Q + A with Cey Adams

Cey Adams

Educator, artist and environmentalist Mathew Davis recently caught up with Cey Adams, our guest speaker for the Pattern May meetup. View video of the event, HERE!


Hip-Hop culture is a long established global movement that has changed the way that young people everywhere express ourselves from Brooklyn to Bangladesh and back. Oftentimes we hear about the contributions of prominent Emcees and DJs that make up our idea of what Hip-Hop is, but seldom do we hear about the visual artists. No one has made a greater contribution in this regard than Cey Adams; his creativity influenced a generation. Cey’s work has been in lockstep with the Hip Hop movement from its inception. Starting off as a graffiti artist to becoming the most influential art director in Hip-Hop during his incredible career with Def Jam Recordings, Adams has worked with everyone from Run DMC to Beastie Boys to Jay-Z. Along with his contemporaries, Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, to name a few, Adams helped to reshape the landscape of modern visual art.

Mat Davis: Tell us about how you grew up and how that influenced your art?

Cey Adams: I grew up in a typical middle class family in Jamaica, Queens. My parents were very supportive of my art and the idea of me being an artist. They didn’t always know how to support me in my development but if I ever needed supplies or something they always got them. I was always an artist and a really creative kid. I was known as the artist in my house and in my community so growing up as a teenager I was the one who was called for the art related jobs. I was always making work in some shape or form.

MD: When most people refer to mainstream Hip-Hop they are talking about music as opposed to Hip-Hop as an art form which includes DJing, Emceeing, Breakdancing and Graffiti. What role do you think Graffiti plays in the urban aesthetic?

CA: Graffiti gave birth to street art. This is important because for a long time urban graphic design held on to stereotypes from the 80’s about what urban is supposed to look like. If a designer wants to communicate that something is urban, normally they would have a guy with baseball cap turned backwards in front of a brick wall or they would actually use graffiti. We have drastically shifted away from these stereotypes so much so that if you look at current advertisements that are geared towards a predominantly urban audience they’re almost invisible. The urban aesthetic has taken over the mainstream. It’s very similar to the evolution of mainstream music, nowadays it’s all kinda one thing. Even with hip hop artists from the south having their own style; it now has distinct pop elements. When you think about mainstream pop music, you’re hearing urban music. I think art is the same way to some degree. Graffiti is the only way to identify something being “urban” and even that is so mainstream now. There are people all over the world who are graffiti artists and some are making work that would be hard to recognize as graffiti. And at the same time, graffiti predates hip hop as does DJ culture, so I always find it funny how people argue about whether graffiti is apart of hip hop or not. Hip hop is a mash-up of the elements of youth culture and is a form of creative expression.

MD: You have been a part of countless collaborations and projects through the years always being able to bring your own style to each endeavor. Can you tell us about Drawing Board and what type of impact you all had on Def Jam recordings?

CA: When Steve Carr and I started Drawing Board, an in-house visual design firm for Def Jam, the goal was to create a platform for visual artists to express themselves in a way that was different than working in an art department for a record company. We had a particular style that we wanted to put out in the world that could be distinguished from traditional designers that were more conventional. We wanted to lift up the art form. This conviction was very apparent in my work even more so than my contemporaries. One of my personal goals was to elevate black art as it relates to album design so it could be on par with the rock and roll covers like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Beatles, or The Who. I wanted black artists’ album covers to have the same level of importance, love and respect. I remember in high school, everyone would walk around with album covers on the back of their jackets, I remember this primarily being white kids and that stuck with me by the time I started making covers. These are the kind of things I had in mind when working with Chuck D on Fear of a Black Planet. He understood this dynamic right from the start. It was difficult to get artists to first understand the value of creating conceptual art covers that didn’t have the actual artist on the front. We had to educate people about the importance of that. We feel like we achieved that energy and objective of uplifting the entire craft in our work.

MD: When was the last time you were in Indy and what brings you this time?

CA: Well, it was quite a while ago, It had to be the last time I was on tour with Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, so needless to say it’s been a while. I am coming back to do an event with Pattern to talk with young people in Indy about the Hip-Hop culture and where the craft of graphic design started. Younger people are so busy trying to be who they are that it’s difficult for them to stop long enough to learn about why they listen to the music or pay attention to the art they do; let alone think about the history behind it. There are a lot young people who are frustrated about what they want to do with their lives and I am going around the country to let them know that the pioneers of Hip-Hop are still here and have a ton of information to share with them along their journey.

MD: Can you talk about what it was like to develop your craft in New York during the early 80s?

CA: I was able to grow up at a time when there was a lot of amazing creativity all over New York. It’s incredible to even have the opportunity to put it in perspective; so much of it feels like a blur now.  I want to remind people that we aren’t that old and a lot of the things that people were doing then are in the same sphere of what people are doing now. We were young artists trying to make a mark for ourselves and be as creative as we could be. When I look back on that period we were creating something very unique and we kinda knew that to some extent but I couldn’t imagine it becoming such a powerful global movement. I am really happy that I got the opportunity to participant in that movement. When I look back at all of my friends that came up at the same time as me, some of them aren’t here anymore and because of that I feel like a representative of those people. I look forward to sharing my knowledge with people in Indy.

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