The publicity credits for Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label [Rizzoli Press], which hits the market in early October, cite co-authors Bill Adler and Dan Charnas, essayist Kelefa Sanneh, and label founders Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons, and Lyor Cohen.
But the creative mojo that animates this exquisitely rendered coffee table book comes directly from designer—and one-time Def Jam Creative Director—Cey Adams. Out of Jamaica, Queens, Adams, now 49, made his bones as a graffiti artist at the cusp of the ‘80s.
Through his 15-year run, he oversaw the evolving look of Def Jam’s brand, from the label’s gestation in New York’s outer borough ‘hoods and Downtown clubs through its inexorable transition into well-appointed Manhattan and Los Angeles boardrooms.
He mirrors that experience in the visual narrative, crafting a mise en scene that carries the reader from early art brut images on which rappers pose in urban splendor against brick walls quality—as Adams puts it, “we had 25 bucks and you had to make it work”—to the highly stylized $100,000-per-session shots that denoted the mainstreaming of hip-hop to Establishment status during the ‘90s.
It’s the second Adams-Adler collaboration, and Adams never allows the imagery to overshadow the 40,000-word text, which chronicles Def Jam's timeline with skillfully juxtaposed, surprisingly frank recollections from both executives and musicians.
“There’s a school of thought that people—especially young people—don’t read any more, and that people get intimidated when they look at coffee table books, so they want to flip them and look at the pretty pictures,” says Adams, whose most recent project involved designing an enormous commemorative 9/11 collage at the Greene Space in Lower Manhattan. “As a designer, it’s my job to make the type as beautiful and as pleasing to the eye as possible if people DO decide they want to read it.”
What's your favorite era?
I’m very biased toward the early years, when none of these artists knew how to do anything. They knew how to rap. But nobody knew how to do an interview. Nobody knew what a photographer or a fashion stylist was. Russell created a makeshift finishing school, I would assume modeled after what Berry Gordy did.
When I was working on the book, everyone I talked to said they they wished they’d lived in New York during the ‘80s—everything was happening; it was the beginning of this, the beginning of that. I wanted to make sure that got a lot of space and attention. LL Cool J dates to the early ‘80s.
So do the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, whereas most newer acts don’t have that history. That’s where you’ll see all the beautiful black-and-white Polaroids, the great club fliers, which don’t exist today. I get excited when I look back on these things; it’s the foundation that the label was built upon.
What were your responsibilities and how did they evolve?
Usually we’d have a staff meeting where you’d get your marching orders and sometimes meet the artist for the first time.
The music always got the lion’s share of the attention. People at the label didn’t know what design was. They knew that you had to have an image and the artist’s name on the cover. But they couldn’t really wrap their minds around making that aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
For example, when the time came to put together the album cover for LL Kool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out, I listened to the record and talked to LL a little bit, but it wasn’t like we had a lot of money to do a photo shoot that tied in with the theme.
But LL happened to be doing a shoot for Italian Vogue, and a photographer gave him two prints as a gift from the photo session. He happened to come into the office one day, and it was, like, “What do you think of this?” His shirt was off, he was glistening—beautiful photography from a fashion photographer. Front cover. Back cover. Done. That was the way a lot of projects happened.
You sat down with the artist and fleshed it out. There weren’t a lot of people getting in the way. It wasn’t until the records started selling that it got complicated, because then everybody wanted to throw their two cents in, and ultimately everybody wanted to be part of what was going on at the label.
I never learned what people’s musical tastes were like at the label and in the office, but it was all this one sort of direction. It reminded me of my neighborhood. I liked a lot of different things, but I knew I couldn’t go in there talking about Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles and the Doors. I’m of the age before radio was segregated, and my musical education was based on AM radio.
I tried to use that sensibility when I worked. I never wanted the work to look like it was created for a specific audience. I wanted the work really to be bigger than it was, in a lot of ways. That’s tricky when you don’t have the sales, or even the attention from the parent label. When Columbia started distributing the records, I remember fighting to get a bigger budget to do a photo shoot, and they looked at me like, “How dare you even attempt to ask for more? How do you even know about this?”
What’s a black kid from Queens think he’s doing talking up this...
Yeah. Especially graphic design; that’s a secret society. You’re not supposed to know about that. I remember hearing Spike Lee say that they always wanted you to think that filmmaking was magic. Who let you into this club? I came in through the back door. The ad men at Columbia didn’t care about the music, and they had less than no use for me.
But when the records started selling, suddenly I had more control and power; I was working with the hot records at the label that were paying the bills. Then I got to work with fashion photographers and could do different, costlier production things—use the printer and type house I wanted, or use special varnishes, or use whatever photographer I wanted. Since people at Def Jam didn’t know what graphic design was, no one would tell me I couldn’t do it. It was all based on “What does it cost?”
I’d say, “It’s not so much what it costs; it’s the difference between this and this.” I’d show them what Mariah Carey or Barbra Streisand or Bette Midler were getting. “Oh! Our record sells as much as them. How come we can’t have that?” I showed them that we deserve to have this, too, and then suddenly we got the same benefits that the big white artists were getting. We were selling as many records. People just weren’t talking about it yet.
Who were the graphic designers and artists who inspired you?
