Phene, the rapper who represents York City

Julia Scheib

Zach Richards, also known as the rapper Phene, moved from York to Atlanta seven years ago, but part of him still clearly belongs to the White Rose City.

Atlanta-based rapper Phene grew up in York City. (John A. Pavoncello - The York Dispatch)

A music video the 30-year-old performer released last week for his song "Small Town" was shot in York. Scenes of city life, like people shopping in a corner store, are interspersed with footage of young men playing basketball and football at William Penn. The video also focuses on a young boy boxing at Stick-N-Move Gym.

"Coming from a small town, where they put us all down, only one thought is to do it big," the song begins. Richards said that this year he toured several states and performed at South by Southwest, and his goal is to reach a national audience.

He was in town for the holidays, so The York Dispatch caught up with him at Round the Clock Diner on Sunday afternoon. That night, he would host the Hip Hop Holiday Toy Drive at New Grounds Roasting Co. in York City. Richards' production company, High Off Life, has organized the annual event for the past three years.

The York Dispatch: Where in the city did you grow up?

Richards: On the east side.

TYD: How do small cities like York differ from big cities like Atlanta?

Richards: I feel like in small towns, there are two things that really matter, and that's pride and respect. Part of what I mean is, people in your community tend to know you for you. People know each other. Our families grew up with each other. That's just how it is. More down-to-earth, more genuine.

TYD: From seeing the "Small Town" video, we get the sense that sports were a big part of your childhood.

Richards: Basketball had a huge impact on my life. The video was me giving a voice to ... a friend of mine (who) opened up Stick-N-Move; that's his son (in the video) and he's doing some amazing things right now.

I'm showing the youth right now who are really engulfed in it. You have me over here as an artist and a rapper, and then you have the sports players. It's a lot of work and preparation to get ready for game day, or when people see you (perform). We all have to fight through the extra stuff and the drama that's going on and try to stay focused so we can prosper.

TYD: What were some of the challenges of growing up in York?

Richards: It's obviously a tough place. You see that with the lack of outlets and opportunities. But I think it speaks volumes, given the circumstances, for the outliers ... If people don't have opportunities, they're going to create them themselves. Like my friend (Antwoine Dorm) who started Stick-N-Move. His son was into boxing and there wasn't a boxing gym, so he went and made one. I guess the same could be said for music. We don't have executives in our backyard.

TYD: When did you start recording songs?

Richards: In high school. I had a small computer setup in my mother's dining room to record myself — just being creative with some friends, making mixtapes, getting myself out there in the community.

TYD: Who are some artists who influenced you?

Richards: Nas, Tupac, Jay-Z, Roc-A-Fella ... I also like R&B and I grew up listening to soul, jazz and funk music.

TYD: What's the process of creating a song, from start to finish?

Richards: It starts with an idea or a concept, and I always want to ask myself, what am I trying to say? Who am I trying to reach and what is the message I'm trying to convey? Obviously, as a rapper, I work with a producer to get the right soundtrack for the message — then, you just kind of let your creativity flow.

I write at home, while I'm driving, in the studio ... it's all about capturing that inspiration when it comes.

TYD: What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Richards: I work on creative projects, filming, planning events, filming music videos, editing, recording ... any artist has to have different hustles to make ends meet. Of course I've had a lot of different day jobs to try to fund what I'm doing, and try to get where I'm going. I think that's a big reason why everyday people can relate to my music and stuff I say: because I'm no different.

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