Cey Adams interview about his iconic Hip Hop art

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Cey Adams has been involved in visual art, Hop Hop, and the music industry since the three worlds collided three decades ago. His graffiti art quickly lead him to work with Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, and Hip Hop’s most important record label, Def Jam. He’s designed and managed art direction for some of the most influential performers within the music industry, including The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z and many others. His legacy includes some of the most iconic Hip Hop album covers, logos, and visual branding elements in music industry history.  Adams designed an art book about Def Jam’s history entitled “Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label.” In this interview, Adams delves into his amazing career that helped shape what the world visualizes when they think about Hip Hop and its visual art.  

The thing that I learned that is the most valuable of all is what I learned from Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys: Loyalty is something that never gets old.

I:  Tell me a bit about your first design work at Rush Management.

CA:  Well, the first things that I did when I met Russell were mostly flyers, post cards, things like that because back then there was obviously no computer. A lot of the work that I did was literally sitting at a desk with a ruler and a T-square.  A lot of it was done with hand lettering.  For the most part, whenever Russell had a band that was going out on tour or doing multiple club dates, I would basically create some sort of hand flyer or pamphlet that they would then distribute to clubs and I guess mostly hand out to kids on the street and things like that.

I:  In many ways it was really the beginning of marketing for both Russell and Def Jam.

CA:  Basically that is that’s true.  You know, one of the things that immediately comes to mind when I think about those early days is everything had a DIY sort of attitude.  There really was no other way than to create something and distribute it yourself.

I:  Because it’s so easy today to be a creator today because of online tools, do you feel that those without drive and passion expect alot out of minimal work?

CA:  I’ve noticed that but I think more than anything, some of them don’t understand how easy they have it.  They can stay at home and comment on things that are going all over the world and their voice can be heard.  I think that’s something that is lost on them.  There is a lot of hard work that has to go into doing anything.  Whether it’s making art or producing a record, or recording a record.  There’s a lot of sweat equity that you have to put in, and I think that people sometimes think that if enough to post something online or attach somebody that’s posted something online when they don’t realize that a lot of time and energy has to go into this in order to make it interesting and believable enough for people to really look at and appreciate.

I:  I would imagine that there’s also something to be said about the power of hand to hand transactions-  getting something to somebody in the physical realm versus something that you take advantage of because you’re used to getting tons and tons of it daily online.

CA:  Oh yes certainly. One of the things that I think about when you mentioned that is when you see or get a flyer at a club and it immediately connects with you, and I mean that’s the only way that you are going to find out about whoever that band that is going to be coming to town or whatever rapper it might be that is doing the show.  That flyer.  You get excited, you put it up on your wall at home.  You really want to be reminded that there is something that you’re really excited about.  There is just no other way to communicate.  And it’s something about holding it in your hand and touching it.  It’s the same thing I think about with records and books.  It’s a real special feeling to be able to hold something in your hand and stare at it and get excited about it.  When you look at things online, I don’t think we get excited in the same way.

I:  I agree.

CA:  You click back a week later it might not be there, oh what was that link?  Those things are great when it comes to distributing information quickly, but when it comes to having a lasting impression, nothing beats holding a piece of art in your hand.

I:  Here we are in the world of the iPad and we’re going to be talking about a book. What do you feel is that value of a book like “Def Jam’s first 25 Years” brings in an era of digital media?

CA:  Well, for starters it reminds people that there’s something valuable about holding it in your hands, seeing a photograph, touching it, looking at the type design and the choice in color.  I just think sometimes things online just feel disposable to me.  When you hold a book in your hand the weight of it reminds you that this is something that is important because somebody spent time to give you 300 pages versus a 100 pages.  There’s something tangible.  It’s like a building.  It’s powerful.  I can’t explain it in any other way.

One of the things that immediately comes to mind is when Taschen did those Mohammad Ali books.  I remember going to the store because from what I remember, they were $10,000 or something crazy.  It’s this gigantic monstrosity; it’s so powerful and so beautiful that you just want to spend time really taking it in. And that’s what this Def Jam book is like.  We wanted to make something that was as big and as rich and beautiful as the history itself.

I:  Indeed.  Just like a beautiful painting is going to stand the test of time, do you feel that quality books, especially when they have beautiful photography and art, will do the same as we move through or further into the world of the digital universe?

