The Classics – The Interview: Cey Adams, Pt. 2
Here’s part 2 of the Cey Adams interview (see you tonight at The Classics):
Cey: This is the same building that Def Jam used to be in. 60 Varick, right here in this building and they were on the same floor that Def Jam used to be on so, it’s really special for me; they have three floors and so one of their three floors was Def Jam’s old space before they officially went corporate and moved uptown.
Soul 1: Nice.
Cey: So, this is like a homecoming for me, and so, working with them is really, it’s really emotional just being in this space again, and just seeing, you know, what different form it’s taken 15 years later or whatever it’s been.
Soul 1: What was this originally? (*referring to the interview space on the 1st floor)
Cey: Well, this was a deli so, needless to say it’s taken on a different look and feel.
Soul 1: What is your approach to album cover design?
Cey: Well, usually I have two schools of thought when it comes to approaching a record. One is if I am working with an artist that has an amazing creative vision and they understand what I bring to the table, as an artist and you know, given my history, I can have a lot of fun and I can do something that’s really fascinating. And then the other side of the coin, without naming names, you have some artists that want what they want and they don’t understand what it is you bring to the table and what makes you special when it comes to working on their work, so, you know, depending on what kind of artist I’m getting, I make the decision as to what kind of work I‘m going to do. That’s the first thing, right out the box, but, more times than not, I try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt because one of the things that I’ve learned in this business is that you can never tell what’s gonna become big. So, I never judge artists anymore. There used to be a time when somebody would walk in the door and I’d think “oh, this is not gonna be worth my while ‘cause this is gonna be a flash- in- the- pan,” then it ends up being the biggest record you ever saw. So, I stopped judging very early on. Now, every time somebody walks in the door I’m thinking this is the next Redman, this is the next Method man, this is the next, you know, Jay-Z! My approach is very interesting. – I try not to think about the possibility of a hit success because I don’t want to over-think what will or won’t work for a particular artist. I also think those things kinda just cloud your mind when you start thinking about popularity in terms of how you create your work and also I don’t want it to go to the artist’s head, you know, prematurely, but my approach is pretty organic. Usually I’ll sit down and I’ll sketch something out. I usually always start with the logo I says, “OK. I want a logo that’s gonna resonate and I wanna look at something and be able to come back years later and go “Ok, you know what? THAT still stands up today.” So, I usually start with the logo. And the reason I focus on that is because sometimes I don’t have the luxury of starting with the photography. Sometimes there isn’t any photography, sometimes they’ve already done the photography so I’m not involved in the photo session, but the logo is something that I can always control. So I kinda start there.
Soul 1: Cool. How much creative control do you usually have on most of your projects?
Cey: Quite a bit. I have quite a bit of creative freedom. Not 100% but, lately, when people call me to work on something, usually, they understand that they are hiring me and not just, you know, ‘we- need- a- pair- of- hands- to- put- this- together’ so, most of the time people are pretty open to hearing what I have to say and I’m not a control freak. My thing is I like the idea of collaborating, whether it be a recording artist, or an illustrator or a photographer, you know, I like the process of collaborating and when you’re working on making a record, that’s really what it is, it’s a collaboration. Everything from the recording engineer to the writer on the song to the manager, I mean it’s a team effort so I try never to get to crazy about ‘my way or the highway,’ because I know at the end of the day, if I put five amazing comps in front of ten people, they’re all gonna pick something different and usually, the artist will pick the one that you don’t want them to use if you seem too enthusiastic about the one that you do want them to use so, you know, I always try to apply a little bit of the ‘Jedi Mind Trick’ and, you know, keep my fingers crossed and pick the green one when I know I really, really want the blue one (Smiles).
Soul 1: (Laughs) Right.
Cey: And lately, I’ve been lucky enough to work with artists that kind of ‘get it’ and when it’s right, you know, (Snaps fingers twice) they’re on it.
Soul 1: Cool. You build strong relationships with a lot of your clients, what about your relationships with the (recording) artists? Do you establish one with the artist or just normally with the people who contract you?
Cey: I try to always establish a relationship with the artist because that’s your strongest connection when it comes to really making sure that the work stays as pure as it can. If you get the artist involved, usually you don’t have as much of a battle and, I found more times than not, that’s when it’s the most fun when you get the artist involved. My favorites are obviously working with Chuck-D and Public Enemy because they get what I do. The Beastie Boys are always great as well. L.L. is somebody else that really understands the creative process. It wasn’t always that way, but as time went on he became more and more trustful. Jay-Z is another one that’s like that, right from the start, his very first record. He didn’t question what I did, he just figured ‘if this is what you do I’m gonna trust you’ and we’ve always had a great working relationship. Puffy’s another one – he doesn’t hesitate, he’s like, ‘you know how to do it, do what you do.’ So to me, my strongest tool is always working with the artist and having them be a part of the process, which makes it that much easier to get your point across. When you’re fighting with the artist, for-getaboutit. I NEVER wanna work on a project where I’m fighting with an artist to have my way even when I know it’s in their best interest because if they’re not happy with the project, they’re gonna be hating on it every single place that they go.
