In conversation with Cey Adams

The full transcript

Cey Adams, 51, is the founding creative director of Def Jam Recordings. A New York City native, Adams has worked with iconic hip hop artists such as the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, Run DMC, De La Soul, LL Cool J, 3rd Bass and Slick Rick, and has completed projects ranging from album design to logos and exhibitions in prominent galleries throughout the United States. In the early-1980s, he was a rising graffiti artist and worked alongside legendary New York figures like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Today, Adams is a youth mentor and hip hop and graffiti educator. Don’t miss Cey when he attends the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association Freestyle VII (co-sponsored by the Graffiti Gallery) from October 3-4, 2013. For full details, visit the UWSA's webpage.

Your affiliation with Def Jam and the Beastie Boys is well known, but I would like to know how your past work has informed your recent projects and approach to graphic design today?

Well, you know, I don’t know that it has influenced it a lot. Really, the thing that I try to do, it’s weird, it’s like I try to stay as current as possible while in some ways paying tribute to the past. And the way I do that is mostly by educating young people about my past as it relates to Def Jam and kind of just reminding them that there were people that came before them. Because when you're talking to someone who’s between 15 or 20, their definition of old school might just be five years ago. They’re not thinking about something that’s before their time. Def Jam is almost 30 years-old. That was a long, long time ago to someone that’s between 15 and 20. So something I try to do is help people think about where they come from. And that’s universal no matter if you hail from Manitoba, other parts of Canada or the United States. A lot of these kids don’t really do their homework and so I kind of remind them of all the people that came before. So, to answer your question, there is a way that my work today is informed by the past, it’s in that sort of respect and reminding kids of their history. I don’t require people to know how long I’ve been around. And part of my longevity has a lot to do with not leaning on that stuff too much, because then people tend to look at you as a dinosaur. I try to stay as relevant as humanly possible without getting stuck having to listen to One Direction in order to do it.

Does that come into not romanticizing the golden age of hip hop and what that represented and what that brought?

You know, I romanticize it when necessary. And the thing that I do is, when someone is referencing something that doesn’t go back far enough, then I say “You know what, Drake is cool, but you really need to go to the origin of where that sample came from.” You know, when an artist will sample another hip hop artist, and then when kids hear it they say “Oh, that’s hot ‘cause Drake did it.” Well, that’s true, but the reason Drake did it is because Eric B & Rakim did it first. And I’m just using that as an example, I’m not saying Drake sampled something from Eric B & Rakim, but you know what I mean. The thing I also try to learn is to not make people feel bad if they don’t know, because it’s really before their time, and it’s not their job to know unless they choose to want to know. But it’s definitely my job to let them know if they are interested. And I’m always excited when I hear someone say they’ve followed my career and they’re big fans of the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Run DMC and LL Cool J or what have you, and 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.

Graffiti is a central element of hip hop culture, but is markedly absent from much of the mainstream rap that is released today. Now, is this a symptom of the changing sociocultural groups producing hip hop music, or does it represent something else entirely? So for instance, I don't notice too many artists with cultivated, underground personas and pseudonyms. When the Artifacts released Between a Rock and Hard Place, much of the subject matter dealt with both El Da Sensei and Tame One's subterranean identities. Where is that today?

