In Memphis rapper Young Dolph’s mind, every decision we make in life leads to a series of figurative doors. At each critical juncture, he states matter-of-factly, “you’re either securing your shit or you’re opening up doors to fuck your shit up.”
It’s September, and we’re in a lounge room located at the very back of his tour bus, giving us some privacy from the rest of his road team. In this compact space, made luxurious by polished wood paneling and a black cushioned bench lining the walls, he rolls and pours up systematically. This post-show ritual will occupy his hands for the hour-long ride back from the Fenway Park area of Boston to his hotel. For Dolph, this tour with 2 Chainz is one of many crowning achievements in his story as an independent artist. Reflecting on the doors he has opened and closed, he considers his refusal to sign to a major label his greatest triumph: “It’s like right now, we’re in Boston, I got on all this goddamn jewelry. Ain’t none of this shit surprising me. I set it up.”
It’s always easier in retrospect to be confident in the decisions you’ve made if they actually worked out. Society admires risk-takers, but only the ones whose risks pay off. For Dolph, crucial risks have populated not only his career but his entire life, and the thoroughly calculated way he has chosen to handle those risks has defined his path as well as his current position.
“Ain’t none of this shit surprising me. I set it up.”
On February 25, 2017, Dolph was ambushed. Parked outside of an apartment complex in Charlotte, North Carolina, his SUV sustained dozens of bullet holes before the gunfire stopped. Miraculously, Dolph walked away without a scratch. Seemingly unfazed, he performed the song that some fans suspect may have instigated the attack itself, a vicious Yo Gotti diss track, that same night at a Charlotte night club. “Play Wit Yo Bitch” is an almost painful listen, due to the sheer matter-of-fact-ness of the lyrics. Dolph’s rap style is very conversational — sometimes it sounds like he’s just talking over a beat — which lends a certain weight to his claims: “You went from my biggest fan to my biggest hater / Begging me to sign with you, but I had too much paper.” Eventually, he actually does just start talking, riding out the undeniably catchy Zaytoven beat with clarifications and expansions on earlier insults.
When recalling the song to me, Dolph puts himself in the position of the listener, sighing deeply and shaking his head after each merciless line. “And the thing about it is it’s just straight facts,” he explains. “Everything is straight facts all the way up and down. Like, Did he just say that bruh? ‘Used to front your big brother now I call him your big sister?’ Just all that shit back to back on this song. And these just facts, you can go back and forth to Google or to just the internet shit and see everything.”
According to Dolph, the longstanding rift between him and fellow Memphis rapper Yo Gotti (who he refers to not by name, but as “Lil Dude” in conversation) stems from Dolph’s rebuff of what he describes as attempts to get a piece of his movement: “They wanted me to fuck with them so bad when I first came in the game,” he explains of Gotti’s crew, who he refers to also not by name, but as “Them lil niggas I don’t fuck with.” “Because they was in my city,” he continues. “Because they knew I had this money, they knew I had a campaign, they knew what I was getting ready to do just like I knew.” Dolph claims to have invested $3 million of his independent wealth into building his rap career, thereby circumventing the process of major label catalysis.
The door he chose after the Charlotte shooting is essential Dolph. Instead of laying low or taking a step away from the pressure of the moment, he capitalized on it and struck gold with Bulletproof, an album-length response to the attack. The opener, “100 Shots,” feels like an epic poem; it begins in minimal fashion but swells into something undeniably larger-than-life. It isn’t an overly explicit response to the attack, but it succeeds in showing Dolph as this sort of untouchable figure (and the accompanying music video became his most viewed to date). When read top to bottom, the Bulletproof tracklist hoists up a colossal “fuck you” to his enemies. Here it is in continuous order: “100 Shots/In Charlotte/But I’m Bulletproof/So Fuck’em/That’s How I Feel/All of Them/I’m So Real/I Pray For My Enemies/I’m Everything You Wanna Be/SMH.” Sounds almost like haiku.
But before Dolph was curving record deals, he lived a full life outside of the public eye. In Memphis, he grew up quickly by the force of his circumstances. Though he was born in Chicago and bounced back and forth, Dolph was raised primarily under his grandmother’s roof in Memphis. He talks a lot about becoming a man, and what it takes to be one, explaining that his own transformation from boyhood was accelerated by his grandmother’s passing when he was 16 or 17. The family structure collapsed onto his shoulders, him being the oldest of a handful of brothers and sisters. “I was paying for everything,” he remembers. “Going school shopping for my little brothers sending my sisters money to Chicago. Just doing a whole lot of shit, it made me grow up fast, it made me become a hustler real fast. I had to go for what I know.”
