On June 25, 1996, after getting pushed back twice, due to recording delays, Jaÿ-Z released his debut album Reasonable Doubt. Initially proposed for an April drop, and not long after a June 14 arrival date, the project arrived on June 25, just one week shy of Independence Day. As the first release under Roc-A-Fella Records, the brainchild of Jay, Kareem "Biggs" Burke and Damon Dash, the full-length debut presented moments, accolades, and opportunities that continue to be the stuff of legend over 20 years later.
But before the world got a chance to hear Jay’s seminal and personal touchstone in the summer of '96, another meticulous creation took place in the months prior — the artwork. While the story of Reasonable Doubt has been told over and over again, the tale of how the iconic portrait, which shows Marcy Houses' famous son exuding an underworld superhero presence à la Robin Hood, has been hardly told. More than just an image, the cover art tells a story of determination, angst and power. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
In telling that story, REVOLT connected with Reasonable Doubt's art director Adrien Vargas and photographer Jonathan Mannion to recall the making of the artwork that is one of the most iconic images emblazoned on an album sleeve.
Jonathan Mannion // Stress
Jay Z for Stress Magazine in 1996
As hip-hop was continuing to bubble in the early '90s, the genre slowly begun expanding from out of the underground and into the spotlight, thanks to the growing popularity of college radio and fledging rap publications like Stress, Rap Pages and The Source.
Adrien Vargas (Art Director): So when I was like a sophomore or junior in college, I graduated college in '94, so about '92, I started working with The Source. While I was in school, I did illustration at The Source for years. Worked a staff illustrator, contributing illustrator, and did a bunch of pieces. At that time, there wasn’t a lot of illustration work in general, but I majored in illustration and was able to get full page [work] in magazines.
Jonathan Mannion (Photographer): It was my senior year at Kenyon College, and everybody really signed up for photographer because it was kind of like a fluff class in a lot of ways. So anybody that was just like fulfilling an art credit took photo, but I never approached it that way. I couldn’t wait to get into it. I was really focused. I loved the dark room, I loved the learning process, but more than anything I loved interacting with somebody and making a moment that documented that specific second in time but would last forever. So that was the beginning of my understanding. Then with my love of hip-hop, I moved to New York [from Cleveland] to work with Richard Avedon, arguably the greatest to ever touch a camera. I’d work for Avedon during the day, from seven in the morning to nine at night, and then I’d go out to the clubs, which sort of began my hip-hop career.
Vargas: In my time at The Source, I was able to meet people like Bonz Malone, Jon Shecter, and all those dudes that ran around at the [publication] and so I had a little bit of rapport for doing cool design shit and drawing. Like I did the Smif-N-Wessun logo back in the day, I’ve done shit for Funkmaster Flex, I did stuff for Mad Lion, a lot of stuff for Nervous Records — basically, people knew me as the design cat.
Mannion: The best way to describe the scene at that time is: We were all fighting for our voices to be heard. Whether you was a producer, a rapper, etc., everybody wanted to be the best and it was healthy competition. It wasn’t sort of like business first, all these contracts. Really the scene was building, it was Biggie, Puff [Daddy], Jay Z, and Busta [Rhymes] and people were grinding hard in order to build up what was a total underground movement heading toward the spotlight and moving into more popular culture. We were out in the clubs, living hard, working hard, and busting our ass to figure it out. There was no blueprint, so we became the blueprint and template for everything to come.
In 1993, after fascinating rap heads with his rapid-fire delivery on records like "I Can't Git With That" and "In My Lifetime," Jay Z inks a deal Payday Records. The deal wouldn't last long. "The things that they were setting up for me, I could have done myself," said Jay in a 1999 interview with Yahoo! Music. Tired of the industry's shady business, Jay, along with peers Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, launches Roc-A-Fella Records. As one of the first orders of business, the trio rented a small office space in a low-rent part of downtown New York City, adjacent to the financial district: 17 John Street.
Vargas: One day I get this random call from somebody at Roc-A-Fella Records. "Hey, I do PR for Roc-A-Fella Records… we’re looking for an art director for the artist Jay Z." Now, I’ve heard some of his stuff before [and] he was on a track called "Hawaiian Sophie" before with Jaz-O. I heard him on random tapes and shit, but he was nice. So anyway, the PR person from Roc-A-Fella goes, "We’re a start-up record label, we’re downtown on John Street," which was like Financial District, not too far from the World Trade Center. It was located on 17 John Street. So she approaches me about becoming an art director to work on his album and that’s how it started.
Mannion: Back then, I was familiar with Jay’s work just through Jaz-O [with “Hawaiian Sophie”] and I did college radio, which basically that was my first introduction to hip-hop all the way through.