I’ll tell you in a second! I think a lot of it has to do with, first and foremost, ignorance, but two, I think that’s where big business got in the way. Because once upon a time, hip hop culture summed up all of the elements, whether it was breakdancing, or DJ’ing, or fashion or what have you. Now, hip hop means music. It doesn’t mean art, it doesn’t mean breakdancing. All of those things, you know, kinda live on their own independently and it really is unfortunate. I have to remind people all the time that the term “hip hop” was used to define the whole movement, not just one part of the art form. And I think, ultimately, a lot of it lies with the artists. Because the people making the music today don’t feel a connection to those other parts of the culture because they’re younger and they don’t understand that once upon a time these things all lived together in harmony. And the corporations only promote things that they can make money from. So record companies don’t care that breakdancing used to be a part of it, they’re thinking about individual artists. And the same thing goes for graffiti. If you look at the quote, unquote “street art movement”, that stuff was all borne out of graffiti. Every one of those people that is doing work is using a spray can. They would never have got that idea if it wasn’t for graffiti artists. So the Banksy’s of the world owe a huge debt to graffiti artists. And I don’t know if those people ever acknowledge it, but I know a lot of them like to distance themselves from graffiti, and the truth of the matter is that, without graffiti, street art would never have become popular. First and foremost, though, it has a lot to do with corporations needing to make money off of it. Graffiti has always been considered as some form of “bastard art”, and because of that, they’ve found another way to capitalize on it. It’s evolved, but it hasn’t evolved at the same rate as other art forms.

That leads me to my next question. How has the hip hop community changed since the golden age of Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc and the block parties that brought the music out of the South Bronx and to the rest of world? Now that it's international in nature, has the artwork which supplements hip hop also been shaped by forces outside of those considered traditional?

You know something, I believe that it’s helped to really keep it alive. The fact that hip hop is now global, many of the subcultures in different parts of the world are embracing all of the elements. 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, it reminds me of the Harlem Renaissance when Jazz musicians went to Europe and were embraced and they could earn a living they couldn’t here in the United States. Those are the places that keep it alive. In Japan, in parts of Africa, all throughout Europe and Germany and the UK, it’s amazing. They’re so excited about the culture and they live every aspect of it. They’re not playing around! Here, unfortunately, we don’t give it the same sort of respect. We haven’t had a major graffiti museum retrospective yet. The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, they should have stepped up and really honoured this art form. Because a lot of those artists came out of the movement. People forget these things as time go on, and they don’t understand where they come from, and the relationship between their art and that made by graffiti artists.

The "broken windows theory" is a common trope that has been used by elites to suggest graffiti sprouts from dilapidated buildings and thus, poorer areas of urban centres. Many people, too, conceive of graffiti artists as vandals and criminals, but ignore much of their understanding of art and its history. Can you comment on the evolution of the graffiti artist as someone formerly excluded from artistic circles, but now accepted as radical visionaries? Is that an accurate trajectory?

This is exactly what I’ve been saying before! You can argue that graffiti hasn’t been accepted. You know, the New York establishment does things in dribs and drabs, but it won’t full-on acknowledge its glory and beauty and do something to support it. I did a project at the Phoenix Art Museum, a show called “Graffiti and Fashion”. It explored the relationship between the two from the very beginning. We had denim jackets and t-shirts all the way up to couture items from John Galliano to Versace to Valentino and all of those people. The thing, again, is that this was a show that should have been done in New York at the Met, first. They did something on punk rock and fashion, and they definitely should have done an exhibit on graffiti. But it takes a museum in Phoenix to do a retrospective of this culture that started in the Bronx. What’s wrong with the museums in New York City? So to answer your question, I really don’t believe that it has been fully embraced. And I think it’s unfortunate. And a lot of that comes from the fact that people really do see it as “bastard” art. They think that these are not traditionally- or classically-trained artists therefore they’re not real artists. And a lot of people still believe graffiti is just vandalism. I will admit that its origins are based there, and there is still illegal graffiti done in the streets, but that’s not graffiti art – that’s just people tagging. And they don’t make the distinction between the two, even 40 years later, even with all the publications that have been printed. It’s really kind of sad.

Do you think this has anything to do with race?

Oh, absolutely. It’s race and it’s class, first and foremost. I’ve been involved in the art community since I was 19 or 20, and now I’m 51. So, 31 or 32 years later, and it’s a little strange to be around art collectors and buyers and curators, and I think that when it comes to graffiti they would rather accept any other form of street art or art made by quote, unquote “young people”, but when it comes to graffiti there is the stigma attached that it’s not considered real art. But if some of those people looked a little closer they’d understand that these are some of the most talented artists in the world just looking for an opportunity. But there’s a great chance now for institutions to correct the past. And they’re doing it in small doses, but it needs a champion at every turn to move it forward. I mean, every museum has benefactors, and these people are the old guard. They have money, they’re cultured, and they don’t believe that graffiti is art. And so they won’t support it and it’s very difficult to get funding because they simply won’t accept it. When they see the word “graffiti” they can’t accept it. I’ve been told that graffiti can’t be in the title of my exhibition or in the body of my artist statement. But that’s the reality.  