At this stage, he was staring down a series of choices with solemn consequences. “If I go to college,” he recounts his thought process, “now both my little brothers just in this hood whatever come their way whether it’s good shit, bad shit, bullshit. I’m allowing them to make those decisions on their own because I ain’t around them, I’m at college somewhere.” So he stayed. “That’s what made me say ‘fuck college.’ ‘Cause I gotta watch my little brothers. Let me stay around here, get my money up, Just become a man so I can send them to college. Send them to get the fuck away from the hood and all that shit.” That sacrifice proved rewarding once he started leveraging street profits into his rap career.
“You work, so I respect you. You don’t work, what can we do? We can’t relate.”
At first, he threw local parties in Memphis out of pocket to build his reputation — “Dolph parties,” he called them. He was investing in his name and growing his personal brand grassroots style, funding his own campaign. As much time and money as he has personally put into the “Dolph” brand, it makes sense why he refers to himself in the third person during casual conversation (e.g. “Dolph never signed no deal with nobody”) and peppers the majority of his songs with his now-iconic “It’s Dolph!” ad lib.
“I’m gonna keep working like I just came in,” Dolph continues, when asked about the future. “Like I’m doing free shows or getting $1,500 for a show. I’ve been around certain people and just scoped that shit. Lil Wayne. Wayne was a working fool. That’s all 2 Chainz talked about when I first started fucking with Tity. Like back in the day, he talked about how much Wayne worked and worked and worked.” Being around prolific artists rubbed off on Dolph, he concludes, and it shows in his own output — his back catalog could fill crates.
Dolph's music has a consistently regal quality. He goes by “King of Memphis,” refers to his crew as “royalty,” and calls his label the “Paper Route Empire.” His voice has a certain fullness to it, a deep rasp anchoring itself to the numbingly bass-heavy beats he selects. His lyrics are often clear-cut statements, the content of which is only accentuated by his no-frills delivery. On “Fuck It,” a favorite from his 2016 King of Memphis tape, he raps, “Momma fucked around and made a rich crack baby / So to the day I die she gon’ be my First Lady.” Combining street knowledge with hustler motivation and extravagant boasts, his diamond-encrusted monarch persona is too vivid to leave any room for doubt.
“Get shit done,” he stresses. That’s what Dolph admires more than anything, no matter the realm. “People that know they gotta work every day, them the kinda people I respect. I respect people that build a career for themselves. I don’t give a damn if it’s a hustle that’s already big or you go to work at Kroger every day, the grocery store. Or you work at Walmart. You work, so I respect you. You don’t work, what can we do? We can’t relate.”
Dolph identifies sooner with a hardworking person well beneath his tax bracket than a social climber piggybacking on other people’s exertion. In his line of work, according to him, he too often encounters the latter. At one point, Dolph voices a scenario in which someone expects unconditional respect from him due to his street origins.
“You know why I fuck with him and not you?” he spells out for this imaginary interlocutor. “Aren’t you supposed to be a street nigga? Oh you a trap nigga? Ah, what you got for sale? How much money you got? What you do for your momma? Or do you take care of your kids? Man, you ain’t doing none of that shit then fuck you. When you got this lil’ nigga over here working at McDonalds. ‘Cause he go to work, he making his own money. So I respect him.”
After a night in Boston, we took the bus down to New York City for the next tour stop. Before heading to the venue, Dolph made sure to visit two of his favorite fish joints in Harlem, loading up on fried lobster and catfish takeout. He’s clearly a regular and the staff greets him like family. Outside the second spot, a small group armed with phones forms around him. Some are fans, others just want a picture with somebody famous.
Though it’s time to proceed downtown toward the concert, Dolph graciously poses a few times. One man in the gathering is relentlessly trying to sell Dolph a dub of undoubtedly shitty New York weed. Dolph has no shortage and does not compromise when it comes to quality, but he ends up taking it anyway. A charitable gesture to someone he’ll never see again, for whom he inherently has a certain degree of empathy. He respects the hustle, because he lives and breathes it. He believes that for those who work for it, opportunities will knock, doors will swing open, fears will be conquered, and risks will pay off.
“Never downplay nobody,” Dolph had said back on the bus, while pressing the automatic door button — a sign he needs some more papers. “You could be like ‘Ay shit there ain’t but seven dollars in my pocket right now’. Who cares. ‘Cause guess what? An opportunity could come where you can have seven million tomorrow.”
In late September, Young Dolph was shot multiple times outside of the Loews Hotel in Hollywood. He survived, even filming some of a new music video from his hospital bed. Initially TMZ reported that Yo Gotti was being investigated as a “person of interest” in relation to the shooting, but in a statement to Pitchfork, L.A.P.D. Public Information Officer Sal Ramirez denied that claim. Nobody has been charged, and Dolph declined a request to comment further.