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Time Is The Teacher: The Endlessly Sampled Space Groove of Dexter Wansel

We Talk To The Philadelphia Legend About Inspiring A New Generation

On June 13, 2018

Sampling in hip-hop is more than a compositional shortcut. By drawing overt connections across time and genre, hip-hop producers can create rich melodic and harmonic depth and evoke soulfulness, nostalgia and often cinematic grandeur. For modern beatmakers plumbing the depths of YouTube and listeners alike, sampling also serves as a gateway drug, a means of musical discovery.

This is especially true in the case of Dexter Wansel, a visionary producer, composer and arranger of soul and funk best known for his work with Philadelphia International Records in the ’70s and early ’80s. Wansel’s prolific career can be boiled down to two central accomplishments: 1) his hundreds of productions for icons like the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and Lou Rawls helped forge the identity of Philadelphia soul, and 2) he became one of the first artists to fully harness the potential of synthesizers with his quartet of solo albums in the late ’70s, which unified a deep-pocketed rhythm section, brash horns, weepy strings and celestial synthetic sounds.

Wansel’s solo albums in particular tapped into the infinitude of outer space and pondered the existence of extraterrestrial life. Perhaps that is why hip-hop producers keep returning to his oeuvre to sample it. He asked the big questions and still kept it groovy. His composition “Theme from the Planets” has been repurposed as one of hip-hop’s foundational breakbeats; he has been sampled dozens of times on songs like Jay Z’s “Politics as Usual”; Rick Ross’ “Maybach Music II”; Lupe Fiasco’s “The Cool”; Mac Miller’s “NIKES”; Domo Genesis’ “Dapper”; Kendrick Lamar’s “Blow My High”; and Lamar’s “YAH.” Just as Wansel’s music has given these tracks life, they have returned the favor and introduced his music to an entirely new generation of music fans.

Wansel and his son Pop, who is best known for his collaborations with Nicki Minaj, Kehlani and Tory Lanez, together form arguably the most impressive father-son production résumé in modern popular music. In an interview with Vinyl Me, Please, the elder Wansel shared a father’s perspective on Pop’s musical development and told the story of his own blossoming into a synthesis guru and mouthpiece for the great beyond.

VMP: What did your early musical training look like?

Dexter Wansel: Well the first thing was I was an errand boy at a theatre in Philadelphia called the Uptown back in the late ’50s and the early ’60s. And their music director there, Doc Bagby, showed me chords on the organ. That was my first experience as far as learning music. I would watch the band support the different artists that would perform at the Uptown, like the Impressions or the Bluebelles, even the acts that came in from out of town, they would back up all the different artists. [Bagby] was my first mentor, instructor, as far as learning music was concerned. He was a great organist in the ’40s and the ’50s. If you’ve ever heard Bill Haley and His Comets, he actually came up with that sound.

And after that, I would tinker at the piano when I was in junior high school. I picked up the flute and the cello and the violin as a means of staying in school after hours, because students were kind of tough in Philly back then, and so I preferred to stay after school. And that’s really how I got into the band and the orchestra at the junior high school level. And once I went into high school, I was really focused as a cello player. I became a part of the Young People’s Concert Series and started taking master classes at Settlement and Curtis here in Philadelphia. Doing that, I had to study serious harmony and composition, which led to me becoming an arranger and an orchestrator. Of course, I used the keyboards to write songs and write my arrangements and orchestrations.

How did you become interested in synthesizers? Were many other people already immersed in the world of synthesis when you got started?

No, there was nobody. What happened was after I got out the army at the end of 1970, I used to go to Sigma Sound Studios to audition on the piano for sessions. And one day, Bob Logan, his people came in with all their gear, and they set it up, and I was invited into the studio to watch them. I said, “Hey, maybe if I got a synthesizer, people would pay more attention to me and use me on sessions.”

But of course, the Moogs were still separated. The generator and the envelopers and the sine waves were all separate modules back then. There was a guy who came through one day and his name was Al Pearlman. And he had created a synthesizer called the 2600 Metal. It was in a suitcase — you lifted up the lid and there were the modules and a little keyboard underneath. So I asked him how I could get one and he actually sent me an ARP2600 V back in 1973. But I had actually started working with his synthesizers in ’72. By the time I got my own synthesizer, people started using me on sessions. A lot of them were uncredited. They would pay me $50 to come up and try, “Just try that guy in the waiting room and see what sounds he can come up with,” that kind of thing.