Milton Glaser was my only graphic design hero. But once I started working on a lot of the early records, I learned more about the graphic design pioneers and people who designed fonts. As far as to how I wanted the work to appear, I always looked to Pop artists who had clean lines, like Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Indiana.
I knew that most of them had done commercial work before their painting careers took off. I wanted straight lines in my graphics, and to represent the idea with bold colors rather having to rely on a photograph. But it was like pushing a boulder uphill to come into the office with a piece of abstract expressionism at an urban label. I didn’t get to push those things through until Public Enemy and bands like that. But I realized that it doesn’t always happen overnight. I learned very early on to pick my battles.
As the label grew, I realized that I had a huge responsibility, first and foremost, to bring young talent—photographers, illustrators and designers—through the door. I decided that I was going to focus on hiring the best talent that I could. I learned that from Spike Lee, too.
A lot of photographers who are really well known today got their first jobs working at Def Jam. But the attitude then was, "What is design?" Since I knew more about it than all of them, that gave me the courage to stand up. As long as I could show them an example, I had a chance at winning. If you held your position, even if you were wrong, they respected you more than if you were soft about it. The first thing they looked at was cost. I remember once Russell saying, “I’m paying you how much to put a picture on a cover of a record?”
Funny to think of Russell Simmons saying something like that.
But he did.
When did he say that?
This was late ‘80s.
Four, five years later, he’s founding Phat Farm.
I could use a great line from Rocky. When Mickey, the trainer, is talking to Rocky about how Rocky has evolved, he says, “The worst thing happened to you that could happen to a fighter.” He says, “What’s that?” He says, “You became civilized.” That’s ultimately what it comes down to.
For all intents and purposes, we were living in a clubhouse. Then the records started to sell, the artists started to see the world, and little by little we all became civilized. So Russell learned about High Art, High Design and all these other things. The same thing with Lyor Cohen and Rick Rubin. Their tastes became more refined.
How did you meet Russell Simmons?
In 1982, a photographer was taking a picture of a handball court that I painted in Queens. I started talking to him, and he gave me Russell’s business card, which said “RUSH Productions” on it. He said, “this is the guy I’m taking the pictures for.” It was for a Run-DMC record. They ended up using a different photo, but that’s why he was taking pictures. I went to 1133 Broadway and met Russell.
At this time, his staff was like two people. He wasn’t “Russell Simmons” yet. He was managing Kurtis Blow at the time. He was managing a lot of early acts who your readers probably never heard of. We talked for a little while, and he said, “I can’t pay you what you’re worth, but I can pay you something.” I basically started that day.
What’s funny is it didn’t seem like an opportunity at the time. I was already pretty well known on the graffiti circuit, so in my mind, it was just another gig.
I started out doing fliers and postcards, and then designing t-shirts, and then before you know it I was designing tour backdrops. I got to use my graffiti sensibility in a major way. It was very similar to painting on a train. I used techniques that I’d learned early on in my graffiti career, and applied them to whatever was needed. Again, nobody got in my way, because I was the only art guy.
What qualities in Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin defined Def Jam’s early course?
They were both strong personalities, but it didn’t have to be “my way or the highway” with either of them. One wasn’t going to give in to the other, but if, say, Russell didn’t have an opinion about something, and Rick did, Russell would trust Rick’s opinion. Russell came up listening to bands like Blue Magic and the Delfonics, and he had his own ideas about sound as it relates to production.
Rick was coming from a completely different place, and because Russell wasn’t necessarily listening to that kind of music, he’d defer to what Rick liked. The cool thing about Rick and Russ is that each gave the other a lot of space to be as creative as they wanted to be without necessarily having to please the other person.
There’s a comment in the book to the effect that Russell Simmons built the culture.
This is the difference between being black and being white, in a lot of ways. When you’re black, you represent the culture by default, because you’re a part of the movement. Russell is always about the culture, because that’s who he is. It’s the same thing with me. I represent the culture.
Whereas Rick has the luxury of just being about the music. He was always about the beat. When you’re a person of color, you’re kind of forced to accept a role that if there’s something that you can do to guide the next generation, it’s your responsibility to do that. Music doesn’t have any responsibility.
I think a conclusion we can extrapolate from that quote is that Russell Simmons, along with other people, like Sean Combs and so forth, transformed hip-hop into a predominant cultural signifier. Clothing that represents hip-hop.
You know what Russell is very good at? He’s good at allowing talented people to do what they do, to let them breathe. He doesn’t have to take credit for everything everybody does, but in a sense he still gets credit for it.
Russell’s thing is, “I’m going to put you in charge of this and let you do it to the best of your ability. Just don’t fuck up. Because if you do, I’m going to replace you.”
But ultimately, most people who work with Russell recognize that they’re being given an opportunity to succeed, and that’s the ball that they take and run with.
What occurred to me as I read the book is how pragmatic hip-hop was, and graffiti too. How pragmatic Russell Simmons is. How pragmatic Jay-Z is. They'd absorb something, and if they could use it, fine; if not, fine. It’s in line with that American tradition of incorporating vernacular stuff, and then forming something out of it almost in a trial-and-error process.
I think that the music lends itself to that. The culture lends itself to that. I never feel completely fulfilled. There’s always much more to do. I’m like, “One day we’ll get there.” Then we get there, and we’re ready to move forward yet again.