There are plenty of ways an artist can endear themselves to an audience, but the most indispensable element of a record is often the least discussed: the album art.
I know, I know: Don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s wisdom that betrays the ways of the world. Though it might be helpful to pretend otherwise, books contend against one another on library shelves—eye-catching design and intriguing art styles weapons in a war for attention. It’s the same for music. In record stores and on streaming services alike, a good cover can be the difference between winning fans and losing appeal, a reality that hip-hop has understood since the ‘80s.
The artform found an early champion in Glen E. Friedman, the DogTown skate photographer-turned-music-shooter behind classic covers from Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Run-DMC, and Slick Rick. Another pioneer is Daniel Hastings, the prolific mid-’90s aesthete behind classic sleeves from Wu-Tang, Jeru the Damaja, Gang Starr, and KRS-One. Even the mightiest and most iconic artists are seldom invoked. Still, in a craft defined by anonymity, New York native Matt Doo remains one of hip-hop’s most indelible visual artists.
Matt Reid was born in the mid-70s, moments after influence and inspiration coalesced into hip-hop. A Queens kid through and through, Reid came of age amongst the ever-expanding culture. It was in high school that his artistic talents took on a life of their own. Reid began crediting his pen to “Matt Doo,” apparently derived from Scooby-Doo, and struck up a rapport with a like-minded classmate at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. “Me and Matt, we just connected like that,” remembered longtime collaborator Gerard Young, then going by G-Young. “We were always bouncing ideas off each other.” They traded criticisms, pushing each other to new heights while voraciously devouring comic books and street art in equal helpings. “We wanted to try and make each other better.”
Matt and Gerard’s mission was fraught in the eyes of their teachers, who saw little opportunity at the junction of hip-hop and illustration. That’s not to erase the pieces that graced The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride, N.W.A’s 100 Miles and Runnin’, or EPMD’s Business As Usual, all notable exceptions that prove their teachers’ opinions wrong. The primacy of photography in album art made illustration a risky career, but, undeterred, Reid made his move on graduating in ‘93.
“Eventually, when he got to the point where he wanted to take things to a new level, his vision was to create a company that involved me and him,” recalled G-Young. “He approached me like, ‘I wanna do this business, but I want you to be my partner [...] We can combine our portfolios, combine our art, just go for it and try to really push.’” Under the banner of Dooable Arts, the pair enshrined their once-informal union. “We were on the same kind of vibe,” G-Young said. “We were complimenting each other in a good way.”
That vibe took the Dooable duo from jackets and shirts to logos and paintings, their mediums as unbridled as their art style. Doo broke into the public record later that same year, with his illustrations appearing in the December ‘93 edition of Beat Down Magazine. The piece features a B-boy rocking a hoodie emblazoned in countercultural slogans, the contours of the streetwear refracting Doo’s love of hip-hop culture through his passion for comics.
In 1994, the duo was only just getting started when, just one year after Dooable Arts emerged from Queens, Reid linked up with another beloved hometown duo for a piece that would go on to become his most recognizable.
“He was from Queens as well, so there was the fabric there of him being a real B-boy,” remembered Pharoahe Monch, the Organized Konfusion emcee that Doo imbued with a mystical aura to match his maniacal flow. Reid rendered Prince Po as the hammer-wielding Thor in the apocalyptic vision, one that cast his hometown as a terrifying gauntlet of death, stress, conspiracy, and crisis for the cover to their 1994 album, Stress: The Extinction Agenda.
“We lived in Cambria Heights, and Matt loved walking around the neighborhood,” said Matt’s older brother Garnet Reid, painting a picture of insatiable curiosity and hip-hop living. “Mikey D. from Main Source lived nearby, Salt-N-Pepa and Ed Love were also neighbors; Irv Gotti pumped gas at the station down the street. Queens was our spot; we were proud to come from there.” That pride touched family and collaborators alike, his unconditional love of the scene a defining trait. “He walked from one part of Queens to the next part of Queens to be at the jam, or be up in the mix of action,” Monch agreed. “He was the true sense of that dude who was in a cypher absorbing the entire culture.”
“Everybody at that time was using photographs, but we wanted something different,” remembered Po, though it was Doo who made the first move. “When he approached us about doing the record [cover], it came from a place of, ‘You guys take me to a place in my spirit and my soul with what y’all do, and I think I can capture the essence of what this duo is about, and how your music moves me,’” Monch reflected. The duo invited Doo into their Queens joint, where they smoked up to cuts from the then-unreleased record. Inspiration gave way to ideas, and soon enough, Doo got to work.
Time passed, updates rolled in, but there was no preparing for the day the duo visited Doo’s Queens home to see the finished product. “When he lifted the sheet from the painting, I was speechless,” Po told Michael Gonzalez in 2014. “It was on an easel, and it was huge. It had to be like four feet wide, painted on hardwood… To me, man, Matt was like a person from the future.”
