Cey Adams talks spearheading Def Jam's creative department, helping create REVOLT TV's image with Diddy at launch and more
Gaining a reputation as one of the most respected creatives in the art world, we spoke to the artist about designing classic album covers for greats like JAY-Z, making art around the world and so much more.
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In 2019, hip hop continues to be a dominant force; as the music, fashion and lingo infiltrate various business sectors globally. However, one aspect of the culture that has had an seismic impact on the world is street art, which has gone from being labeled as the scourge of New York City to being co-opted by the major corporations.
One figure who has seen the full evolution of the art form, while standing on the frontline of the culture, is Cey Adams. He’s an accomplished artist whose signature tag cemented him as one of the stars of the graffiti scene in New York City during the ’70s and ’80s. A native New Yorker, Adams — who initially wrote under the name “Cey City” — participated in helping popularize street art nationally and beyond. He’s even appeared in seminal films like Style Wars and Wild Style.
Gaining a reputation as one of the most respected creatives in that world, Adams would be handpicked by Russell Simmons to become the first creative director at Def Jam Records, where he placed his imprint on some of the greatest rap releases of all time. “Everything started with the album,” Adams told REVOLT TV in our exclusive interview. “And then from the album, you had singles; and then from the singles, you had advertisements that ran in magazines, and so on and so forth. Everywhere there was a visual or a graphic, I had to design those things.”
Since his departure from Def Jam, the creative has lent his talents to various companies including REVOLT TV, where he served as creative director during its inception. In addition to teaching at multiple academic institutions, Adams has continued to create and showcase his work; which has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum, and Museum of the City of New York.
REVOLT spoke to the artist about his tenure at the iconic record label, bonding creatively with rap royalty, his forthcoming book, his The Smithsonian Anthology of Hip Hop of Rap book, and where he sees the direction of art and hip hop culture going.
What are your first memories of connecting art with hip hop culture?
It never had a name back then, so it wasn’t like there was anything to connect. I had friends that were graffiti artists, I had friends that were breakdancers. I had friends that were DJs and emcees. It was just young people making art. There was just no discussing it. The same way you don’t discuss walking across the street — you walk across the street.
One of the first television programs centered around hip hop was the 1982 PBS documentary Style Wars, which you appeared in. What led to that?
We were doing a lot of press and we had media training. To me, it was just another camera in front of me. I had done quite a few things before that — shows that you wouldn’t remember — but, they were little cable access shows, and they would interview me about the work I was doing from time to time. That thing only became important because it was definitive of that particular time. If those other shows somehow surface, you’d look at it and go, ‘Wow, people were documenting it that far back.’ It didn’t mean quite as much ’cause I was really young and I wasn’t focused on where I was going. I just wanted to conduct myself as a creative professional.
What was the start of your art really getting out into the world and you being known as ‘Cey City’?
I started out bombing on trains and really that was more in the ’80s. In the ’70s, I started writing graffiti in ’76-’77, and it was really just something I did as an activity ’cause I just loved bombing. It was rebellious energy, it was really just having a good time. I didn’t start to take it seriously until a couple of years later.
How did you meet other graffiti artists in that community? Did you link up while creating?
Back then, you’d meet people one at a time. We’d exchange phone numbers, they’d call your house. Most of the time, my mom picked up the phone. She took the messages ’cause I was running around… Or you said, I’ll meet you this time, on this day, on this corner. You showed up at that time, at that day, on that corner and it was word of mouth. When you told somebody you was gonna be somewhere, you showed up.
Who were some of the earliest artists you linked up with?
Definitely a guy named Jester. Quik. There was quite of few of them. Lady Pink was someone I used to hang around in the ’70s when I was younger and she’s still making art to this day.
You were also involved in the movie Wild Style, which many consider the first feature film on hip hop culture. What was it like creating such a groundbreaking project?
That was really great because I understood what was happening even though that was one year later [from Style Wars]. By then, it made a big difference and that was a lot of fun because everybody was there. Everybody was having a good time and it was the first time it felt like people were paying attention to what we were doing.
Speaking of Wild Style, Fab 5 Freddy is often credited with bringing street art to galleries. How would you describe your relationship with him and do you remember any conversations discussing those moves?
Freddy’s my man, I saw him last week in L.A. and we were vibing on that very thing. Freddy is a cultural pioneer. Freddy is the glue that brought everything together. Granted, there were other people doing it as well, but Freddy was a visionary. He saw the future before a lot of people and I think that those worlds might have connected at some point — might not have connected. It might have taken a couple of years before they connected. But, Freddy was smart enough to see that there was synergy there. These are like-minded and hats off to him for having the vision to do something like that because I think to some degree, it legitimized what we were doing.
You were also the first creative director at Def Jam, which would go on to become one of the definitive record labels in hip hop history. Can you recall the first time you met Russell Simmons or heard of the label?
Well, Def Jam was born after I got there. So, I heard of it the first time we started making records. When I met Russell — Russell wasn’t well-known at the time — he had a small management company. He gave me an opportunity, he was not the world famous mogul that he is today. He was trying to change his circumstance and the people around him.