Soul 1: Have you had that experience?
Cey: Yeah, but I knew I was doing what was best for them in spite of them. And a lot of times that happened when new rappers came to the label and they had their friend that was an illustrator or, ‘you know, my man does graphic design’… and I’m thinking well, “where do you think ya’ man learned about the idea of graphic design from?”
Soul 1: It is what it is.
Cey: Yeah, they don’t KNOW! And so, I try not to knock those sorta things but, you know that happens sometimes when the artist’s just don’t know what time it is with me and they have to be schooled and, you know, by the next record they kind of soften up. I’m not hating, I’m just saying, this is the way it was, when Method man first came to Def Jam. He had his own ideas about what he wanted for his first record cover and he was kinda resistant and he was like, “This is what I want. I want my man shoot it, I want my man to design the logo” and I was just like… (looks around puzzled). He’s coming from the Wu- Tang camp so I didn’t have an “in” or a way of kind of connecting with him. And little by little I’d show him examples of some of the stuff I’d worked on and he’s like, “Yo, that’s hot, that’s hot.” And I really had to explain to him that I didn’t just wake up and find myself sittin’ in front of a desk doing this work. It was years in the making and then he became trustful, he trusted me, and then he says, “OK, I see what you’re doing, I see what you mean now, let’s go with your idea.” Then all of a sudden his man wasn’t shooting the cover, his man wasn’t designing the logo, but you have to finesse those things because, you know, I’m not hating on other people that might bring something special to the table so, that was an example of something like that that had happened by the second record. By the third record, no discussion: “this is the photographer?” “Great.” “This is the logo you came up with?” “Great.” (Laughs)
Soul 1: That’s dope. What do you enjoy most about your creative process?
Cey Adams: Being able to work. The thing that I dig the most is, you have to understand, I come from a graffiti background and to be able to work with Russell Simmons, and Jay-Z, and De La, and bands that I haven’t even really mentioned you know, Eric- B and Rakim, you know, I’ve worked with everybody. I’m not even mentioning the Stevie Wonders, you know?
Soul 1: Maroon 5. (Laughs)
Cey Adams: (Laughs) Yeah, Maroon 5 and folks like that and just to be able to work with the Eagles, like, these are bands that, man, I don’t even allow myself to think about it ‘cause it would make my head explode. And just to be able to work and earn a living and have people look at this stuff and enjoy it is a big, big deal for me. That’s the thing that I’m most excited about still: is to have this be my “job,” not to be doing some other thing and a lot of my friends that are artists aren’t doing that. They’re not painting, they’re not traveling, they have a wife and kids or a husband and a family and they’re doing regular work, and I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m just very fortunate to still be doing the same thing I was doing when I was 15. And now, you know, I’m earning a living doing that and people know my work and corporations respect what it is I do and what it is we do, which, years ago, that wasn’t the case. So, I feel like pushing this boulder uphill for such a long time has finally paid off whereas for a lot of other people it rolled all over them and they gave up and they’re like, “to hell with this battle, I’m going back to the thing that I know won’t betray me.” That said, being an artist is that way, I mean, you’re a writer so I hope you know what I’m talking about… the creative process is, man…it’s a wonderful thing but it’s tough, man, because every day you’re selling yourself to somebody that doesn’t understand what it is you do and artists have to go through that whether you’re a musician, whether you’re a poet, a dancer. If you’re not a doctor, you’re always convincing people that what you’re doing matters. And to me, that’s the battle of doing this sort of work, you know? It’s something you volunteer for. Nobody said, “Hey, I’m gonna make you an artist, and I’m gonna give you this great opportunity.” You go in there and you think, “Hey, you know what? I dig doing this and it’s a lot of fun, and I’m gonna try to do this.” And then all of a sudden, you realize, “Hey I still have to pay the rent,” and then you find a way to do that but, in doing that, you’re still constantly auditioning for all these other things, and you’re always selling, even while you’re quote- un-quote, “successful.” So for me, that’s the thing that’s the most exciting and in some cases and some days, frustrating because I love what I do, but it’s always a weird battle.
