Photo credit: Tyler Jones
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An incomplete list of things Cey Adams has made: the Chappelle's Show logo, Mary J Blige's logo, Hot97's logo, the Ready to Die, Fear of a Black Planet and Hello Nasty covers, and DMX's posters.
Currently his work adorns the Levis store in Times Square. Later this year the Smithsonian will release a gigantic anthology of hip-hop featuring his work and designed by him. He's created and documented hip-hop culture for more than 30 years, and it was an honor to sit down with the legend to hear about his past, present, and future.
FRANNIE KELLEY: Thank you for coming. I really appreciate it.
CEY ADAMS: Well, thank you for having me.
FRANNIE: So Ali can't be here today in person or over the phone, so it's just us. And I thought we could start by you just giving us your backstory.
CEY ADAMS: Well, I'm originally from Jamaica, Queens, New York, and for your viewers, that's a suburb of New York City and – well, Queens anyway is the town where Run-DMC comes from, and A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy a little farther out in Long Island, and De La Soul, Nas, EPMD, quite a few people.
FRANNIE: Did you know all those guys?
CEY ADAMS: Yeah, yeah. I'm a Queens guy through and through, and those are a lot of the folks I came up with. I'm a little bit older than the Tribe guys, but we all sort of are from the same area. By the time – their career started a few years after Run-DMC, so everybody was sort of in the thick of things by then. And people could see what the future looked like because Run-DMC had cracked the code. So that was really important at that time. We're talking early '80s.
FRANNIE: So when did you start getting involved with Def Jam?
CEY ADAMS: My career began – I grew up as a graffiti artist in the mid- to late-'70s, so I was painting subway trains like a lot of my friends. And I met a photographer around '82 who was taking photographs for the Run-DMC album cover, and he gave me a business card for Russell Simmons, and I went down to his office in Manhattan. He basically –
FRANNIE: On Elizabeth?
CEY ADAMS: No. This is when he was on Broadway, 1133 Broadway. This actually predates Def Jam, when it was Rush Artists Management, and he was managing folks like Kurtis Blow and Whodini and a really early Run-DMC. And he basically put me to work right then on the spot, and one thing led to another and when they were forming Def Jam, I was sort of the only one there that did anything visual, so I started designing logos and t-shirts and things like that, and then later learned how to design album covers.
FRANNIE: So you designed the Def Jam logo?
CEY ADAMS: No, not really. Rick Rubin did that. But I gave him a few creative pointers. But that was all Rick's idea.
FRANNIE: Like what? What were the pointers?
CEY ADAMS: Well, just that it was really important to have something that was bold, because you want something that people can see from really far away. And hip-hop has always been about making bold statements, and so that was one of the things that always stayed in my mind. If you're going to create somethings, it's gotta be bold. When we were painting graffiti back in the day, that was the whole idea, is how do you get your name out there and get it heard. And like a lot of people, I'm one of those people who thinks bigger is better.
And that's the thing that's so beautiful about the Def Jam logo, is that it's 35 years later and clearly we were on to something, because it's still a powerhouse in the industry.
FRANNIE: Yeah. But were you involved at all when they were thinking about sort of their aesthetic?
CEY ADAMS: Well, not –
FRANNIE: What did the creative director role entail for you?
CEY ADAMS: For me, it's really about helping the recording artists figure out their vision from a creative perspective. It's introducing them to things like photography and what photographers do. Now a lot of that stuff seems second nature because of technology, but back then if a photographer showed up and was assigned to take a photograph, it was a really important thing, because that image was the only thing that fans were going to see, as it relates to how your image is going to be projected. That, and coming up with a really strong logo.
And so I was busy doing all of the Def Jam stuff, so I wasn't able to work with Tribe at that time, but I did have a young protogé named Dave Skilken who was also a part of our little downtown crew, and through the guys at Tribe, he was able to design some of the first logos and graphic design for some of their early records. And he didn't know anything about graphic design. He basically started doing it because I was doing it. And he went on to do some really creative stuff for Tribe.
FRANNIE: What were some of the – other than being bold and being visible from far away, what were the priorities that you had in designing I guess visual identities for artists? And in particular is there anything you were rejecting, that you didn't want to show?
CEY ADAMS: Well, the thing that's really tricky about designing for people in hip-hop is you first and foremost have to educate them about the creative process, because a lot of this language is foreign to people that don't do design every day, so when –
FRANNIE: Are you talking about speaking to artists?
CEY ADAMS: Yeah, and management, and the folks at the record company. Because it's a special language, and there's all this information that you can use to explain why a certain logo or typography is done a certain way and how colors influence the way people think, but we all have this idea that we are our own best creative directors when it comes to making decisions. Everybody thinks that they know color, shape, form, all of those things, and when it comes visuals, everybody has an opinion. And it's the most difficult thing for a designer to design by committee, because you can't make everybody happy.