How would you describe your duties in that role?
I was doing everything. I was doing anything that had to do with art — if it was a poster, a flier, a T-shirt, a backdrop, a sticker, a hand-painted sign. It was just one of those things, if something had to do with visual, short of photography, I was doing it.
During your time at Def Jam, you worked on various creative campaigns, as well as album covers. What were some of the first projects that still stand out to you?
Back then, they were all sort of really important because they were building the foundation of the label. So, when I think about those early days working with Run-D.M.C., it felt like everything we were doing was important to me. And working with people like Kurtis Blow, all that stuff, was important because I understood where they came from and to me, the most important thing was having the opportunity. Much later, when everything started to go global, I understood the impact of what we were being. But, for the most part, I was just putting my head down and focusing on what I had to do on a daily basis. I wasn’t really thinking about the impact it had on other people. I was just sitting at my desk trying to make the best work that I could make.
What are three album covers you worked on that stand out?
Definitely Redman, ‘Whut Thee Album.’ Public Enemy, ‘Fear of a Black Planet.’ JAY-Z’s ‘In My Lifetime, Vol. 1’ and 2.
What’s the story behind Redman’s ‘Whut Thee Album’ artwork?
The thing that I remember the most about Redman is that he gave me a lot of creative freedom. For example, when we were talking about the logo, he said, ‘I want you to just go nuts. I wanna create something that looks insane.’ So when I was designing that, that’s what I was thinking about. I just thought, ‘What would it look like if a real kid was commissioned to design that logo and it had all that young energy?’ and I just focused on creating something that had that feel, and he’s been using it ever since.
You also mentioned working with JAY-Z. What are your earliest memories of meeting him and what was the vibe like working on his album covers?
The thing about JAY-Z that I recall the most is that he’s somebody that really gave you a lot of space to do what you had to do and if he didn’t like something, he would tell you. He was one of these people that were very easy-going when it came to the creative process. He gave me a lot of space to grow as a creative and that’s one of the things I think about the most from when I worked with him. We collaborated together really well.
Throughout the years, who were some of the artists you bonded with through your mutual love for art?
I would say Chuck D from Public Enemy ’cause Chuck has a degree in graphic design and he studied, so he understood the creative process inside and out. We would talk about art-making in general and the importance of what it means to have a great logo. That’s something we discussed very often.
You also rubbed shoulders with the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the peak of their careers. What were those experiences like?
It was just like what it’s like being around LL Cool J now, Chuck D now, the Beastie Boys, and JAY. All these names resonate with people now, but back then, we were all just working artists. Granted, Andy Warhol was a superstar because by the ’80s, he’d already been an established artist since the ’50s and ’60s. So, meeting him was a big deal ’cause he was Andy. But all of these guys, they were driven. Keith had the same energy and drive Jean-Michel had. The same energy and drive that Diddy had, that Dre (Andre Harrell) had, that Russell had. And the thing you gotta understand is these guys are all wildly successful and they’re still driven like the very first time I met them, especially Puff. That’s one of the things I love about him. He constantly pushes, he never slacks off and it’s like he’s got more to prove than ever before sometimes when you look at him. Even when we did REVOLT TV and he called me and said, ‘I want you to come on-board at REVOLT TV as the creative director and I want you to explain to people who we are, and where we come from. How we got here.’ So, a big part of my duties was to educate the young staff, so they would understand that we really are about creating something that’s never been done before. The same way we created hip hop — and not to get caught up in the glitter and the glitz — and just focus on the hard work.
The crack epidemic of the ’80s and early ’90s inspired some of the defining art pieces of the time, particularly in New York City. How would you say living in that era influenced your art?
It was absolutely horrible because like a lot of people, I had family that was affected by the crack epidemic of the ’80s. Everybody did and it was a very tough time. I did nationally distributed work that focused on the epidemic. But, even looking back on it now, it made me a stronger person because I knew I was destined for something greater, and I was able to avoid some of those pitfalls that some of my family and friends were not able to.
Throughout the years, street art has become more commercialized with companies commissioning artists such as yourself to help revamp their brand. What are your feelings on that and did it ever give you cause to pause?
No! I’ve been waiting for this opportunity my whole life. That’s what it’s all about — them recognizing our value — and now we get to tell our story our way, and we make the decisions about the shots that we call. We make the decisions about the messages we’re gonna put out there. This is a long time coming. As someone that’s witnessed this from the very beginning, everything good that’s happening for these artists out here, me and my friends paved the way for those opportunities. This is well-deserved. And as an individual, you still have to work with integrity. So, I’m not saying you can do whatever you want out there. You have a moral and cultural responsibility to where you came from — or at least I know I do. I can’t speak for anyone else. But, it’s important to understand that there are a lot of people that take those resources and they do positive things with it in the community. And if a corporation is gonna help you keep the lights on in your studio, and then you take those funds and you do something community-based or uplift the places you come from, that’s a win-win situation.
How do you feel about the gentrification of New York, and the destruction of landmarks like 5 Pointz and other spaces for artists in the city?
