A Tour Through Hip Hop’s Early Days: A Talk with Legendary Def Jam Graphic Artist Cey Adams

A Tour Through Hip Hop’s Early Days: A Talk with Legendary Def Jam Graphic Artist Cey Adams

Cey Adams is a hip hop artist and graphic designer who has worked with the likes of the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Notorious BIG, Mary J Blige and countless others. In addition to working on renowned album art for records such as Biggie’s Ready to Die and creating famous logo designs for brands like the Sean Jean clothing brand and Chappelle’s Show, he pioneered the Drawing Board, Def Jam’s in-house visual design firm overseeing the visuals of the label’s artists. Since then, he has worked with major worldwide brands like Coca-Cola, Nike, and Comedy Central.

In February, I met up with Cey as he worked on a ceiling mural at a restaurant in the process of being built right off the 116 street stop in Harlem. We sat down to talk about the early days of hip hop and how his art has evolved over the years. My favorite interviews are with people like Cey, those who have been around the block once or twice and have stories to tell. Reminiscing on the early days with someone who was there is like turning the richly-scented pages of a favorite book. There’s history in every chapter, something special and nostalgic, and it’s a good opportunity to listen and learn.

Later Cey would take me on a tour through Manhattan — grabbing Italian at a classy restaurant built above a former sex club and then beers at a neighborhood bingo bar drowning in colorful Christmas lights — stopping along the way to tell me stories of how so-and-so building has evolved over the years, proud to show off his city. It was a night to remember in the city that never sleeps.

Say Hey There: Hip Hop started to evolve in the 80s. Growing up, you were in the right place at the right time in the right decade. What was that like?

Cey: It was pretty cool. It’s weird looking back because everyone’s so into nostalgia, but to me growing up at that time was very similar to what I imagine it’s like for teenagers right now. It didn’t feel special or unique. Granted, growing up in NYC was something that I knew was special. The fact you could get on the subway and go to Times Square in thirty minutes and be in the center of the universe, that was pretty cool. We did it for entertainment. We didn’t have any money, we would just go to Times Square and look around at the lights, the same thing that tourists do right now.

We didn’t have any money, we would just go to Times Square and look around at the lights, the same thing that tourists do right now.

Say Hey There: But at the same time, there was this new culture evolving. Do you remember the first time you started to get involved with that?

Cey: Like everybody, I was a fan first. To this day I still get chills when I see Grandmaster Flash. And the fact that he knows who I am is one of the highlights of my life. I was at this event just last week and saw him and he gives me this big hug and I’m like, “How the fuck does this guy know who I am?” I’m just so fortunate in that way to have had contact with these people. And he was an icon. When they first started making music I was writing graffiti but I was just a fly on the wall. What I was doing hadn’t taken hold yet. They were on television and making their mark. To be able to witness all those early acts coming up was a really cool thing. That was our version of the Rolling Stones.

Say Hey There: What was your involvement at 5Pointz?

Cey: Nothing.

Say Hey There: I thought you painted there?

Cey: I did, but everyone did. I had to paint there because it had become this important institution. There were a lot of places in New York that were similar but that one had an international appeal. There are places up here in Harlem where people had Halls of Fame and places in the South Bronx but there was something about 5 Pointz that had this appeal and I wanted to be a part of it.

Say Hey There: Of all the places in New York, is there one that stands out as being very nostalgic for you?

Cey: You know what, I don’t really have places that are nostalgic in that regard, but the thing I always thought was great was hanging out with people and getting to paint with my friends. When we got together that’s when craziness happened. That’s something that stayed with me more than anything, the people instead of the places. Now all these folks are pioneers. You mention Dondi or Doze or Lady Pink or Daze or whoever it is, all those artists from the 80s are iconic figures and everyone knows who they are whereas back then that wasn’t the case so much so being able to look back on those memories is a really cool thing. My career is cool because I thought it out from a graffiti track and music exploded and I had an opportunity to be a part of that. Some people just stayed in their lane and didn’t cross into anything else.

My career is cool because I thought it out from a graffiti track and music exploded and I had an opportunity to be a part of that. Some people just stayed in their lane and didn’t cross into anything else.

Say Hey There: Like graphic design.

Cey: Yeah,  none of that, and that opportunity to me was very special. It’s a cool way to polish your craft and continue to grow. Let’s face it, you see what happens when people don’t outgrow graffiti. It’s got a teenage mentality to it. There’s nothing worse than being an adult and having a family and still thinking like you’re fifteen. The behavior has juvenile tendencies and at a certain point you have to evolve.

Say Hey There: There are people out there who are so far removed from hip hop culture that they could never view graffiti as art. What do you have to say about that subject?

Cey: It’s undisputed. It’s ridiculous to even have the argument. See, the problem is there’s so many different kinds. It’s like saying, “Is food delicious?” Think about it like that. Is food delicious? Yes. Is it all delicious? No.