CA:  Certainly.  As beautiful as the internet is and working on computers and all those things, I rarely ever walk down the street and have somebody describe something that they saw online, short of maybe a video that they remember something that sparks a conversation on the street.  I’m not talking about human interaction.  I’m talking about human interaction versus this viral communication.  I think that when you see and hold something in your hand it travels word of mouth; it’s much more powerful than 10,000 people talking online about something.

I:  Indeed.

CA:  You have to have seen it with your own two eyes.


I:  In many ways it’s almost like the world of seeing a live performance; seeing a concert in person versus seeing some video that went viral.  The viral video you quickly forget, yet that great live experience is in our memory forever.

CA:  Sure.  It’s something that words can’t describe.  One of the things that is really interesting about all the people that are online talking about Steve Jobs.  They’re not talking about something they saw online.  They’re talking about the products that they hold in their hands.  They’re talking about the innovation and how it’s changed the way that they live.  That’s what’s exciting about your reading.  It’s not the idea of this guy.  It’s about the products.

And it’s one of the things that I think about a lot when we’re talking about books and the history of Def Jam.  It’s all something that at some point and time you can hold in your hand.  It was a record or it was a CD or in some cases, it was a piece of artwork; a flyer or poster.  Those are all things that stayed with you because at some point you held it in your hand and you touched it, and it meant something to you.

I:  Do you think that’s a part of the reason, other than audio fidelity, that vinyl record sales continue to grow year by year in a digital age?

CA:  Oh sure.  I mean, I love my downloads, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something looking at a record cover and seeing the un-coded stock versus the coded stock and they took the time to add liner notes.  You respect that thing the way a brain surgeon would.  You appreciate the detail that the designer put in to creating that.  As a fan that’s the stuff that you live for.  Oh they’re thinking about me because they included all of these little tidbits that I have to find inside the package.

I:  Regarding creating album art, what does that process entail?

CA:  For me it always started with the music, and again you know we’re talking about a time before you had to worry about it falling into the wrong hands and illegal downloads and all this.  If somebody gave you a cassette, you didn’t have to worry about it falling into the hands of 10,000 other people.  Or people hearing it in other parts of the world.  So, I would listen to a piece of music and the vibe and sometimes sit with the artist and really talk about what their vision was.  Then, I would go away and try to figure out the best way to visually interpret what I felt that music represented from the artist’s perspective, first and foremost.  Sometimes that meant working with a specific photographer to come up with an image that was different from whatever was in the market at the time.  Or, sometimes it was working with an illustrator.  It really did vary depending on who the individual artist was and how much creative freedom they were going to give me or trust me with, I should say.

I:  Do you find sometimes when you’re working with an artist, that they immediately want to do something that is obvious or predictable or almost cliché?

CA:  Yeah.  I mean it happens quite often, and to tell you the truth, I don’t blame the artists because I think that is the job of the designer and the art director is really help them think differently- come up with something a little bit more outside the box.   That’s why you have an art director or designer.  That’s why the recording artist isn’t designing their own records.

Once and a while, an artist will come along that has a creative vision that extends beyond music and that’s a great thing.  And that’s something that happened very early on with The Beastie Boys. They were a band that always had a sense of what the visual communication they wanted to convey along with the music.  It was refreshing for me because all too often recording artists do not have that.  Another person that does that very well is Chuck D from Public Enemy.  He has a visual sense.  He created the Public Enemy logo.  He was aware of the power of imagery from the very start.  That’s something that goes a long, long way when you’re sitting down trying to design something and you know that you don’t have to be afraid to show them an idea and try to trick them into using it because you know at some point it’s going to resonate with the larger community.

I:  How do you address somebody that is resistant to input.  That album art, in many ways, is a part of the art and half of the story. How do you approach somebody that feels you’re kind of impeding in their world?

CA:  It’s funny.  Immediately one of the things that comes to mind is, and I know I’m bouncing around and not sticking to Def Jam, when I think about the “Ready to Die” cover that Martin and I did for the Notorious B.I.G. debut release, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.  When we came up with the idea of using this baby on the album cover, that was something that I don’t think B.I.G. really understood.  All these years later it’s obviously an iconic image and it all seems like it was created with music in mind.  That was something that wasn’t an idea that he originally was sold on.  I think it was something that had to be kind of pushed on him a little bit; because most people want themselves on the cover, especially for the first release.  And in the end, it ended up being a great cover.  It ended up really defining who was he was as an artist and when people referred to him they always go back to that record. I was just going to say for me that was very interesting and that was certainly a situation where the art led the music in some ways and then the music ended up coming back around to help define the art.

