Monday, October 27, 2008
Monday Evening in Williamsburg: Teatro El Puente's "LIVE: A Labor of Love," Peformances, Information & HIV Testing for Latino AIDS Awareness Day
We've just returned from a wonderful evening of great performances, informative and moving talks, and free HIV testing at El Puente, Williamsburg's venerable human rights institution and community center, as part of the observance of Latino AIDS Awareness Day.
Presented by Teatro El Puente, "LIVE: A Labor of Love," was aimed at the community's teens, and except for one cranky guy who was afraid he'd be mistaken for someone's abuelo and few other older people, nearly all of the about ninety or so audience members in the El Puente auditorium looked between 14 and 19.
Of course, anyone involved in AIDS education among adolescents knows that Teatro El Puente was a pioneer in employing the arts and peer education since its 1987 founding as the first educational AIDS theater company for adolescents in New York City. (At Teachers College in the summer of 1990, we learned about them when we took a class in AIDS Education and Human Sexuality - one that certified public school teachers for the Board of Ed's curriculum in family living and sex education.)
The main room of El Puente downstairs has a slightly raised stage - a huge red AIDS ribbon was raised over it tonight - and the audience sat in comfortable chairs in two rows. We were lucky enough to get a good aisle seat . There was a DJ in one corner throughout the show, which was incredibly professional, given that the people running it were, to our ancient eyes, very young.
The MCs of the evening, Teatro El Puente's Nikki and Jordan Figueroa, showed real aplomb not just in moving the show along but in their interactions with the audience and the "freshest, dopest" performers who were energetic, feisty and soulful.
Jordan performed a moving monologue about being a five-year-old watching his HIV-positive mom and others shoot up in their apartment and about losing her just three years ago when he was 15. So it's imperative that because the disease affects numerous others besides those who are ill that we all make sure not to engage in risky behavior:
You make the wrong decision,
AIDS targets you with such precision
that it's too late
None of what we heard about AIDS/HIV during the course of the evening seemed saccharine or condescending, and it was clear that the kids in the audience got it. Periodically some of the health workers would walk up and down the aisle during the show holding papers with numbers - 013, 022, 018 - and those kids who were given those numbers got up and went back to be tested in a private room.
After some great moves by Raje Entertainment's N-FINI-T hip-hop dancers, the first solo performer onstage was Robin DeJesus, whose talent we first spotted four years ago at the Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale when we saw his amazing performance in the bouncy movie musical Camp in which he played the drag-queen kid rejected by his family.
Robin first performed a charismatic rendition of "I'll Cover You," the love song he first did years ago when he understudied the part of Angel in Rent. This year he got a Tony nomination for his featured performance as Sonny in In the Heights.
Joking about putting on his "drama face," Robin then sang "Corner of the Sky," which he did every bit as skillfully as we can recall John Rubinstein singing it on Broadway in Pippin back in the early 1970s when we were not much older than the kids at El Puente were tonight.
Next, George, a speaker from Love Heals, the Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education. We remember Ali Gertz well: about 20 years ago, she was a prominent AIDS educator who went public after discovering had gotten HIV from her first sexual experience at 16. George talked about how AIDS was first discovered in 1981 and how AIDS was first considered only a gay disease.
We recall first hearing about GRID - "Gay-Related Immune Disorder" - and HIV was "HTLV-III," as it is in our story "I Survived Caracas Traffic," originally published in Florida Review in 1987, later the title story of our 1996 collection. (Self-serving plug: Kirkus Reviews called the story "a resonant meditation on the themes of relationships, AIDS, and mortality.")
Having been gay and living in both South Florida and Manhattan back in the 1980s, we sometimes felt the epidemic would never end. George spoke about being an 18yo Cuban-American from Miami who came up to New York in 1986 to work in a Manhattan hair salon, where he met his friend Steven, also Cuban, the first person he knew who had AIDS.
