Despite the ‘living hell’ of his childhood, five of his past six releases have made the Billboard chart, and the indie rapper shows no signs of easing his workload – even making videos from his hospital bed after being shot in broad daylight
In an Instagram post from November, Young Dolph, a rare indie success story in US rap, reclines on a throne. He throws his left leg over one of the chair’s golden arms. On his right arm is a custom Gucci sling with red trim. Older Instagrams show Dolph wearing bandages at a Los Angeles hospital, then an arm sling to visit a jeweller. But for this self-portrait, shared with his 2.5 million followers, a hospital-issue sling wouldn’t do. “I got shot in my arm,” he says, “but OK, let me style on you bitches right quick.”
For someone who had never thought of music as a viable career choice (“I’m from Memphis, you know I thought about pimping,” he rapped on 2017’s On the River), Dolph has every right to boast: five of his past six releases, all from 2016 onward, made the Billboard album chart. His new album, Thinking Out Loud, became his highest charting yet when it broke the top 20 in October. That release also showed that, after getting shot in broad daylight in September, reportedly due to a simmering beef with another Memphis rapper, nothing will stop Dolph from getting back to work.
Inside Atlanta’s Street Execs Studios, Dolph (without a sling this time, with just a few pinky ring baubles) lounges with his crew to watch the Saints-Falcons football game. Dolph has been based in the city for a few years now, but his heart is still in Memphis, whose contributions to trap music often get overlooked, despite Three 6 Mafia winning an Oscar for their 2006 track Hard Out Here for a Pimp. Memphis is where Dolph, born Adolph Thornton Jr, learned to be self-sufficient. Because his parents were addicted to crack, one of his grandmothers cared for his sisters in Chicago, while another watched over Dolph and his brothers in Memphis. As the oldest Thornton boy, all Dolph wanted was to provide for his family. From his vantage point, just south of the tourist attractions downtown, he only saw one way how.
“Hustling – you’ve been seeing it for so long that you start to partake in it,” Dolph says. “There were two hoods, Magnolia and Castalia; I went to Magnolia Elementary. Back then there was slick beefing – all the Castalia kids would go over to Magnolia. Shit started off early,” he explains. “Even when leaving school, you either had to go up past the two stores and the corner, where everything is going on, or walk up this long ass boring street up the hill to go home. Of course everyone’s grandmamas and parents were like, don’t walk up past that corner. But we wanted to go past where the action is. We were in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, seeing this living hell.
“I’ve just always wanted the money,” he continues. “I told my grandma a long time ago that I was going to take my mom and dad out the hood. I was a little boy saying that shit. I ain’t never really had no dad, just the street’s ways, and I’m giving [people] game that their dad was supposed to be giving them, on these tapes and lyrics. My whole thing is about giving these folks the real.”
Dolph has been releasing mixtapes since 2008, when he and his friends used to freestyle together. “It can be at a spot, it can be in the trap, it can be in the car driving – we just fucking around.” Today he raps, with supreme confidence, about the hunger that gnawed at him and how he now shops at Saks Fifth Avenue. As he says on In My System, from last year’s mixtape Rich Crack Baby, “I clocked in when I was 12 and never clocked out”. Like Atlanta rapper Jeezy, Dolph isn’t trying to be clever. “I’d rather motivate somebody all day long,” he says. “To me, that is timeless music.”
By 2014, Dolph was touring nightclubs in smaller cities such as Pensacola, Florida, earning up to $72,000 (£53,000) a week. In songs, he shouts out self-made millionaires such as No Limit Records founder Master P, whose reality rap and entrepreneurial spirit thrived during the late 90s. “P talked his shit into existence,” Dolph says. “The game was set up to where you damn near needed a record label. But now you don’t.”