And that's the most challenging thing when you're working at a record company, especially when you're young, is to have them understand that you've studied this. You are some form of an expert, at least more of an expert than they are, and you would like them to trust your vision. And with a lot of the artists that I worked with early on, that was a very difficult thing, because people just assume they know as much as you do because they look just like you and they don't really understand that you've spent time studying this. And it's just not something people are familiar with.
Now all of that stuff is second nature, because the artists that are making work today are much more advanced when it comes to their image, design, and aesthetic and things like that. But back in the '80s, it was a guy or a girl standing in front of a brick wall with their arms folded with a mean mug on their face, and that was the early days of hip-hop. So to try to take that to another level and say, "Hey, I want to work with a professional fashion photographer," they immediately assume you're trying to change something about them, and they don't understand that the world is much bigger than that brick wall.
FRANNIE: Right, right. And then, so how do you persuade people?
CEY ADAMS: Very carefully. And it's usually with examples. So if you show them something and say, "Look. We could go this way or this way" – you don't give them more than three choices, because then people get confused and they can't make a decision. But ideally it's really just showing examples and letting them see what other artists get to do at the big pop labels. So if for example, Mariah Carey got to use a special fifth color metallic gold, and you show artists, they're competitive, and they want to have something comparable. And they sometimes don't understand that there are budget restraints, but there are a lot of things you can do if you just allow the creative to be creative.
And it was very difficult in the early days, but by the time Beastie Boys are coming out. People are taking more chances. They sort of understand that you can do things that are conceptual that don't have to be photo image-driven, and needless to say, here we are 35 years later, and Eminem just did an album cover emulating and paying homage to the Beastie Boys. So you can see how –
FRANNIE: He better.
CEY ADAMS: – time really helps to educate everybody when it comes album design. You look at all the great work that Jay-Z and Kanye West and even folks like Travis Scott are doing now. They're light years ahead of what was going on back in the day when we were trying to do that, because other than Fear Of A Black Planet, we weren't able to do conceptual album cover design. It was just something that people didn't understand. You had to show them Parliament and a lot of the rock 'n' roll covers to get them to understand that you can communicate with audience visually without it just being a picture of somebody standing there with a smile on their face.
FRANNIE: Right. And I've also – when you've spoken about this in the past, you've talked about how it's instant gratification for the artist to see their face on the album cover or in the ad or whatever.
CEY ADAMS: And you understand it because, ideally, when you make it, that's the first point of contact for your family to show that you have made it. That's your sign of success. "Oh, look, mama. I'm on a record cover. Look. That's my picture on an ad." But when you start talking about conceptual design, people think, "Well, how they going to know it's me?" It's like, "They're going to know it's you, because you're different." But that's not something that people want to take a chance with on their first record.
FRANNIE: And have you found that is more productive or more effective, I guess, conceptual identity than rather than just somebody's face?
CEY ADAMS: I think it varies, but I think that ideally you are speaking to a much more sophisticated audience. And I have to think of a band like N.E.R.D., when you think about the way that they came on the scene, granted a lot has happened since their first record, but by the time they come on, you could take chances and your audience was willing to go along with you. But let's use 3 Feet High And Rising as an example, De La Soul, they come on the scene I think in 1986, and there was nothing like that record out there. There was nothing visually like it. There was nothing that sounded like it. And they went out on a limb and showed people that they were different.
And I think that if you are courageous enough to take a chance and you have creative people that will expand and have fun, you can broaden your audience in ways that you just can't explain to people. And that to me as a creative is a lot of fun because then you can just spread your wings. For example, DMX was one of those artists. He gets signed to Def Jam/Ruff Ryders – well I should say Ruff Ryders/Def Jam – and he was open to doing interesting things right from the start. And then you know that you can have a conversation with him about pushing the envelope even farther. And we got to make four, five really interesting records with him where we would just put all these cool ideas in front of him, and he would just let us run with it.
And another example of somebody that was great in that way was Redman. Right from the very start, he came to me and said, "I want to logo that looks different than everything else that's out there, and I really want you to challenge yourself," and he said, "I want it look like chaos and mayhem." And so I just sort of put my head down and came up with something that I thought was sort of childlike but it had a lot of energy, and all these years later he's still using that very same logo. And for me, that's biggest honor that you could have from a recording artist.
FRANNIE: Yeah, and both those guys, the way that they still live in the public imagination is – I mean, they probably have longer legs.
CEY ADAMS: Yeah. No, without a doubt. I mean, your audience understands that you're a risk taker, and I think that's the thing that really extends their career, because they were always willing to take chances, visually and what they were doing with their music.
FRANNIE: So did you hand draw Redman's logo?
CEY ADAMS: Yes. I started by just doing a couple of sketches, and then I would build on it some more and then thicken up some of the lines, but the idea was really to just really push it as far as I can go. And I'm left-handed by nature, and so I would use right hand so I could sort of step outside my comfort zone a little bit.
FRANNIE: So hand drawing is something that people can tell is a – hand drawing is something that people can tell is something that they can't just do, but it looks relatable in a way.