Like too many of our own friends, Steven was down to 97 pounds in six months and barely hanging on in a hospital where the nurses were afraid to enter his room, where Steven's mom would sit night and day. George described sitting with her at his friend's side and how Steven's skin turned gray, something George could only think of as part of a process of the rotting of his body.
Then, one day while George was there, Steven - who hadn't lifted his head in days - suddenly shot up in bed and said "Michael!" - the name of his dead boyfriend - and just as suddenly laid back dead. "I can't describe to you what the air feels like when you're in a room where someone's life leaves his body," George told the crowd.
Cognizant of the dangers by the many friends who died - George took out a sheet of paper and read the first names of those whose memorial services he attended in just one year in the mid-1980s: men, women, gay, straight, white, black, Latino, Asian, maybe twenty in all - George made sure to be safe. That is, until years later, when unlike in the 1980s you weren't seeing sick people everywhere, when George got drunk one night at a bar and met a cute guy.
That one unsafe encounter led to his testing positive for HIV, and although George looks great and healthy - he just had the eleventh anniversary of surviving with the virus - he discussed how angry his friends became because of their own worry for his health and how the "miracle" drugs that keep him OK once caused an allergic reaction in which his liver swelled, he ran a high fever and almost died in the nine days he was in intensive care.
He told the kids he still has permanent nerve damage and then he took out a card that he carries which states that he takes medication that can cause this kind of allergic reaction at any time, without warning. The audience was very quiet as George said that no one should have sex without a condom or latex barrier and that if you can't talk about condoms with your partner, then you're probably not ready to have sex with them.
The thing is, condoms do work, and George gave as an example his HIV-negative boyfriend who's lived with him for three years. He told everyone to read the instructions for condoms when you've still got your clothes on. The audience laughed, but they got it.
The MC's thanked George and Love Heals and the kids applauded. With some more talk about HIV, the evening then switched to pure entertainment for a while with Quad Divino, a vibrant and sensuous quartet of dancers, two guys and two women.
Next up was the versatile Khalid Rivera, who's been number one several times on MTV Logo's Click List.
If you've never seen Khalid's vid of "Every Nite," you can catch it here, but we've got to say he's even hotter performing it live.
The single of "Every Nite" is, we think, number one on the Canadian charts. Khalid also sang a great version of "How Do U Mend a Broken Heart" and ended his set with a terrific song he performed with Nikki and Shanelle.
After the crowd gave it up for Khalid, Anny Mariano of Teatro El Puente portrayed, in one of the troupe's new plays, a feisty young woman who accompanies her friend to get tested for venereal disease and to her surprise - the character has only been with one guy, the father of her son, who's currently in jail - she tests positive for HIV.
Anny Mariano gave a terrific performance as someone going through all the stages known to those of us with friends and family who've received this diagnosis: denial, anger, and finally understanding and acceptance. The scene she did with Jordan Figueroa, playing her boyfriend who finally admits he's had sex with a guy while incarcerated, was riveting.
Anny's monologue ended back in the health clinic as she comes back to talk to the woman who'd given her the HIV test news weeks or months before (and who she'd cursed out with energetic rage). She (and Jordan) received a lot of well-deserved applause.
The bouncy star of the new PBS Electric Company - premiering in a couple of months - rapper P-Star bounded onstage next with five backup dancers, three other women and two younger boys, all wearing different colored P-Star T-shirts.
A star since she was about 6 - like a whole seven years ago - P-Star is a dynamic one-girl entertainment industry as a rapper, actress, dancer, choreographer, host of TV's Teen Diaries - and she's even got her own exercise DVD!
She gave us an energetic show with audience participation. "Where you at?!" P-Star shouted.
"Brooklyn!" we all shouted back.
It wasn't loud enough for P-Star, so we kept shouting "Brooklyn!" until the decibels were deafening and P-Star said, "Brooklyn, make some news!" Um, okay. We admit, like her song says, she's cool, cool, cooler than us.