This is an open-ended question. Has hip hop lived up to its original mandate? In other words, has it achieved what it set out to accomplish, or did it move in a completely different direction?

Well, what do you think that mandate is? (Laughs)

Well, I suppose a mandate that afforded those from below a new way of expressing themselves. But it expanded beyond that – it was unlimited. It had no ceiling. How would you interpret it?

For me, when I was 17, 18, 19 and I was a graffiti artist, and I thought I wanted to make my mark by painting my name on trains, I was always an artist, but I wasn’t a professional artist. And I thought, okay, I want to make my mark and just kind of get out there. A lot of my friends had the same ideas. But I don’t know that we collectively had a goal in mind other than to do something to get out of the house and get our parents off of our backs. My friends were break dancers and DJ’s and people who wanted to do design and make art, and all of them had a similar goal: to do something and stay out of trouble at the same time. A lot of that, I think, stayed with me over time, but as I got older and saw that this was a viable business, I think hip hop’s role became a lot larger and then all of the sudden it was about respect, and really competing with other art forms. If it did have one goal in mind I think it was to legitimize itself especially as it relates to the music. The music, like graffiti, was considered a “bastard” art form until it did one thing. Until it started to sell. And when it started to sell, people took it seriously, and then they took it very seriously. Overall, if there was one mandate, it was to show people and to say “We are as good as...” period. That’s really it. “We are as good as”, dot, dot, dot. If there’s one thing people can be clear on, if they did their homework, it’s that we have arrived. And I’ll give you an example. You go to the New York Times and you look at all the names of the people who have passed that made their mark in hip hop from Frosty Freeze, to IZ the Wiz, to MCA from the Beastie Boys. They’ve all had major obituaries written, and the Times only writes obituaries of people that are famous and of people who made their mark on society. And, to me, it’s an unfortunate way to measure the importance of these artists, but that is the bar by which everyone in America is judged. Does the Times recognize this person as being someone of influence and importance? Yes. Period. That’s the way I look at it. If we had to prove to the world that we were here, look at the New York Times. If it put it’s stamp of approval on it, that means we made our mark. When you think of the history of the culture, we still have a long way to go. There are all these different rules, and everyone has a different idea about what is authentic, and what is important. And that argument will go on until the end of time. It’s one of the things I talk about when I work with young people. If there’s a timeline in the history of the culture, wherever you come into it is when you start participating. You start right there. You don’t have to have been around in 1984, you can come into it in 2004. And that’s fine, because it’s never-ending. 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.

That’s a very important message to bring to the youth. And I appreciate it. Now, though, I have a few quick and fun questions to end the interview. First, what’s your favourite hip hop record of all time?

I would probably say the first Run DMC record from 1984.

Favourite hip hop record of 2013?

Of this year? You put me on the spot. This year, I’d say A$AP Rocky’s Long. Live. A$AP.

And, lastly, your favourite producer of all time?

Wow, this is interesting. You know what, if I had to pick my favourite producer, I’d probably say Kanye West.

Interesting choice.

Yea, I’d say Kanye West because he’s just got a wide, wide open view of the music and I think he’s good for the culture because he’s not afraid to dream big and he’s not going to let anyone put him in a box. And I think that’s a good thing. There have been people who have made good music, certainly. The Dr. Dre’s, and the Puffy’s and the Rick Rubin’s and all those guys. But Kanye is one of those guys whose not afraid to dream and be broad, and I think that’s very important for the culture.

Read the abridged article here.

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