CEY ADAMS: Well, the idea is that for hip-hop artists, for the most part, there's always this thing about keeping it real. And so as somebody that has a graffiti background, I wanted to create things that were relatable to the community, but then at the same time, I would always have to fine tune my traditional graphic design skills so people could people see that if you needed to go in another direction, you were capable of doing that as well.
One of the examples of that is when the folks at Hot 97 came to me, and they were transitioning from a dance station to a, really, hip-hop and R&B, and at that time, Dr. Dre and Ed Lover were the first jocks on the air, and they were approached about who they should hire to design their logo, and they said, "Oh, you should get Cey Adams because he does all the stuff for all the artists in hip-hop and he's really talented." And so they commissioned me to design their logo. And again I just thought, "OK. I need to do something that's bold, that's going to speak to a specific community," and Hot 97's been around I want to say maybe 30, 35 years.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I think they went all urban in like '94?
CEY ADAMS: Yeah, yeah. And they're still using a variation of my logo, and to me that's a beautiful testament. And everywhere I travel there's always a "Hot Something" radio station everywhere you go.
FRANNIE: That's true.
CEY ADAMS: And they all copy that logo, and I think that I was on to something. Because the power of what they've created at Hot 97 combined with my graphics are the things that people keep trying to emulate all these years later.
FRANNIE: So back to sort of what I was asking before about things that you might be rejecting when you're making decisions about how to build a logo, build an identity. So what Hot 97 was doing was also sort of saying to, I guess, 105, right, "We're going to do this. We're going to play hip-hop during the day." How do you speak that to the community through your design?
CEY ADAMS: Well, it's difficult to force design to have to do all that heavy lifting, but I think there are certain little things that you can do. And sometimes it's accents in the typography. Sometimes it's using rough letters to give people a sense that it's something urban. And you know, in a lot of ways, I hate having to use those buzzwords because we're talking, but you can distress things. There are a lot of things that you can do to communicate who your target audience is. Sometimes it's the background you use. You could use a brick wall. If you remember, every time you see a comedy club design, it's always a brick wall with –
FRANNIE: With a spotlight or whatever.
CEY ADAMS: – a spotlight on it. You're speaking to a very specific audience, and it creates a shorthand from the designer to the viewer that really tells them who you are and who they think the target audience is. But when you're doing those things, sometimes it's important to step away from cliches, and in hip-hop, we lean on those things a lot. You'll see the boombox always present, and a lot of the graphics from the '70s sort of pop up when people are doing these retro designs, and those are just shortcuts to communicate to an audience that this is something that is for them.
But for us at Def Jam, it was always about breaking those molds and letting the artist and the audience know that we're just as good as every other genre that's out there, and the only way we're going to show that is to start working with better photographers, better illustrators, better graphic designers, and showing the recording artist that it doesn't mean you're not keeping it real because you want to work with a photographer that does fashion or only works in black and white, or an illustrator that does comic books for Marvel.
FRANNIE: So the people that you have to convince to let you lead the way basically, the other people are the moneymen, right? Are those conversations any different or do you use sort of the same persuasive –
CEY ADAMS: Well, the first rule of thumb is to get the artist on your side. If you can get the artist to understand your vision, then it becomes their vision, and then it's selling it to the label. And you know, it really works two different ways. Sometimes there are record companies that just let the artist have their way as long as they stay within budget, and if they go outside the budget even a little bit, they're OK, because they're selling this idea that the artist has a complete vision of who they are. It's not just this recording. It's also visual. And if you can be lucky to work with a recording artist like that, you can really spread your wings and have some fun and do really creative work.
But it's tricky, because that's the first order of business, and then you have to go to all the people at the label and sort of convince them that this is a direction that will work, because there are marketing people that think that they know better. And I'm not saying that those people sometimes don't have good ideas – they do – but it's my job as a creative to do the best job I can of conveying who the artist's image is for that particular audience, and most of the time we're going to come up with an idea that they hadn't considered. And it requires a little bit of faith and stepping out on a limb, but when you hit the nail on the head, everybody looks at you like you're a genius. But it's always a difficult task to get to that point.
Another example is in addition to doing all the creative at Def Jam, my team and I also did all the creative at Bad Boy. So when Sean Combs is starting his label, he came to myself and my partner Steve Carr and said, "I want you guys to do all my artwork." And the first release that we worked on was Craig Mack, Project Funk Da World, and then the second one was Notorious B.I.G. Ready To Die. And that was an opportunity for us to do a conceptual album cover, and it was the first one that B.I.G. had. And so luckily all your viewers know that cover because it was so different.
And there's this young baby on the cover, and he's really small, and in really small type it says "Notorious B.I.G. Ready To Die." And we just thought it was so ironic, this idea of a baby being ready to die. And we just thought, "This is really different." And we were excited that we presented Puff and Big with the creative, they got it. You didn't have to hit people over the head. We went in the exact opposite direction of everything I just told you.
FRANNIE: How did the idea happen?
