HBCU Students Were Young Dolph's Biggest Fans. He Loved Us Right Back

The late Memphis rapper was a fixture at Jackson State University. Eventually, he became as much a part of the school as we were.
November 24, 2021, 5:40pm
Memphis rapper Young Dolph, who had a long association with Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, an HBCU
Getty / Paras Griffin 

I first came across Young Dolph’s music when I was a junior at Jackson State University, one of the largest HBCUs in the U.S. Me and my three best friends—Julie, Jerlisha, and Kadejia—would cap off a long day of school by hanging in the courtyard outside the female upperclassmen dorm, or in one of our rooms, listening to music and drinking something sweet or smoking grape Swisher Sweets full of the strongest purp and dro you could find in Jackson, Mississippi. One night, Jerlisha put on the video for “I Need My Medicine,” a smooth, syrupy single from the Memphis rapper’s 2011 mixtape, High Class Street Music 2

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I was caught by Dolph’s thick-as-molasses, low-pitched voice over DJ Squeeky’s trippy production. Over time, however, what sold me on his music was the way his production and lyrical style seemed to improve with every mixtape he dropped, as though he were investing the riches and the wisdom he’d gained into perfecting and polishing his trunk-rattling, 808-heavy, Memphis-meets-Atlanta sound. He seemed to be growing on my classmates, too. Motivational hits like “Get Paid,” “Make the World Go ‘Round,” and “A-Plus” would quickly spread all over the yard. Local club DJs, including alums like DJ T-Lewis, DJ T-Money, and DJ Ricky Rich, would include his music in their sets during lunch-hour hotspots outside on our plaza—sometimes with Black Greek Lettered Organizations stepping across the plaza, and everyone else flexing the best fits of the day.

Known for its legendary marching band, The Sonic Boom of the South, JSU was and remains an incubator for just about every kind of Black music that can be traced back to the South, including hip-hop. The school, and to a greater extent, the city of Jackson, was where rappers like Dolph, 2 Chainz, Drake, Curren$y, Gucci Mane, Boosie Badazz, Abstract Mindstate (who attended JSU), Yo Gotti, Lil Wayne, and Big K.R.I.T. cultivated some of their earliest, youngest, and most dedicated fan bases—both through frequent shows on and off campus and their online mixtapes, which would spread like wildfire across every dormitory, as though the school were a social media network unto itself. 

Like what the St. John’s Universities of the world did for underground New York hip-hop, HBCUs have long played an indispensable role in incubating some of rap’s brightest stars. Students provide a testing ground for artists just stepping out in the industry—and their music, in turn, becomes the soundtrack to one of the most formative chapters of our lives. For me, at its best, Dolph’s music could make you feel like the sexiest, most unstoppable man alive (see: the trap quartet “Go Get Sum Mo” with 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane, and Ty Dolla Sign), while also keeping you grounded in the most sobering realities, such as on the too-timely closer from his album Thinking Out Loud, “While U Here.”

But Dolph, in particular, meant a lot to JSU; he was a frequent presence as a performer on campus and in the city, and at one point, he even started showing up at our homecomings just to hang. Eventually, he began to feel as much a part of the school as we did.

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This past Wednesday, November 17, Young Dolph, real name Adolph Thornton, was shot and killed by two men caught on a security camera outside of his favorite bakery, Makeda’s Cookies, in Memphis. The news was a source of shock and sadness that I have yet to recover from. Every day since, my fellow Jacksonians and I have woken up and said, “Damn, Dolph’s gone for real?” Because it doesn’t feel real at all. It feels like losing a friend—the kind of friend who relentlessly stays on your ass until you achieve your goals in life, then shows you the time of your life right after.

Within his entertaining tales about flashy jewelry, selling dope, and fast living, Dolph always wove in motivational lyrics about working towards your dreams, staying true to your family, and fighting for every dollar you get—especially on songs like “Get Paid,” a track from his debut album, King of Memphis, that felt like a rallying cry for everyone from the drug dealer, to the college student, to the working-class heroes and union folk. This passionate message of perseverance and endurance was not lost on students at JSU, including Coach Prime’s son and JSU Tigers student-athlete Shedeur Sanders, who took the field recently in his own custom-painted Dolph-themed cleats. 

"Young Dolph has always been a beacon of motivation to my generation,” said Issac “Ike” Mitchell, another JSU alum. “Walking to class or going to social events hearing his music would always give you that energy that you would need to get through the day.” Long after he graduated, Isaac remains a fan, and he credits the rapper with inspiring his work as a restaurant owner and artist manager in Houston. “As an entrepreneur, his music was always motivational and inspired me to wake up and go get some money,” he said.

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Beyond entrepreneurship, Dolph was also a man with a strong social awareness—something he began channeling on his later albums, and which he surely inherited from his uncle Ronny, who we hear recalling the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the rapper’s last solo record, Rich Slave. In August 2016, the summer after I graduated from JSU, I interviewed him in the days following the BLM marches in Memphis, where Black protesters shut down the I-40 in protest of police violence against unarmed Black civilians and the recent killing of Alton Sterling. Dolph was in Chicago at the time, on tour for his debut album Royalty, though it was clear that he wasn't letting the money and fame create false illusions of the world around him. As we shared a Backwood of “rapper weed” together on his tour bus in Chicago, I asked him what he thought of the movement. “It’s like we’re living in the 70s again, but we’re free though, we on these tour buses, we ballin’, got money and jewelry, and we working and got all these athletes, actors, actresses, and millionaires,” he said. “It’s like, they fixed it up like that but it’s still the same shit goin’ on.” 

But there was another reason why Young Dolph became such a permanent fixture of campus life: He gave back with his time. Starting in the 10s, he made frequent visits to JSU for homecoming. Old video clips on the official Jackson State fan page on Instagram show Dolph hanging out with the football team, students, and alumni. Even this year, during the school’s second homecoming celebration since the pandemic began, he came to celebrate the school’s big win with Coach Prime and the football team, delivering the youngsters speeches about staying true to yourself and your community.

“As someone who first discovered Dolph’s music while in undergrad, it was nice seeing him show up to the school and show love, because so many of us love his music, and it’s always a great feeling having an artist you actually listen to, and admire, come to your city to show love,” said Rachael Ighoavodha, a JSU alum business and influencer from Jackson who attended this year’s Homecoming celebration. “The football players looked excited to have him there.” 

After news broke of Young Dolph’s death, Coach Prime, aka NFL Hall of Famer and JSU Tigers football head coach Deion Sanders, posted a video to Instagram from a recent practice, speaking to his student-athletes before a moment of silence. "We lost a warrior today, man. We lost a true dog. We lost someone's father, someone's son, someone's man, someone's friend, some of y'all's friends and some of y'all's homies in Young Dolph, man,” he said. “[He had so] much love and compassionand the way he came in and embraced all y'all and treated y'all like y'all was homies, man.”

For the Black students, alumni, and faculty at JSU, Young Dolph’s music was more than entertainment. His hustle and passion motivated an entire generation of students to reach for our dreams with relentless determination, to stay aware of the racism that surrounds us, and to embrace our own communities like he embraced all of us. As Issac put it, “To see his influence on my generation was a moment in time.”

Though Dolph’s lyrics told a story that was very different than mine, they put me in touch with the determination I needed to pursue music journalism and finish school. And as I got older, Dolph’s music helped me cope with the losses that come from battling anxiety and depression. If nothing else, Dolph’s music was cathartic for everyone, regardless of race or background, who struggled with something while chasing a dream.

Long live Dolph.