The Man Behind The Curtain: Cey Adams
We have such a high expected level of design as a culture that we take it for granted and never ask ourselves “who made this?” Well, Cey Adams (pronounced SAY) is that guy creating the designs that shape our culture. That designer who for more than 30 years brought his own creative vision to the game, and all else followed. Whether it was film, painting, graphic design, merchandising, or photography, Cey had his hand in it all. Born and bred in NYC, he made a graphic style of his own to be embraced by this new music style called hip-hop. He came from his roots as a graffiti artist, studied at the School of Visual Arts, and eventually graduated to exhibiting his work alongside such greats as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Soon afterwords, Cey began a long professional relationship with hip hop mogul Russell Simmons and joined the creative team at Rush Artist Management. During his time there he created logos, tour merchandise, billboards, and ad campaigns for all of the greats including the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, De La Soul, and LL Cool J. He was seen by many, and known by few. In 1984 Cey made the game-changing move to work for Def Jam Recordings and a short 5 years later partnered with Steve Carr, founding the Drawing Board. The Drawing Board was the labels in house visual design firm that would set the tone not only for the Def Jam alumni such as Public Enemy, Jay Z, and DMX but for numerous other artists signed to other major labels. He created corporate designs for Sean John clothing and artwork for soundtracks. He went on to help create ad campaigns for Nike, Coca Cola, HBO, Hot 97 and WBLS. He also helped co-design the hip-hop wing of the Rock and Roll Museum.
Honestly I’m getting fucking tired and depressed going on about how much he’s achieved because I feel like a slacker right now, but in 2003 Dave Chapelle hired him to create the featured logo for the awesome Chappelle’s Show. Then over the next years he would go on to design album covers for Maroon 5, tour photography, merchandising design and stage wardrobe for the Beastie Boys, Stevie Nicks, Don Henley, Enimem and the Foo Fighters. Holy shit Cey, do you ever just relax or is it always just go to go with you? These are just a few of the questions to follow but believe me we talked much longer because we grew up at the same time…and hung at the same clubs…it’s just my friends back then weren’t Keith, Jean-Michel, Andy, Jay-Z, Russell, or the Beastie Boys.
As most people know, you started out as a graffiti artist. How did you hook up with Russell Simmons?
I started out as a graffiti writer in the late 70s and by the time the 80s rolled around I wanted to transition into fine art so I was doing paintings. I met a photographer who was taking pictures of my artwork for an album cover for Run DMC. He gave me his business card and he goes and tells me to go see Russell Simmons. Now this is 1983, and Russell Simmons name doesn’t really resonate with anybody. So as great as it was in retrospect at the time it was just another thing. He was just another guy. So I go down to 1133 Broadway. He’s got this small little office and less than a handful of employees. He manages Run DMC and Kurtis Blow and you know he manages a lot of rappers at the time, but nobody was really a superstar at that time except for maybe Kurtis Blow. Run and those guys were just getting off the ground and Russell says to me”I think you’re really talented and I think I can put you to work.” Literally that day he put me on a couple of assignments.
The day you met him.
Yeah, literally. I keep referencing Motown because it felt like that, like a family environment and sometimes a traveling circus. But everything was rooted in love and everybody had one mindset. You know we all wanted to make work and be proud of it and at the same time if we were able to get paid for it that was all great.
What was it like working for Rick Rubin?
Rick was always intense and really passionate about music. He’s one of those guys that you knew right from the start that good things were going to happen for him. He had laser-like focus and I honestly don’t remember him being interested in anything else except maybe Pro Wrestling. He was always really intense and once he set his mind on something he would be off to the races.
I see you were really good friends with the Beastie Boys and you kept in touch with them even later in life, how did you guys meet?
I met the beastie boys around the same time as Russell back in 1983, and I was hanging out downtown at a club called Danceteria at the time. Correction, I wanted to hang out at the club but I couldn’t get in…
Ken : Ah, the velvet rope
Yeah. So I’m outside the club and I’m trying to figure out how I’m gonna get in this place. So Adam Horovitz and Dave Scilken approach me because they knew me from the graffiti community and we start talking and I let them know that I’m trying to get into the club and they say oh we know the door man we can get you in. And when I finally got into Danceateria it was like a whole new world opened up for me.
Yeah, you remember.
Yeah, a total rush of the senses and on every floor a different rush for a different sense. Then you finally got to the rooftop and the view was the ultimate. The Twin Towers on one side and the Empire State Building on the other.
And the funny thing about the high was that I didn’t party so I remember everything about those days.
Same here. I quit in 1981. I would get that same rush of energy. After the first clubbing I did in the city I swore I would never go to a club in Jersey again and I never did. When was the first time you realized that you were good at art and that you could make money at what you do?