“He put his heart and soul into this album cover,” Monch waxed on the eve of its 20th anniversary. “Every aspect of this cover was maniacal, and intricately thought about.” Reid built the path using fragments of comic books and print media, a messy collage of visual samples that swirl about the duo as they emerge from the ghetto, cosmic superheroes that walk a trying trail skirted by bubbling lava: a scene of truly organized confusion. “He played a big part in translating the sound of this album to the audience,” said an impassioned Monch. “[Matt Doo] is, in my opinion, one of the most incredible artists of our time.”
Two years later, in an interview with Michael Gonzalez, Doo admitted the acclaim weighed on him. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the Stress artist,” he said. While he’d only recently illustrated the fifth anniversary cover for Rap Pages, the Organized Konfusion cover was becoming a behemoth. After three years of collaboration, Dooable Arts fractured in 1996, and the duo took their exposure to different ends. “The way he saw things was different,” G-Young remembered in 2014. “A lot of things built up inside of him, and he began drifting into a dark place.”
An artist and a freelancer, stress was a steady-state for Doo. He was continually chasing money and searching for gigs, finding a way to balance passion and pay, and a breakup only added to the maelstrom. Doo moved back to Queens, more reclusive than ever, and he churned out some of his most acclaimed work—namely, the cover of Company Flow’s independent classic Funcrusher Plus, a collaboration with graffito Ewok, and the cover for Tags of the Times Vol. 1, a Japanese compilation—but friends noticed his mental state worsening. That compilation would prove his last commission.
“The last year of his life, the darkness just took him under,” the older Reid told Gonzalez. “He came to my office a few days before his death, and he was talking about seeing a snake on the train that was trying to touch him… He had just finished reading the Bible, and he would talk about subliminal messages, conspiracy theories.” On December 12, 1998, after spending the day handing out his art in Queens, Matt Reid ended his life. He was 28.
“It messed up a lot of people,” G-Young said. The loss rippled through those he befriended. Prince Po recorded “Be Easy,” a Doo dedication, for his 2004 solo debut. Talib Kweli mentioned Doo and his brother in 2007’s “Holy Moly.” Company Flow dedicated their sophomore record, Little Johnny from the Hospitul: Breaks & Instrumentals Vol. 1, in the memory of Doo. CF member El-P put his feelings to wax for a 2002 Fantastic Damage cut.
“I dedicate this to Matt Doo (thank you) / My name is El-P, I produce and I rap too…” –El-P, “Tuned Mass Damper.”
It’s bittersweet that those dedications opened the door to further recognition. “Matt Doo did the cover for Funcrusher Plus, and also Organized Konfusion’s Extinction Agenda,” El-P explained to a curious European journalist. “A very talented guy who died. He got shot.”
El’s sharp words speak to a loss as sudden as it was tragic, and on that December day, hip-hop lost one of its most original artists. “The main rule in hip-hop was, no biting, which means just do your own thing,” Reid told Gonzalez in 1996. “I try to apply that with whatever piece I’m working on.” He applied it to not only Stress but each and every piece in his slight folio: the jackets and shirts he emblazoned alongside G-Young; the cover art he cut for F.L.A.M. Rotation, Craig Mack, and Company Flow; the compilations he styled, Tag of the Times Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 and U.N.I. VS ALL; the eye-catching magazine work he pieced together for Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” OutKast’s “Benz or Beamer,” and Rap Pages’ fifth-anniversary cover. “Matt wasn’t just doing art for money,” remembered Tez, a friend and collaborator. “He was doing it for the people.”
Those people loved Matt Reid. In time, the people listened, too. “We did it right,” G-Young recalled. “We did a lot of very important things [...] I can see it in a lot of people’s work, you know, stuff that we were doing back then… we saw it a lot while we were still doing Dooable Arts!” Indeed, in the years since Reid’s death, illustration has taken hold in hip-hop. DC Comics artist Frank Gomez drew the cover to 1996’s ATLiens, and comic book villainy informed both Lord Scotch’s work on Operation: Doomsday and Jason Jagel’s on MM.. FOOD. It’s a little poetic that Japanese culture—longtime appreciators of Doo’s art—impacted the mainstream through Takashi Murakami’s distinctive visions for Graduation and Kids See Ghosts.
The freedom from form and physicality found fans nationwide. Brandon Breaux’s rapport with Chance The Rapper has turned his spritely bars to soft palettes and solitary stances. In the underground, McKay Felt envisioned the surreal metaphor at the heart of Open Mike Eagle’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. Trippie Redd enlisted Stephen Gibb for his psychedelic Life’s A Trip; GoldLink hit Darius Moreno for At What Cost; Tyler, The Creator tapped Eric White for the organic Flower Boy art; billy woods had Ethan Hamilton depict the urban chaos of Known Unknowns.
The art accompanying Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats’ new collaboration, UNLOCKED, is one of the more direct homages to Matt Doo’s compelling vision. Still, it’s far from the first celebration of his art. The death of Matt Reid was the loss of not only a brilliant and inspired artist, and a true disciple of hip-hop, but also a friend to all who crossed his path.
“We’re just blessed that the cover gets celebrated, and the album gets celebrated,” Monch said in 2014. In influencing illustrators and inspiring homages, the spirit of Matt Doo—his conviction, passion, and vision—will live forever.