CEY ADAMS: Well, it was Puff's idea to have the baby on the cover.
FRANNIE: The baby. Yeah.
CEY ADAMS: And the idea was to find a baby that looked just like Big, only a much younger version. And so he knew somebody that had a kid, and we tracked him down and we took a bunch of photographs on a white cyc, which is a white backdrop for folks out there don't know. And we just wanted to take a really beautiful color portrait of this tiny baby. And he was just chubby and innocent and cute as all get out.
FRANNIE: Yeah, he looks happy.
CEY ADAMS: Yeah. And like I said before, the idea was really great, but it also had to have great music to accompany for all those great things to happen. So when you think about this idea of an iconic album cover, if the music isn't equally important, it's not going to be something that folks remember. And I think you'd be hard-pressed to think of an album cover that had a really great image that everybody knows and is not a hit record as well.
FRANNIE: OK. So I want to stay with Puff and babies for a second, because I heard a story about the Bad Boy logo that maybe you could clear up. So you weren't involved with the Bad Boy logo?
CEY ADAMS: No.
FRANNIE: I was told by A$AP Ferg that his dad designed it, that D. Ferg designed it.
CEY ADAMS: I heard that same thing.
FRANNIE: Is it possible that A$AP Ferg is the baby in the Bad Boy logo?
CEY ADAMS: It is very possible. Yeah. You know, I never made that connection, but you are really blowing my mind right now. And I can't even concentrate now thinking about that. But yeah, I'm sure it's possible. Yeah.
FRANNIE: Yeah. I think we all think it's possible, and we just need Puffy to confirm or deny, so let us know.
CEY ADAMS: Yeah. One of my favorite things about design in hip-hop is everybody talks about how great some of the records are, but really do people focus on how interesting the covers are? They don't talk about the logos. That story to me is just as important as all the amazing music that's come out of the label, and I never heard that before.
FRANNIE: Artists talk about it all the time. All my friends who make music – it occupies as much brain space as the auditory work does.
CEY ADAMS: Yeah. But I have a theory that music overshadows everything, so I tell people all the time, "Whenever you are exhibiting artwork, don't have any music, because music overshadows everything." If you ever go to an art exhibition and there's music there, what you are really doing is going to a party.
FRANNIE: Oh yeah, cause there's usually free beer too.
CEY ADAMS: And that as well, and it just – it overshadows everything. And so whenever I'm talking about creative work, I try to leave the music as far out of it as I can, because people get so overwhelmed by the music, the graphics become a backdrop.
And when we were working with Puff, he really understood the power of image, and he's the brainchild behind Jodeci and Mary and Heavy D and all of them. And obviously shout outs to Andre Harrell for recognizing Puff's talent, but then Puff saw what we were doing at Drawing Board Graphic Design – that was the firm that I had with my buddy Steve – and we were able to apply a lot of the things that we weren't able to do at some of the other labels to Bad Boy, because he got it.
And he's one of those guys that knew how to step to the side and let somebody do what they do well, and he would always come back to me. When he said, "Hey, I'm opening up a restaurant, and it's going to be called Justin's and I want you to do a logo design for the restaurant and it's going to be on everything. And I want this sort of beautiful brush script," and he had a vision, the same way he does for everything he does right now. And it was so much fun to have an opportunity to do those things and have somebody trust that you could handle it because this is all uncharted territory. Nobody in hip-hop had opened up a restaurant before.
And then he comes back around again and he's like, "Hey, I'm going to start a clothing line, and it's going to be called Sean John, and remember that logo that you did for Mary J. Blige?"
FRANNIE: Yeah, so back it up. Let's talk about that first.
CEY ADAMS: OK.
FRANNIE: Because everybody thinks that's Mary J. Blige's signature.
CEY ADAMS: I hear this all the time. This is the thing you have to understand. That – and forgive me about the dates, because they get a little jumbled in my brain, but I believe that record came out in '92?
FRANNIE: What's The 411?
CEY ADAMS: Yeah. Maybe '94.
FRANNIE: I feel like – yeah, I think it was four, four/five.
CEY ADAMS: OK. But we were working on it '93, a year before, whatever that is. And back then they were making the music, and the second the music was done, they were trying to get it out the door. So we were working pretty fast. And so I meet Mary when we're doing the photoshoot for the first time, and it's a small room, and it's her first photo session. She's never done any press photos or anything.
CEY ADAMS: And so she comes into the studio, and she's got a little baseball cap on with an M. I want to say it was Milwaukee Brewers, and there's a photo of her with it on in the sleeve of the record. And we take a couple of pictures, and she was really easy to work with. I imagine that she was a little nervous cause it was her first record cover, but really shy, quiet, polite, all of it. And we just got it done.
And when the time came to design the record, I knew that we wanted a tight shot, and Puff had agreed. He wanted it to be mysterious. That's why you can't really see her face. She just came on the scene like a tidal wave. And for me, I had always been a big Anita Baker fan, so in my mind, I was always thinking that I wanted something really beautiful and elegant to sort of juxtapose this really ghostly, hard image, and that was where the script came from.