The next performer up was Fascious, the writer/performer who's a member of The Intangibles Spoken Word Collective, Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam Finalist (2007) and two-time Northeast Regional Poetry Slam Champion (2007, 2008).
Fascious talked about people's lingering false perceptions of AIDS as a disease of Africa or of white gay men before doing a moving poem about being with his dying grandfather when he was a kid who learned chess from the old man. Fascious is a hypnotic performer, as you can see on this video of "Chess":
The next featured speaker, Frances Lucerna, was introduced as "the mother of El Puente" - more formally, she's its executive director - and she took the stage to much applause from her kids and members of the community. She said she was truly honored to be their "mother" at the evening's "celebration of life."
Like us, Frances Lucerna said she was taken aback by the tremendous talent onstage and how skillfully everyone had worked on the show. George's story had touched her, she said, and she remembered how in the 1980s, with AIDS devastating New York, it sometimes seemed like the end of the world. We remember. . .
El Puente lost a lot of members, and Frances said she, like George and many of us of a certain age and a certain community, attended more memorial services than anyone should in just the space of a few years. She mentioned Angel and Andy, who worked hard at El Puente, and how we have to honor people like them by taking up our responsibilities and getting word out about HIV in the community - the way Teatro El Puente has been doing since 1987, when it was established as the AIDS Drama Project.
Back then people were skeptical of doing HIV education for teens and young adults through drama performances, but today "the El Puente way" is the model for such programs not only in the U.S. but around the world. Teatro El Puente has taken their message to thousands of people over the past couple of decades, and Frances exhorted the audience to "tell the story, make a difference, make a commitment, make the right choices."
To warm applause, Frances Lucerna thanked everyone for coming together as a community to "celebrate our lives and our talents." And she ended with the hope that we can look forward to the day when we won't need to do AIDS Awareness Days, when the disease will be just a memory.
The evening ended on a high note with an energetic performance by Anthony Rodriguez and La Santa Luz Dance Company, of which he's artistic director.
Anthony was also a featured dancer on the 2001 Madonna Drowned World Tour, and has worked for Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Marc Anthony and Tito Puente. You can check out Anthony's moves here and you'll understand why the crowd at El Puente went wild.
Okay, not really wild. Not for teenagers anyway. Actually, the thing that most impressed us about tonight's event wasn't even the great performers or speakers but the kids in the audience at El Puente and those in Teatro El Puente who worked so hard on creating a great show. We saw several dozen kids get up during the show to go back to get HIV tests and, we know, some counseling.
Hey, even we took some of the condoms on the front table as we went out into the Williamsburg night. Thanks to everyone at El Puente and Teatro El Puente, particularly to Theresa Doherty for letting us know about this great event.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
We've just returned from spending a decent chunk of the afternoon at the Domino Sugar Refinery waterfront, which more or less suddenly opened for a few hours after being closed to the public for over a hundred years.
We're not sure where we first got word of this late Friday night, but it seemed to be a last-minute thing. Several people, including our urban historian friend Justin Ferate, honored by the New York State Tourism Council as "New York's Most Engaging Tour Guide," sent us almost frantic emails, and then this morning we spotted a poster which looked as if it was freshly hung.
(Photo of Domino sign somewhat the worse for wear courtesy of Barek 176, who has more terrific pics of today's event at Flickr.)
It wasn't listed on the events calendar of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, and the first online notice seems to be on the Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG) blog, which said "The developers of the Domino Sugar Factory site are allowing the public to go down to the waterfront this Sunday."
The poster said the waterfront would be open starting at 2 p.m., but other sites, like this one copied another press release that said
Unlocking gates that have been closed to the public for more than 100 years, officials of Refinery, LLC, the developer of the Domino Sugar site, invite local residents and their friends and families to enjoy a “Sunday in the Park” on the Williamsburg, Brooklyn waterfront at the foot of South Second Street and Kent Avenue on Sunday, October 19 at 2:30 p.m.
