Interview: Cey Adams of Def Jam

On the latest episode of the Breaks podcast, Confucius and Fresh talk to artist Cey Adams, who has a show called “Combinations” at the West Chelsea Contemporary through November 19th.

Cey started as a graffiti artist in New York City in the early 80’s where he met the Beastie Boys and designed their early logos and merch.  He also designed their debut record Hello Nasty. Around this time he connected with Russel Simmons and RUSH Artist Management where he designed logos and merch for artists like Whodini and Kurtis Blow.

Cey then moved on to be founding creative director at Def Jam Records. There he founded their in-house design firm, the Drawing Board with Steve Carr. The firm designed logos and album art for Run-DMC, Mary J. Blige, Jay Z, and many others.

Below are lightly edited excerpts from The Breaks’ conversation with Cey Adams. You can hear the full conversation here on The Breaks podcast.

What Does Artist Cey Adams Have to Say?

The Breaks podcast 10.30.23

On his early days with the Beastie Boys.

It was really like you and your friends just doing your thing and you do a little bit at a time. These guys would get in a van and they’d drive to, you know, tri-state area. They drive to Connecticut, Philly, and New Jersey to do shows. And if we got enough money to buy food for the whole crew and a couple of beers or whatever it is, that was a good night because you’re just hanging out with your friends. And if you got gas to get back and forth, that was what it was about. It wasn’t anything beyond that. You’re trying to build a base. We live in this time now where we use all these buzzwords, but that’s what the grind truly was, to get in a van and drive for 2 hours to make $35 or whatever it is. That’s the definition of hustling.

On what it was like to be part of the 1983 documentary Style Wars

I think, one of the first times that I remember cameras being on us. And this is 1983, I think. And what I remember the most was that adults were paying attention to what we were doing, because prior to that, even when we would go to clubs like the Roxy, it was just us doing us. It wasn’t a whole lot of activity centered around what adults think. We were just doing our thing. And a lot of that comes from really sort of having to make your way on your own. And often times I say that adults weren’t checkin for us. So we had to create our own literally our own culture, you know, whether it was art, whether it was dance or whether it was music. Hip hop had to take over pop music to get recognized. That’s the only reason Madison Avenue’s woke up because we dominated the charts.

On his new show “Combinations”

I wanted to do an exhibition that was a combination of my work, my friends’ work. I wanted to celebrate photographers. I wanted to bring all these things together. 

My work in the past when I was a kid was graffiti based. Then I did album design for a lot of years, and now I’m making fine art using collage materials. And this show is about all of those things. It’s not one or the other. It’s a combination of everything. And I think it’s the perfect time to tie in all of these messages. 

The Black Lives Matter Movement 2.0 happened during the pandemic, and now we all know that we have to see people for who they say they are, not for who we think they are. And these are all messages that I incorporate into my work, because at this point in time, the only thing that we need is more love. There’s, this war is going on and we don’t always have all of the resources to stop these things, but we can always keep putting positive energy out into the universe that we have control over. 

And as an artist, I think it’s it’s my job to constantly remind people that we can do it. We just have to care about each other more. And I’ve gotten an opportunity to see so many beautiful things traveling around the world with Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. And the one thing that I’ve learned is that people are not that different. There might be language barriers, but everybody’s laugh sounds the same. And that’s really all that there is.

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