I:  Was the thinking behind that almost this ironic presentation of the title?

CA:  Exactly.

I:  And, then of course, even a further meaning obviously is as we move in to later in the years when he met his untimely demise?

CA:  Right, exactly.  That’s a perfect example of art imitating life.  It’s really ironic. It’s interesting and painfully sad all at the same time.

I:  Creating the album art in many ways helps represent the music, but when you’re designing a logo for an artist in many ways that image represents or embodies their work; their lifetime of creativity.  Can you talk a little bit about some of the logos that you’ve created for artists such as Mary J. Blige and Beastie Boys and Red Man?

CA:  Red Man was one that I was going to go to first because it’s so synonymous with whom he is, and the first time I met him I remember he used to always have this tissue in his nose.  I never really understood what that was about, but I knew he was somebody that was trying to find his voice and could be a little bit different.  So it was okay and I cut him a little slack because he’s an artist and he’s trying to express himself.  But the thing that was so funny to me was I knew right from the start that he was an unusual guy and I wanted to create something that kind of reminded me of the chaos I heard in the records.  So that’s why I did a logo that had all this movement in it.  It had a lot of movement.  It was as though somebody was creating with a bloody razor blade, and that was the idea for all that chaos with the lettering.

I:  And, it had a gritty nature.

CA:  Certainly because Red Man saw right from the beginning and I wanted it to have a hand-done sort of look, and even though I ended up having to bring it into the computer later on to apply it to the design, when we started it was a hand done logo.

The same thing comes to mind for Mary.  When I met her she was this young, eighteen, nineteen year old delicate flower, and I just wanted something that evoked a softer side.  What I was thinking about at the time was records like Anita Baker and a lot of the classic R & B where they always had this beautiful calligraphies, and so I thought to myself if I ever get an opportunity I want to do something that reminds me of those early records and so that was the inspiration behind the Mary J. Blige signature.  Now granted, I had to do fifty different passes of all of those letters, and I did that signature over and over and over again, and I ended up cutting and splicing different pieces together to give you the whole word.  And so when you look at it, it looks like one cohesive graphic but it was something that was pieced together with something life fifty different versions of the word.

I:  Was that actually your had creation or was that cut and pasted very…

CA:  Well it’s all hand, but it was cut and pasted together.  The “Mary” is actually one stroke, and the “J” is one stroke and the “Blige” is one stroke, but they were pieced together from different elements.  I tried a bunch of different sizes and eventually I hit on something that looked like it was done in one take.  The way filmmaking is done.

I:  Have you ever heard if anyone has ever thought that was her signature? When they got an autograph, did  they expect that?

CA:  Always.  That’s one of my favorite inside…just between Mary and I because rarely did I talk about in interviews, and Mary definitely doesn’t talk about it. And she’s still using it to this day so that’s a testament to how connected she has become to that logo, and it’s something that obviously connects with her audience.  When people see that they know that’s Mary.  She jokingly said to me many times, “people think that’s my signature.”  It kind of always makes me laugh to think I’m this graffiti guy who has, I like to think of, really rough hand at times but then I can channel that creative delicate side where I can create something and people just assume it was written by the woman.

I:  That’s ultimately the true tribute to your work.  That you have these artists, these iconic artists, that are still using your work years after you created it.

CA:  I guess that really is a nice thing.  I never spend a lot time thinking about it because I always assume that there was something there that they also connected.  It’s also their first and so that’s one of the great things about working with a lot of these artists from the very beginning. Whether it’s an LL Cool J or Beastie Boys, or Public Enemy, or Red Man, Method Man, or Mary J. Blige, or Jay Z, is that I was there from the very beginning and I think that they have a special place in their heart for the work that was done.   And they understand that that it’s something that they want to keep with them.

I:  And speaking of the very beginning, you were there pretty much at the early part of career for The Beastie Boys.   If you could talk a little bit about that time and also how you came about creating their logo.

CA:  I’ve known The Beastie Boys for a very long time.  We go back to 1983, and I met them when they were still a punk band; even before they made the transition into Hip Hop.  Well you know “Cookie Puss” was the first turn towards doing stuff that was rap related.  Working with them was always a joy because they gave me a lot of space to express myself. Those are things that are really personal to me because those relationships are very important, and corroborating with these artists year after year, never gets old to me.

