When you read the list of artists that Cey Adams has worked with it reads like a ‘who’s who’ of hip-hop all-stars. He has worked on the design of album covers, logos and artwork for the likes of Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G., The Beastie Boys, P-Diddy and Run DMC; an incredible collection of work that most design agencies would kill for. Cey started out as a graffiti artist making his mark on the emerging graffiti and hip-hop scene in New York City in the late 1970’s. After a while he saught inspiration from the fine art world and created paintings inspired by Pop art that he would sell around the city; his keen eye for great artwork and his graffiti skills didn’t go unnoticed as he would end up becoming the creative director at one of the most important record labels of all time – Def Jam. A remarkable story about an incredibly talented guy whose artwork has shaped and changed visual culture within music and popular culture forever.
Five Things: Where did you learn your craft, both as a graffiti artist and as a designer?
Cey: Well, it stems a long period of time and it certainly didn’t happen over night: for example, I started writing graffiti when I was a teenager but I didn’t turn professional until I was about 20 which was around 1980/81 or something close to that. It was kind of a lot of trial and error, as I didn’t go to school to learn art, so a lot of the stuff I learned was just from teaching myself. Around this time (1980/81) I decided to make the transition into fine art, I started creating and selling paintings around that time. In terms of really developing my craft I really learnt it from my peers and from going to museums and galleries to look at paintings and work by the likes of Warhol, Jasper Johns and Lichtenstein, that was really how I learned my technique. A little bit at a time and as I said, it certainly didn’t happen overnight.
Five Things: So how did that lead to you becoming the creative director at Def Jam records?
Cey: Again it was a process, when I started at Def Jam it was what it was; it was a small indie label and there wasn’t a lot of meetings and there wasn’t a lot of decision making about the creative for the label. I was the only artist who was there and was I designing flyers and logos; nobody gave me any direction about what to do or what direction the artists wanted, it was just about getting it done. Again I learned trial by fire, it was more out of necessity that I picked up things. I had to learn how to do traditional graphic design because I had album covers to design and these had to meet the standards that the printers required, so I picked up my design skills by learning on the job. We are talking about a much simpler time and it was a lot of fun, no one was getting in the way and telling me what to do or what not to do. I was passionate about the music and that’s what drove me, this was the early 80s and people were trying to figure out who they were and how to push their art forward. For me, my goal was to make the transition from graffiti artist to a traditional artist – whether that was making paintings or by doing graphic design for the label.
Five Things: From all your years working at Def Jam, and also in the time after Def Jam, could you pick a piece of work you are most proud of?
Cey: You know it’s interesting, because I get asked that a lot and to tell you the truth looking back on it they are all such important records. The thing I’m most proud of is being affiliated with Russell Simmons, Public Enemy, Run DMC, The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J; and still maintaining a friendship with all those guys today. I’m proud of the journey, the friendship gained and to watch how we have all matured and developed as artists, because not all of my friends did that and not all my friends made it. I have a lot of friends who started out with me as graffiti artists but who never made it and ended up doing other kinds of work. So what I’m most excited about is staying the course and still getting to make work that I love and make a living doing it. That’s what is really special.
Five Things: Looking through your book – Definition – the volume of work produced over the years at Def Jam is pretty amazing and it’s also very noticeable to see just how much these visuals have shaped popular culture. You have created so much artwork and so many logos for different artists; do you think it’s necessary for hip-hop artists to be branded?
Cey: Yes, I definitely do. When I look back on it, I was in a really great place at a really great time in history. Being a young kid in lower Manhattan in the late 70’s and early 80’s was great, I was exposed to a lot of downtown music as well as hip-hop and just being around when The Clash came to America or when Blondie was starting out and bands like Talking Heads and Madonna were arriving on the scene. I got the chance to witness things I wouldn’t have witnessed in another U.S. city at that time. There was great stuff happening in the UK and on the west coast, but I mention that because it helped to shape my views and gave me a sense of purpose because I started working on these records, which started to take off. I started to realise that what I was doing was part of that and I always felt what I was doing was special because I cared about the music, the art directors and creative directors at the major labels didn’t understand the music that they were working with. So they didn’t give it the same kind of attention that I was giving it. To answer your question, I think that branding is important, especially now in a digital age where you have so many people that are doing things that are similar, so it can be more difficult distinguish your music from some elses. To be able to have worked in those records gave me a leg up on a lot of people. I knew I wanted to keep my raw street edge, my typography and logo treatments are always hand lettering or brush script. In the case of the Redman logo it was all hand done because I wanted to remind people that I was a graffiti artist.
Five Things: Hip-hop has always been about more than just the music. Would you agree that visual communication within hip-hop is nearly as important as the music?