Vargas: So that same PR person, who called me to be Art Director was the same person who told me, "Yo I got a friend of mine who’s a photographer, his name is Jonathan Mannion."
Mannion: There was a girl who working press and publicity at Roc-A-Fella offices and she told me, "Yo they’re about to do this album cover, bring your book."
Vargas: There’s a couple of pretty prominent hip-hop photographers, mainly there was this one dude who had a crew called "Cartel," and his name was Daniel Hastings. He did the Raekwon Only Built 4 Cuban Linx cover, he did Jeru the Damage’s The Sun Rises in the East, he did KRS-One’s Return of the Boom Bap, he was the hip-hop n*gga. He had a real ill style, he did cross color processing, so everything was super vibrant. I was dead set on getting him to do the cover. Then somehow, I was interviewing all these photographers and [met] Jonathan. Jonathan at the time worked for Richard Avedon, who’s a world class and world famous portrait photographer.
Mannion: That kind of moment [working with Avedon] really solidified me as a craftsman, because I was learning my trade, learning from the best, and applying that knowledge to what I love, which was hip-hop, reggae, dancehall and all that stuff. That was incredible.
Vargas: So this guy (Mannion) is a formally trained legend photographer, while these other cats were just taking pictures of rappers.
Mannion: I basically sold myself and had some incredible ideas to deliver that they were like, "Alright that sounds incredible, let’s go." [Laughs] I really kind of chased it from there. Dame was about the money, so I had to negotiate that quickly. Jay was about the creative, and I can certainly articulate my ideas as an artist very well. Really, it was about storytelling so that’s where we saw eye to eye. This was going to be my first album cover ever, and [Jay’s] first album ever created. What a way to enter the arena.
Vargas: At the 17 John Street office, Biggs had an office and Dame Dash had a corner office. Jay only came in and hung in Dame or Biggs’ offices. It was a pretty decent size spot for an upstart label. I remember they were saying they needed album covers, this, that, and even back then [Jay] was talking about doing clothes like Rocawear. That came up early in the conversation. They wanted to do T-Shirts and call it "Crew Love." He was early on with the vision. Those guys (Jay, Biggs, Dame) were super early. The single hadn’t even dropped and they were talking about a clothing brand back then. It was intense, as far as the laser focus they had on what they wanted to do.
Abdul Malik Abbott
Original Album Flyer
After securing a distribution deal with Priority Records, Jay begins work on his debut album. "I was pretty focused when I was creating the album, because there was Maria Davis every Wednesday and the Country Club and all these other things that we were investing time into," Jay would detail in a 2006 interview about the LP. Records like "Dead Presidents" and "Ain't No N*gga" would serve as the first offerings from the LP.
Vargas: The first thing that released [from the album] was "Dead Presidents." So Jay gives me the single cover, which is a blurry and dark photo that shows him in his white Lexus, but you can’t see the Lexus because it’s shot through the window, and he’s on a cell phone. That photo, I don’t remember who had taken it, but [Jay] provided me the image.
Abdul Malik Abbott ("Dead Presidents" music video director): The cover of "Dead Presidents" was just Jay on the cell phone and he wasn’t even posing, he was driving and taking care of business. So I shot a couple of shots and that’s photo is what they ended up using for the [cover].
Vargas: So I design the single cover and shortly thereafter, they were like how the album was going to come out and it’s called Reasonable Doubt.
Mannion: Originally, the album was called Heir to the Throne. So I had a whole set of creative for that, but then a couple days later [Jay] was like, "Nah switch that. We’ll let the people decide [if I’m heir] so we’re gonna call it Reasonable Doubt. If I rise to the occasion, I’m going to be named king by the people."
Vargas: It’s real interesting how the buzz soon developed, because it just started going crazy. Like when "Ain’t No N*gga" came out, it was huge in the clubs. There was just a lot of buzz with Jay.
Mannion: I was lucky, I got to hear "Dead Presidents" at his office [before the album released] and this was both of the versions that existed. It just really solidified it all for me and I fought even harder after I heard the tune. I was like, This dude is so clever and fresh, and the beats are nuts. It felt important. It felt like it was about to be epic.
Vargas: Here’s the thing, Jay didn’t write shit down, he would just flow. He didn’t have no notebooks or anything. So titles to songs were [almost unknown]. I remember hearing "22 Twos" early on and being like, "This guy is crazy!" And it wasn’t like one session where you heard the whole thing, [the album] was kind of like in pieces. They’d go in the studio with Mary J. Blige and everybody would be buzzing and then you hear the track.