I did a painting in 1978 and I had always been a fan of an illustrator named Jack Davis. So I did this painting and this is when the band Chic came out with the Risqué album. I remember doing all these comic book characters with “Risqué” in the background and all these amazing colors with acrylics. This was before I even had a gallery working with me and I remember saying “wow this looks like a perfect replica,” and I knew I could always paint well. So I think by the 80’s when the gallery scene was booming in SoHo.
Because you had shows with Haring and Basquiat right?
Yeah, and I was showing in SoHo and got a dealer. I was just barley 20. It was a good time.
(Photo by Martha Cooper)
Ok Cey I’d like to talk about your book Definition: The Art And Design of Hip-Hop. How did that come to fruition?
Well, quite a few years back I was trying to get a book published because I was tired of people talking about graffiti and hip-hop and visual culture…not that they were getting it wrong but I thought that now enough time had passed that the people who actually lived it could tell their own story. I put together a proposal with my partner Bill Adler.
(Now for those of you who don’t know who Bill Adler is he is one of the forefront music journalist who championed hip-hop early in its inception. He was also the director of publicity at Def Jam Recordings.)
And we just went knocking on doors and the good people at Harper Collins gave us the opportunity to make this book. Now the book isn’t necessarily trying to tell the whole story because it’s been 30, 35, or 40 years but it is a good chunk of the beginning chapter. So the idea in just so many chapters was let’s just get the conversation started and then somebody else could take it from there and insert what they knew about it. Now there have been a lot of books written about graffiti but not a lot of books written about hip-hop design. I wanted to talk about all the people that made great work behind the scenes that just don’t get enough credit.
You being the king of that example,somebody not getting enough credit for one’s achievements.
Yeah well that’s kind of the whole idea of writing this book, kind of like shining the light on everybody who was left in the dark. And unfortunately we live in a day where all anybody cares about is this celebrity aspect, where in the old days nobody cared about who the graphic designer was. If you did production work nobody knew who you were. Now everybody wants to be recognized.
That’s one thing I miss about vinyl. I used to look in the liner notes to see who produced it,who did the cover art or even what studio it was recorded and mixed at. Now the font is so small I don’t bother breaking out the magnifying glass. So speaking of vinyl, you worked on one of the most highly acclaimed hip-hop albums of my generation – Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. I mean these guys were waaaaaaay ahead of their time.
Yeah definitely, and the thing to me that was so cool about it was every time Chuck D did an album he walked into the graphic design department with a concept. He never left us to are own devices. He would say “now this is the concept and I want you guys to take it from here.” Now for that album he gave us this concept of a Black Planet eclipsing the earth, and basically casting a shadow on it (laughing). Now at the time it kinda seemed really out there but you look back at it now and maybe not so much. You know he was one of those guys early on that predicted all this stuff. You know the success of Jay-Z, and all the rap and hip-hop, you got Obama being president, Chuck was kind of like our George Orwell, he thought about that stuff long before anybody else did.
How does it feel to have your own Adidas sneaker design?
You know what, that was a huge honor to get the opportunity to work on that collection. I designed a lot of the old stuff for Run DMC and it was really interesting because at the time Adidas didn’t really realize how big Run DMC was but they just didn’t want to miss the boat. So they had me design the shoes and the clothing because I was friends with the guys in the band. So I thought it was a huge opportunity not even realizing that a bunch of years later I would be asked to design my own sneaker line. And it was great, I got the opportunity to meet with the folks at Adidas in Berlin when I was traveling with the Beastie Boys. They told me that they were going to do a collection of apparel and sneakers with artists and asked me if I would like to be one of the artists. I jumped at the opportunity, and they said that the only rules were that there were no rules. And so I had a blank slate and it was really the first time I had done anything like that. I wanted to do a tribute to old school hip-hop so that’s why I chose the white and blue coloring.
So that was the Muhammad Ali sneaker?
No, that was the year later they approach me for that. They said were doing a campaign around Muhammad Ali are you a fan and I said “yeah who’s not a fan of Muhammad Ali?” So they told me they were going to select eight artists to work on the campaign and that was even bigger for me because I loved Ali and the fact that they were only going to pick eight artists to represent his vision and his key principles in life.
What was the wildest “pinch me I must be dreaming” moment that you ever had that you could share with my readers?
Working with Jay-Z because we used to live in the same building together At 560 State Street.
This was the early 90s. This was right as he was about the sign his Roc-A-Fella Records deal with Def Jam and we were next-door neighbors. I had gotten tired of working with posses and crews, you know, stealing the photographers equipment and all kinds of crazy shit that was happening back then. But then meeting Jay-Z was such an interesting moment. Because the whole time I’m thinking that Run DMC was the ceiling…but then after meeting Jay-Z I realized that there was some place higher to go. And then watching his career kind of take off and being a part of that was a big deal for me. I could see things happening that weren’t happening before, he had a vision that was a lot different from all the artists that I had worked with in the past. I had worked with so many great artists before him but he was just a little different. He didn’t bark at everybody. He was really soft-spoken, kind of Godfather-like. It was kind of cool to watch that and to know that hey, you don’t have to act like a dick. You know like this guy kind of gets it, he could lead by example. So working on those early records with him was really a labor of love because he never gave me a hard time and he would always listen to my input. He trusted my vision.