I just took a couple of different pen sizes and sort of just played around with it, and I would do one letter and then I would do another, and then I would do the whole word. And I did fifty versions before I hit on the one that we used. But then you sort of cut and paste the best version of Mary, the best J, and the best Blige.
FRANNIE: You comp the signature. Yeah.
CEY ADAMS: Yeah. I sort of just created that signature, and we talked about that years later, just this idea that everyone assumes that that was her handwriting, when it theory it was mine.
FRANNIE: Not in theory. Full reality.
CEY ADAMS: Well, yeah, right. Not in theory in reality. But the thing that was so much fun about it for me was that the record was a huge hit, and I would've never imagined that 20 some odd years later, she's still using that logo, and I've gotten an opportunity to see it huge on stage and on television and in merchandise and on recent records as well. And to me, that is the testament of a really great piece of graphic design, this idea that it lives on beyond that first opportunity when you're creating it.
FRANNIE: So earlier I had been thinking about how you communicate that somebody is a female artist vs. a male artist, and if that's important at all, but then I knew that Puff had come to you and said, "I want something," I don't know if the word is similar but like, "of a piece with Mary's logo for Sean John." So it's not the script, the cursive script. So I guess it's two questions. Do you think that it's important to distinguish a female artist from a male in the design?
CEY ADAMS: Yeah, but you also have the benefit of photography to help with that.
FRANNIE: Well, sure.
CEY ADAMS: But I'm a fan of calligraphy, so you don't get an opportunity to do that with the guys, unless they're an R&B singer. And so the minute you have a female artist, that's your first opportunity to test your skills when it comes to doing things like brush script and certain types of delicate hand lettering. And so for the most part, it's by default, because you just can't do that stuff with the guys. They see something like that, and then they sort of deem it to be too soft, and it takes an artist with a lot of courage to say OK to that. And sometimes I'll go to a brush script for some of the male artists, but it's gotta be heavier. It's gotta have a little bit more detail and texture and things like that.
FRANNIE: Yeah, but it also – when it looks like a signature, it seems intimate.
CEY ADAMS: I think so. Ultimately that's the goal, and I reference Anita Baker, and obviously a lot of the early jazz artists did it as well, but to me, you have this instant connection with the audience. You feel like this could be the signature of the person, so it has a little bit more of a personal touch. And that may just be something that people imagine, but the reality is that it's important to make a connection however you have to.
FRANNIE: Yeah, and I guess it would make sense for a clothing line, especially a first clothing line, to sort of put yourself out there in that way.
CEY ADAMS: And all the success that he's had, I feel really fortunate to be a part of all of it. And I just wouldn't've imagined that all of these things could happen in the same space and time from just growing up holding a can of spray paint and my first goals just being, "I want to see my name all over the city." And then it ends up being plastered all over the place in all these other forms, and still just being amazed by all of it.
FRANNIE: When you get started, there's so many things that you do, and the people around you that are doing, that have never ever existed before. Is that still true today?
CEY ADAMS: Yeah. I think that there's always ways to reinvent things to make them new, but now the uncharted territory ends up being things like what Puff and Jay are doing, just pushing their creative artistry into other areas where people said we couldn't go. And even myself, having an opportunity to work with a lot of major brands and getting to design things for their stores and museums and having them truly trust my vision to the point where they step back and they say, "You tell us what it's going to look like and what the aesthetic is in order to communicate with this audience." And for me that's the new uncharted territory: them trusting us and giving us creative control. That's something that we didn't have before.
And so for me to have an opportunity to work with a brand like Levi's, I've been supporting them my whole life, and for them to knock on my door and say, "We're doing a flagship store in Times Square, and we want you to design the artwork that's going to go outside the building," and to me, that is the biggest reward that I could have beyond obvious monetary things. But it's Times Square. It's New York City. And that's the biggest stage that there is.
And to be able to stand there and see your artwork there, and the guys that are selling fake CDs are right there next to you trying to hustle you, and I'm just glazed over, and the guy's looking at me like, "What's wrong with you?" And I says, "That's what's wrong with me." And I point to this giant building, and he's standing right in front of it, and he's like, "I don't get it. What?" And I says, "Exactly."
FRANNIE: Really? Is that something you take a picture to show your mom that you made it?
CEY ADAMS: Oh sure, yeah. The beautiful thing is not only that, but they took out ad space on all the jumbotrons. And they hired a film crew, and they made a short film of me making the work, and it was plastered all over those jumbotrons in Times Square for the opening of the store a few weeks ago. And to be able to see all of that and just stand there and have this sort of Mary Tyler Moore-moment where I'm sort of twirling around in Times Square knowing that, even though I'm from New York, that's a million miles away from where I come from, and I can remember being a teenager going to Times Square with my little outfit on taking pictures, not even having a clue that one day my artwork would be in the same place where I'm standing, it was just mind-blowing.
