The Classics – The Interview: Cey Adams, Pt. 1

Below is Cultural Project #1 – The Interview on famed designer Cey Adams, which was conducted by Soul 1 (Frank White Space – BKNY).

Because I’m not a journalist, writer, etc…I edited down what I felt necessary of Soul’s 10 pages but there was too much great content to be lost.

So, instead of not providing you guys (especially those that won’t be able to attend the event) with a thorough experience I’ve split the interview into 2 parts.  Here’s Part 1 – enjoy….

Soul 1: What’s your name and what do you do?

Cey Adams: My name is Cey Adams and I’m a visual artist.  I’ve been designing album covers and I was the Creative Director at Def Jam Recordings and I spent most of the 80’s designing a lot of the covers for some of  the more important artists like Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, L.L. Cool J, Slick Rick, E.P.M.D., and then later, you know, folks like Jah Rule, DMX, and Jay-Z.

Soul 1: What exactly does “Art Direction” constitute?

Cey: (Laughs)

Soul 1: How is that different from graphic design and so forth?

Cey: Well, it’s a couple of things, one – as an Art Director you can not necessarily be hands on.

Soul 1: How so?

Cey: Well, the idea is that a graphic designer is the person that physically creates the work, whereas an Art Director, for the most part, will, you know, guide an illustrator at times.  You can guide a ‘pay- stub person,’ THAT’S even an old term, just using ‘pay –stub’ (smiles), but yeah, a production person.  But, more times than not, the Art Director is kinda the coordinator or the organizer; but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be a designer as well. It’s just that more times than not it involves, you know, things like setting up photo shoots and really managing the project.

Soul 1: I’m glad you explained that because I’d mentioned to somebody that I was interviewing you and that you had done art direction on a couple different album covers, notably L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy, and E.P.M.D. and someone said to me, “yeah, but Haze did the logos” and I’m like, “yeah but, it’s….

Cey: Right, right… (Laughs) Well that’s true, but what happened, more times than not, with a lot of the early work is that people get a lot of those things mixed up.  You know, when they say that  L.L. has put out ten albums so, ‘which album are you talkin’ about?’

Soul 1: Yeah, yeah, yeah…

Cey: It’s not like I worked on every single one, but I worked on more than anybody else; same thing with E.P.M.D., you know?  I worked on more of their records than anybody else.  So, that’s another thing that the Art Director will do, he’ll hire somebody to design the logo; and in the case of that in particular, I didn’t hire him (Haze) but we were friends and so we worked together and it’s not a problem.

Soul 1: What was your initial entre´ into graphic design?

Cey: Well, for me, it was pretty simple.  I got involved as an extension of being a graffiti artist so working on that I naturally made the transition because I could only do that for so long before it was gonna cause a problem for me.  So, by the late 80’s I was lookin’ to get outta that and I made the transition by meeting Russell Simmons.

Soul 1: How did that come about?

Cey: I was painting a handball court in Queens where I was living at the time and, that’s where I grew up (in Jamaica Queens), and Russell is, as you know, from Hollis Queens, and I met this photographer and he was taking pictures for an album cover for a group called ‘Run- D.M.C.’  And I say it that way because at the time, you know, they had the single on the radio but they weren’t known the way they are today.  So, he gave me a business card and it said ‘RushTown Productions’ and I went down to 1133 Broadway and I met Russell and we hit it off right from the start.

Soul 1: Cool, cool.  Can you describe what the early 80’s scene was like: the art scene, the music scene, and the Hip-Hop scene?

Cey: Well, you know it’s funny, that word wasn’t even being used then, but, coming from Queens it was a little unusual to me because I’m somebody who did a lot of traveling through my relationship to graffiti so, (smiles) I was always traveling throughout the five boroughs, and I landed in the West Village early on like ‘80, ‘81, ‘82, ’83.  That was an unusual thing for me because, coming from Queens, it’s more like the ‘suburbs,’ and being downtown in Manhattan, it’s pretty crazy.  You had punk rock, which was in full effect and,  at that point, Hip-Hop was just starting to blossom with the Roxy and the Latin Quarter and things like that, so, it was really exciting and mostly because I was really young and just out ALL the time, day and night, wasn’t thinkin’ about sleep at all.