So with Jay Z which album covers did you design?
His first four records. And again like I said, working at Def Jam was just amazing.
Yeah well, you were right in the middle of that tornado.
A really creative one at that.
With your body of work one would think you would have more notoriety. I mean especially for the amount of work that you have done and the client list that you have. Does it ever get you down that you’re not as recognizable as you should be? Being the man behind the curtain?
I think that in this day and age notoriety is overrated. I mean back in the day when somebody designed an album they were technicians, craftsman, they weren’t in it to be a celebrity. They were just about the craft and that the same way I was raised. It was always the work first, I didn’t need any more credit other than what the liner noted. But sometimes it bums me out because people don’t do the homework, they never try to find out who did what because there’s a lot of great talent out there but like I said “people don’t do the homework.”
Out of all the album covers that you designed,what’s the one cover that you saw and said “Damn I wish I designed that”?
Well in graphic design the thing is you always want to do something memorable but you also want to one-up your peers. The coolest thing ever was to be able to design a cover and not have any type on the front because then it is just a pure creative statement. But to be able to do something like that in hip-hop was very difficult because it’s usually always branding first. So the album that made me really envious was Things Fall Apart by The Roots because not only was it on great album cover it was FIVE! And to get to do five different covers for one album was unheard of. So I was really jealous when my buddy Kenny Gravillis got the opportunity to do that with The Roots.
What music did you listen to growing up?
I am the product of the sixties and the seventies. Everybody from Elton John, Aretha Franklin, CCR, Neil Diamond. But I also was a big fan of southern rock. I was listening to Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin.
Who are you listening to now?
I like that girl Lorde and this is going to sound nuts but I listen to Joni Mitchell
That is nuts.
And I like a little bit of Taylor Swift.
I’m leaving (both laughing).
No no, but I mix it up. I like what Kendrick Lamar is doing. And I love, love, love what Pharrell is doing.
I’ve always dug Pharrell. Do you know who Pharrell is like? Pharrell is like you. He was always behind the scenes, always writing and producing on some hot album.
Yeah and then he finally stepped out in front.
Right. Just like you did. Are you a night owl or early bird when it comes to creating?
Definitely a night owl. I can literally, when I’m working on a piece, I can work all night long with no hesitation. I don’t need sleep at all. I never get tired when I’m working on artwork.
Who did you want to be growing up?
Wow. I got to say Andy [Warhol] has always been my guy. I’ve always been a fan of pop art. I never dreamed that I would ever get a chance to hang with him but luckily since he started to hang with Keith [Haring] and then Jean [-Michel Basquiat] that I got my chance to hang out with him and talk to him. He was actually a very cool guy. A different thinker. I don’t know if you remember when Apple did that think different campaign back in the day, I always thought of Andy as one of those guys. And now he’s a cult icon. He has literally become everything he created. I remember being alone as a little kid in my own house and just drawing and trying to emulate his style. And then to actually meet him and get to know him was just a really cool thing. And I know hanging with all the younger artist,was always fuel for him. Feeding off the energy. Keith and I were really close and with Jean, and Andy was like the godfather to us all. I even have a Polaroid picture that Andy took of Keith and I.
You need to find that and post it, I would love to see that. NOW I love your new work, too. It’s like a juxtaposition of old world gold leafing mashed with hip-hop and 70’s graphics and the background field looks like a quilt. Are you feeling fulfilled with your new work?
Definitely, and you did a good job describing it. I think of it as a sort of transformation and discovery. It’s always changing even as I’m working on it. Every time I leave and I come back and I look at something it looks different than the last time I checked it out.
Finally how did you feel when you saw your early pieces at the show “City as Canvas” shown at the Museum of the City of New York? Did they ask for any input from you?
Wow….Yeah they did ask me for input. But it was very surreal because so much time had passed. I mean damn it was thirty years ago. And it’s funny because I was looking at one of the pieces in the show and I did this boxed grid formation on the painting.
Like you’re doing now.
Like I’m doing now. Talk about coming full circle.
(Photo by Erika Romualdo)
I’d like to thank Cey Adams for being a gracious host and great reminiscer because, as someone with ADD often does like me, we went all over the place with our stories. He promised to keep me informed of his new shows down the pike and a couple of surprises that he couldn’t disclose yet. Again, please be a supporter of the arts… Anything from donating to schools art programs to an artist selling his paintings on the street. Peace.
Ken Caruso is the ANTI Society’s in-house street art and photography expert. He is a decorative artist and owner and operator of Alternative Interiors in New Jersey as well as an avid collector and graffiti hunter. He also has his own radio show on Friday nights “Live…Without a net” on chestnutradio.com. Follow him on Instagram @djkcaruso.