So we went at 3:30 p.m., bundled up for the chilliest day since last April. Having lived in South Florida for over two decades, we think any day that doesn't reach 70 degrees is too cold, so it does take a once-in-a-century happenstance to get us to go to an outdoor event in this frigid fall weather.
(Photo courtesy The Three Jays)
Taking the B24 bus from the corner of Metropolitan and Lorimer to the last stop by the Williamsburg Bridge terminal, we walked past the old Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building and Peter Luger's to make our way on South 2nd Street to Kent Avenue, where the right-hand side of the big gate between two factory buildings was open.
Homemade-looking signs in a jaunty handwriting said WELCOME TO DOMINO. Other, less welcoming signs said NO SKATEBOARDING - NO FENCE CLIMBING - NO ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES - NO GLASS BOTTLES - WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO PERFORM RANDOM BAG SEARCHES.
There wasn't a sign that said NO BICYCLES, but the security guard called back a bearded guy in racing-bike attire who was carrying his wheels and said no bicycles were allowed. He protested the lack of any notice, and we found it curious that some emails we got about the event, like the one from our friend Neil Feldman at Not Only Brooklyn: Wondrous and Free Events (email@example.com), called it "Sweet bicycling on the Domino Sugar Refinery waterfront" in their listings.
Anyway, eventually the security guard agreed to let the guy leave his bike at the gate, though he said he couldn't guarantee its safety. We walked in with a quintet of Hasidic young men and were all greeted with, "Welcome to Domino, gentlemen" from a middle-aged woman whose connection with the event didn't seem evident.
For a kind of impromptu opening, it was actually well-done. The broad walkway stretched from S. 2nd Street down to just under the Williamsburg Bridge (S. 5th Street?), and while we were there it seemed anything but crowded although we estimated well over a hundred people were there.
(Photo courtesy of the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint & Williamsburg)
Temporary fences from National Rent-A-Fence kept us from going down to the water from the path or, on the other side, to the grounds of the factory buildings proper, where outdoor signs read HARD HAT AREA and SAFETY FIRST - EYE PROTECTION REQUIRED IN THIS PLANT.
Lots and lots of people were taking photographs with expensive equipment and cell phones. As we walked in, a cameraman/reporter from News 12 was on his way out, and we later saw someone from WABC-TV/7 news.
Evidently trucks once rode on what we were using as a walkway, as there were a couple of high traffic lights with signs close by: TRUCKS STOP HERE ON RED SIGNAL - GO ON GREEN. Duh.
(Photo courtesy of aur2899, who has a few other great pics of the factory from today at Flickr.)
The Two Boots of Brooklyn banner was in front of a table where people seemed to be giving out only drinks, though perhaps we got there too late and all their usual delicious Cajun and Italian eats were gone.
We did stand on a short line to get bright blue cotton candy for the first time since, um, probably Rockaways Playland circa 1964. After quickly reminding ourselves of the taste and mouth feel, we discarded most of it, wondering if Domino Sugar had been spun. "The New Domino" company was certainly engaging in spin, we guess, about engaging community support for their plans for the landmark. (We're not really familiar enough with the apparent controversy to say anything coherent.)
(Photo of someone who enjoyed cotton candy more than we did courtesy of Matt Semel, who has a beautiful photostream of today's event at Flickr.)
After seeing a couple of hipster ladies in leather jackets playing dominoes at one of the white plastic tables scattered along the site, we realized we could get a free set of dominoes in a pretty wooden box, with DOMINO written on the top and "the new DOMINO" on the side. The instructions inside were in German:
Wenn keiner der Spieler mehr einen passenden Stein besitzt, hat derjenige gewonnen, dessen restliche Steine den niedrigsten Punktwert ergeben.
(Photo courtesy EV Grieve, who has an interesting take and maybe 20 more pics at the EV Grieve blog, which contains "things that you may or may not be interested in about the East Village and other parts of New York City." [We, at least, are interested].)