With the intention to make a statement, Mannion, Vargas, Jay, Dame, and Biggs agree on a black and white theme for the album direction. The cover would be shot on the roof of Mannion's apartment building in the west end of Manhattan.
Vargas: Around that time, at places like Tower Records, you’d walk in and it was like magazines the way all the CD’s were lined up. So I was like, how ill would it be for it to be the only black-and-white cover out there. Nobody was really shooting in black-and-white. One of the few other albums that came out around that time in black-and-white was De La Soul’s Stakes Is High album.
Mannion: There were black and white album covers before, but I think [that element] really fit the sensibility of what we wanted to create, which was really more like establishing him as this timeless character from Brooklyn, styled out, sharp, and clean.
Vargas: Also in those days, everybody else was on 40 below Timbos tucked in with some size 47 jeans, big ass Cross Colours jackets, so we tried to class it up.
Mannion: Everybody else was doing the sort of super prints, crushed linen stuff and I was like, Nah that’s not where we need to be. We need to be in another zone. Let’s create your own lane.
Vargas: That was the ideology. We were actually going to rent a classic Al Capone gangster car too. I remember Dame came in with like two gat bags full of cash, like bundled ones. So we did a photoshoot with all the loot on the table and it was in piles. So were going to try and get like an old school Rolls Royce and that was going to be one of the concepts, but trying to get it was crazy. But they came through with their suits and shit and we shot it by the pier by the west end. Jonathan lived in this really nice spot that had access to this roof area, so there was access to a lot of natural light and that’s basically where we shot the album.
Mannion: That was West 72nd and Riverside. I shot it in my building. Jay Z literally came to my apartment with Dame and Biggs and we went to the roof and shot on the roof of my building, which was open and basically the Mannion Studio of 1996 [Laughs]. I would just go up there and anything I needed to shoot, I would shoot up there. The quality of the light was spectacular. We also shot down by the Hudson River, right under the bridge.
Vargas: There was a picture of a gun in the original album. Don’t forget, the original joint wasn’t Def Jam. It was Priority and Freeze Records. Then when Jay did his thing with Def Jam, the album was redesigned and re-released it under the Def Jam name. So you’ll see there’s two versions. The one that I did was the original one that has the umlauts, Jay had the two dots on top of the ‘Y’ for some reason. That was his shit.
Mannion: [Overall], I think the direction was more of style piece, based on New York City. It was based on being sharp. Certainly there’s the underworld family and there’s a touch on that, but I don’t think we were so heavy handed with it. I really wanted to take him to Little Italy and shoot like almost surveillance like kind of shots with them on the block and whispering to each other, hands on the mouth. I’d do the cover a little bit differently today, if I could. But I’m glad that I did it exactly how I did because the shoot is really lean, it’s not a ton of film, it’s maybe 30 rolls but they’re important. Every single roll and frame continues to tell the story. When I didn’t really have like a formula of even what I needed to turn in, I just totally did it from the heart and went for it.
Vargas: We would build on ideas and they were very clear and defined and what I do remember is that during the whole album creation process, it was smooth. I remember them laboring over what photos they wanted to pick for the inside, because Jonathan shot so much dope shit. It was a seamless process, no headaches.
Mannion: I think we all kind of knew that the cover shot chosen was the one. There are other images that would have been as equally effective, but the fact that that one made it through the guard, there was a reason. It was definitely the strongest from the session and Adrian spent some good time with that and came up with something that I think really shows a lot of the strength of the session. He did his thing as far as the design and I was able to see it beforehand. I think we were all just so excited to have something that we could walk by on the street and really point to the wall and say, "Yo that’s us." It was just important.
Jonathan Mannion; Adrien Vargas
Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Vargas: Even back then, Jay was talking about this is his one and done. Like, "This the only album I’ma drop." There was talk at one point that that was going to be his only album. He was going to drop it and that was going to be it. He believed that the shit was a classic and he weren’t going to fuck with anything else. Basically, I took that motto to heart and when I heard the album I was like I don’t have to do no other albums, I’m done.
Mannion: Nobody ever thought that was one and done man, it was just too good. I think it was a complete thought. That album was a beautiful complete project. Even when people were just dropping little singles, he was unaffected by any kind of like corporate or label guidance. He did what he wanted based on the people that were around him, guiding him and how he interpreted the facts of what was happening in his world. It was a pretty rich and amazing world at that point. What was his line, “You couldn’t talk about it, if you didn’t live it.” It was like, You lived this or it was right next to him and that person lived it. The storytelling remained clear and true to what was happening. You look back into a long line of incredible storytellers like Chuck D thinking about what’s going on and these political statements that were being made, his wasn’t just so heavily charged and political but it still relayed the facts of what was happening in that environment.