Graphic artist Cey Adams has been around since the dawn of Def Jam records. With cohort and journalist Bill Adler, the two hip hop alumni have created a new book called ‘DEFinition: the Art and Design of HipHop’. Due out October 16th, the book features a whole host of close friends who have made an impact on this provocative element of hip hop history. Cey and Bill sat down with Sneaker Freaker to school us all in art, science and John Coltrane…
Hi Guys, give us a bit of background into your rich history with hip hop and the culture.
Cey: I started writing graf when I was a teenager in Queens. I met Russell Simmons in 1984 and became his in-house graphic artist, creating stage backdrops, t-shirt and hat designs, logos, advertisements, whatever was needed. In 1986 I teamed up with Steven Carr, who now directs Hollywood films, and we began to do work for other labels, including the Notorious B.I.G’s first album for Bad Boy. Since then I’ve applied my creative talents to several different fields, including film, sportswear, etc. And I’ve never stopped making paintings. Basically, my art has grown in many of the ways that hip hop itself has grown.
Bill: As a working journalist in New York in the early Eighties, I wrote about Kurtis Blow for the Daily News and the Bronx’s Disco Fever for People magazine. I was Def Jam’s director of publicity from 1984 to 1990. During this period I worked with Run-DMC, Whodini, Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Slick Rick, Eric B & Rakim, EPMD, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, 3rd Bass, De La Soul and many others. In 1987 I wrote a full-length biography of Run-DMC. It was reissued in 2002 as “Tougher Than Leather: The Rise of Run-DMC.” In 2003 I founded the Eyejammie Fine Arts Gallery, which was devoted to hip hop’s visual arts. It remained open through the end of 2007. In 2004 I wrote and produced a five-part documentary history of hip hop for VH1. It was entitled “And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of HipHop.”
You both have had first-hand experience working within the industry but from different perspectives. How did you come together to utilise both your expertise to create the new book ‘DEFinition: the Art and Design of HipHop’?
Cey: I’ve never felt that the artists and designers who actually create much of hip hop’s visual work get the credit they deserve. ‘DEFinition’ is a first stab at correcting that neglect. I decided to do it with Bill on it because I knew we would work well together and I thought we might have some fun. (Actually, the best part of making the book was getting to eat dinner at Bill’s house a bunch of times. His wife, Sara Moulton, is an excellent chef.)
Bill: We’ve been friends every since our Def Jam days. ‘DEFinition’ is Cey’s brilliant idea. He asked me if I’d help him put it together and I told him I would.
How is DEFinition going to compare to the increasing number of books on the culture, especially what seems like a fad of bringing back images from the past.
Cey: There’s nothing faddish about our book. We did our best to create something that gives full credit to the history of sustained creativity that defines the culture. I’m not a kid any more. I think it’s more and more important to turn on younger people to the art and artists who have paved the way. It’s important to me personally to help to keep alive the memory of Dondi, Caine1, Frosty Freeze, Shy147 and the other greats who have passed. It’s equally important to give props to all the younger artists doing important work. We’re talking about 30 years worth of creativity that’s never before been seen as an art movement unto itself, but that’s what it is.
Bill: ‘DEFinition’ is unique because of the amount of ground it attempts to cover. It’s not just about a single expression of hip hop’s visual culture. That’s why our book has chapters devoted to fine art, album cover art, movies and television, advertising, sneakers, cars, and fashion. And if we’d had more pages, we could have added another three chapters.
Of course, we all want to know about the sneakers section of the publication. How do you decide who to approach to interview and comment on the sneaker scene?
Cey: I’m not an expert on sneaker design, but I am a fan. I did some research online and reached out to the people I had access to, many of whom were already friends. In truth, we hardly even scratched the surface. There are tons of talented artists making sneakers these days.
Just how do you think sneaker culture has impacted hip hop culture and in your eyes how has it changed over the last three decades?
Bill: No one has ever done a better job of summing up the impact of hip hop on sneaker design, and the hip hopper’s fiendish desire for fresh kicks, than the writer Bonz Malone. In our book we quote him verbatim from the ‘Just for Kicks’ documentary in 2006: ‘The Air Force One is a planet unto itself, but hip-hop runs that planet. How else do you think Nike grossed $26 billion this year? There ain’t that many joggers in the world.’
Cey: Imagine what Adidas could have done if they’d stayed the course after 1986. But then Nike saw the opportunity and made a serious, decades-long commitment to sneaker culture, as distinct from athletic footwear, and they grew into a giant in the process.