The situation with 5 Pointz is horrible, period. But, I think that [with] each one of these things, you have to take on a situation-by-situation basis. You can’t broad-stroke it and just say all developers are bad because that’s not the case. I think that a lot of what we have to do is find ways to connect with these folks and make our voice heard, make sure that our demands are being met, make sure that the community is served first and foremost because this is America. This is an opportunity and you have to figure out how you wanna play in that arena. But, you can’t just say it’s all bad. There’s more opportunities than ever before for artists to work with big brands and these development corporations, and the word is out. Street art is hot. Jump in there, do your thing. Get yours.
In addition to creating, you also lecture at a number of respected institutions across the country, which gives you the chance to connect with younger artists looking to make their own mark. How would you describe that experience and how has it benefited you creatively?
It doesn’t benefit me, it benefits them. What I get out of it is a sense of joy knowing if I can share tricks or a little bit of advice about the history of the culture, then that’s all I need. But, I do this all the time. I go from city to city working with young people. The second I jump off the phone with you, I got a young artist that’s gonna come give me a hand on this mural I’m painting in New Orleans. It’s just about trying to make a difference. I know where I come from and I know that I didn’t have those opportunities. I didn’t have a mentor. I didn’t have anybody that guided me to make sure that I didn’t stumble or fall. I had to learn everything on my own. And if I can give some young person out here an opportunity to do something or they have a question about my history that is gonna help them make better decisions moving forward as a young artist, then I’m all in.
One of your most recent pieces is ‘One Nation,’ a mural-sized collage you were commissioned to create by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. How did that opportunity come about?
I am currently working on a coffee table book, and [with] the National Museum of African American History and Culture. But, one of the things that’s really fascinating about that museum is Lonnie Bunch was the director. It was just announced that he is now the secretary of the whole Smithsonian Institute. The Smithsonian Institute is the biggest cultural museum in the world. He is an exemplary figure and when we sat down to work on this project, and I was in his office and we were chopping it up, I told him I’ve been waiting my whole life for this opportunity to work with our museum. A museum that shows our journey and it’s also American history. So for me, starting out as a graffiti artist, to have an opportunity to be in this museum making art at a really high level, to be acknowledged in this way, it validates everything that I’ve worked for my whole life. And now, he’s the head of the whole institution. So, it just elevates it one step further. The fact that President Obama did the ribbon-cutting ceremony and I’m right there on the National Mall painting a black American flag. Oprah’s there, Michelle Obama, and the Bushs, and I’m working in front of thousands and thousands of people is easily the greatest moment of my life — short of my son being born.
Hip hop has gone through various phases since you’ve been a part of it. What are your feelings on the current climate and where do you see the culture going?
Naturally, I don’t have a crystal ball. So, where it’s going is anybody’s guess. But, one of the things I can say is I’m really proud of the artists that are stepping up to take ownership not only of their careers, but their contributions to the culture. So, if you look at the people like JAY-Z, Puff, Pharrell [Williams]; there’s so many of them doing great work. What Swizz [Beatz] and Alicia Keys are doing, I think it’s great. I think it’s really important for young people to understand that all these people came from humble beginnings and they’re out there trying to do great work, while they’re advancing their careers and they’re making high quality art. I think we’re at the point where everybody should be giving back and really showing how important [it is] to help the people that come up behind you. Like what Nipsey [Hussle] was doing in his community was a great thing and to me, that’s the legacy of hip hop. Artists taking advantage of the situation that they’re in to help other people that are less fortunate than them. And where hip hop is going, I hope it’s gonna continue to grow, continue to give opportunities to artists that are hungry and that are interested in perfecting their craft.
But, I also hope that they go back and they learn about their history, so when they’re looking back, they remember the people that’s before them. That’s my only issue with hip hop is that people don’t do their homework [and] don’t know where they come from — Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five — and you call yourself a rapper and you go, ‘Who’s that?’ If you were playing the guitar and I said Jimmi Hendrix or B.B. King, you’d know who that is ’cause in Rock & Roll, it’s understood. You gotta know your history with black music, you need to know where you come from. So, if you’re making art today, and you think you’re fly and you think you’re hot, and somebody drops the name Kool Moe Dee and The Treacherous Three on you, and you say, ‘I don’t know who that is,’ or Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force, then you’re lost. You need to know our history. You need to know that Queen Latifah was a rapper, just not an actor. Will Smith was a rapper, not just an actor. Ice Cube was in a group called N.W.A., you understand what I mean? Rakim was in a group called Eric B. & Rakim, and it doesn’t’ take anything away from where they are today. But, know your history. A lot of kids don’t know this stuff. You need to know these people. You don’t need to know every record that they made. But, you definitely need to know that they were there before you got there.
What’s next for Cey Adams?
Well right now, I am really excited about a coffee table book that I’m doing with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s gonna be called The Smithsonian Anthology of Hip Hop of Rap. I’m really looking forward to finishing this because this is going to be the most important greatest hits collection ever assembled… that speaks about the history of the culture.
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