It’s more fun every time because it’s a new challenge and it gives both of us really an opportunity to show our fans of the music and the art that we still can get together in a room and create something that we enjoy and still be friends.  All too often that doesn’t happen with people after they’ve had success. They move on and start working with other people.  It’s always great to be able to come back and do a new project with them.

I:  Can you discuss memories from early work with them. I know you were also in the “Fight For Your Right To Party” video.

CA:  When I was going through the book, it was one of the last images that I included, I realized looking over all those images that more than anything I get a lot credit for the work that I’ve done but the thing that I remember the most is all the silly times that we had at the labels.  I look at images of Russell and Rick and other guys that have come up with LL Cool J.  It’s all in those pages and every time I look at it, it just makes me laugh and it makes me smile.  And that’s the stuff that I kind of remember much more than anything else. Def Jam had a lot of high highs and a lot of very low lows.  And those are the things that I remember a lot.  It’s stuff that people don’t remember, like artists that never hit.  That we did great work for.

That’s one of the things that’s so memorable is that at the end of the day that’s all you take away from it is the history and the memories.  And if you’re lucky enough to have some of those things captured on film, captured digitally and audio, on pictures that’s a great thing because after a while that’s the only way that you have to tell that story that you were here.  That’s one of the best things about being able to do a book like this is that long after we’re gone people will be able to reference that and say, “Wow!  These guys were here.”  It’s like being around during the jazz renaissance, Monk and Bird, and Miles and all those cats.  They’re people that we wished we’d been around and what it was like to hang out with Coltrane, and I got that opportunity to be one of those people that not only was there, but was in the mix and got a chance to show people what I can do.  It’s a lot of fun and it’s a huge, huge honor.

I:  Can you share a memorable experience with any of these folks?

CA:  Oh sure.  One of the things immediately comes to mind is being able to tour with Run DMC and The Beastie Boys.  What was I going to do? “Don’t worry we’ll figure that part out once we get out there.  Our guy to design stuff for us on the road, you’ll do T-shirts and merchandizing.”  And it was just about having your friends and family with you when you travel.  And certainly a lot of people have done that you know. Whether it was LLCool J or Public Enemy or Run DMC.  One of my fondest memories is just going on tour with Run DMC and The Beastie Boys and getting to travel the world for free.  And you know you’re flying first class, you’re staying at the most expensive hotels money can buy, and the best thing of all, when you get off that plane people are excited to see you and people treat you like royalty.  And not like royalty, because in a lot of ways we are royalty because we helped to create this art-form and this culture that wasn’t here forty years ago.

That thought is never, never lost on me.  Every time I travel through a city and I’m greeted by people and they say that they’ve been moved by the work, I’m excited every single time because that’s a huge honor to be able to make that work.  I never get tired of that, and it’s one of the fondest memories I have when it comes to all the time I spent at Def Jam and all the great artists I’ve been fortunate enough to work with.

I:  You touched on the fact that you worked with artists that maybe aren’t remembered?  Can you share lesser-known artists whose release you worked on and have been slept on throughout the years?

CA:  Certainly, people know Oran Juice Jones from The Rain, but he had so many other great records that people might not remember and so one of the things I think about is all the great music that Juice made.  Another artist that was really amazing on the Def Jam roster that never really exploded was TeShaun.  He was an amazing and still is an amazing R & B vocalist that just had a smooth, Teddy Pendergrass sort of voice and I did a lot of great artwork for him.  Another artist that immediately comes to mind is Nice and Smooth. I think there are a lot of great records that came out over the years that didn’t quite get the attention that they deserved.  One of them I played on the radio show I was hosting on WFMU two weeks ago, it was a group called The Dove Shack, and The Dove Shack were friends of Warren G and they did this one album on Def Jam called “This is the Shack.”

They were just a great, great act…they never got enough shine.  They made a really great album and it was reminiscent of Warren G music, but I just always loved that sound.

I:  Would you be able to share something that you’ve learned from some of these phenomenal individuals?  For example Russell Simmons, can you share something that you learned from working with him throughout those years?

