R, then my manager hit me up and was like, “Yo, Usher wanna fuck with this shit.” Like he fucks with it and I gave them everything they need. Usher came in, he made it, he did what he do. He changed some things, he put his spin on it, and he made it work for him.

Do you enjoy working with pop artists or rappers more? Good question (laughs). I have to say, hip-hop shit is so high school, man. Most rappers are not in a space right now to be innovative or to be open to different shit. They want to chase what’s on the radio. They want a “club banger,” as they fuckin’ call it. I don’t even know what that fuckin’ means but that’s what they want. They chase whatever’s working. They chase the radio and that’s just something that I’m not good at doing. So the few rappers that I’ve been blessed to work with, that’s why you see me work with them every record, every album. Because they’re not afraid, they’re fearless people, and their open. They’re open to different shit. I love rap because that’s what I come from. I’m a rapper at heart. I used to rap, I come from battle rap. I just wish it got a little more creative. Hip-hop will forever have my heart, but I just love how other genres are open. It gives me room to exercise my strengths: musicality and melody and soul.

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Beat Construction
Beat Construction: Meet Andrew “Pop” Wansel, the Producer Behind Nicki Minaj’s Soft Side