Cey Adams Explains The ‘DEFinition’ Of Hip-Hop Art

Cey Adams Explains The ‘DEFinition’ Of Hip-Hop Art
When it comes to the “look” of hip-hop, Cey Adams is definitely a founding father. The Jamaica, Queens native started out bombing trains in graffiti’s heyday, went on to display art alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, designed iconic logos for LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, and co-founded the design firm behind classic rap album covers like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and Biggie’s Ready to Die. So when it came time to compile the visual history of the genre in a book, it was only right that Adams take the helm.

DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop by Adams (with Bill Adler) looks back at more than 30 years of hip-hop-influenced art. Organized into seven chapters (graffiti, album covers, advertising, film, cars, kicks and fashion), “DEFinition” is the first book to put together all the various media of hip-hop art. Complex recently spoke with Adams and Adler for an exclusive interview, and got them to tell stories behind a few specific images from the book…

Complex: What was the inspiration for the book?

Cey Adams: We kind of watched hip-hop progress over the years, and watched it go from say clothing manufacturers not caring what we thought—or more importantly, dictating what we should be paying attention to and what we should buy—to giving us the opportunity to actually make those decisions for ourselves. And that’s happened over and over and over again in every field.

Bill Adler: As students of hip-hop scholarship, we haven’t done anything quite like this. There are magazines devoted to sneakers, there have been books about graffiti, but nobody before Cey saw all these disparate expressions as expressions of the same so-called hip-hop sensibility.

Complex: What was your definition of hip-hop for the book? What kind of things did you want to include?

Cey Adams: The definition is endless. There are a couple things we could have included that we didn’t, jewelry for example, but first and foremost for me it’s art and design. I wanted to focus on painting and graffiti and things like that, so that was the base, and everything was an offshoot of that. But there could be so many things that we could have tapped into.

Complex: What makes a piece of art or artist “hip-hop”?

Bill Adler: It’s kind of loose. One of the things the book demonstrates over and over again is that there is no stereotypical hip-hop art. The artists in the book don’t fit comfortably into very many categories. It’s the air you breathe, it’s the food you eat, it’s the clothes you wear…

Cey Adams: It’s the company you keep.


“Ali vs. Confidence” Cey Adams, 2006

“Adidas commissioned seven artists to create a collection of paintings in honor of Muhammad Ali. Ali is one of my lifelong heroes, so this job was definitely a highlight of my career. Leroy Neiman, Shepard Fairey, and Eric Bailey were among the other artists. They assigned each of us one of the seven different “values” that Ali chose to define himself, as well as a photo of Ali. I was assigned Confidence. After we made the paintings, Adidas used each image on limited-edition tracksuits and sneakers.”

“Nemesis” B.E. Johnson, 1990

“In 1990, Public Enemy was recording Fear of a Black Planet when Chuck D came to us with a sketch on a napkin that showed a black planet eclipsing Planet Earth. We took Chuck’s sketch to B.E. Johnson, a famous NASA artist. Although Johnson was sure that Chuck’s vision was astrophysically impossible, he painted it anyway. Not only is it one of the greatest album covers of all time, it turned out to be one of most popular pieces Johnson’s ever done.”

Def Jam comic book by Michael Bair and Buzz Parker, 1997

“This was a promo item for a bunch of our artists who had albums coming out at the same time. All of them seemed larger than life, so it was natural to portray them as superheroes. I think Michael Bair worked for DC Comics at the time.”

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