FRANNIE: Now that you have a stage like that, is your work changed at all?
CEY ADAMS: I don't know if it changes as much as it just reminds me that people are paying attention more, and you can communicate with this global audience through social media. And so people have an opportunity to let you know how much it affects them. I think that's the only thing that has changed, is now you know who your audience is. Whereas in the old days you made a design for a record and it goes out and it's on shelves and people have to open up the sleeve to see your name on the back, but then they're not going to write a letter, so if you bump into somebody or you are lucky enough to meet some of the people that own these records and they say, "Oh yeah, I saw your work. I have that record," now people can tell you in real time. And it's instant gratification.
FRANNIE: Yeah. So you also do fine art. And in that, a lot of what you do is you're trying to change people's perceptions of logos, brands' logos, so when you do that work, how do you think about the brands that you're kind of – they're like classic American stuff, like Coca-Cola, Pan-Am.
CEY ADAMS: Well, it's easy, because it's all rooted childhood memories. So after designing countless album covers and logos and working with all these amazing Fortune 500 companies, I said to myself, "What is it that I want to do now?" And I thought, "I want to go back in the studio and start making paintings. I want to do fine art. I want to have my work shown in galleries and museums and all of it." And I said, "Well, what am I going to do?" And then I thought, "Well, you know what? Just go to the things that you love the most."
And I'm a product of the sixties. I love graphic design. I love pop art. I love pop culture, and so I naturally gravitated towards logo design. And I just thought about all the brands that I loved as a kid when I was in my folks' station wagon, and you're in the backseat and you got nothing to do but let your eyes wander. And I just think about those brands, and I see Sonoco and Coca-Cola and 76 and Shell. And I thought, "What would it be like if I made art sort of just based on memories growing up."
And the work that I do is collage-based, so I have to opportunity to use paper and imagery and graphics from magazines like Ebony and Jet and Life and Saturday Evening Post, and just tell these visual stories about not only who I am and where I come from, but other people as well. It really is classic – well, not classic Americana, it's my version of classic Americana. Because I'm including myself in the story, whereas a lot of those things sort of we were on two sides of the fence, and so my idea is to bring everybody together.
FRANNIE: So you're saying, "I'm American. My story's American."
CEY ADAMS: Yeah, yeah. And we helped to make this country great just like everybody else, but now I'm telling that story through the imagery in the American flag, and making sure that everybody's represented, even if it's red, white, and blue. You're going to look at it, and you're going to see all these different nationalities sort of living in harmony, and the idea is that when you step back it just looks like a classic American flag, but then when you push in you see, "Oh, there are all these different things going on." And in some cases it might be the grave of Emmett Till, but then it also might be JFK or it might be the Pillsbury Doughboy. It just depends on the imagery that I find and what strikes me in the moment, because it's always stream of consciousness.
But for me, the most important thing is just making sure that at a glance the viewer understands that this is an exact representation of the thing that it's supposed to be. So if I'm using the Coca-Cola logo for example, and the designer, if that person were alive, would look at it, they would recognize every curve and point is in place. I'm not altering it. I'm just enhancing it.
FRANNIE: Why is it important to you to insist your place in these ideas and in these locations, I guess, fine art galleries and ideas of Americanness – and then I want to talk about the Smithsonian as well – as opposed to being like, "I don't need to?"
CEY ADAMS: Like a lot of things, we want people to know that we were here. We want people to know that we matter, and unfortunately, if you don't scream very loud, people don't hear you. I call it the Spike Lee Theory. He had to make his voice heard by saying, "I'm not going to be denied." And you have to just force that into people's consciousness. Muhammad Ali is the best example ever. He said, "I am the greatest." Who has the balls to say that when they're 12 years old? And then manifest that into reality? You know how crazy you have to be to think that you are the greatest of all time, and then become that? That is the coolest thing ever.
And that's the one thing that you learn about living in America. And I know that this philosophy doesn't work for everybody, but this is a place that people come to to make it. And in order for that to happen, you have to really be tough. And Spike did it, and Michael Jordan did it, and and LL Cool J did it. And that's the model that I come from, those people that say, "I'm not going to be denied." And so when I'm making something, I'm going to insert myself in there, because I think, you know what, I have a right to be here. And if the people in positions of power sort of don't see you and understand, then you gotta make noise, and you have to let people know, "I'm the person that did this.
And to be a creative working in hip-hop and to be fortunate enough 30-some odd years later to still be around and to be a representative for all of my friends in the graffiti community that aren't around and all of the hip-hop artists that have come and gone, I'm a representative of somebody that is still here. And I can say, "These people all were here as well, and they made really great work." So all of a sudden, if you don't know who Rammellzee is or you don't know who MCA is from the Beastie Boys or you don't know who Phife Dawg is from Tribe, I'm here to tell you who they were, because I was there right alongside all of them. And that was Jean-Michel, and that was Keith Haring – in addition to all of the folks that are out there still around that are making great work that people don't know about.