Soul 1: Right.

Cey: And the thing that I remember the most NOW looking back is that nobody had any money.  So, there wasn’t the kind of hustle to make it that there is today.  It was more about just being a teen or someone in their young 20’s and just havin’ a good time.  It wasn’t about tryin’ to get put on and all of that, an’ gettin’ a deal, like, those terms weren’t terms that people were using back then and that’s why even when you say “Hip-Hop,” there was youth culture but nobody was using the term “Hip-Hop.”  It was just really starting a few years later.

Soul 1: What was the art scene like?

Cey: Well, it was interesting because you had primarily graffiti at that point.  If you’re talkin’ about art where young people are concerned it was graffiti. You had people writing graffiti and also downtown, you had a lot of things happening early.  Jean-Michaels’ career was just getting off the ground, Keith Harring’s career was just getting off the ground, a lot of the graffiti artists were just starting out making that transition from painting trains to painting on canvas and it was a real sense of community.  It’s kind of hard to imagine today but it was almost like a clubhouse without walls and we would hang out in certain locations and all kind of get together.  It was a lot of fun man.  It was a really interesting time in New York ‘cause it was still kind of grimey and gritty.  It wasn’t all these rules and things the way they have it today.

Soul 1: What was working at R.U.S.H. like?

Cey: (Smiles) Working at RUSH was a combination of a clubhouse and what it must have been like to be at Motown in the 50’s and 60’s.  I mean, it really was that sort of thing.  It was just pure chaos night and day, but there was a lot of collaborating going on.  You had people working on songs together, people looking for road managers.  People needed flyers and backdrops and things and I was doing all of that but it wasn’t like you were on the payroll and you were getting a weekly salary.  I was in a lane all by myself.  I was an artist.  Nobody in the RUSH camp did what I do, you know, everybody wanted to be a rapper or they wanted to go out and road manage one of the bands because they wanted to get outta the city.  Or, they’d start a little security company if they were big beefy guys, but nobody was thinking about designing ANYTHING.  So (laughs), I had a lot of freedom where that’s concerned, but nobody knew what a logo was.  Branding wasn’t a term that was used back then.  All of that stuff gave me the freedom to learn and grow while I was really building my craft.

Soul 1: How beneficial was that experience to you throughout your career especially being an African- American Art Director?

Cey: In a lot of ways it was invaluable but it was trial by fire.  I didn’t know what I was doing, Russell was learning about what he was doing too, Run DMC were learning about what they were doing, and the Beasties were learning about what they were doing, and we were all kind of learning together.  The cool thing was you didn’t have people critiquing you as harshly as you would, had they been CEOs or seasoned professionals.  People just took what you had and used it and they knew that you were good at what you did because, you know, that’s what you did. It was a very interesting learning curve because as the bands started to make money things got more professional, and as they got more professional, you had to be more professional because, now, the stakes were higher.  You were dealing with CBS Records, whereas before you were dealing with, you know, a little indie.  So, I had to learn how to deal with the job that was equal to whatever the music was at that time.

Soul 1: You mentioned cats kinda forming their own little entities within a larger one.  How did The Drawing Board come about?

Cey: The Drawing Board came about mostly by default.  When we would go up to CBS at the time, and I say ‘CBS’ because Def Jam wasn’t signed to “Columbia,” and there was no SONY music at the time, it was CBS records,  we didn’t get a lot of love from the Art Directors and the production folks up there, so our idea was, ‘OK we’re gonna form our own little graphic design company.’  My buddy Steve Carr and I, who today is a Hollywood film director, you can google his name and figure out what he’s done…


Cey: …and we decided that that was the best way to do the kind of work we wanted to do but remain independent while still having the Def Jam RUSH umbrella over us.  So, that was the reason for forming the Drawing Board.  We also thought it would give us an opportunity to work on a bunch of other projects.

