Rest in peace to a Memphis legend.
There is something about the way Young Dolph put on for Memphis that has always felt more passionate, more thoughtful, and more urgent than his fellow rap comrades. Perhaps this was due to the fact that, at least during Dolph’s heyday, Memphis had not yet really established itself as a trendy hip-hop hub, and Dolph knew that time was of the essence. Perhaps it was simply a result of Dolph’s good nature, as someone who was always looking to both provide and put on for his people. Whatever the case, Dolph managed to not only create a precedent for high-quality Memphis rap, he introduced us to a host of Memphis mainstays and established his very own lane by creating a distinct brand of trap music, an offshoot from the consistently-popular ATL division of the sound.
In order to do this, Dolph had to work hard. His unrelenting work ethic allowed him to hustle his way through the decline of the blogosphere and remain a presence across the rise of streaming services, releasing over 15 mixtapes along the way. Dolph grew steadily in popularity due to his unique strain of gangster rap, and to that effect, he developed a loyal fanbase who appreciated and championed his realness first and foremost, allowing him to maintain a secure grip on the streets. Dolph also moved strategically, elevating thanks to a Gucci Mane co-sign and a couple of collaborative projects, while still ensuring that Gucci didn’t overshadow, or stifle his career. Dolph separated himself not only from Gucci but from the rest of the music industry in a way, creating his own imprint very early on. Paper Route Empire was first established in 2010, while Dolph would eventually merge his business with that of EMPIRE distribution, launching the re-invented Paper Route EMPIRE in 2018, allowing both himself and his artists to flourish even further.
Young Dolph at the 2019 BET Hip-Hop Awards - Johnny Nunez/Getty Images
His last album, 2020’s Rich Slave, is now the unwilling peak of Dolph’s prosperity. Rich Slave documents how far Dolph had come, while showcasing the dichotomy that still existed in his life -- it was a dichotomy that Dolph relayed in earlier music too, constantly juxtaposing his aspirations for wealth, or the wealth itself, with his upbringing in the streets, and as well, with his sheer existence as a Black man in America.
“Hold Up Hold Up Hold Up,” the album opener on Rich Slave, presents the first contrast in now-eerie fashion now: “Rich n*gga still in the neighborhood store eatin' cold cuts / Street n*gga, bitch, I'm in the Bentley doin' donuts / Taught myself how to get millions, ain't nobody show us.”
While on “The Land,” Dolph explores the second chasm in his life: “The police pulled me over for nothin', just because she racist / Two minutes later, it's five police cars, they got me face down on the pavement / Just 'cause I'm a black man in America / That's what give them permission to treat us terrible / They too smart, too ambitious, too dangerous and vicious / Every day I wake up, I make rich n*gga decisions / The first person in my family to run up the millions.”
The front-end of the album is also peppered with skits from Dolph and an older man named Ronnie, who was apparently friends with Dolph’s dad growing up, and details an age bygone while sharing anecdotes about Dolph’s father in an elderly and endearing way. The meaning to a skit like this is amplified when we widen our lens-- in the wake of this tragedy, Dolph’s partner, Mia Jaye, went viral for her past efforts advocating that “Black men deserve to grow old,” sharing the message via her clothing line and podcast. Ultimately, it is this privilege that Dolph was robbed of, and it was one he was also clearly paying homage to on Rich Slave.
Young Dolph and his Uncle JB on stage at The Fillmore Detroit, 2017 - Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images
Dolph was shot and killed close to Castalia Heights, the neighborhood where he grew up in South Memphis. He had stopped to get cookies at Makeda’s Cookies, a place he would indulge in often, and help promote locally. We know through Dolph’s music and his movements that he was self-aware and strategic, and thus, the risk that runs with staying around the neighborhood he grew up in was surely not lost on him. And yet, he put a certain responsibility to his community above any such risk. And that is what made Dolph, Dolph. That is what allowed Dolph to grow a Memphis-bred roster of artists; to donate significantly to his high school, Hamilton High School in Castalia Heights; to visit the West Cancer Center just two days before his death; to constantly give back to his fans in unique and inspiring ways; to do annual turkey giveaways in a much more intense fashion than most; to establish the Ida Mae Family Foundation in his grandmother’s name, for the benefit of his community.
Dolph didn’t remain a local presence selfishly. It was for the sake of the people who raised him, for the sake of his family, friends, and perhaps even more so, for the generations that will succeed him.
Rest in Peace, Young Dolph.
July 27, 1985 - November 17, 2021