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.

1 comment:

SBL said...

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