Two large posters of a diverse group of Williamsburg residents enjoying themselves on the grass and walkway of the future greenway were hung on the fence with an attached sign FOR ILLUSTRATIVE PURPOSES ONLY. Still, we were mightily impressed, as well as by the map of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway project area spanning 14 miles from Sunset Park to Newtown Creek in Greenpoint.
(Photo courtesy Ponara Steven Eng for MetroPost, which calls today's event "Domino Sugar Perestroika")
There were tables from the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway Initiative where people could take leaflets and sign up for their mailing lists. Free bags of popcorn - they'd have to pay us to eat popcorn - were also available at a nearby table, though it was bereft of a sheet to sign up for the popcorn mailing list.
In addition to the white plastic chairs and tables, green plastic fake-Adirondack chairs were scattered along the walkway overlooking the East River. A trio of musicians, sitting, featured a female singer and two instrumentalists, who were low-key and laid-back.
(Photo of the view from the waterfront courtesy of Barek 176, who has other wonderful photos of today's event at Flickr.)
The view was the great attraction. It was a gorgeous vista. At the south end, we could see the underside of the Williamsburg Bridge and lower Manhattan, with the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges and Statue of Liberty clearly visible in the crisp air.
Across the river to the north the east side of Manhattan stretched before us, with all the familiar landmarks of the always-thrilling skyline looking shiny and bright. Towards the north the Queensboro Bridge stood, with hulking brown apartment buildings (from Queens? The Bronx?) in the background.
(Photo courtesy EV Grieve, who has an interesting take and maybe 20 more pics at the EV Grieve blog.)
New York City, and particularly Brooklyn, has made shockingly little use of the spaces around its many waterways. We grew up just two blocks from the brackish waters of Mill Basin, and while we loved listening to the sound of foghorns and the fishy smell in the air on overcast spring days, access to the waterway was blocked totally by tall fences, beyond which were an oil refinery (that in the late 1950s was the site of a horrific fire that blackened our neighborhood skies and made the air weirdly hot and smoky) and later, the parking lot of the Kings Plaza Shopping Center.
We had to drive twenty minutes to the beach at Rockaway to get our fix of a view from the shoreline.
No surprise, then, that our first apartment was a studio in a building right up against the boardwalk on Beach 118th Street, where we could stroll and see the sea - or watch it from the terraces at the Shore Front Parkway highrise apartments of both sets of our grandparents a a dozen blocks away.
In Florida we nearly always lived off a lake. Our apartment door at Cameron Cove in Davie - where we rented four different apartments from 1988 to 2005 - would open to the water, where we'd see Muscovy ducks afloat and blue herons spreading their wings on the shore.
As we overheard a happy Roman Catholic priest tell his friends in suits (the developers?) as we made our way out, "Everyone's loving this!"
(Photo courtesy the very astute and fashionable blogger Harry Podder and the Big Apple, who's got a dozen really nice pics of today's scene at his blog, which also has many other posts that make for interesting reading.)
As we waited across Kent Avenue for the Q59 bus to take us to Metropolitan and Union Avenues, we wondered, "The waterfront: what's not to love?"
Let's hope the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway is a part of our lives as soon as it can be. And let's hope the new Domino people will open up their part of the waterfront again when we can stroll in the outfit God intended us to wear, shorts and a t-shirt.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Thursday Evening at the Brooklyn Heights Barnes & Noble: Cey Adams and Bill Adler's "DEFinition: The Art & Design of Hip-Hop"
This evening we took the fabulous G train eight stops to Hoyt/Schermerhorn and walked down Schermerhorn the three blocks to the Court Street Barnes & Noble to see hip-hop graphic designer Cey Adams and resident genius Bill Adler talk about their fantastic and beautiful new book, DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop.