Cey: Part of the reason I did the Definition book was because I felt that the music got too much attention, when you talk about hip-hop people immediately think music. In the old days when you mentioned hip-hop it was art, dance, music and all those things. Once the records started to sell hip-hop just became a genre and became classified as a sound, and I thought ‘what about the graffiti artists or the breakdancers?’ It got to the point that people stopped thinking about those parts as being a part of hip-hop, so I did the book to remind people that we all come from the same place and to let people know that a rapper is no more important than a DJ or a graffiti artist or a breakdancer. That’s why I decided to do a compilation book looking at the visual culture, to celebrate that part of hip-hop. I do believe the music has taken on a lot more of the attention and it would great if some of those artists would acknowledge what has come before them. These guys have a huge following and they could use their influence to open peoples minds up a little bit.Street art has become so popular, and street art owes a huge debt to graffiti and sometimes I think street artists forget that. They all work with spray cans and sometimes I think they forget to pay homage to what has come before them. In the old days of hip-hop you had to acknowledge who the people were who opened doors for you. One of the things I love about Public Enemy or The Beastie Boys is that they constantly acknowledge people from the past that maybe don’t get as much attention as they do. That’s something that more visual artists need to do more of.
Five Things: My favourite design of your would be Beastie Boys Hello Nasty– could you give us a brief insight into that design?
Beastie Boys – Hello Nasty
Cey: Working with the Beastie Boys is always a treat because we are all really good friends, since the early days when we were kids. So because of this one of the good things about working with them is that it becomes a true collaboration; in comparison to that, some of the artists we worked with at Def Jam never even came into the art department to find out what we were doing. They seen it as ‘I’ll make you the music and you do the art’ or it may have been just a brief conversation where they would say ‘hey I like this concept that I want you to run with’; then they would run off and go do whatever else they had to do, and that was as much input as they would give. With the Beastie Boys it was a process through and through; the four of us would sit down and kick around ideas. When they did Hello Nasty they were actually recording the album while we were doing the art. The three of them would come in with all sorts of ideas and I would go through them with the guys until we got something everyone agreed upon. If everyone didn’t love it, we didn’t do it. We came up with three different variations on that cover and title. What I think first and foremost about that work is that it was a collaborative effort and I have out takes of that cover that looks nothing like the final design. In fact they have different titles and everything; they were going to call it that album Intergalactic once a upon a time. Needless to say that ended up being the single, but it was also at one stage the album title and I have album designs with that title on them, which I have actually never shown anybody. The thing about the way they worked was that since they left Def Jam they decided they were going to take control of their own careers, so I was more like someone who was there to help them realise their vision. For the most part a lot of that stuff was their idea.
Five Things: Would you be able to pick a favourite album cover design of all time?
Cey: Wow. That’s an interesting question. I’ll say two. One of the is LL Cool J All World, because I got to do something that’s very difficult in the music business, to create an album design with no type on the front, just an image. The reason I love that so much is because Miles Davis did an album called TuTu and he used an image that was very similar to the LL Cool J cover. When I was shooting LL I thought ‘I would love to do something like the Miles Davis cover’, and I remember at the time everybody at Def Jam was preoccupied doing other things so I was left to my own devices. LL was on the west coast at the time and I don’t even know if he was in good communications with Def Jam at the time, so nobody bothered me. I got to do whatever I wanted, I had a great budget and I decided that I was going to make my dream cover, and that was always my dream – to do a design with no type. This would make the viewer focus on how beautiful the photography was.
So that’s one cover; the other one I really love would probably be EPMD’s Business As Usual, because we got to work with illustration. At that time getting Def Jam to allow us to work with illustration was difficult and nobody in hip-hop had ever done that before. Shortly after N.W.A. did it and RZA also used the same illustrator to do his Bobby Digital album, but at that point nobody had done high-end illustration like that on a hip-hop cover. I just thought it was really unique because the way comic book illustrators work is do a rough sketch then show a client then makes changes, so working with a comic book artist I felt I was close to working with guys who had worked on Batman, Superman and things like that; and I loved comics as a kid. So it was a lot of fun working with a famous comic book artist. That cover is beautiful and the paintings that came from it are really beautiful, looking at it in CD form you may not get a sense of how amazing it is but the vinyl is gorgeous and the double page advertising campaigns were just amazing.
Thing: Who’s you favourite band/artist of all time?
Cey: You know what, if I had to pick anybody I would definitely say Run DMC. Run DMC broke the mould. I remember we were in L.A. and we went to Soul Train and American Bandstand and I remember thinking ‘Whoa, this little thing no no one cared about is suddenly taking over the world!’. Getting to travel all over the world with Run DMC, watching how they became ambassadors of the culture and they were also just such great guys. It was something I was really proud to be a part of first hand. Whenever I need to get inspired or if I want to listen to some old skool hip-hop I’ll put on some Run DMC and the beats just sound as fresh today as they did in 1983.
Many thanks for Cey for taking the time out to have this phone conversation with me.His book – Definition – is available to buy here.You can check out Cey’s latest work here