Say Hey There: I freaking love that analogy.

Cey: That’s exactly what it is. Is all graffiti art? No. Is there some that’s really amazing? Yes. Is it vandalism in some cases? It all has its place and there are people who confuse the two. They may be older and only see tagging and people who use those acid markers that make things look messy, but it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Say Hey There: Did you hear what Geraldo Rivera recently said about hip hop?

Cey: No!

Say Hey There: He came out and said it’s a destructive culture. It’s a pretty hard interview to read. It’s somewhat shocking to hear from someone who so obviously knows nothing about hip hop.

Cey: But you know what, it shouldn’t be. You know what it is? One person’s opinion. It doesn’t mean he’s knowledgeable about the culture. Common and John Legend just won an Oscar last night. You tell me. It is undisputed. There’s nothing to talk about. If the Academy thinks it’s the best song of the year, who gives a damn what Geraldo Rivera thinks? He’s been hatin’ since the beginning of time. And he’s one to talk; he started that shock reality television stuff with Jerry Springer. He bleeds that culture.

Say Hey There: Let’s talk about the Complex article about you that came out in early 2014.

Cey: Oh was it like a top ten album thing? That was actually a really good article.

Say Hey There: It was really insightful. I learned a lot from it. I know you’ve done a lot of work with a lot of artists through Def Jam. Is there any work that you look back on that you think to yourself: that was my favorite project?

Cey: I wouldn’t say favorite but definitely excited and fortunate. I was watching the Oscars last night and Maroon 5 was on there. I worked on their first record, Songs about Jane. I still have a CD somewhere with 8 songs on it from that first record that Adam gave me. A lot of the ideas were their ideas, so it wasn’t like I put an overwhelmingly unique standpoint on it, but they really wanted me to work on it. They were just starting out and I was trying to do more rock and roll. They exploded after that. We spent 7 months working on that album.

Say Hey There: Wasn’t that also true about the album cover you designed for the Beastie Boys? It was their vision and you brought it to life?

Cey: My job as a designer is always to realize the vision of the artist and the music. It’s not about what I want, it’s about what they want and bringing their ideas to life. Sometimes artists forget their place. It’s about the vision of the music first. Every time you’re designing something you’re supposed to be thinking about the reflection on the music not the other way around.

Every time you’re designing something you’re supposed to be thinking about the reflection on the music not the other way around.

Photo: Say Hey There LLCSay Hey There: What is your fondest memory from your days with Def Jam?

Cey: Oh my goodness there’s so many. You’re talking about like thirty years of history. My fondest memories are hanging out after-hours. There was one time the Roc-A-Fella Records guys were in our department shooting dice. So it’s like Jay Z, Damon Dash, and like Funkmaster Flex and his crew. I think Puff was there too. It was like eight guys shooting dice in the art department because we had the biggest amount of space other than the conference room. That’s where everyone would come to hang out because we had pretty girls working for us. They would come in and we had to start taking a cut because they started taking up so much space. Just imagine all these hundreds of dollars on the floor and this circle of guys gambling and we’re taking 10% as house cut. Every day there was an adventure. It was like hanging out at the clubhouse. There were all these cool people coming through the door all the time. It was a really friendly beautiful environment. And in the process of that we were also working.

Say Hey There: Okay, this leads into a trivial question I have about an artist you worked with. You know Puff. Remember the controversy when he changed his name to P Diddy? What did you think at the time?

Cey: I love Puff. I’ve known him since he was a teenager. I worked with him at the very beginning of his career. He’s one of those guys that is an ambassador of the culture. I think what he’s evolved into is unimaginable. I don’t really get hung up on the name changes. He’s keeping up with the changes. He made that idea fashionable. At first it seemed kinda silly but then it caught on and everyone started doing it.

Say Hey There: A lot of people say that he was never really that good of a rapper.

Cey: But you know something, he’s the one that taught us that you don’t have to be. He’ll be the first one to tell you that he’s not the greatest rapper.

Say Hey There: Are you saying if you make it then it doesn’t really matter if you’re good?

Cey: No. He just had the balls to do it, and that’s what separates him from everybody else. Puff’s not afraid to do it, and he made some great records even without being the best rapper. That’s what America’s all about, just doing it. You don’t have to be the best.

Say Hey There: You worked with Biggie a little didn’t you?

Cey: One record.

Say Hey There: What was that like? I can’t even imagine.

Cey: We lived two doors away from each other in Brooklyn. Trust me, it wasn’t all that impressive. He was part of this clique called the Junior Mafia, and they used to always hang out in front of my building so I used to see them all the time. This was before he put a record out, so he was just another knucklehead kid on the block as far as I was concerned. Rappers are a dime a dozen. But then I go into the office one day and Puff’s like “Oh, I’m doing a record with my man Biggie Smalls,” and I’m like “That’s that dude from my block.” He’s like “Oh you know Big?” I was like, “That guys a local dealer, he’s a rapper too?” It’s like looking outside and you see all these kids and one of them is really special but you don’t know it yet.

