Mass Appeal Interview with Creative Director, Cey Adams, by Bret Dougherty,
The passions for hip hop design grow strong for Creative Director, Cey Adams. Cey Adams reflects upon his creative process, the early days of Rush Management/Def Jam, and the uses of hip hop art and design today.
Rules change, people change, styles change…Yet, the true players always seem to adapt to the breaks of the game.
That's why when you're pondering the subjects of credibility and creativity in hip hop design; you should turn to creative director, Cey Adams.
The 44-year-old, Jamaica, Queens native first tapped into his passion for art by tagging sketchbook pages. By 1982, Cey was throwing burners onto subway trains, handball courts, and walls across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Along with other legendary graffiti pioneers, he began exhibiting his paintings alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in the East Village underground gallery scene, which earned him a cameo appearance in Tony Silver and Henry Chalfont’s famed 1982 PBS classic, Style Wars.
During that same year, Adams was passed the phone number of a bustling entrepreneur named Russell Simmons. After a visit with Simmons, Adams became the third Rush Management employee along with Director of Publicity, Bill Adler and Simmons’s assistant, Heidi Smith. Growing with Rush Management into the booming Def Jam Productions throughout the '80s, Adams’s creative work elevated when he paired with graphic designer, Steve Carr, to form their entrepreneurial design firm, The Drawing Board. For almost a decade, the duo produced cover art, logos, and shirts for Def Jam icons such as 3rd Bass, Slick Rick, Public Enemy, and for other artists and figures such as Method Man, Mary J. Blige, and Jay-Z.
In the world of urban culture, there are few artists who have been able to ride with the shifts of hip hop's major cultural movers and purveyors of cool over the past three decades. As noted hip hop historian, Bill Adler adds, “Cey’s career is a microcosm of the history of hip hop. Hip hop started out as an impoverished subculture on the margins of society and moved into the mainstream with its integrity intact. Cey started out “bombing” subway trains and developed into a master of the graphic arts with a roster of brand-name clients...always with his integrity intact”
launching left-handed jump shots in his weekly runs with musicians and
artists in the Village and creating logos for Dave Chappelle, Adams has
currently been working upon collaborations with Adidas and Gravis Footwear.
Sipping out of a glass Coca-Cola bottle at a NoLita café, Adams
discusses his creative process, his early’80s experiences at Rush
Management/Def Jam Records, and hip hop graphic design today.
Can you give me an example of how you implement your creative process?
I'm a big fan of technology, but lately I have been going back to the basics with my sketchbook again to start off ideas. For me, it's the best record of how an idea sketches out because the idea never disappears. When you use a computer, you can move, delete, and step back, but there's a stopgap in the process. Sometimes the flow of the creative process and the design gets lost because of switching between styles, programs and fonts. If you cancel out an idea, you will never know if you'll come back to it. It's possible that the idea could grow into something bigger. When I put a design on paper, the idea never disappears for me. That way I'm forced to live with my mistakes, and I can see what comes of it.
You were the third employee at Rush Management/Def Jam. How did you get your start at there?
I was painting a handball court in Jamaica, Queens, where I was living at the time. On a summer afternoon, I was touching up a mural when [Trevor] "Butch" Greene approached me asking about the mural. Butch was documenting graffiti displays around New York and he was scouting location shots for the debut album of a group called Run-DMC [laughs]. He not only was shocked to hear that I was attending the School of Visual Arts, but also he was impressed with my mural. He started snapping shots of my mural as a possible backdrop with the guys [Run-DMC and Jam Master Jay].
We started talking about my work, and he told me about a record producer and promoter who was looking for a graffiti artist who could design backdrops, cover art and fliers for hip hop music acts. He passed me a Rush Town Management business card that simply said, "Russell Simmons, Chairman." Seriously, I didn't think much of it. Hip hop music was heard mostly through rhymes on the street. Yet, I went down there to see him at 1133 Broadway because I had heard "Sucker MCs" on the radio. At that time, Russell was managing Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, and Whodini, but they were not widely known. Now this is pre-Rick Rubin, pre-Lyor Cohen…So seriously, when I opened the door, there was no "buffer." Heidi Smith, who is Russell's long-time assistant, and Russell were working the phones three feet away from the door. They shouldn't have been impressed with me either since I also hadn't done anything but graffiti design until that time.
