Young Dolph: Memphis Rapper on Life From 'Crack Baby' to Streaming Star

The 'Bulletproof' MC talks his work ethic and his much-discussed diss wars

Rapper Young Dolph is a sensation on streaming services. Credit: Jordan Spencer

Over the past decade, Memphis rapper Young Dolph has ascended from a mixtape star approved by Dirty South royalty like Gucci Mane and Young Thug, to a legitimate contender. His latest mixtape, Bulletproof, debuted at Number 36 on the Billboard 200 album charts. With his plainspoken approach and penchant for bellicose but good-natured boasts, he has become one of the most popular rappers on streaming services despite being an independent artist on his own label, Paper Route Empire.

However, his rise hasn't been without controversy. Last September, he released a video for "In My System," a brutally honest track with Lil Boosie that discusses his birth to crack-addicted parents, originally on his mixtape Rich Crack Baby. But some misinterpreted "In My System" as a celebration of drugs. Iconic producer Pete Rock posted on Instagram, "Wat dat fool say? …cocaine running through his veins? This kinda shit has got to stop." He then titled his album with Smoke DZA Don't Smoke Rock. (Young Dolph responded on Twitter, "Sumbody tell pety rock that Dolph said eat a dick.") Dolph's simmering beef with fellow Memphis hood hero Yo Gotti culminated in "Play Wit Yo Bitch," where Dolph dismembers his rival with ferocious (and homophobic) language: "You went from my biggest fan to my biggest hater/Begging me to sign with you but I had too much paper." Shortly after, shooters targeted Young Dolph's SUV with over 100 bullets during a February 25th club appearance in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Amidst the drama, Young Dolph released Bulletproof on April 1st. In an interview, he cagily avoids discussing his beef with Yo Gotti. The only thing he'll say about the inspiration for his mixtape is, "It was just how I was feeling at the time." Instead, the man who calls himself "Dolph Obama" talks about his hometown, his friendship with Gucci Mane and how he overcame a stormy childhood. "If there's something negative about you," he says, "you've got to bring out the positive to the front."

You're one of the top artists on streaming services right now, even though you're not on a major label. Why do you think people are responding to your music?
Because it's authentic music, and it's just good music at the end of the day. You make good music, you're going to get good results.

You've already put out two mixtapes this year, Gelato and Bulletproof. Are you afraid of diluting your market with too much product?
Mmm … not really, 'cause, like, I know that I like music, and all of my friends like music. So, once you put it out, and they been on it for a while, then you give 'em new music. They just love to have music, because it's easy to get burnt out on new music real fast. Once you been listening to the same CD for, like, two weeks, three weeks, it get old to you. You need something new.

How does Bulletproof differ from Gelato?
They're, like, different vibes. They put you in two different vibes. Bulletproof is more on a hardcore vibe and street vibe. And Gelato is more a peaceful, chill-out, smoke-out vibe, like, we chillin', we smokin' good weed vibe.

Gelato has a bunch of guests like Wiz Khalifa, Migos and Lil Yachty. But on Bulletproof, you only have one major guest, Gucci Mane.
Yeah, I was going to have no features on Bulletproof. But I ended up putting Gucci Mane on it. That's just my partner. He's just one of my personal friends. It ain't no different for him from my homeboys in Memphis. I just have a real personal relationship. I met Gucci Mane through my partner Drumma Boy, the producer. We're just two real individuals. Both of us, we like what we do. We just built a relationship off of that.

Have you always rapped, or did you come to later on life?
I started rapping later on in life, around the time I put out my first project [2008's Paper Route Campaign]. That's when I started rapping. It was, like, later on.

Why did you start?
I don't know. I just like music. I've always been a big fan of music. Once I grew up and got older in age, I just … it's like, when you love to do something, the love for it don't go nowhere. It always get stronger and stronger, whatever you have love for. My passion for music has just gotten stronger, and I found myself involved in music.

So it wasn't just a moneymaking venture for you.
Naw, I just love music, know what I mean? Music just sets the tone, it puts you in a different vibe, different mode, different moods. I just like music. You hear music every day. It's something you can't dodge. I don't care what you do, you're going to hear music every day.

At this point in your career, you have a lot of fans that have never been to Memphis. Can you describe what the city is like?
It's cool. It's real cool and it makes you feel like you're in the South. You know you're in the South. It smell good in the air. You have good barbecue, good restaurants around the city. It's a good place, you know what I'm saying? There's certain areas you gotta stay out of, but it's just like everywhere else in the world, you know what I mean? You've got the bullshit areas. But for the most part, it's a cool place to be at. It's a down-to-earth spot, it's not too fast, not too congested, not too many people and shit. It's just a cool spot.

Do you still live in Memphis?
Naw, I'm in Atlanta right now.

Memphis is synonymous with groups like Three 6 Mafia, but they're obviously from an earlier era. What is Memphis rap like now?
You've got a lot of different styles. But the thing is, it's always been the same. Memphis, we've got our own flow. When you listen to it, it's like you hear it in the rap game more than ever. The Memphis style, from the rapping to the beats, we created a lot of the sound that's going on in today's rap. Our flow, our whole delivery, everything, it's just the style of Memphis.

One of your nicknames is "Dolph Obama."
My partners came up with that name. We moving like the president out here, out campaigning on 10. We campaigning hard like the president.

One of your most controversial and powerful songs is "In My System." But it seems like a lot of people misinterpreted it as a celebration of drug use.
Shit, really man, it was me describing my life, and how I was made and how I came about. The song "In My System" is saying, "I got cocaine running through my system." It's really me describing where I come from, my background, and who made me and how I was made. It's my mama and daddy. I got the cocaine running through my system because, like, I was saying that because that's what my mama and daddy was. That's what they was on. That's what they was into.

Some listeners believed that you were celebrating cocaine and crack use.
No … they're really dumb, or they're really just need to pay more attention to the words. I don't see how you could think that it meant that, because it didn't at all.

Another one of your most popular tracks is "Preach." There's a line that stands out: "Nine years old, I seen a nigga get shot. Damn."
Yeah, it was just a growing up in South Memphis thang. It's like, yeah, it's all good, and it's cool around, but ain't no telling when some bullshit will break out, or when it will happen, or where it will happen. It was just what you were exposed to growing in the city and living in the hood there.

How were you able to rise above your circumstances and become successful?
Man, just by giving negativity no attention. Any negative thoughts, negative thinking, negative people, negative anything, you just push that shit out your life. You push that shit out the way and give it no attention, none whatsoever, and focus on nothing but positivity. Focus on taking care of your family and making money, your relationship with God. It's like, you don't even have time for negativity. You ain't got time to give it no attention, none of that shit. And that's what I've been on my whole life.

Are you talking to major labels, or do you plan to stay indie?
I'm planning to stay independent, but at the same time I'm talking to majors, just because I've got so many offers out on the table. So many people want to do deals, want to do business that I can't just overlook it and pay it no attention. So I've gotta pay it some attention. I've gotta see what's going on. So yeah, I'm fucking with the major labels, too.

What's the status on your beef with Yo Gotti? Your diss song, "Play Wit Yo Bitch," is pretty rough.
Shit, ain't no status. The song is what it is. That's the end of it. That's a wrap. What you hear is what you get. What you see is what you get. You've got the song, and now it's over with. Everything is in that song, and now it's over with. It's done. So all the playing can cease, all the playing can stop and ain't no more playing going on or none of that shit.