A Conversation with Cey Adams

A Conversation with Cey Adams

New York City native Cey Adams has been leaving his mark on the hip-hop and music industry through his artwork and designs since the 1980’s. A visual artist, graphic designer and author, he was Founding Creative Director of Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Recordings, and has worked with industry legends such as The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, LL Cool J and Maroon 5. The 10,000 spoke to Adams on coming of age alongside fellow artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, his mural at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the posters he designed ahead of Election Day for Give A Damn. Vote. Read on to learn more about Adams and the projects he’s currently exploring.

Cover Photo: Cey with American Flag (Black), mixed media collage on panel, 192 x 96 x 7 inches, © 2017 Janette Beckman 

How did you first become interested in art? 
My earliest recollections of art date back to age four or five, while visiting museums and galleries with my family or with classmates on school trips.

What initially attracted you to create and do you recall anything in particular that inspired you?
Saturday morning cartoons were an early inspiration. Superhero comics were also a huge source of creative inspiration growing up.  I would spend hours in my room drawing and painting various caricatures, like Captain America, Superman and Batman.

Graph 2001, mixed media on canvas, 60 x 36 x 4 inches, © 1981 Martha Cooper

Your career spans decades and features so many incredible highlights. Describe how your passion as an artist and musician to create and inspire evolved from exhibiting alongside fellow artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, to becoming the founding Creative Director of Def Jam Recordings.
I came of age in New York City during the 80’s. Working and hanging out in the downtown clubs, I was fortunate to meet and spend quality time with so many influential people. Artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana, and Romare Bearden. Musicians including Blondie, B52’s, Run-DMC and Beastie Boys. Each in their own way contributed to shaping my work and career. 

During that time my days and nights were consumed by nightlife culture. Famous actors, writers, poets, chefs and restaurateurs were all on the scene. We were a creative community sharing ideas and information. Everyone’s interests were blended together.  I learned so much about things I would have never been exposed to growing up in the suburbs of Queens.

As the original Creative Director of Def Jam Recordings, you co-founded the label’s in-house visual design firm and created iconic covers, logos and campaigns for numerous artists including Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G. and Maroon5. Can you share a few favorites?
After years of working and touring the world with Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, I was ready for a break from being on the road. A buddy of mine introduced me to his best friend Steve Carr.  Like myself, he was also an artist and graphic designer. Additionally, Steve and I had similar taste in our love of 70’s pop music and TV sitcoms. We also found out we happened to be the exact same age. I was born in March, Steve in December. We became fast friends, instant BFF’s. Within a month we decided to start a business. In 1989 Drawing Board Graphic Design was born.

Our mission was to serve the entertainment industry, with a primary focus on music and film. Within a few short years we were wildly successful! Our client roster included beverage giants Coke and Pepsi, major record labels, Hollywood movie studios, cable networks and Legendary musicians Stevie Wonder, Don Henley and Ringo Starr. 

We were very, very busy! After many years of working a 24/7 schedule/lifestyle I needed another change…so I sold my shares in the company and moved to LA to work for Magic Johnson Enterprises. (That’s a story for another time.)  

You are a self-described multimedia artist. What does your design process look like and what is your current favorite medium to create?
I begin my design process by doing research and sourcing various images, handmade papers, magazines and newspapers. The first step is identifying a color palette. This could be anywhere from one to five colors. The next step is assembling everything into a cohesive style, pattern, or shape. The last part is figuring out the visual direction i.e. drawing sketches or thumbnails and playing around with type solutions. 

Right now, my favorite medium to work in is collage. It gives me plenty of room for freedom, self-expression and experimentation. I love the way it translates when working with small kids. All you need are a few glue sticks, some paper elements and magazines. It’s easy and fun!

You spearhead curating #NationalMuralDay and your own murals are instantly recognizable. Tell us how you designed and created your One Nation mural, a giant 12 x 6 foot mural of a black American flag, which was painted live and part of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and  a permanent part of its collection.
National Mural Day was an activation sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon. The goal was to paint colorful large-scale murals in 25 cities around the country. Each was an opportunity for local graffiti and street artists to creatively express themselves without limitation.  In addition Pabst created a national campaign centered around me and my work.  

In 2016, NMAAHC approached me to create a large-scale art installation as a part of the ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of their new museum, working with museum curators and a team of assistants and volunteers over 4 days. I created a giant (Black) American flag collage piece on the National Mall in front of thousands of spectators.  

American Flag (Black), mixed media collage on panel, 72 x 36 x 4 inches, 2019

What do you hope NMAAHC visitors will think about when they experience your mural? 
I created the mural during the Freedom Sounds Community Festival. It celebrates the rich history of ALL Americans. I really hope museum visitors can see themselves in the work. It was created with the intention to spark conversation about who we are as a collective nation. 

You write that your body of work, Trusted Brands, at first elicits familiar feelings of comfort and nostalgia. But push in closer and hidden messages are revealed raising questions about our values, consumerism, race, gender, class, and history. Tell us more about this. 
As a kid in the 60s and 70s, I loved seeing huge graphics like the 76 logo whizzing by on the highway. Trusted Brands is a homage to growing up during that period in my life. This work is a tribute to all my favorite brands that I grew up with.  As a huge fan of brand identity, my paintings honor Old World craftsmanship and quality graphic design. Brands that have survived for over 100 years! 

Again…the work is about projecting a true reflection of who we are. All of us. Celebrating the best America has to offer.

You designed a poster that can be purchased from the Museum of Graffiti and Give a Damn Vote. Give a Damn Vote states on its website that voting is the best way to get the future you want, to speak for yourself and be heard. We couldn’t agree more. 

Love, Jackson, Michigan, 2018


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