Russell was great. He said. "We can't afford to pay you what you're worth, but we'll pay you something." From the start of our relationship, I looked up to him right away. What was great about his mentoring methods is that he let me in on every thing he was working with at the time. It was a very unique and special time. I don't know if the same mentoring with people could happen today. It would take too much time for Russell to hang-out. Back then, Russell didn't have the pressures and responsibilities that he has today.
What were some of the first projects that you developed during that time?
One of the first things that he had me do was to paint a mural that said "Rush Town." From there, I worked on fliers, logos, and T-Shirts. My first backdrop was for the New York City Fresh Fest Tour in 1984 that featured Run-DMC, Whodini, Newcleus, The Fat Boys, and UTFO. My first cover artwork was for Real Roxanne's "Bang-Zoom" 12-inch single. Incredibly, I had a license to do mostly anything I needed to do, and the funny part of it all is that I had no formal design training at the time. Lettering and design up to that point was graffiti-styled with big-blow up letters, and bigger was always better. However, when it came to more detailed things, I was on my own.
You have to remember that weren't software programs that you could grab a working knowledge of with a few practice sessions. Photoshop didn't exist back then. I learned from the printer, who aligned the famous "Def Jam Recordings" letter jackets for me, about how to set the type and how to use a ruler for the work. Back then, if I aligned something wrong or made a mistake to a design, a lot of time and money would be flushed down the drain. If you make a couple of mistakes producing things, then it gets expensive. I had to learn the hard way not to make mistakes, and it was good to learn the hard way because I don't have to rely on a computer all the time.
What was the atmosphere like at Def Jam at that time?
It was the closest thing to a hip hop clubhouse that you could imagine…And I don't mean that in a hip hop Mickey Mouse Club way either. It was much harder than that…more like a hip hop Group Home or a halfway-house. [shaking his head and smiling].
I don't think you could ever duplicate it. Everyone was done with school or between odd jobs. At one time, you had the Beasties, Kurtis Blow, Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, Run-DMC all hanging out and waiting to make something happen at the office. Thinking back on it now…If someone really took a serious look at the environment, the office environment probably was bad for business. Cats were just plain hanging out all day long, eating food, and running up long-distance phone bills. It was hilarious. The scene in the movie Krush Groove didn't come close to capturing half of the mayhem that went on there.
What are your thoughts about that creative talent at that time?
The combination of the creativity and the personalities that would come through Def Jam was incredible. You would have Russell and Lyor working their game. A young L.L. Cool J would be in your ear questioning everything that's going on because he's soaking up every little piece of information that he can get. Then, you could have characters such as Runny Ray, Flavor Flav, or a Ricky Powell bursting into the room at any moment throughout the day. These types of people are built in a different way when it comes to their personalities, and having them together in one place made it a chaotic, fun, and exciting place. Everyone felt they belonged to something there, and we conveyed that type of environment to the public. When we went on tour with Run DMC and the Beasties, we were like the "Rainbow Coalition on Wheels."
It was all about the music, which was very good. If the music was bad, there might have been problems. However, there was respect that resulted with no racial boundaries because everyone respected each artist's talents and the music was amazing. Def Jam was one of the first businesses that saw everyone for who they were and what they were doing at that particular time.
You touched upon support for projects at Def Jam. Steve Carr and you formed your own entrepreneurial effort at Def Jam called, The Drawing Board. As Def Jam's in-house design firm, the two of you created album covers and designs for other acts. Can you explain why your partnership worked?
At first, I have to admit that I asked myself, "How am I going to relate to this guy who is a Jewish kid from Brooklyn with a love for hard rock and metal while I'm a kid from Queens who grew up around pop radio?" However, our commonalities were more than art and design. We shared the same loves for '70s pop culture and television sitcoms. So, we gelled pretty easily. Steve was a real artist. He had the formal training, structure, and the technical background that I didn't have, and he became the 'design source' for our work, which made for a great partnership.
