Mic Check: Zane Smith is on an unconventional path to rap success

Credit: Philip "Zane Smith" Mincey

Credit: Philip "Zane Smith" Mincey

Editor’s note: With live music and concert reviews on hold due to COVID-19, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is focusing on how Georgia musicians are spending their time in our feature, Mic Check.

Zane Smith was living in an Atlanta homeless shelter when he learned that the NBA picked up one of his songs.

The burgeoning rapper had self-produced several albums since 2016, including the song “I’m Ballin’,” which the NBA snagged to use in promotional campaigns during the 2019 playoff season.

Smith was on break at the Hyatt House in downtown Atlanta, where he worked in the kitchen and in housekeeping, when he realized what was happening.

“I went on Instagram and I saw the NBA tagged me and everyone was going crazy,” Smith said. “I went back to sorting the sheets and when I clocked out that day, I went down to the shelter and got ready for another day.”

After seven weeks in the homeless shelter, Smith (born Philip Mincey), moved to a rooming house on Atlanta’s West Side, where he had the time and headspace to write songs for his current EP, “Noise.”

His life has been a series of zig zags: from studying new media arts at Southern Polytechnic College of Engineering and Engineering Technology at Kennesaw State University, to getting kicked out his home by his parents, to working at Zoo Atlanta and Patchwerk Studios in graphic design to the NBA picking up both “I’m Ballin’,” and, on the “NBA 2K21” video game, his song, “24 Hours.”

Credit: Jeremiah John Rafferty

Credit: Jeremiah John Rafferty

Since the only money he receives from those promotional platforms is typical streaming revenue (“I consider it paying dues,” he said), Smith has worked tirelessly as a self-promoter, creating not only on his own music, but his branding, logos and photos.

His success with the NBA came after vigorous research – contacting every NBA and WNBA team, meeting the DJs for the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Dream – and he views those opportunities as well-earned victories.

“It’s not magic, it’s not coincidence,” he said. “It’s all what I was asking for and the universe did the rest.”

The wildly ambitious Smith, who has since worked things out with his family, talked more about his upcoming music and unconventional path.

Q: You seem very proud of your roots, not just in Georgia, but your particular city.

A: I proudly rep Lithonia. The goal is to put my city on the map worldwide. People know Atlanta, but they need to know about metro Atlanta cities just like they know the boroughs of New York…I’m a Georgia boy for sure. My family has been here multiple for generations. I wasn’t flown here, I grew here. Eventually, I want to be a worldwide artist, but right now I’m growing.

Q: You might be the only person I’ve interviewed who worked at Patchwerk Studios and Zoo Atlanta.

A: (Laughs), Yeah, from 2016 to 2018, I was at the zoo on and off as a ride attendant controlling the train and the carousel. It was just a job because my music has been my ultimate goal; anything during the daytime for money was to fuel that. In morning I would be at the zoo, and then I’d get off and go to Patchwerk and do graphic design. I used it to build my base for creating my music. Being (at the studio), I was an employee working with other employees, so I could get comfortable around the engineers and when I went back to creating my music, we had that rapport.

Credit: Jeremiah John Rafferty

Credit: Jeremiah John Rafferty

Q: You released “Mr. Roy G. Biv” in the middle of the summer pandemic. Was that always the plan?

A: That’s one that I had in the tank. It was written in 2018 and recorded just when I was leaving Patchwerk. And then came “Noise” in January – just a quick three songs. It was written in 2019, so there was a little delay on getting it out there. I know the pandemic was an unfortunate situation but a blessing too, because people had the time to sit down and appreciate the art that was being created. I was able to gain a lot more fans and listeners during that time, especially in the beginning. The job I had (at the Hyatt House), they put us on furlough, so I was able to create more music videos and go harder on my promotion.

Q: “Stay Focused” from your “Noise” EP has a very positive message – you talk about your parents kicking you out and you having to kick certain people out of your life. How did your perspective change from living in a homeless shelter?

A: All of my albums are like chapters of my life. I’ve always loved real music when there’s a message. With mine, I always said something real. I’m putting out there what I’m going through and “Noise” was me documenting that experience. It’s short and sweet, but I say a lot. It was an interesting experience, having no place to go and having to climb up. When your back is against the wall, it shows who you really are. I lived seven weeks in a homeless shelter in Atlanta (starting in May 2019), but I was still focused on what I was doing, working with a temp agency at a factory to still have money coming in and figuring how to get out. Even when I’d be tired after work, I’d still be on Instagram sending messages to please check out my music. It’s been a process, but I made it out of that situation.

Q: You released six albums in six years, so I can only assume you’re working on more music.

A: The next project, “Pixels,” comes June 24. The first single, “Success,” is out April 24, then the song “Look at Me Now” May 24. That one, the hook is great. It’s one I believe in. And 24 is my number. Every album I mention my age to remind myself where I was at this age (Smith turns 27 on June 24). This album is me basically speaking on where I see myself. A song called “Rags to Riches,” I talk about what I went through on the streets and homeless shelter, but the rest is me speaking about the life I want to live.

Q: You mention DMX, Nas and OutKast as some of the artists with whom you share musical sensibilities. Are those your biggest inspirations?

A: People can listen and point out what they think they’re hearing, but they were definitely some of the people I listen to a lot. Nas’ “God’s Son” was one of my first rap CDs and “I Can” is just a really motivational song. DMX, I love how raw he is. And I’m a Georgia boy, so I love those OutKast guys, Goodie Mob, the Dungeon Family - I can’t get enough of them. My parents are older and didn’t love rap, but OutKast was one thing my dad would play. It’s my dream to work with them, production-wise. But I grew up listening to a little of everything; straight guitars like Santana, some blues, you name it. It’s always been in me to do my research. I listen to everything, whether down here like Lil Jon or Soulja Boy…I love Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Otis Redding. I have a sound (for myself) in mind and with growth I’ll get there.