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Central Connections Magazine

Wildcat Wins Grammys

Wanz - Long slog to Overnight Success

Wanz, living the dream at the Guitar Center in Seattle with the iconic Jimi Hendrix sculpture behind him. (Tom Reese)

Long slog to overnight success

Wanz, also known as TeeWanz, was Michael Wansley when he attended CWU in the 1980s. But that was before sweeping the rap categories at the 2014 Grammys, before the world tour with stops in London and Paris, and before his orange plaid suit was put in a rock and roll museum. But let's start where it all began for Michael Wansley.

"I didn't know when I came that CWU had a nationally acclaimed jazz department," says Wansley. "By the time I left Ellensburg, I'd earned jazz awards and gained a rich knowledge and appreciation for the jazz idiom and the business of jazz. It was an awesome experience. And anyway, it's not what you know—it's what you learn how to learn what you need to know. And I learned all that at Central."

Originally from Seattle, Wansley moved back home from Ellensburg in 1986 to pursue a music career. Never able to earn a living as a musician, he spent a decade delivering hair care products to support his family as a single dad, then worked his way up to a career as a software test engineer for companies such as Microsoft.

"Life happens to everybody," he says. "It's how we handle life that matters." In his fifties now, he's never stopped doing music.

"The dictionary is the only place you'll find success before work." - Wanz's favorite quote

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success. He repeatedly cites the "10,000-Hour Rule," claiming that the key to success in any field is practicing for a total of around 10,000 hours. To support his thesis, he tells the story of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates starting young, and also relates how The Beatles became one of the most successful musical acts in human history—by practicing.

10,000 hours? That's a trifling number. Wansley has practiced his art three or four times that in the decades after attending CWU. But his role as a paid musician was mostly as guest, singing hooks for other artists. A hook is the part of a rap song you remember most. It's a kind of musical bridge. Wansley earned money singing hooks—more for writing them. He was poised for a move up that never came, but even after decades of trying, he never lost hope.

"The passion never dies," says Wansley. "I'd go out to shows and the kids singing reminded me of me. I'd tell them that if you do something that makes you happy—and others happy—never ever stop doing it," he said. "You never know where it will take you."

Wansley is living proof. A few years ago, while keeping up with his day job, he got a call from a friend who told him a hip-hop duo was looking for a rapper that sounded like Nate Dogg. Wansley had heard of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, but he never heard their music. After a quick phone conversation, he was in the studio cutting a track called "Thrift Shop" with them. The album is The Heist, and ironically, another song on it is called "10,000 Hours."

Wansley says he recorded his vocals and was in bed an hour later. And even though it was fun, he thought he'd probably never hear from them again. But he was asked back to do the video and when he later watched "Thrift Shop" on YouTube (the second video he'd ever appeared in), he was stunned. Every time he refreshed the page, the number of viewers escalated. This song, parodying traditional hip-hop excess, was going viral. (At this writing, the video has almost 550 million views.)

Wanz got top billing on the CD and video and Macklemore invited him to be featured on an international tour playing for packed houses around the globe. And the real stunner? "Thrift Shop" won three Grammys, the music industry's top award. Wanz was the Best Rap Performance in the Best Rap Song on the Best Rap Album of 2014. He appeared with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and Saturday Night Live.

After international success, Wanz is now working on his own music and writing a book on a series of sayings he's coined over the years, calling it The Book of Wanz. He's also frequently hired as an inspirational speaker, even presenting to large conventions of attorneys.

He calls 2014 full of "blessed opportunities." Has success changed what inspires him? "No. I've been more inspired by the same things," says Wanz. "This just validates it. When you're passionate and remain true to your passion, there's some kind of payoff down the line."

Success has given Wanz more power to inspire.

Wanz recently played in a concert in Seattle to raise funds for the victims of Central Washington wildfires.

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