Dolph releases music on his own label, Paper Route Empire. He has rejected major label deals as high as $12m, although he maintains that he is open to options. Since at least 2014, such independent success has reportedly become a source of tension back home, and the rap scene has – perhaps spuriously – been in thrall to a supposed beef turning violent. Dolph claims that Yo Gotti, the Memphis rap veteran behind major US chart hits Down in the DM and Rake It Up, once wanted to sign Dolph to his CMG imprint. Speaking on New York radio show The Breakfast Club, he said that Gotti dissed his own signees behind their backs (“That ain’t how I was raised”). But Dolph also maintains that, having invested $3m of his own money into Paper Route Empire, he was unimpressed when Gotti didn’t match that with his CMG offer.
What started out as sly disses between the pair soon progressed. In February, Dolph dropped Play Wit Yo Bitch where his taunting over the alleged failed deal gets ugly, and homophobic. A few weeks later, shooters targeted an SUV in Charlotte, North Carolina, before a Young Dolph club appearance, spraying the car with bullets. That night became part of the rapper’s lore in April, when he recorded and released his album Bulletproof in just three days – the artwork shows a smiling Dolph standing on a lot littered with shell casings. It features the song 100 Shots, where Dolph taunts: “How the fuck you miss a whole hundred shots?” The answer, he claims, is that his SUV was custom-bulletproofed for $300,000. Charlotte police told the Guardian that they counted “no more than 50” bullets on the scene, and did not establish if Dolph was connected to the incident. In May, CMG signee Blac Youngsta, who posted a video in 2016 where he and his crew brandish guns as they taunt Dolph, turned himself in to police. Blac’s attorney said that police found a van rented under Blac’s name, but that it was stolen; Blac said: “I ain’t fire nothing, I ain’t seen nothing, I ain’t do nothing.” He was released just hours later.
Then, on 26 September, Dolph was shot outside the Loews Hollywood hotel in LA. He fell down, got back up and stumbled into a shoe shop to call for help. “I knew I was shot one time, but I didn’t know I was shot three times: two in the leg, and one in the arm,” Dolph says. “I saw so much blood coming out, and I sat up against the wall. I really was paranoid because I didn’t know if I was dehydrated or whatnot, from drinking [codeine-laced cocktail] lean.”
Gotti’s entourage was staying at the Loews, and a 43-year-old man, Corey McClendon, was arrested near the scene shortly after, although police released him two days later. McClendon has history with Gotti: in 2010, both men turned themselves in after a shooting in a Memphis club parking lot following a verbal altercation between Gotti and another local rapper, OG Boo Dirty, although the charges were later dropped. And despite initial reports, Gotti was never officially named a person of interest in the 2017 shooting.
“I thought I was going to be there about two days,” Dolph says of the hospital stay that followed. “I was just like: forget about this motherfucker and head back to doing my shit.” But he was in hospital for two weeks, even filiming parts of his Believe Me video there, with closeups of his glittering watch and patient wristbands. “I’ve been targeted since I was 17, 18, 19,” he says. “I just knew that I was good.”
Gotti swears that he doesn’t understand Dolph’s gripe. “I ain’t really got no issue. I really don’t think homie got issue. I just think it’s marketing,” he told The Breakfast Club radio show. But when asked whether he regrets Play Wit Yo Bitch, Dolph shakes his head, turns his back and rolls his next blunt.
Make no mistake, he says, 2017 wasn’t a life-changing year for him. When Dolph was nine years old, he saw, from his grandmother’s window, a man get killed in a drive-by shooting. Dolph turned that memory into the hardest hitting line in Preach, the hit that allowed him to start charging upwards of $20,000 for a nightclub gig. His new album Thinking Out Loud ends with While U Here, which is about cherishing loved ones while they are still alive.
Dolph has never figured out why people try to hunt him down. “You gotta ask them. But I ain’t a person that lives in fear. You got some people who really worry about that kind of shit. I don’t.” He says he still has music to record, and wants to film a Straight Outta Compton-style biopic, plus he has two children to care for. “I want them to stay true to themselves, not do what I want them to do,” he says. “They ain’t coming up like me. They come into the world with opportunities.”
The week before Christmas, Dolph appeared at the Rolling Loud music festival in San Bernadino, California – cameras showed him walking to the stage not from a trailer, but an ambulance. He may never understand why people come after him, but he knows to wear a Gucci sling when they do.
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