Cey Adams is the Brooklyn-based graphic designer who came up alongside art icons including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Lady Pink and Zephyr. He went from bombing subway trains to designing album covers, stage backdrops, sportswear, and indelible logos. His clients include Def Jam Recordings, Bad Boy Records, Roca Wear, Adidas, Burton Snowboards, Coca-Cola, Moët & Chandon, Comedy Central, HBO, Warner Brothers, and many others.
Less well-known are some of his community activities, like teaching kids with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, going into inner city neighborhoods and explaining to kids the benefits of running art. He also has designed clothing, like the jacket and the Adidas shown below, both of which are featured in the book, and logos like the one for Mary J. Blige. Cey's work for the Beastie Boys is so legendary, he's practically the fourth member of the group.
Bill Adler started out as a radio DJ and music critic before landing up at Def Jam/Rush Management as their publicist in 1984. There he promoted the careers of hip-hop legends Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, 3rd Bass, and Slick Rick, and many others. He left in 1990, and has since then has worked at Island Records and founded his own PR firm.
Between 2003 and 2007 he was the owner and curator of the Eyejammie Fine Arts Gallery, an exhibition space devoted to hip-hop's visual arts. He played a major role in conceiving and designing the hip-hop exhibit at Seattle's Music Experience Music Project and is the author of the recently-reissued Tougher Than
Leather: The Rise of Run-DMC, which originally appeared twenty years ago.
The talk took place at the bookstore's corner by the windows on Court and Schermerhorn, and we got there just in time. The B&N coordinator was introducing the authors, who first met at Def Jam back in the 1980s. Basically he read the boilerplate from the HarperCollins website for the book:
Compiled by legendary hip-hop designer Cey Adams, DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop is the first comprehensive anthology published in the name of the genre during the last thirty-five years. This landmark volume celebrates a culture that has made its mark on everything from fine art to the label on a bottle of Hawaiian Punch, including fashion, automobiles, movies, television, advertising, and sneakers.
It highlights the careers and artwork of such crucial hip-hop elders as Lady Pink, Haze, Run-DMC, Dapper Dan, Buddy Esquire, Spike Lee, and Snoop Dogg as well as contemporary giants like Kehinde Wiley, Mr. Cartoon, Shepard Fairey, Dalek, Mike Thompson, Jor One, and Claw Money, and dozens of others, DEFinition examines the evolution of hip-hop as a visual phenomenon with the historical depth that only an insider like Cey Adams can provide. Featuring more than 200 stunning photographs and illustrations as well as compelling essays by some of hip-hop's most seasoned voices, DEFinition illuminates the culture in a form that speaks to aficionados and newcomers alike.
In an interview with Format, Cey Adams explained the book this way:
The idea is that over the last 20, 25 years, basically since the birth of hip-hop, there’s amazing talent emerging and a lot of these are people of colour. A lot of them are Asian, or middle eastern, basically, not white. There’s all these amazing talent that are coming up and nobody is really giving their work a voice. Everybody talks about graffiti and everything that happened in the ‘80’s but in my opinion that story has already been told, over and over again.
Nobody is telling the story of the young kid that was inspired by Fear of a Black Planet (Public Enemy) or License to Ill (Beastie Boys) and decided that they wanted to become a graphic designer. So my concept was to try to incorporate graffiti and the evolution of graffiti and street art and show that people like Shephard Fairey or the disciples of Keith Haring, just basically to show the thread. . .
Bill began by introducing a couple of amazing Brooklyn artists featured in the book. André LeRoy Davis was sitting directly behind us. You may not recognize the name, but you've definitely seen his work. His label gigs have included pieces for Bad Boy, Jive and Def Jam, amongst other labels, and his amazing illustrations have graced the pages of numerous magazines, including Rappages, Mad, and High Times. André is the longest running employee of The Source, which has featured his Last Word column in the magazine for 112 years. What Al Hirschfeld is to Broadway, André LeRoy Davis is to hip-hop.
Bill also introduced Nika Sarabi, sitting in the next row back. She's new school and her work is some of the best art coming up from a new generation of artists influenced by hip-hop.
