Memphis was in a rap renaissance when Young Dolph died: What's next for the industry?

Late Memphis rapper Young Dolph’s influence and impact on the city’s rap industry are set to live on for years to come.

That will happen partly through his independent label, Paper Route Empire, which features a stable of young Memphis rappers — including his cousin Key Glock. Dolph’s success also showed a blueprint, even in an ever-changing music industry, that others can learn from.

Dolph’s untimely death — he was shot and killed Nov. 17 at Makeda's Homemade Butter Cookies on Airways Boulevard in Memphis — left a city mourning one of its most prominent musicians and community members.

His death also left some questioning what the impact would be on the city’s rap industry renaissance — one Dolph, whose given name was Adolph Robert Thornton Jr., played a key part in establishing.

Young Dolph speaks during his Mother's Day Brunch event for for Memphis based women who are currently overcoming domestic violence, homelessness and recovery, May 12, 2019.
Young Dolph speaks during his Mother's Day Brunch event for for Memphis based women who are currently overcoming domestic violence, homelessness and recovery, May 12, 2019.

Memphis music experts who spoke with The Commercial Appeal said there’s plenty of future rap talent within Memphis. The key now is maximizing that talent, through a robust musical ecosystem, and fully embracing that music to help continue the city’s rap renaissance.

“I think what we’re starting to own as a community is that hip-hop music, R&B music is just another form of expression,” said George Monger, Connect Music CEO. “It’s no different than how folks didn’t like soul music. No different than how rock 'n' roll wasn’t accepted. This music is here to stay.”

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Impact of Young Dolph’s decision to go independent

One of the most important decisions of Dolph’s career was foregoing several reported opportunities for the traditional major record label deal and starting his own company, Paper Route Empire, in 2010.

That meant doubling as a then-emerging solo act and CEO for a new independent label. However, the latter allowed him greater control over his music and masters collection.

A master recording is the official original recording of a song, sound or performance. All Dolph's studio albums were released through Paper Route Empire including his most successful studio album, “Rich Slave” in 2020 which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts. Owning his masters allowed Dolph full creative and licensing control over his music and access to royalties and more revenue opportunities than if he signed with a record label.

Monger said Dolph is far from the only independent artist around, and it’s a continuation of a growing trend nationally, particularly in the rap industry. In 2020 Monger started Connect Music, a Memphis-based music distributor and music publishing administrator.

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“We’re in a streaming business,” Monger said. “What that means is we went from the physical brick-and-mortar to fully digital by 2030. That’s a $103 billion music publishing and sound recording business. What that caused was the democratization of music. The ability to be independent.”

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In a Q&A with Forbes in 2020, Dolph explained why becoming an independent artist worked out for him.

“I think I’m more attuned to the streets,” Dolph said in the June 2020 interview. “Don't get me wrong: the major labels, they play a big factor, they do their thing. But like, I'm really hands on. I know what the streets want to hear, I know what the streets going through, the lingo, the fashion, everything. It ain't nothing; it’s my real life.”

Beyond his solo career, Dolph’s musical talents became a “microeconomy” of sorts. That’s because once an artist experiences success, they’re likely to reinvest in their community by adding local artists, music publishers and working with producers, among others, to create a more robust sector, Monger said.

“All of this is residual income,” Monger said. “This isn’t a one-time fee. This is ongoing and starts to build a book of consistent income for these writers, producers and artists.”

Young Dolph’s impact on the Memphis rap scene

The late rapper’s emergence and staying power came during a time where the likes of Yo Gotti, Moneybagg Yo, NLE Choppa and Blac Youngsta, to name a few, all previously or recently established themselves as part of the growing rap scene.

“It saddens me to lose any of the future generations who are bringing musical recognition to Memphis music,” said David Porter, legendary Stax Music songwriter and record producer. “There is no doubt YD was. He will definitely be missed.”

All have experienced differing levels of local and mainstream success. Blac Youngsta and Moneybagg Yo are tied to Yo Gotti through his Collective Music Group, one of the local label rivals to Paper Route Empire. Memphis rappers under Paper Route Empire include Snupe Bandz, Paper Route Woo and Big Moochie Grape.

Alandis Brassel is an assistant professor of music business at the University of Memphis' Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music. He said Dolph played a key role in the reemergence of Memphis rap — along with his rival Yo Gotti.

“I think pre-shooting I think we could say we saw on the major level we have CMG, PRE (Paper Route Empire), and I think they were both doing a lot as far as signing talent from Memphis and continuing to put Memphis on the map,” Brassel said.

Dolph’s influence also came through uplifting those around him or bringing them into his circle.

A few years ago, before his rise as a well-known comedian, Memphis native Grovehero lived in Atlanta with his career in an uncertain place. One night, he received an Instagram message from Dolph.

The two connected and Dolph told Grovehero, whose given name is Mario Bradley, that he would change his life. That occurred by having Grovehero appear in the music video “Major,” which has more than 87 million views on YouTube since it debuted in 2018.

“I ain’t gonna lie,” Grovehero told The Commercial Appeal. “I think I still would be who I am today, but it would probably took me a little longer. With him, it just happened instantly. This man changed my life instantly in a blur.”

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The two later went on tour together and remained close until Dolph’s death. Grovehero said Dolph "had a real empire."

“He (Dolph) can bring out one album a year and be good and live off shows,” he said. “He had so many streams of income from YouTube to shows to features, the album sales, even the artists under him (his label)."

Dolph also earned recognition for giving back to his community, another reason why so many appreciated him in the city. Even beyond the music he produced. He routinely held food giveaways and took part in other outreach events in Memphis.

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Memphis music experts remain optimistic despite Young Dolph’s death

Dolph’s passing leaves a hole in Memphis’ rap industry that likely won’t be filled anytime soon. However, the conversation about the talent locally remains an optimistic discussion.

Elizabeth Cawein is the founder and executive director of Music Export Memphis, a nonprofit dedicated to showcasing and exporting Memphis music.

While some may focus on what Memphis lacks, Cawein said, she wants to focus on what’s already in place to help artists thrive in the city.

“For example, there are currently education opportunities for artists,” she said. "Monetizing your music. Protecting your music. Publishing and copyright. We need more of our artists to know about these things. We need more of them to have access to them and education on how to build their own independent brand and protect their music.”

Young Dolph performs during Memphis Madness held Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn.
Young Dolph performs during Memphis Madness held Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn.

Monger said the city’s music leaders need to embrace the success of people involved in various parts of the industry in Memphis.

“If you look at the Billboard charts either the musicians, writers or the artists, if you look at the Top 100, it’s gonna be somebody from Memphis,” he said.

Cawein isn’t fond of the expression “a rising tide lifts all boats,” but she believes the hip-hop and rap industry can have that musical impact in Memphis.

“If we could fully embrace who we are as a Black music city then other genres and other artists and music makers will also benefit from that,” she said. “From the attention and potential investment. The excitement. The brand recognition. Everyone stands to benefit.”

That may result in the local rap renaissance continuing, even without one of the most notable people who created it.

Omer Yusuf covers the Ford project in Haywood County, residential real estate and tourism for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached via email or followed on Twitter @OmerAYusuf.

Memphis police investigating Young Dolph's death

Memphis police continue to investigate the Nov. 17 shooting death of Young Dolph. Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 901-528-2274.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: After Young Dolph's death, what's next for Memphis rap renaissance?