By ’74 and ’75, I was working on a lot of projects at Sigma. Like I was saying, some of them were credited and some of them weren’t. But when a couple of the members of MFSB, Karl and Roland Chambers, were putting together their own group called Yellow Sunshine and they heard me on keyboard and synthesizers — this was in ’72 — and asked me to become a member. That really opened up the door for me to work on even more projects. In ’74, not only was I doing Yellow Sunshine, but I was playing keyboards for MFSB live and I had joined a group called Instant Funk, and we became Bunny Sigler’s backup band. So I had gotten busy doing a lot of live performances back then. I started doing productions, I started writing arrangements, like Bunny Sigler, a Carl Carlton album, a Johnny Nash album. And the next thing I knew, I was writing arrangements for MFSB and producing at Philly International.

It was very interesting, very wonderful, to work with so many artists and also with notation and synthesis. What I did was, I said, “OK, no one is really dong orchestral and synthesis together.” So that’s what I started doing [in] my arrangements, I always made sure I added synthesis. In ’75, I signed as an in-house producer and writer for [Philadelphia International Records]. I told them, I really wanted to try and experiment with stuff, but they didn’t want me experimenting too much with their artists, so they gave me an artist deal, so that’s why I experimented on my albums.

But synthesis wasn’t really being used. By the time I got started, nobody other than Wendy Carlos and a few other people were using synthesis. Stevie was starting to use it, Herbie, that was basically it.

What drew you to the outer space and sci-fi themes of Life on Mars and Voyager?

For part of my life, I was raised in Delaware, and the sky there was uniquely different from being in Philadelphia. You could see everything. You could see all the stars and meteor showers. As a kid, I saw a meteor shower, and it literally changed my life. Being able to look out there and wonder. Because then you start to wonder about yourself, who you are, what you are, what you’re doing here, and all that kind of stuff.

PIR, they were at the top of their game as far as production and songs and all that stuff, so like I said, what I did was go a different route. More instrumental, as opposed to vocals. I did a lot of instrumentation that was experimental. And I’ve always thought of outer space as being my guideline. What does a meteor sound like? What does an exploding star sound like? What does dark matter sound like? So I would always try to create sounds and a lot of stuff that I did on my albums that reflected that. Especially on Life on Mars. I had heard this David Bowie song called “Is There Life on Mars?” and my answer was yes, there is life on Mars.

I really wanted to try to put synthesis and orchestral and/or rhythm together in ways that were simpler and not too deep so that people wouldn’t lose interest when they were listening to it. That’s what I did on that Life in Mars album, and Voyager and What the World is Coming To in basically the same way. But I did use synthesis on other stuff I did on PIR. I tried to walk a certain path. I experimented with a couple of the artists there, I felt I could get away with experimentation. Like when the Jones Girls came in. With Teddy [Pendergrass], I didn’t go too far off the beaten path. The O’Jays, of course, I kept it simple. With Billy Paul, there were a couple of things that I tried that were different for him. MFSB, I definitely tried to do different things with them.

Lupe Fiasco’s “The Cool” samples the intro of “Life on Mars” which uses a really immersive, kind of aqueous sound. How did you come up with that vibe?

What we did is, I had my ARP2600, and the early synthesizers back then were all monophonic. In other words, one note at a time. I came up with a sound that I really liked, but I played it eight times but in different notes and at the same time. In other words, I would do one note for over a couple of minutes, and then we would go back, on track two I’d do a different note. And so I did this eight times. We did eight tracks of single notes, and then you played them all back together at once, that’s what you hear on “Life on Mars.” And of course, I added the Fender Rhodes to give it a melodic and harmonic structure. To give it musical context. And I liked the sound of it, so I added it to the very beginning of the track “Life on Mars.” Which is me and Instant Funk. That’s actually Instant Funk. Evelyn “Champagne” King had a hit record called “Shame,” I did a rhythm chart for that and “Life on Mars” in the same week.

Why did you decide to open “Theme from the Planets” with just a raw drum beat?

Darryl Brown was the drummer on that. [He] just recently passed away, and I certainly do miss him. We started out together in our own groups, Darryl and I. A bass player named Stanley Clarke and myself were best of friends, and we all kind of worked music individually, but together on some cases, like Stanley and me had our first band in high school together. When I went to the army, he of course had diverged into jazz very much and started playing with Horace Silver and Joe Henderson and all the jazz greats. By the time I had gotten out the service, he had kind of moved on. And then he met up with Chick Corea and they formed Return to Forever.