Soul 1: What are some of your upcoming projects?
Cey Adams: Well, one of the things that I’m really proud of right now is that I’m working on the Def Jam 25th Anniversary and that entails working on a hardcover coffee table book, a five disc CD box set, and there’s a documentary in the works. So, this is the year of Def Jam and really, in some ways, coming into it’s own and really being able to look back on the journey that we’ve all had whether it be myself, Russell Simmons, Lyor Cohen, Kevin Lyles, Julie Greenwald, you know, all the great artists that have come through Def Jam over the years. This is an opportunity for me to sit down in front of all that material and look at all the photo sessions I’ve done with Jay-Z, and look at all the great imagery, and look at how far Jah Rule has come and Redman and Method Man, Slick Rick and E.P.M.D. and Onyx and, you know, some of the other acts that don’t get a lot of attention, like Downtown Science….
Soul 1: Wow.
Cey Adams: And look at all the early Beastie Boys’ photos and really soak in what I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life doing, in addition to working with other acts that aren’t on Def Jam. In addition to that, I’m doing a lot of work with WNYC radio, helping them get their art program up and running and, in addition to that, I’m teaching at Brooklyn Academy of Music – teaching art to high school students that normally don’t have time to pay attention to art and that’s something that I’m really excited about. In addition to that, I’m also painting a lot more and that’s something that I haven’t always had a lot of time for because of my graphic design career so, now, I’m picking up my oil paints and getting back to stretching canvass and making paintings and hanging out with some of my graffiti friends and doing art shows. I’m going to Winnipeg, Canada for two weeks to do a mural with some of my old buddies that I use to paint graffiti with, you know, that’s something that’s a lot of fun and something that I don’t always have time to do because I’m working on other things and it’s nice that enough time has passed where people have finally embraced graffiti and now a lot of my friends are getting the opportunity to showcase their talents and it’s fun to go out and paint a wall with those guys and do a gallery show and get together and just talk about the good ole’ days because, you know, a lot of us have been doing this since we were 15, so, now we get a chance to see each other as adults and grown men and women and tell war stories. It’s like that Bruce Springsteen song ‘Glory Days.’
Cey: So those are some of the things that I’m working on right now. And in addition to that, I just published a book called “Definition, the art and Design of Hip-hop,” and so…
Soul 1: Bill Adler…
Cey: Right! With my old buddy Bill Adler. So, I’m also promoting that and that’s the other reason why I’m traveling, ‘cause I’m promoting the book and I’m doing interviews for that and I’m…
Soul 1: Who did the Lil’ Kim illustration? (on the cover)
Cey: A guy named Mike Thompson and…
Soul 1: He’s done a lotta stuff!…
Cey: Yeah, he’s a very talented guy. He used to work with Marc Ecko
Soul 1: (recognizing) Okaaaaaaay…
Cey: So, he did all those illustrations that were in Ecko’s ad’s and what not. I ran across his work and when I saw it I was like, “He’s gonna do the cover of my book,” and it was just no discussion in my mind.
Soul 1: Did he do the (Mike) Tyson bust? (granite illustration of M.T.)
Cey: That I don’t know about. I saw his work and it just stopped me dead in my tracks. I knew I wanted to work with him and made that decision right on the spot.
Cey: Those are some of the things that I’m doing and trying to just take in this great time that we’re living in. I’m just so excited about Obama becoming President and that’s just keeping me high every single day, just the idea that he’s out there and he’s chipping away, trying to make a difference for people that can’t speak for themselves. I’m happy to be alive right now because a lot of my friends, like I said, didn’t make it, or things didn’t pan out the way that they thought, and I’m just happy to be here.
Soul 1: That’s beautiful man. Is there anything else that you’d like to add or anything you think I may have missed or…
Cey: No, no. I think you’ve covered quite a bit in a short amount of time. What I would love to do is get you a copy of my book just so you can see it and maybe there’s some stuff in there that might help for the story as well.
Soul 1: Do you have a copy?
