Photos by the author
Geography still holds a lot of power in hip-hop—more than with most genres, where you're from is likely to determine what your music is about along with how it sounds—but it's also, for the most part, less important than ever before. With the internet, an artist can draw on sounds from just about anywhere for inspiration and find fans just about anywhere as well. So there's something encouraging about the fact that Young Dolph is resolutely, obviously, inescapably a rapper whose career is tied to physical places. First of all, there's his thick Memphis drawl, which gives his speech a reassuringly homey feel and makes him sound a bit like he's rapping with his mouth full. Then there's the title of his recent mixtape, South Memphis Kingpin. Most importantly, perhaps, there's the fact that Dolph makes most of his money touring cities that don't necessarily spring to mind when people think about rap: Pensacola, Birmingham, Indianapolis.
Dolph's geography is not everyone else's geography, which explains, perhaps, why he hasn't been received by the industry with the same enthusiasm as some of his ostensible peers. Tapes like South Memphis Kingpin and the recently released High Class Street Music 4 show a rapper with an ear for club bangers but an equally sharp sense of humor and eye for detail. Dolph is the guy rapping about the trap and wondering, at the same time, why he just saw his dad hanging out around the corner. He talks about eating ramen noodles while wearing a $30,000 watch. He complains about girls with lines like “she like to argue so I sent that bitch to law school,” a punchline and a boast off “Preach,” which Noisey is premiering the single version of below. He drops heavy lines like “I've never seen a man cry 'til I seen one die” out of nowhere. To back it all up, he does it over beats that land like bagfuls of hammers from producers like Drumma Boy, Zaytoven, Metro Boomin, and Memphis stalwart DJ Squeeky.
When Young Dolph came by the Noisey office recently smelling faintly of blunt smoke, he might have been any other rapper. But, as he does on record, he quickly distinguished himself from any generic trappings, coming across as warm, thoughtful, and open and talking to me about his family, responsibilities, and crazy live shows, including the time he kicked off his performing career by throwing money in the crowd. Listen to his new song “Preach” below, and read on for some of Dolph's thoughts on his personal geography.
Noisey: Were there people in Memphis who inspired you or gave you guidance?
Young Dolph: For me, it was mostly the streets. I'm from the streets, I’ve been in the streets, and the streets watched me make that transformation to making music, and popping off, doing big stuff for the city. They've watched me do this with their own eyes, and that’s what motivates me the most, that's what pushes me the most. They want to see me win. As far as the industry, like artists, producers, DJs—they tell [me] “you worked for everything you got. You had to earn everything, put time in, spent the money, believed in yourself, invested in yourself, got around yourself.” That's Young Dolph. He's gone. Anybody'll tell you.
So basically you got so much momentum that people couldn’t not pay attention to you.
Yeah, exactly. My first show I booked in Memphis, I got five bands for that. And when I performed, I threw this money in the crowd. Who do you know who gets paid five bands for their first show to get book in New York City? That says a lot by itself. I had the streets under control. When promoters were trying to book me, they were like “you've never had a show here, you're just popping off. I don't want to give you five bands.” He was like, “I don’t know about this.” And it was packed. Jam packed. I got onstage, I had the Ferragamo bag around my shoulder, and I took that money and threw that money. To the streets. To the same people who packed the club, the same people eating my music up. This ain't nothing to me. It ain't about the money, nothing.
How much music did you put out at that point to get that reaction?
That one tape. That first tape I did dropped in 2009. It was just for fun, I'm like 'I'm just going to do something to have fun.' Everyone was just “put out a tape. You're young. You've got money. It ain't gonna hurt you. Who's it gonna hurt?' So what I ended up doing was I put out the tape, pressed up 20,000 CDs, flooded the streets. I was like 'shit, I just spent the money on making the CD, I'm going to put the CD out.' I might as well get it out. I want everybody to ride around and listen to in the hood. It ain't for me to listen to. I made it, so I know what it sounded like. So I got all my boys from the smallest club to the major clubs, the big clubs, staying on these DJs. You can ask any DJ in Memphis and they'll tell you 'Dolph was out here.' There was nowhere you could go and not see Dolph. I'm in my coupe, I’m shining, the streets know me, everyone already knows who I am. Real respects real, so if you can get Memphis to love you, you have to have something real there. Memphis doesn’t just support anybody.
And that’s just having all those CDs out there?
I was catering to the streets, I was in the streets. I'm popping up, campaigning, taking pictures. A lot of people get bougie like, 'I don’t feel like taking pictures. Maybe sometimes I will, but othertimes I won’t take pictures.' [With me] it's all good. Whatever these folks want I'm getting ready to serve it to them. So when I dropped that first tape in 2009, I did it to test the water, I was just having fun. And now I'm like, 'I need to look into it.' It got a super reaction. Everyone was like 'Dolph crazy,' but then everybody knew what was up. So 2010, 2011, I was like 'I'm gonna go in and do it for real.' Got features, got crazy production, got DJ Scream to host it, just had a real solid tape. Everybody thinks that was my first tape—that was like my first real tape, Welcome to Dolph World. When I dropped that, I shut Memphis down. I shut all the surrounding areas down. I'm out in Chicago with units, I was in LA with units. I'm out in San Francisco and Oakland with units. Like 'I got all these CDs, and they gotta go somewhere.'
