Fresh to Def

Legendary artist Cey Adams weighs in on hip hop and its timeless culture

“Love yourself and your expression, you can’t go wrong.” – KRS-One

New York-based Def Jam Recordings is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

An astonishing feat, certainly, but a greater testament to the hip hop medium – a reminder of why its culture of rapping, graffiti art, breakdancing, fashion and DJing has survived for so many decades.

When The Uniter spoke with Cey Adams, 51, founding creative director of the label, he reflected on its early years after 1983, and the crucial role of art in its development in the United States and around the world.

“The fact that hip hop is now global, many of the subcultures in different parts of the world are embracing all of the elements” he explains. “When you go to Paris and you see breakdancing and graffiti are alive and well, and artists are selling work and really earning a great living, much more than they are in America... Those are the places that keep it alive.

“They’re so excited about the culture and they live every aspect of it. They’re not playing around!”

Of course, hip hop didn’t begin in Europe. It’s a New York-centred phenomenon of which musicians, artists and destined icons are all a part. Cey was a central figure in its cultural and social inauguration.

A graffiti artist since the age of 17, Adams designed album artwork and iconography for such ground breaking groups as the Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C. and De La Soul, and devised tour merchandise, photography and wardrobes for countless others. He’s been featured in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, contributed to major projects like Hip Hop: A Cultural Odyssey and wrote a book, DEFinition: the Art and Design of Hip Hop.

Today, Adams is still an active graffiti artist and youth educator. Apart from completing exhibits and murals around the U.S. and abroad, he is promoting hip hop culture – not simply music – and reminding people that now is a good a time as any to become a part of it.

“[Hip hop] is never-ending”, he confirms. “The truth of the matter is you don’t have to know everything, you just have to embrace the culture and try to do the best job you can of being as original in making your art, and that’s it.

“I’m always excited when I hear someone say they’ve followed my career and they’re big fans of [the groups I’ve worked with]... I try and let them know that’s how the history stays alive, from people passing on information. I try to be an ambassador for the culture in that way.”

Published in Volume 68, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 25, 2013)

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