For Matthew Smith, owning his own record label wasn't always part of his game plan. A lot of things had to happen before he got there. There were his stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he survived almost a decade of combat. Upon his return, he stared death in the face yet again when he got into a motorcycle accident. When Smith's journey eventually led him to music, it wasn't the metal he'd listened to in his youth but hip-hop — and the world of juggalos.
Being in the military was simply family tradition for Smith, a native of Fort Worth. His father was in Vietnam, his grandfather was in World War II and his brother was in Iraq when he enlisted. In 2003, he joined the Army and became a medic. He was deployed a total of five times, starting in 2004. Smith was in combat twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan and also worked in Hurricane Katrina and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. He was in the service for nine years.
Smith's most intense experiences in combat took place in Fallujah and Ramadi, where 76 members of his unit were killed in action. “I haven’t checked in a while,” he says. “But [at the time] it was the highest amount of casualties for any brigade in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom.” No medics were killed, but there were many close calls. Once while Smith was doing preventive maintenance on a vehicle, a mortar hit just a few feet away. The blast threw him against the vehicle and left a shrapnel outline of his body.
In Ramadi, Smith’s unit had their base near a hut an Iraqi family lived in. They befriended the family, even giving toys to the young boy. To return the favor, the boy started giving them wires and other materials, not knowing the father was making IEDs. When the father found out, he killed his son. Soon after, Smith’s unit went after the boy’s father and raided the hut. “We killed him,” Smith says, matter-of-factly.
Smith’s last deployment in Afghanistan was also particularly harrowing, with his unit facing snipers and mortars. By the time he left the Army in 2012, Smith had suffered back injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and sleep apnea. “I’ve been blown up a lot,” he says.
But he put himself in good financial shape while he was in the Army. His pay was tax-free and he also received extra while in combat. “People would be over there and buy $60,000 cars,” he says. While his contemporaries were paying off cars, Smith stockpiled his money. With the Army providing food and shelter, he saved and invested money in a hedge fund and a legal firm, among other things. He eventually bought a cheap car, paying for it outright to avoid paying interest.
After returning home to Fort Worth, he was ready for not only a change but also an escape. When people want to escape from their day-to-day lives, they often turn to entertainment. Smith grew up listening to metal and grunge, but his mother is a retired English teacher and he had been writing all his life. The poetry of hip-hop now appealed to him — it's what he listened to while he was in the Army. With that in mind, he started promoting shows with his longtime friend, Joka Child. Then he invested in a hip-hop label and started Guaranteed Fresh.
By 2013, Smith had it really good. He was back home in Fort Worth, financially set and working on his new career path. But as he was merging onto I-30 on his motorcycle one day, in the Western Hills-Ridglea neighborhood of Fort Worth, a semi-trailer truck suddenly pulled out of a parking lot and blocked all three lanes of traffic. Smith hit the side of the truck going 55 mph.
After surviving three combat deployments overseas, Smith died on the side of the road in Fort Worth. Fifty-eight minutes later, an automated external defibrillator brought him back to life. When he awoke in an ambulance that was transporting him from one hospital to another, he had no idea what had happened and thought he was a prisoner of war. His stomach was still open from surgeries and he was strapped down. In addition to multiple injuries to his stomach and chest, his left arm and right wrist were completely shattered.
Smith was put into a medically induced coma and woke up several months later with traumatic amnesia. Physical therapy was a slow process. At first Smith was hoisted on a monorail, then he sat in an electric wheelchair and then a regular wheelchair. He eventually started getting around with a walker, then a cane, until he was finally able to walk again. “It sucked,” Smith says, succinctly. His memories of recovering are foggy. Instead of riding a motorcycle, he now enjoys racing cars.
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Smith went back to work with Guaranteed Fresh and has released albums from Joka Child, Kryptik and J-Peeda. However, his plans are more ambitious than simply releasing records. He wants to make his label a full-on entertainment group that will publish books and make films. In fact, he's currently working on a film degree at Texas Christian University and hopes to begin work on a feature-length film. Smith has also started promoting a few juggalo shows.
“I am not a juggalo,” Smith says, with a laugh. “But they have a very loyal following and a very interesting style. They're generally misunderstood, rebellious people." He talks about people who have regular jobs and families, but keep a close watch for these shows on a few different websites. And after putting on some face paint and crappy clothes they show up as juggalos. "You'll get a good mix of people who go to those shows," he says. "It's not as stereotypical as people would believe.”
Now 32, he admits he would still go back to the Army if he were physically capable, just for the sense of purpose. But in music, he's discovered another kind of release: "I've always loved music," Smith says. "It's an escape from reality."