Soul 1: Cool. What was the first cover that you designed?

Cey: I think the first one that I did was for Orange Juice Jones and I think it was called, “On The Horizon(?)”  You have to “google it,” but it was Orange Juice Jones’ first record.

Soul 1: Was that the one with “In The Rain” on it?

Cey: No, it’s actually the follow-up to that record.  That one was done by somebody up at CBS.  The one we did had a little play with it man.

Soul 1: That’s whussup! (Laughs) Which was your favorite?

Cey: Oh man, you know, I’ve worked on so many great things over the years.  I don’t know if I have any one favorite but if I had to pick something, I’d probably say “Mama said Knock You Out” (L.L. Cool J -ed.), mostly because L.L. was at a weird turning point in his career and he wanted everybody at the label to focus on him a little more because I think they were doing really well, at that point, and they’d signed a bunch other of bands and so, all of a sudden, he wasn’t the main focus anymore.  So, he came into the conference room and he’s like, “Look, I want every single person in this room to get behind this record in a very serious way.”  And he said, “This is the name of my record, ‘Mama said knock you out.’”  He came in, and he had the photographs that he had just shot for Italian Vogue; and he’s like Pshst!  “This is the front cover.  This is the back cover,” and we just took it, and we ran with it.

Soul 1: Dope. What do you enjoy designing most – logos, albums, merchandise?

Cey: The thing that I enjoy the most is probably logos because I think logos stay with people a lot longer than everything else.  For example, I designed the logo for Hot97 (FM) and that’s something that resonates with people.  I might name 50 album covers and you might go, “OK,” I’ve never heard of those” but I say, “I did Hot97” you’re like, “I’ve seen that before” and that’s the thing that I, you know, I think it just has an amazing impact when you think about all the records that Mary J. Blige has put out.  You might not be able to remember one, but if I say, “I designed her logo”, you’re like, “I’ve seen that signature, I know that.” And that’s why I mention that because, people have said, “oh, I though that was Mary’s signature” and I say, no.  I created that for her and I wanted it to have a soft, feminine sort of look as though it was a woman’s signature but that’s what a designer does.  That’s what, as an Art Director, I did.  I made the decision that I was going to create that piece of art and so…

Soul 1: You did the same thing with the “Justin’s” logo.

Cey: Yeah, exactly!!  And by strange token, Puffy looked at that and said, “I want you to create a ‘Justin’s logo for me similar to the way you did the thing for Mary.”  He goes, “I want something just like that.” And so, that was the idea behind the “Justin’s” logo; and then if that wasn’t enough, you know literally, right after that he came to me and he goes, “I’m starting a clothing company, and it’s gonna be called ‘Sean John,’ and he says, “that’s my middle name, and I want you to create a logo for me that’s very similar to that.  I want, like, something nice script that’s strong but something that has a little bit of refinement to it,” and so, that’s how I came up with the idea for the “Sean John” logo.

Soul 1: Fresh. That’s fresh.  This question coincides with the one where you mentioned something about the upper brass at CBS – people who didn’t know you initially.  How did their comments about your work feel – positive or negative?  From a corporate standpoint, like when you did stuff for Nike, and Coke or whatever, some of the first initial corporate contracts were…

Cey: Well, before people knew who I was I wasn’t getting that kind of work, so if anything it was more resistance.  A lot of the corporate type, up at the major labels, didn’t have any interest in what we were doing.  They didn’t give us the time of day up there, and it wasn’t until the records started selling that people started paying attention to the art that went on the records.  We were really in a lot of ways, step-children up there but I remember very clearly when the tide had kind of changed.  We were working on quite a few things and nobody was really kinda giving us a hard time.  They didn’t sweat our budgets, ‘cause our budgets, compared to pop records, were very small, but when Fear of a Black Planet sold a million copies in five days, that’s when the light bulb went off.  That’s when everybody realized these records are important records.