We were also working with artists like Chuck D, who were hungry and had minds that were filled with great ideas. Look at Fear of a Black Planet. [Pointing to a photo of Fear of a Black Planet] This is one of my favorite albums that we worked on together. An unknown fact is that Chuck has a graphic design background before his musical career.
When we were bouncing around ideas with Fear of a Black Planet, Chuck wanted a Star Wars type theme as the direct concept for the cover. During a flight, he had etched the Public Enemy logo on a napkin with a burning sun behind it with a Sharpie. So, we had the main concept put in front of us.
Steve had seen some work by B.E. Johnson, who was working with NASA at the time. B.E. is a fascinating guy and an amazing and legendary artist. He had accomplished some incredible illustrations with space imagery, and he had created the artwork for the book cover of James Michener's Space. The funny part is that B.E. had no idea who Public Enemy was at the time. Actually, he talked with kids in his neighborhood to see if they were big fans of Public Enemy. When the kids told him how big Public Enemy was at that time, he jumped on board. B.E. created an amazing piece of work. It's one of the Top 50 album covers of all-time. You have the nebula, the universe playing against the molten lava sun, and the burning Public Enemy logo. The colors are incredible
When you're working with incredibly talented people who produce solid work with consistency, it's easy to have respect for great artwork. That's why I think Steve and I worked well each other and with other artists.
In terms of hip hop design and the culture surrounding street art, how do you feel about the uses of hip hop art and design today?
I'm enjoying the re-emergence of graffiti art right now. It's also great to see galleries appreciating graffiti art. In the '80s, I had to listen to the SoHo theorists who stated, "If we return to galleries in ten to 20 years and you're still creating art, then we'll revisit you and consider hanging your works in museums and major galleries." I had resented that idea then, but I agree with that idea now. It's challenging to recognize an eighteen year-old artist's work and call the work a movement. I also understand that you have to produce solid work for two decades to establish a movement or to create serious credibility.
What types of graffiti work are intriguing for you now?
In the '80s, it was very challenging to achieve a mainstream audience for your work. When I see graffiti artists from the '80s such as Espo and Reas who are carving out livelihoods for themselves through product design or graff artists like KR, creating ink product lines and publishing design books, it's a major triumph for me. They are benefiting and building from the work that Futura, Dondi, Pink, Zephyr, and I have done. The fact that artists can make money without compromise and with acceptance is very rewarding.
Today, you can't utilize the public surfaces for your work, and the movement has been accepted into the mainstream. Gone are the days of the late-'70s and early-'80s when you could be an underground graffiti artist painting on walls and acting like you're doing something new. If you are an artist running around with a mask and proclaiming that you're an underground graffiti artist, you'd look like a fool. If you are that type of artist, you're better off developing your skills with an entrepreneurial focus.
Yet, when working for corporations, do you believe artists can maintain their credibility in their ideas, concepts and messages?
No doubt…And when you look at street credibility for street art, it's come full circle. Artists have fought to preserve their street credibility, which was always their most precious asset. Now, these big corporations are seeking these artists instead of the other way around. Corporations are allowing these artists to execute their own individual visions without the threat of compromise because these corporations need new street artists to reach the markets they want to target.
Today's hip-hop oriented graphic artists have a very keen sense of entrepreneurship. I'm astounded at the ways they find to make a business with their work. They're very savvy with their work. Look at the products that are created now through the form of collectible toys, shoes, and clothing. Maintaining that cult status of exclusivity is phenomenal.
What are the next moves for your work?
First, I have been collaborating upon shoe projects. The first Adidas shoe focuses upon the Beastie Boys and my long-time friend, Adam Yauch. The shoe is entitled 'Unity 62.' The set also includes sweat suits and shirts.
Second, I'm very focused upon teaching visual arts at BAM, Brooklyn Academy of Music. I'm working with a visual arts program that focuses upon hip hop in the visual arts. As a black visual artist, I am still pioneering uncharted waters in the graphic design arena. With the youth today, their talent levels are incredible, and their creative outlets have changed. Look at their websites. See how they have adopted technology with Apple's products. We have to bring that talent out of them.