Is that still your approach? Just press up a bunch of CDs?
You've still got to do that. Now, it’s different from a couple years ago. Everybody's on their phones. Little babies know how to work phones. So everybody's playing music off their phone, everybody's playing music off their auxiliary cord. That’s where the game is now, but I still press those CDs.
Do you remember the first time you were in the club and you heard your song get played?
To tell the truth, first time I heard my song get played, I made my song played. I went to the club, [it was] popping on a Friday night, and my guy was DJing. We’re from the hood, so we got whips outside, VIP. Everyone knows who we are, we rock with everyone, everyone’s excited Young Dolph’s here. So I'm like 'who's the DJ in here?' I went up there like “play this,” gave him a hundred, and walked off. And he looked at that money like 'man' and he played it! You can't do nothing but play it! In the game, you've got some people who've got money, but their music is kind of off, their music is garbage. Then, you have people with good music, but they ain't got the biggest part: They ain't got the funds. But me, I'm just all the way around the board. It’s nothing. I ain't did nothing to get in but work my ass off.
And you were willing to put a little in.
I wasn’t tripping, like here take this $100, play this right here. So then I made that my campaign. Every Friday It turned into like a thing where everybody in the city [would know] every Friday we'd be there in the VIP section. We'd order 200 wings, 20 bottles—it’s a party. Turn it into a paper route party. Memphis knows it: Friday night Dolph’s gonna be there.
This is before everything. This is the first song. I didn't want to be like 'first things first.' It wasn't like 'listen to this, DJ' and see if they're going to play it, see if they're going to mess with it. Nah. It was like 'take this right here, DJ. Play this song.' I just put him in a position where he had to play the song. I'm the kind of person that I just want what I want. I don’t give a person the option of they'll do it “if” they want to. Nah, we're going to make an agreement.
Do you remember the first rap you recorded?
The first rap I recorded was on Jeezy’s "White Girl" beat. One of my partners invited me to his studio, so I go. I wasn't planning on recording, we were just messing around. And I started recording a song, just a freestyle. Back then, Jeezy was going so hard, that’s what everyone was on. That's what me and my partners in the trap would listen to. That's what we would ride and listen to. We'd count money and pump Jeezy. He shut it down. So I was like 'pull up the "White Girl" beat,' and it was nothing but bars. So then it was like 'Dolph got the song, Dolph got the song.' And every time I'd pull up it was like 'let me hear the song, let me hear the song.' And then it got to the point that everybody was burning the song. Then everyone wanted the tape. So I dropped the tape and the reaction was crazy.
What are your parents like?
My mom and dad are from the streets. My mom’s from Chicago. My dad’s from Memphis. My dad got out of school and got with my mom. They were hustlers. They were from the streets. They were doing their thing. The streets ain’t got no love for the streets. You can light up the streets, or be a victim of the streets. Victims of the streets fuck their lives up or mess their lives up and get thrown up off track. My mom and dad were from the streets and there’s five of us, two brothers two sisters. My grandma saying they weren’t ready for the responsibility or kids, and they couldn’t do it. So my grandma in Memphis took the boys, grandma in Chicago raised the girls. That’s that. I was raised by my grandma.
Were your parents around a lot?
They were around, but they weren’t. My grandma didn’t want us to end up like them. Yeah, I’m from the streets, did what I did, but it would’ve been way worse if I stayed around with them. Learned certain things, like respecting grandma, and not doing other things. Gotta go to school, can’t drop out or that’s like a slap in the face.
I know "At the House" on South Memphis Kingpin is about how your dad’s still South Memphis, and that’s all he’s going to do.
My dad’s name is Dolph. Dolph is my real name, it’s not a rap name, no made up name, it’s real. And my dad’s from the same hood, all of that. Went to the same school all the exact same stuff. My dad’s hood. They haven’t lived in the hood for many years, and I got them out a while ago. They were one of my main priorities. It got to a point where I didn’t want to talk or be social or have any relationship with my parents. And I didn’t want to deal with that, but I forgave them. My grandma told me it doesn’t matter what they do, they’re my mom and dad, and I only get one. And my grandma’s been way madder at them before I ever was, and that made me realize what was up. She was right. So I got old enough, wise enough to realize why they were doing this and that. Told my grandma, and I knew I had to get them out of the enviornment. First things first, take them out of the hood into the suburbs. But, every time I pop into the hood I see my partners, and I see my dad’s partners. It is what it is, and it’s home. It’s just motivation just running through my blood.