When I heard the tracks I was like this is kinda hot, but his flow was so slow that it didn’t even catch on with me right away, and then I’m hearing the record over and over again while we’re doing the design, it started to take hold. This is before it’s even out there, and that’s a unique perspective — to have this preconceived notion of who this guy is because of the lifestyle that he leads. I was trying to live a clean life, I don’t want that kind of stuff around me, and then we fast forward and he becomes the toast of not even the neighborhood but Brooklyn and then New York and then globally and I was like, “That guy?” When the lightbulb really went off for me that I realized he was special, I was in Midtown Manhattan on 57th street and I look across the street and see Tupac and say, “Wow there’s Tupac! What’s he doing with that guy from my neighborhood?” They were boys back in the day.

When the lightbulb really went off for me that I realized he was special, I was in Midtown Manhattan on 57th street and I look across the street and see Tupac and say, “Wow there’s Tupac! What’s he doing with that guy from my neighborhood?” They were boys back in the day.

Say Hey There: Did you listen to any West Coast artists at all?

Cey: Only Warren G because he was signed to Def Jam. West Coast is really insulated in that regard. Only West Coast artists that were signed to Def Jam. Not that I wouldn’t have, it just didn’t work that way.

Say Hey There: Who are you listening to these days? Who’s catching your eye?

Cey: I’m at a point in my life where I understand that Kendrick Lamar and Drake and Lil Wayne are great and who everybody’s paying attention to, but it doesn’t move me in that way. I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz and blues lately. I’ve been revisiting Tribe. A lot of female emcees.

Say Hey There: Who?

Cey: I’ve been going back and listening to Lauryn again. Stuff like that. I’ve listened to a lot of hip hop in my day, and unless someone’s reinventing the wheel, I’m not that interested, and that’s the cool thing about some of the new artists that are coming up who understand how to incorporate what they’re doing with the past but still moving forward. That’s why I like Kanye. He’s a very talented guy and he has vision. He imagines himself being around ten or fifteen years from now and has found a way to stay relevant the same way Jay has. He’s the envy of everybody who has ever made a record.

Say Hey There: When did you leave Def Jam?

Cey: ’99, 2000. Somewhere around there.

Say Hey There: And since then you’ve been doing graphic design for some pretty major corporations like Coca Cola. You’re doing murals. What’s life like for you post label?

Cey: It’s like anything else. After a while the commercial stuff blends into the fine artwork. All of that stuff is an extension of working with Def Jam. When people are hiring me they’re hiring me because they want to be a part of that legacy and when you talk about something being official and having the essence of pure hip hop, I’m one of those ingredients. All of those things have to do with people connecting to the culture in the purest sense. It’s like when I talk about going back to the essence, you start with Flash and Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. It doesnt’ get any more genuine than that. If you’re looking for a way to incorporate that first generation into what you’re doing today, and it can translate into a way that’s palatable for a new audience, then that’s what official is. That’s what they’re trying to do. You can get anyone to do graffiti today, but can you get someone who as there at the beginning of the movement and can tell the story? It’s about the journey.

When people are hiring me they’re hiring me because they want to be a part of that legacy and when you talk about something being official and having the essence of pure hip hop, I’m one of those ingredients. All of those things have to do with people connecting to the culture in the purest sense.

Say Hey There: So are you your own entity right now?

Cey: I freelance. I ran a design firm. I was with an agency. I did advertising. After a while I just want to do what I want to do when I want to do it the way I want to do it.

Say Hey There: Can you tell me a little about your time in Omaha?

Cey: Oh my goodness, it was one of the highlights of my life.

Say Hey There:  I love that. 

Cey: It’s simple. The people I met there were really awesome and really nice to me. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen all over the world, it does, but there’s something about the way that people in Omaha treat you that really is special. More than anything it was that it had a real down-home sort of feeling. They’re aware of the history and legacy, but there are some people where it just transcends all that and they just want to hang out and talk about making art. Sometimes we don’t even get into the stuff from back in the day and talk about the stuff that’s going on right now.

I’m not saying that doesn’t happen all over the world, it does, but there’s something about the way that people in Omaha treat you that really is special.

Say Hey There:  My last question is one that I like to ask everybody. Why do you love hip hop?

Cey: It’s not even like I love hip hop, it’s made up of people and it’s my youth, and when I think about that, it’s like my life. It’s like asking somebody why they love their life. I love it because I got to meet all my friends and I got to work with them. Whether they were graffiti artists, breakdancers, emcees, DJs, whatever. That’s what it is to me. It’s not hip hop, it’s my life and the life of my friends. It’s like breathing. Why do I like to breathe air? Because you need it to survive. It’s in me. I don’t even know what life is like without it anymore.

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