n the world of Hip Hop, visual art, which is primarily rooted in the dynamic scene of graffiti, has taken a backseat to the music, according to graff king turned graphic arts pioneer Cey Adams. Aside from his artistic touch he has placed on some of the most notable Fortune 500 brands, CEY’s work is a part of Hip Hop’s visual floor plan. From Run-D.M.C. to L.L. Cool J, the 50-something year old genius has designed merchandise and logos for some of the game’s most recognizable pioneers.
In this exclusive sit-down with TheSource.com, CEY talks about how Hip Hop music overshadows any and everything that’s around it, how he made his bones in graffiti and the smooth transition to graphic design and why he doesn’t play music at any of his exhibitions. Especially Hip hop music.
Cey Adams: I’m first generation when it comes to Hip Hop graphic design, so my career pre-dates everything. There was nobody there before me. it’s interesting because I sort of watched the birth of everything. Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Rock Steady Crew, all the graffiti folks that came up in the 70s and 80s…the birth of Hip Hop. That’s me. I was a graffiti artist. I transitioned out of doing that. Russell Simmons had a management company called Rush Artist Management. I started designing t-shirts and logos for the bands on the label and that’s where I got my chops. There’s a book called Rap Tees and if you look in that book, it’s all about Hip Hop t-shirts and I designed what seems like more than half of them. That gives you an idea of how far back I go.
TheSource.com: When would you say the culture of Hip Hop first widely recognized your work and said ‘ok, that’s CEY?
Cey Adams: I never really needed to. I was there before it. I’ll tell you like this; I published a book called Definition: The Art and Design Of Hip Hop with Harper Collins. I said this book was going to be soup to nuts about all of the people behind the scenes i nHip Hop. Everything but the music because rappers take up all of the air in the room. I go to meet Buddy Esquire and he wants to meet at McDonald’s in the South Bronx and I wanted to buy some of his vintage club flyers. I go to meet him and he doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall, but I’m spending money so I have his full attention.
TheSource.com: How did you get in contact with him to know that he was the guy who had the flyers?
Cey Adams: It wasn’t easy. You had to go through six people to track this dude down. At the time, there was a Museum called the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington and I put them in touch with a couple of the Hip Hop pioneers and they were buying artifacts. Because they were buying artifacts, you could get a hold of people. Not a lot of people were spending money, so if I used the museum’s name, I was going to get a call back. So Buddy called back and I told him I wanted to buy some of his original club flyers. We meet at this McDonald’s, but then I convince him to come to the office and I told him, ‘I have stuff I want to show you.’ He came to the office and I have all of this content on the table that I’m using in the book and he looks at a press photo on the table of the Funky Four Plus One More and they have on the 8-Ball jackets. He told me he painted those jackets. I told him that I’d been trying to meet him my whole adult life. In the 80s when I was coming up, I made an 8-Ball jacket with my name CEY on the back and it was modeled after those jackets and I always wanted to know how that was done. We sat there for hours chopping it up and I let him know that he was a major influence on me and we were about the same age. That just goes to show that even though we were in two different boroughs at thew same time, he was a cultural pioneer that really showed me the way before anybody else did.
TheSource.com: Would you say that your origins are in graffiti?
Cey Adams: Yeah, but also comic book art. I grew up in the 60s, so there was nothing but comic books. I really gravitated towards comic book art because it spoke to me. I wanted to be a comic book illustrator until I learned about graphic design.
TheSource.com: I see a black and white tag in here from SNAKE, one of graffiti’s OGs, who comes from the era along with STITCH and TAKI. Where do you fit into that timeline?
Cey Adams: Oh, I’m much later than them. To me, writers like him, FDT 56, CLIFF….all of those dudes…I’m later. Those dudes are late 60s, 70s. I started in ’77 and I was still in the neighborhood at that time. I didn’t leave the neighborhood until ’78. ’79 and going to the Bronx in 1980. For me, that’s early on. Like JESTER is one of my heroes and he started writing in ’72.
TheSource.com: Who are some of you contemporaries from your era?
Cey Adams: I came up with CRASH, DAZE, LADY PINK, LEE, FUTURA, HAZE, ZEPHYR/REVOLT, DOZE…those guys.
TheSource.com: All of those people that you mentioned were in the movie Wild Style. Why were you left out?
Cey Adams: I wouldn’t say I was left out. I was untrusting of media at that time. For me, it was a conscious effort (laughs). For the record, I was in Style Wars, though.
TheSource.com: What are some of the iconic logos and designs that are widely recognized that you created?
Cey Adams: I did all of Run-D.M.C.’s stuff when they were out on the Fresh Fest, Whodini, Kurtis Blow, Jimmy Spicer…so many other acts whose career didn’t take off. I worked on everything. Everybody who was working back then I was doing their graphics.
TheSource.com: Would you say that there was a point in time when the culture downplayed visual art?
Cey Adams: I wouldn’t say that, but I definitely do think that the music overshadows everything. Even to this day. I think we’re finally at a point where the visuals are taking center stage, but that was the reason why I published the book. I thought that the music just overshadowed everything. To this day, I won’t even do an exhibition that has a musical component because the music overshadows everything and then you’re just at a party. The minute there’s music there, it’s not an exhibition. It becomes a party.
TheSource.com: So you don’t have music at any of your exhibitions?
Cey Adams: No. If there is music, it’s on low, but it won’t be Hip Hop. I’d rather have jazz or contemporary soul or something. When Hip Hop is playing, it overshadows everything in its path and people forget why they’re there. They think that they’re there to party because there’s already drinking. If you have drinking and music, then that’s the definition of a party. Even if it’s in a gallery.
TheSource.com: How did you connect with Pabst Blue Ribbon for the exhibit you have coming up next month?
Cey Adams: I hooked up with Pabst Blue Ribbon through my friends at Cornerstone and it seemed like the perfect fit because i had this series that I had done called Trusted Brands. The idea for Trusted Brands was just a way for me to celebrate all of the favorite brands that I grew up with. Honoring Old World craftsmanship, quality graphic design and I’m a fan of logos. Pabst would’ve been one of those brands. They just got to me before I got to them. All of these brands are companies that stood the test of time. Some of these brands been around, in some cases, over a hundred years. For me, it’s an ode to the American classics.
TheSource.com: What’s your fascination with logos in general?
Cey Adams: I just always loved quality line form. Even in my early days as a graffiti writer. I always had clean lines and my style has always been graphic as early on as I can remember.
TheSource.com: What does Cey Adams have on deck for 2019?
Cey Adams: Right now, I’m in the process of doing a coffee table book that celebrates the history of my career, so everything that I’ve doone over the last 35 years. Starting with my graffiti work in the 70s, moving into my graphic design and album design work in the 80s, product design in the 90s, logo design in the 2000s. then, all of the recent branding work that I’ve done with these major corporations like Pabst Blue Ribbon. Also, showcasing the arts and education work I do with young people.