Bill started off his talk by discussing how he met Cey over 20 years ago at Def Jam, where he was publicity director and Cey was the in-house artist who'd created a fantastic mural for Russell Simmons' office at the time when the Simmons empire consisted of two rooms.
Saying that Cey was never afraid to move beyond the conventional at a time in the mid-1980s when hip-hop imagery had become pure cliché - for example, every recording artist had to appear with a scowl and folded arms and a Kangol hat leaning against a graffiti-covered wall. "Let's surprise people," Cey said as he searched for original images.
Coming up in the 1970s, Cey wanted to give rap artists the kind of great album cover art that rock stars of that era got. Bill said that those 12" x 12" album covers made a huge canvas, and Cey noted that the gatefold album covers were even twice that size. In some sense, the genesis of the book was their artistic work for rappers.
Yet, Bill said, rap probably gets more than its share of attention even though the hip-hop culture was always more than just music, and he reminded us of Afrika Bambaataa's four pillars of hip-hop: MCing (rapping); DJing; urban art/tagging (graffiti); and b-boying (or breakdancing). The talk here reminded us of one of our favorite books of hip-hip history, Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop.
Flashing forward maybe thirty years to the present, Bill noted that lots of people equate hip-hop with rapping, and it's far more. Their book presents seven chapters on various forms and media where hip-hop culture has thrived and evolved: graffiti, yes, but also things like advertising, fashion in general and sneakers in particular, as well as the "pimp my ride" car culture (always bigger in California, of course, than New York).
Bill found it irksome that if you came to hip-hop art not from the hip-hop world but from the art world, your idea of the field probably begins and ends with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, both of whom were dead by 1990. But there are almost two decades of work out there that have gotten little attention from the art establishment, and part of the inspiration for DEFinition was an attempt to change that.
Cey then took over from Bill, saying that there aren't that many people like himself and Bill around, people who've lived through the entire history of hip-hop and seen it take all its varied forms. DEFinition tries to be an overview of the visual reach of hip-hop culture, but the book is just the tip of the iceberg, and given the amount of good work out there by many talented people, DEFinition could easily be many times its size.
The thrill of doing the book for him, Cey said, was showcasing people's talents, especially younger, less well-known people like Nika Sarabi - which was "the same thing that Jean-Michel [Basquiat] and Keith Haring did" with newer artists back in the day.
Interrupting, Bill said, "If we waited for the 'official' art world to wake up, we'd wait another thirty years." Cey agreed, noting that things that make a lot of money get the most attention, and so often really good work gets overlooked.
Cey then gave as an example the now classic The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die cover that Cey created. As Format noted, the cover
depicts the duality of Biggie’s outlook: the bleak title is juxtaposed by the innocence of an afroed, diaper-clad baby. Is the message that despite the roots of innocence, Biggie, and other inner-city dwellers, are doomed? Or is it a message of hope – that there is still innocence amid the oft-violent everyday struggles of life in Bedford-Stuyvesant?
Cey showed, and the book contains, some remarkable photographic images of the baby - "outtakes" that nobody's seen before. If only he knew how much money Biggie's album would make, Cey said, he might have paid more attention to documenting stuff. For example, who was the baby in that now-iconic image that's been appropriated all over the place?
Bill mentioned that on September 30, they curated an art exhibit related to the book's publication and that it broke his heart to pull it down after one night. Both said they hoped one day there could be an exhibition that would have more staying power and travel to different art gallery venues so more people could see it.
Paintings like the cover of DEFinition, the Foxy Brown portrait by Mike Thompson, are indeed excellent art. Cey mentioned that HarperCollins has put this band around the cover (by the more interesting parts of Foxy's anatomy) and asked the crowd if people thought it was sexist or demeaning to women because they've gotten interesting feedback on the subject.
To us, it's no more demeaning to women that Manet's Olympia. (An interview with Cey and Mike in the magazine Sneaker Freaker in which they deal with the issue and say more interesting stuff that we can convey here.)