Stanley has gone on to do wonderful things. He’s done 75 films as a composer, he has his own band out there. He’s an amazing musician. And so was Darryl. I think Darryl doesn’t get the credit he deserves. When I initially got started, he really helped me as a drummer on a lot of those original projects, like MFSB, with Morning Tears, and like my first album Life on Mars, with “Theme of the Planets.” I said to him, “Listen, I need a beat to start this track off with. I need a beat that will get people to listen up, and say, ‘Hey, what’s getting ready to happen?’” Because actually, how we first recorded it [sings the intro melody line of “Theme of the Planets”]. I said, “But something’s missing. Darryl, can we go back in the studio? And just give me like 20 seconds of a beat that I can edit into the beginning of this song.” And that’s what he did.

We edited that in on the front end, and that beat gave that song a direction. Sony says that it has been sampled well over five, six hundred times, but because licensing didn’t kick in until the early ’90s, all that early stuff that a lot of people cut and sampled doesn’t [credit “Theme from the Planets.”] But listen, I’m happy that Darryl was able to come up with the beat that helped the hip-hop world in a sense that that it’s one of their beats.

Kendrick Lamar’s “Blow My High” and Domo Genesis’ “Dapper” sample the same electric piano section of “Voyager,” which is one of your most ambitious compositions. How did that song come together?

Of course, I always think about what’s going on above us out of this Earth. With “Voyager,” what I did was I sat down with the members of the band and I said, “Look, let’s try something different that has like multiverse versions or levels going inside the song itself.” [It] begins with a kind of sonic envelopment that grabs you and sucks you in. Then you get sucked in with the bass kicking in, and then you get solos from the different instrumentalists.

There are two things I did in the studio. The first thing I did, of course, was I cut the live band. And then I went back into the studio and started laying all the synthesis. And once that was done, I went back into the studio, and me and the engineers would play with sounds and developments using electronic equipment to reverse sounds in spots or add effects, to different elements of the song itself. I’ve done that on a couple of occasions, but “Voyager” is probably the most experimental of all the tracks that I did because of the fact that it had so many variations to a theme going on, and then all of the sonic effects and experimentations going on inside it. It was just a matter of, “Okay we’ve done enough of this feel, now let’s break it down.”

Your son Pop has talked about the musical interest he has held since an early stage. How did that musical passion manifest early on? What do you remember from Pop the child musician?

I would pick him up from school when I was still signed to Philadelphia International Records. His school was only six blocks from the office. So I would go pick him up after school, especially if I was working on projects, I would bring him back to the office until I could take him home or his mom or one of his older siblings could come get him. So he would be in the office with me while I was working on projects, and he saw the gear I had. And he would say “Dad, show me how to do this,” and I would do that. And then when I would go inside the big recording studio itself, which we had a version of Sigma — it was Studio C at PIR — he would go in there and hang out with me and the artists I was working with, and pretty soon those artists became uncles and aunts to him. Lou Rawls was Uncle Lou. Phyllis Hyman was Aunt Phyllis. And so on and so forth. So that’s how he got started.

And then before I knew it, I had this little Apple computer that had some software that you could make beats [with], and he started doing that. This is was when he was 8 and 9. And then it kept growing. I had a studio at home that he eventually took over from me. Before I knew it, he was like “Dad, the Mac is too old, we gotta get a new Mac.” And I was like, “What?” He said, “Yeah, plus you’ve got one of these old clones, these Mac clones, they don’t even make them no more, we gotta get a real ac.” I got a Mac tower for him. We put Performer in there and early versions of all the programs. Once I got him Logic, that was the end of it, he never came out of the studio.

And then the next thing I knew, all these people were coming into the house, they were making beats. This was back in the early 2000s. Then he was talking on the phone. Next thing I know, him and Nicki Minaj were hooked up, and he was going to see her, and I had to give him bus fare to go back and forth to do certain things.

And here’s the final thing. Once he really got started and got busy with everything and started going to other studios, I lost my car. I had to give him my car. “Dad, can we borrow the car?” Next thing I knew, I had to get another car, because he had gotten so busy. And I understood. At the same time, I wanted him to stay focused at school. But I understood. Creativity can become a powerful influence, whether you’re writing or painting or designing or making music. Creativity is powerful thing that burns with your spirit. And it’s wonderful to see. I’ve always been supportive of him.

Profile Picture of Danny Schwartz
Danny Schwartz

Danny Schwartz is a New York-based music writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, and Pitchfork.

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