Soul 1: Umm hum.

Cey: Then, everybody wanted to have a hand in what we were doing.  People that normally didn’t comment, were now sitting in on production meetings, and they were coming to Def Jam to sit in on the staff meetings and, along with that, came people critiquing the art.  The luxury that we always had was “Def Jam kinda does their own thing,” so people stayed out of the way and usually, if you had the support of the recording artist, nobody was going to get in the way of that.  So, for example, Chuck-D was the A.D. for the most part and he would sit down with myself and Steve and the other folks on our team and we would brainstorm and that’s how we would come up with our ideas but ,all of a sudden, we were on their radar.

Soul 1: How important to you is album cover artwork and how do you feel about, basically I guess, the demise thereof?

Cey: I come from a generation where album cover artwork was the only contact you had with the artist other than posters.  I never had posters as a kid, so the album cover had to give you all the information you needed about that artist, you know, the pull-out.  If there was a gate-fold, the sleeve had all the information and I would absorb all of that stuff.  So, 12 inches is BIG.  When I got a chance to actually work on records, I didn’t realize the impact right away until I would go to somebody’s house and you’d see the record in there or you go to a store and you’d see a display that was so big it would make your head explode.  That’s when it kind of sunk in that I was working on stuff that was really relevant and important, but to me, that format was everything man; twelve inches– WOW… that’s a lot of real estate to work with…

Soul 1: (Laugh): yeah…

Cey: And, in addition to that, we had the cassette, then the CD came along, and then the CD Long Box, and it was a lot of space to utilize in order to get your message across.  And if you could do that with an idea that also elevated the band’s image, then that was a really great thing.  So, it wasn’t always about my message as much as conveying a message that helps to relay what the artist is trying to say, but it saddens me that the format is so unimportant to ‘the powers that be’ because certainly I think that the record buying public, they miss that, and that’s why vinyl is on a comeback in certain ways, but, you know, I love technology.  I can’t knock technology for moving forward ‘cause believe me, I love my  iPod but, yeah, I love vinyl too.  I don’t know why it has to be one or the other, you know?  Why can’t the options be there if you wanna have that twelve- inch and have that artwork great?

Soul 1: I dig it.  What is, or what are some of your favorite personal album covers?

Cey: Kenny Gravillis, one of the guys who used to work for me.  He did The Roots’ “Things Fall Apart,” and he did five covers.  FIVE separate covers for that one release and I thought that was BRILLIANT.  I mean, that today it’s still one of my favorite things that I’ve ever seen done.  Run DMC’s “Raising Hell” was one of my favorites because they again had two different covers, and so that was a sign that Hip-Hop finally had some power and some credibility.  The idea that you could reproduce two separate covers for one release, to this day, I’ve never been able to do anything like that.  So, those are two of my personal favorites.  Let’s see, I love the stuff that Mr. Cartoon has done with Cypress Hill – just BRILLIANT illustration work.

Soul 1: Did he do that original logo?

Cey: I don’t know if he did the original but I know as their career took off, he did all that calligraphy and I think that stuff was really brilliant – just the way they built on each design and it just got darker and darker, and just more and more intense.  I really like that stuff.  A lot of the stuff that Glen Friedman did with Public Enemy – that’s one of my favorites too, is “Yo! Bum Rush the show.”  The imagery was really stark and minimalist.  It just jumps out and grabs you.  That’s one of the things that I really like about L.L. Cool J’s “All World.”  It’s not a record that a lot of people are familiar with because it was his greatest hits record, but I designed that and the thing that’s really cool about it, is it was the first time I got a chance to work with photography and not have any type on the cover, so like if you google that record there’s a lot of times the cover will just come up and there’s no type at all, and that was a lot of fun – being able to do that.


About gmoney77

My name is Gerald Watson and I do lifestyle marketing for various companies/agencies. The purpose of this blog is to highlight the people I work with, the work I do as well as the shit I see on the regular.

Posted on September 28, 2009, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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