What makes the Memphis sound these days?
There ain’t too much swag rap music. Like it’s cool and we gonna get it here, and it’s in everybody lane and lifestyle, but we do reality music. The reason you listen to us is because it’s real, like that’s what’s going on right now, that’s what’s happening last week, all of that. It’s all real.
What was your experience with school?
I didn’t go to college, but I graduated from high school, and I’m happy about that. Didn’t think I was going to graduate high school, but I did. Didn’t want to go to college, wasn’t going to college, only thing I focused on was getting my high school diploma and making my grandma happy and do it for myself. Had to at least finish school, and then make money. I got money very quickly. I didn’t have to go to school for that.
What are one or two songs of yours are you most proud of?
My two favorite songs are “At the House,” and “Dream.” I shouldn’t have put out "Dream" because I should’ve saved it for like right now. But at the time, the sound was so good I wanted to put it out. At the time it was like you don’t have time to do anything, you don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and the record might never have come out.
What is it that you say on those songs that's so important?
The game, it’s like life. It makes you want something, it’s motivation, it’s all that. "At the House" is about family, morals, values, real situations. Responsibility. It’s about just getting out of the house and going to work, or coming from the club. You feel like you have to keep throwing money, and it’s hard. "Dream" is super hard to talk about. It’s about where you’re from, the future, and what you have to do.
What are your morals or guiding ideas?
Family’s everything. Put god first, family responsibility after that.
What’s your family doing now?
My oldest sister just had the first girl in the family in 30 years. (Laughs) Like my brothers are kicking around, and my sister just moved back to Memphis for the first time in 27 years. My little brothers are around too. We’re having crazy fun right now.
How old’s your son?
One month. All he’s doing is drinking nothing but titty juice, all he wants is his mama. (Laughs)
How’s that feel, being a dad?
Really happy. It’s like you’ve been focused in life, you know you’re a man, taking responsibility, and you want it. You feel like a man. Now I’ve got a baby and my own child… it’s fun.
It’s interesting hearing you hear use word responsibility. That’s not something a lot of artists bring up.
I keep the tenacious side of me, but there’s still responsibilities. People want their own house, car and hang around people with money, but you’ve gotta be dependable. If your little sister or whatever tries to ask you for money, you have to be like “I’ll give you this money, but you have to go hard, I’m not gonna be here forever. I ain’t got no problem giving it to you, but you need to go hard.”
Photo by Ga'ray Bobo
Especially in music, that’s not something people focus on. Like no one’s like “manage your money responsibly.”
A lot of people don’t know how to do that, they don’t know how to manage their money. That’s how I made it this far, and keep going up. You’ve got to know how to manage your money. It takes money to make money. If you don’t know how to manage money, how’re you gonna make more money?
What were you doing before music?
Just in the streets. That’s where I come from, get where you live, we were straight. I had a grandma trying to raise three boys. Can you imagine a 77 year old woman trying to raise three elementary kids in the middle of the hood, with all this gang activity and drug infested shit? That’s hard to do for an old lady. So my situation, I’m realizing all the responsibility. I couldn’t let her take all the responsibility. I always liked money, so when I was 15, 16 I went headfirst in the streets. Count money, take money. Take care of my kids for all their school stuff, that was our responsibility. They can’t get out of here and hustle, or work hard. I’m a man, that’s how all men should feel. The ladies you close to in your life shouldn’t be doing stuff, you’re a man and you need to take responsibility.
Is there anything you regret from back then?
Hell yeah. There’s just time you can’t get back being in the streets just chasing money. No matter what, you always want more. It’s like an ego thing, you’re never satisfied. It’s like, "I’ll get a 100 bands, I’m gone." Then you get 100 bands, and it’s like "I can get so much more." You put in all your time just chasing money. Just time you’re missing with your family, kids, just time you can’t get back. Time’s more valuable than anything. You can’t get time back. You can buy water, and get it for free out of the faucet, but time can’t come out of a faucet.
Like once my uncle and grandma passed—I was real close to both of them—but I wish I could’ve spent a whole lot more time together. We enjoyed our life together, so I ain’t tripping, but once they're gone they're gone forever. And you just regret it. Like “I wish I could’ve gave up more hoes,” or whatever. My uncle smoked weed. I wish we could’ve smoked out a little more. (Laughs) Like my cousin told me he was cool and stuff, and then I didn’t believe him. And then, man, he was cool. When I got to like age 20—I tried to stay away from him and not do stuff—but man he was like “I already did that. Know the consequences and the situations, you’re a man.”
Kyle Kramer is not worth half a mil, but he still stood next to Young Dolph for a while. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer
Want more cool rap interviews? Check these out:
Made In Memphis, Featuring Project Pat, Big Star's Jody Stephens, and Ex-Cult