You have to shout from the top of your lungs. But you also have to be good, because we live in an age where people are going to take you to task if you're not as good as you say you are.
FRANNIE: Yeah. So the new museum, the new Smithsonian Museum, is a very forceful statement of what you're saying, is like, "We did this."
CEY ADAMS: Well, the National Museum Of African-American History And Culture is one of the most amazing institutions of all time, and I urge everybody to make a pilgrimage to D.C. to see this museum, because it's the story of black Americans, African-Americans, but it's the American story. It's not, "We're over here and you guys are over there." It's, "We helped build this too, and this is our monument." We've put in all this sweat equity over the last 500 years or whatever it is, but this museum tells the story of everybody.
And to be able to just to see it is a great thing, but then to have them come to me and say, "We want you to help participate in putting together a hip-hop box set that celebrates the music and the art and the culture," was huge. And for me, it was really a full circle moment, because I felt like there was nobody that did design in hip-hop that was more qualified than me. And I can say that without even having to look over my shoulder. I have a lot of amazing friends, but I was first. And I mention that because the museum is first, and it's an opportunity to show young designers that are coming up now that all these things are possible, and you just have to dream it. And I know that a lot of this stuff sounds very aspirational, but that's the only way you win.
And this museum is really beautiful. And so we're doing this gigantic coffee table book that celebrates the history of the culture, and there's a nine-CD box set that goes with it. And it's arguably the greatest greatest hits collection in hip-hop of all time, and everybody's represented. And to be able to showcase the work of my artist friends and graphic designers and illustrators and photographers all in one giant document is really cool. We're at a point in history now where it's legacy time. We have all these things that are going to be statements for generations to come, and to able to participate in that in any little way is a huge honor as far as I'm concerned.
And I think that – I can't say enough how beautiful the museum is and how they did a fantastic job telling a very complex story. Because even if you're Barack Obama, in a museum like that, your story is very small. But it's very huge at the same time, because there was nobody like you before. And so for me, to see my work and my image in a museum like that is gigantic, because I recognize how many people came before me in all these other fields.
FRANNIE: Did you donate anything to the museum?
CEY ADAMS: Yes, I made a giant black American flag on the National Mall while President Obama was giving the dedication, ribbon-cutting speech. And easily one of the greatest moments of my life. Easily. And even thinking about it now, I get overcome with all these emotions, because everybody was there watching me make this giant piece of art that was an homage to everything that I had done before, and probably a lot of things that I'll do after. And it was just great to hear what people had to say, and I never took so many selfies in my life.
FRANNIE: Yeah, thinking about this era of hip-hop – I don't want to say age, because it's not like everybody's getting old and now they gotta donate all their stuff to the museum or whatever, but it is looking back on all these accomplishments and groundbreaking achievements and also I think thinking about who people were when they were teenagers and when they were in their 20s and how hard it was and how incredible it all is, but also that the people who made it are writing the history.
CEY ADAMS: Yeah, well, that is a very new phenomenon, even though we had people like Harry Allen writing back in the day and so many others that I can't even mention. I am reluctant to even mention one name because then it starts a tidal wave.
FRANNIE: Of course.
CEY ADAMS: But we'll use Nelson George as an example.
CEY ADAMS: Nelson is one of these guys that's been a writer from the very beginning, and he was alone on a desert island when it comes to sort of documenting this culture. But documenting black culture in general is something that obviously has been going on for a very long time, but when it comes to hip-hop, us telling our story in our voice was new. And for a long time, we didn't know that that had value. The same way that we didn't know that the artifacts had value, because the museums didn't deem this stuff important. And so it stays in the attic. It stays in the basement. You give it away. Grandma throws it away.
But now we're at a point where everything is important. Everything is a part of history. And now everybody knows it. So when the museums start coming around looking for donations, you're sort of – you have this decision to make about how you're going to be represented in the future, and now everybody wants to leave their mark, so they understand that this is stuff that kids need to see for future generations. And so it's great to be a part of that. And now we have the Universal Hip-Hop Museum being built in the Bronx.
FRANNIE: That's crazy, yeah.
CEY ADAMS: And this is going to be a place that celebrates all the early pioneers, folks like the Cold Crush Brothers and Kurtis Blow and Roxanne Shanté and everybody else that's come, and a lot of them are gone. But to able to lend any kind of support to those institutions, especially from a visual perspective, for me is really great, because I'm one of those people that was there from ground zero, and I saw and helped to create a lot of the early visuals. And this is a perfect opportunity to mention folks like Phase 2 and Buddy Esquire who did a lot of the early hip-hop club flyers, and know that those things will be around for people to see and for young kids to understand: these were the people that sort of paved the way for you to even think about calling yourself a photographer or a graphic designer or a filmmaker.
These are the pioneers. These are the same folks that we're making work the way the Negro League ballplayers were trying to make their mark. And they were all great, but they don't always get to have their story told. So whenever I have an opportunity or a platform like this, I always think it's important to namecheck people, because then folks can go and do their own research and hopefully find more information about these folks online, or at least get to see the artifacts that we're talking about.