CA:  Sure.  The first thing that I learned from Russell is always spot great talent because when I started working with Def Jam, I was in my early 20’s and the thing that I learned from Russell is, always surround yourself with talented people that are in some cases smarter than you, but always hungry.   And that was the thing that I did when I was storming The Drawing Board with my partner Steve Carr.  We made it a point to surround ourselves with young, hungry, talented artists.  Those are the people that are going to take you to the next level because, ultimately if you surround yourself with talented young people, they keep the ideas young and they keep them fresh, and they kind of check you in the moment when you think that you’ve done something really important; you look over your shoulder and see young artists doing an illustration or trying something new type design, and you think, “Wow! I’ve got to get out of that habit of working with my favorite font and try some of these new fonts, try some of these new illustrators that are working.”

That’s something that I learned from Russell…always to surround myself with great talent.  Lyor Cohen taught me that the best thing you can do is to be a good delegator.  And that was something that was very difficult for me all along in my career.  I’m a micro-manager and I like to lean over people’s shoulders, but Lyor taught me to let people go and just delegate because they’ll never learn if you don’t give them the chance to hold down the fort while you’re away.  So that was something that I learned from Lyor, delegate and give people authority and responsibility.  And if they’re smart and talented, 99% of the time they’re going to shine and they’re not going to disappoint you.

Rick Rubin was a guy who reminded me about being creative.  Early on in his career, Rick wasn’t afraid to try something different.  He started out as a guy who was heavily associated with heavy metal, and he found a way to use a lot of those raw, (Roland) 808 drum beats to his advantage and really knew that to give the music that he’s creating a solid bottom and foundation.  And so when I think about being creative, I think about what I learned from Rick in that regard. He’s always been creative.

The thing that I learned that is the most valuable of all is what I learned from Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys: Loyalty is something that never gets old.

And when we look at The Beastie Boys today, they’re still a band that’s still going strong, they’re still making great music and the thing that everybody can attest to is that they did things on their own terms but most importantly, they always stuck together.  And it’s the same thing with Chuck and Flavor and Public Enemy; loyalty is the most important thing you have.  That’s one of the things that I’m most proud about when I think about the legacy of the The Drawing Board and myself and Steve Carr, even though we’re off doing different things we’re still best friends and we’re still loyal to each other.  It’s one of the best things I can tell somebody when I’m talking to a young person.   Be true to yourself and be loyal to the people that you’re around because at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that’s going to matter.  I learned that from watching The Beastie Boys over the years and watching Public Enemy.  That loyalty is very important thing to have.

I:  That’s awesome and powerful and really in many ways that advice transcends obviously music and hip hop, and just business and life in general.  So thank you so much.

CA:  People get a little taste of success they want to break up and they want to do sixty different things, and there’s something to be said for sticking with the team that got you to where you are.

I:  Jay Z has certainly proven his staying power, and in many ways today, is looked at as  today’s definitive Hip Hop artist. Can you talk at all about your experiences with him and maybe some of the involvements that you had in some of his releases?

CA:  The thing that I hold near and dear to myself when it comes to Jay is that people don’t know that Jay and I used to live in the same building together on 560 State Street.  He talks about that address on Empire State of Mind; I lived in that building as well.  I lived there before he did.  Lord Jamar from Brand Nubian lived there also; and so it was very interesting because it was kind a young, creative hub so to speak for talented young Black folks.  And that was our Jefferson’s moment.  That was our version of “Moving on Up.”  Because before that, I lived on St. James Street, two doors away from Biggie.  And so when I moved away, I moved to 560, I thought I was moving on up.  Jay ends up living in the complex and we hit it off right from the start.  So we were friends before he signed to Def Jam, or rather before Rocafella signed to Def Jam.  I just remember not really knowing what to make of him and the Rocafella crew other than the fact that they were dedicated to their logo and their little crew, and they were about to make something happen.

So all those years later when I got an opportunity to work on his first releases, we had an immediate rapport, and there was a trust factor that was there because we knew each other.  So he gave me a lot of space to do what I needed to do as it related to being creative, and once he saw that I had an interesting perspective that was a little different than what he might have been used to on his first release, he just let me do what worked for me.  And he was usually very supportive of my ideas.  And if something didn’t, he would say something, but he always said it in a way that let me know, “I understand that this is your lane and I’m going to give you the space to do what you need to do.”  That’s something that I never take for granted when I’m working with an artist like that.  Certainly, looking at what Jay has accomplished over the years, I could not be prouder, and every time we see each other its warm hugs and “hey how are you doing?  What’s going on?  What are you up to?” It’s really as though nothing has changed.  It’s not like he changed, it’s just his circumstances around him have changed. I’m very excited that he’s made his success, and I’m very happy I was a part of it.

Interview and forward by Israel Vasquetelle.