The whole conversation was fascinating, as is the book. Cey praised the generosity of artists and musicians and others who "opened up their drawers," as David Lee and David LaChapelle did with fabled images of Spike Lee and Kimora, for inclusion in the book. He spoke about stuff like the two different-colored covers of Run-DMC's Raising Hell and the group's influence on fashion.
Saying that "everybody came to the table," both Cey and Bill mentioned so many famous names in the art, music and fashion worlds, it kind of made us dizzy. The versatility in DEFinition is both a tribute to Cey Adams' own versatility but also one more example of how hip-hop has been the most influential pop culture movement of the last thirty years.
After more fascinating talk and a few Q&A, Cey and Bill wrapped up the hour-long talk to warm applause from the crowd and we all lined up to get our copies of the book signed.
Here's excerpts from what a couple of more smarter bloggers have said about the book. First, Hot Sauce at Mic to Mic:
Artists whose work is featured in DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop are from the old school and new school -- artists like Dalek, Nika Sarabi, Mare 139, Haze, Shepard Fairey, Morning Breath, Lee Quiñones, Revolt, Lady Pink, Angela Boatright, and Gregory Bojorquez (see his photo of Missy Elliott here) -- just to name a few. Something all of the artists featured in the book have in common, other than being highly regarded by Adams, is they all work in a variety of media. This fact is something Adams feels is important to emphasize because it gives these artists credibility in the visual world. They have both street cred and gallery cred.
Artists featured in the book whom Beastie Boys fans will recognize are Sunny Bak, Glen E. Friedman, Bill McMullen, Ricky Powell, and, of course, Cey Adams.
The artwork alone in the book is enough to impress anyone who would thumb through its pages; however, it's the artwork plus the accompanying text that makes the book essential. Seven essays -- one each about street art, album art, art in advertising, video and film, cars, sneakers, and fashion -- provide a concise story and history of how art and design have played a role in developing and popularizing hip-hop culture. Among those who contribute essays are Sacha Jenkins, the editorial director of Mass Appeal and co-founder of Ego Trip magazine, and Michael Gonzales, urban journalist and fiction author.
DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop is a beautiful book, filled with page after page of visually stunning art. Although the book will beautifully dress any coffee table, it's much more than a cool art book. It is so informative and educational in the history of hip-hop art and design that it presents, it could easily be used as a primer for art school students and a reference book for art critics now and in the future.
And Sean at Mainstream Isn't So Bad, Is It?:
As a graduate student pursuing my Masters in Literature, I read quite a bit, but I don't have much time to read a lot of books by choice. That being said, when I do pick up something by choice to read in addition to my constant required reading, the book's really got to grab me. DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop does all that and a bag of chips. When I first read about it, I was excited. When I got a copy and actually thumbed through it, I flipped my lid! Seriously, if you're into hip-hop, be it old skool, new skool, or whatever, this book is going to seriously engage you.
The book is compiled by legendary hip-hop designer Cey Adams with help from Bill Adler (formerly of Def Jam Records and Rush Artist Management), and documents the cultural legacy of hip-hop music. Perhaps more than any other musical genre, hip-hop's effects have transcended musical boundaries, racial boundaries, and even international boundaries. Once thought of as an illegitimate audio-rip-off of other "real" music, hip-hop has proven its creativity, power, and staying power.
The book is divided up into chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of how hip-hop has altered the world we live in. Some subjects include grafitti (which some would consider a complementary visual art form to hip-hop's audio), cars (Pimp My Ride anyone?), sneakers (tell me you don't remember Run-DMCs' Adidas!), and fashion. Russell Simmons kicks it off with a foreword and then each of the chapters opens with an introductory essay written by a range of contributors, followed by pages and pages of images connecting to the subject. And although the word count is much lower than the overall count of 192 pages that the book includes, the images are just as attention grabbing and thought provoking as the accompanying essays.