Cey: I do. It’s a very good read, I think that, hopefully, it’ll tell you some things you didn’t know about Hip-Hop from a visual perspective. One of the things that I’ve found is that Hip-Hop today is synonymous with “rap.” And it wasn’t always that way. Hip-Hop was about the elements. When it started out, we all had a thing that we did, you know? This person danced, this person could paint, this person could draw, this person was the DJ, this person was an MC; and then all of a sudden, when big money came into the picture, Hip-Hop became…
Soul 1: Bullshit
Cey: Well that too, but it also became records; and it’s not just about records. I constantly tell this to young people because they’re the ones who really don’t understand this. They don’t know that it used to be a collective. And I know that the word has to be put out there over and over again to remind people, but I mostly talk about young people. So, when I’m speaking to High School kids, or even grade school kids, I try to remind them that this is something that started very organically the way you and a handful of your friends would have started something in the park or the playground. And it blossomed into this global phenomenon, but lets not forget the roots: graffiti, breakdancing, deejaying, M.C.-ing, and that’s what it’s about. So, for me, I have to remind people, you know, Jay-Z’s a great artist but Johnathan Manning is a great photographer, Mike Thompson is a great illustrator. Why does one have to be any more important than the other? The answer is: it’s not more important. Crazy Legs is a great dancer. EVERYBODY’S great. It’s not just one thing; it’s not just about the music. So my book was a way of reminding people that it’s not just about the music.
Soul 1: I dig it. I guess sidebar, but in addendum to that, I used to write (graffiti) in Philadelphia and lately, especially within the last ten years, there’s been this influx of suburban white kids that don’t even associate graffiti with Hip-hop…
Soul 1: Like they’ll listen to Bad Brains or they’ll listen to Slayer or some Death-Metal Hardcore and (they’ll say), “I just bombed trains man, I just bombed freights, and I don’t even listen to Hip-Hop, yadda, yadda, da…graffiti ain’t got nothing to do with that.”
Soul 1: And it’s like, “Dude… it really really does…”
Cey: And it’s not for them to decide that, and that’s what they don’t understand. I say look, unless you were there when it started; and I was there. And I’m trying to get people to understand that there were no rules about who’s down and who’s not down. It was about you doing your thing and nobody’s saying, “O.K. you’re not cool enough to be in this group, you know?” You do your thing. When you went to the Roxy there wasn’t like, “O.K. cool kids on this side,” you know, “fakers on that side,” it was like, if you were in the building…
Soul 1: You were down.
Cey: You were down Period. And that’s all it is and so, now, you got all these different rules about who’s better than this one, who’s better than that one, and it’s like, all that stuff aside man, just listen to the music and that’ll remind you of what it was really all about ‘cause that’s what they talked about in the early records. They talked about the U-N-I-T-Y that’s what it was about and people forget that. I’m here to tell ‘em because I’m still here and that’s really the idea behind it. My book is about the glory days of what was great about Hip-Hop, you know? We’re all talented and I’m just showing a lot of other people that are talented that you may not have heard of. Sure jay-Z is in there, sure Puff is in there, but Nika Sarabi’s in there, Mike Thompson’s in there, you know, cats that are making ink now. It’s not just about the people that hit. I also want to remind people that Keith Haring used to be here and he made a mark.
Cey: I’m here to tell you that ALL of those people were down, you know? And THAT’s the great thing about this culture is that NOBODY gets to decide those things so, you know, if you’re a journalist and you’re saying, “Oh, it happened this way.” I’m here to tell you, “you know what, it DIDN’T happen this way, it happen that way ‘cause I was there.” That’s one of the things that’s so cool now. We all get an opportunity to do what we do whether cats like F. Gary Grey are getting to make movies, Steve Carr’s making movies, Brett Ratner’s making movies – those guys are Hip-Hop.
Soul 1: Yeah. Ratner’s making a lotta movies.
Cey: Those guys are Hip-Hop, you know? You got Hip-Hop journalists, whether it be yourself, Cheo Coker, Toure´, those guys are Hip-Hop. Just because they work in a corporate environment doesn’t mean that they’re not, still Hip-Hop.
Soul 1: Right, right. That’s profound man.
Cey: It’s just the way it is and sometimes you have to remind people. And that’s one of the things that we had to touch upon in the book is that, Hip-Hop is so popular, a lot of things at this point are almost invisible because it’s so consumed as far as the mainstream goes. It’s everywhere, but, you know, I’m here to remind you, when you see a Kool- Aid® character breakdancing on T.V. – that’s Hip-Hop.
Soul 1: Cool, cool, cool. Well they say ‘save the best for last’, so that was… (Laughs)
Cey: That was a lot of fun and I’m glad we got a chance to do this because, you know, I’m really excited about all these new opportunities, and like I said just the stuff that Gerald is trying to do is really great man. I just wanna try to help in any way I can.
Posted on September 30, 2009, in Uncategorized and tagged adidas, beastie boys, cey adams, de la soul, def jam records, jay-z, ll cool j, method man, new york, rap music, redman, russell simmons, smirnoff, soul 1, stevie wonder, the classics hip hop art show, the drawing board, the source. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.