Cey, you have worked alongside adidas in the adicolor campaign of 2006, with your Beastie Boys emblazed baby blue sneaker. Can you give us some insight into working with adidas on the collection and how they approached you?
During the last several years adidas has recommitted itself to hip hop. I was in Berlin in 2004, on tour with the Beasties. By then some of the young people working for adidas today had done their homework and figured out who I was, and they commissioned me to do some new work for them. They gave me a blank canvas. I designed my collection as a tribute to the spirit of ‘old-school’ hip hop, including b-boying, graffiti, and rapping. The color scheme was powder blue because it reminded me of the gear that b-boys used to wear back in the day.
Bill, you are very well known for your cameo in Thibaut de Longeville’s ‘Just For Kicks’ documentary providing an insight into the correlation between prison assigned sneakers and the fashion influence they had on the streets back in the day. What influences are you seeing on the sneaker scene these days, and do you think we will ever get back to the pure excitement and raw energy brands were accumulating back in the ‘70s and ‘80s?
The embarrassing truth is that I am not myself a sneaker freak. In ‘Just For Kicks’ I am merely elaborating upon something that Jam Master Jay told me back in the Eighties. The only sneaker style trend I’m aware of now is that the great brands are commissioning hip-hop’s great designers directly as they never did before, which is something that Cey Adams told me. And, as for ‘going back’, I don’t think so. You can never go back.
Do you still think the culture is very male dominated or are we seeing a major shift in females coming to the limelight, not only in footwear but also in hip hop as a whole. Indeed you feature Lil’ Kim on the cover of your new book, but are we going to start to see a shift from sexualising women to empowering them? Does it seem ironic that we are seeing a major turning point of men in the culture being more sexualised than the ladies?
Cey: I put Kim on the cover not because she’s sexy, although she is, but because I really admire the work of the painter Mike Thompson. Yes, she’s wearing a bikini in this portrait, but look at her face. She’s beautiful. In fact, an earlier version of the cover was cropped so that all you could see was her face. I’m not saying you can’t subject the painting to a political interpretation. But I’m here to tell you that it’s on the cover of my book, an art book, because it’s a great painting.
Bill: Rap music may be as male-dominated and as sexist as ever, but other expressions of hip-hop culture are nowhere near as testosterone-addled. Consider magazine publishing; we understand that there’s a woman in Australia who helps run a magnificent magazine called Sneaker Freaker.
The hip hop culture is often times married with an extremely excessive lifestyle of materialism, and images of a lifestyle that most ‘normal’ heads could never afford. Has your artwork played a hand into building this fantastical illusion, or do you balance this out with a sense of realism in your work?
Bill: There’s always been a strain of materialism in hip-hop. But let’s keep in mind that many of the culture’s great achievers started out as poor folks in a rich man’s society. When they acquire something beautiful and expensive, they want to tell the world about it, ‘See? Donald Trump’s got nothing on me!’ The funny thing about the average hip hopper is that he’s not resentful when he sees one of his heroes cruising around in a super-expensive car. On the contrary, it gives him hope, ‘Man, oh, man! Ludacris looks like me and came from the same kind of neighborhood. If he can make it, maybe I can, too, some day.’ In that way, the average hip hopper is identical to the average American. Those of us with radical politics might wish otherwise, but it’s awfully hard to stir up class resentments here.
Regarding our book, there are dozens and dozens of artists represented. I think their artwork expresses all kinds of values: peace, love, unity, having fun and, occasionally, the gleam of luxury goods. It’s worth noting, by the way, that many of these artists work in the world of fine art and the world of commercial art, and none of them hangs his head in shame when he gets a commission to design some shoes for Adidas. There’s realism for you, everybody has to pay the rent.
Ain’t that the truth! Who have been some of the artists you have worked with that have really inspired you to make a difference with your work?
Cey: Last year adidas hired me to work on their ‘Ali Values’ campaign, a tribute to Muhammad Ali. I didn’t get a chance to meet him personally, but just knowing that he supervised the work was huge to me. Nobody’s had a bigger influence on my work than Muhammad Ali.
Bill: None of the artists I’ve worked with have been quite as inspirational to me as John Coltrane, who I only know as a fan. ‘There are forces for evil in the world and forces for good,’ Coltrane once said. ‘I want to be a force for good.’ That’s been my watchword since I was a young man.
Major thanks to Cey Adams for providing the images.