FRANNIE: My brother's girlfriend gave me for Christmas this book of flyers from the '70s and '80s. What is it called? Do you remember – I forget what it's called now.
CEY ADAMS: It'll come to me when I'm –
FRANNIE: Yeah, later. But it's really amazing, because you can see the roots of almost everything in this. And you know – I know people who make flyers for whoever whoever's, like, whatever. And it's –
CEY ADAMS: But a lot of people don't understand the origin of where these ideas come from, and so it's important to understand that these were graffiti artists. These were illustrators. These were people that were really just trying to find their voice, and now all of sudden all of these things have this amazing cultural meaning, but sometimes people don't remember the names of these folks.
And so for me, I like mentioning them by name, because I think that not everybody's going to know who they are. And I get my share of credit. I get credit for things I didn't even do. But I always try to shine a light on a lot of my friends that maybe are too shy to do this sort of thing, but it doesn't mean that the work that they did is any less great or important.
FRANNIE: Yeah, and also that even when you're getting started and doing things for your friends or doing things on the side, that you shouldn't be afraid to take credit for it, put your name it.
CEY ADAMS: Yeah, you have to, because we live in a very busy time and everybody has a short attention span. And it's just important to remind people of who they are and where they come from. And for me, looking back is so much fun, because it reminds folks that we made it. We got to where we were going. And there's obviously always so much more that can be done, but there's nothing wrong with taking a bow and pointing to the pioneers.
Because those folks don't always get credit the same way a lot of the early rock 'n' roll and jazz and blues don't get credit. People go straight to whoever's hot, and it doesn't take anything away from them, but shine a light on somebody else. You have a platform. Don't be afraid to say, "Hey, this wasn't my idea."
FRANNIE: Yeah, right. Another thing that happens when you've made it is you get to be super creative and maybe even just have a lot of fun. Does this book that you're making with Khaled fall into that category?
CEY ADAMS: Sure it does. I was tapped by the folks at Rizzoli to design a coffee table for DJ Khaled.
FRANNIE: So this is a high-end project?
CEY ADAMS: Yeah, yeah.
CEY ADAMS: Everything that Khaled does is high-end. But it's an honor as well, because it reminds people that you can be somebody from back in the day and find a way to make it into the future and be at the highest level. And he's shown people that you can do that. It's great to see him become a pop star. I mean, he is huge. And all that does is it reminds people that that can happen for you as well – and you can do it with grace and poise.
And that's the thing that I think is a lesson for all the young people out there: even though it's about you, you're a representative of something much, much bigger. And that's the takeaway for me when I see somebody like him, and I try to keep that first in my life as well. Because at the end of the day, all of this stuff could go away, and you have to really be conscious of how you got to where you are. And it's the work of a lot of people. It's not just one. And just always trying to put your best foot forward.
And so getting an opportunity to look at all of his images and learn about his story and where he comes from is really exciting for me, because, like a lot of people, I'm sort of looking at him from the other side of a TV screen. And then to get to sit down and chop it up, and it's just like sitting down with Jay-Z the very first time he made a record, or Mary or any of the others, the guys from Maroon 5. And you realize that they're these megastars in the eyes of their fans, but when you're making creative, you gotta put all that stuff in the closet.
Because they haven't built a pop star bigger than the folks that I've came up with and worked with, and so I've seen it. I've done it. What's the work about? Because that's the thing that my graphic design friends want to know about. All the glitter and glitz and stuff is great too, but we still have to make something hot to honor our legacy.
FRANNIE: Yeah. So what is the project with Khaled though?
CEY ADAMS: That's it. It's a coffee table book.
FRANNIE: But is it – are you – is it illustration? Is it biographical? Is it –
CEY ADAMS: For me – we're working on it right now, so anything I tell you is going to get erased the second we start physically putting it together. But the idea is that it's a celebration of his life.
FRANNIE: Got it.
CEY ADAMS: And it's going to incorporate the best illustration, the best photography, and the essays are going to be specific to him telling his story first-person. And my job is just to put it together in a beautiful package and make sure that his vision is fully realized.
FRANNIE: Right. So it's a – he's documenting his life.
CEY ADAMS: Yeah.
CEY ADAMS: It's Rizzoli. It doesn't get any bigger.
FRANNIE: Right, right. Well, thank you so so much for coming here, giving us your time.
CEY ADAMS: This is great. It's so much fun. Again, I feel so fortunate to be able to – just to make work, and to make work that I get put in front of an audience is really all I've ever wanted to do. And so to be able to do that every single day and wake up and just know, "Oh, I got stuff to do today," is a great feeling. And I get to see the world while I'm making the work that I was making in my bedroom. I'm already where I'm going.
FRANNIE: Yeah. Well, thanks.
CEY ADAMS: Thank you for having me, and thank you to Ali as well.