As a grizzled hip-hop vet, I can’t tell you how thrilling it is that curator Barbara London’s Looking at Music series has burned past the 1960s and ’70s to arrive, in its third iteration, in the 1980s and ’90s. Finally, it’s time for my peoples to shine!
From the very beginning, hip-hop culture has boasted a strong visual component. The city’s outer boroughs had been alive with creative ferment throughout the 1970s. Engaged in for the most part by youth of color, these disciplines took the shape of poetry (called “rap”), music (called “deejaying”), dance (called “b-boying” or “breakdancing”), and the visual arts (called “graffiti” or, by its practitioners, “writing”). By the very early 1980s, Bronx deejay and founding visionary Afrika Bambaataa declared that these sometimes disparate scenes comprised a single culture, which he dubbed “hip-hop.”
Taking their cue from Bambaattaa, the pioneering promoters who first brought hip-hop downtown made sure that their shows included all four of its “elements”—not just deejays and rappers, but b-boys and graf writers. Among these promoters were Fab 5 Freddy, a graf writer himself, and Michael Holman, a filmmaker, photographer, and musician. (Holman and Jean-Michel Basquiat were also in a band together.)
This sensitivity to the visual aspects of the hip-hop culture were also present in Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, the duo who teamed up to form Def Jam Recordings in 1984. (I was the label’s founding publicist.) Rick, a film student at NYU when he first began producing records, designed Def Jam’s striking and imperishable turntable logo and oversaw the design of the covers of the albums issued by Def Jam, as well as its advertising. The fashion-conscious Simmons directed the rappers Run and DMC to take their sartorial cues from deejay Jam Master Jay, whose devotion to Stetson hats, Adidas sportswear, and laceless sneakers defined hip-hop style on the streets of Hollis, Queens, in the early 1980s. (Of course, once Run-DMC started wearing that gear on their album covers and in their videos, the style quickly went international.) Russell was also alive to the cinematic appeal of hip-hop, which helps to explain how and why he, Rick, and their artists ended up at the center of 1985’s Krush Groove.
It is also to Def Jam’s credit that they employed a staff artist from the very beginning. That person was Cey Adams, a graf writer from Queens whose work was exhibited alongside Haring’s and Basquiat’s when graffiti first starting showing up in Manhattan art galleries in the early 1980s. At Def Jam, Cey created whatever was required, from gigantic canvas stage backdrops to logos to album covers to advertisements to clothing. It was also Cey who pushed Def Jam to move beyond graffiti, graphically, which struck him as “played out” by the mid-1980s. As a pure product of hip-hop culture, then, Cey was a wonderful choice to create one of the posters for Looking at Music 3.0.
For my part, I started collecting hip-hop artifacts in the late 1970s, motivated by the conviction that they possessed value as both history and art and that that value would increase with time. Several of the album covers in the show are from my collection, as are two posters. The Public Enemy “Nation of Millions” poster (1988) is naturally graced with the Public Enemy logo, which was designed by PE’s Chuck D, who studied graphic design while enrolled at Long Island’s Adelphi University in the early 1980s. As a music lover as well as an artist, Chuck was a particular student of logos. “From the Beatles’ Apple label to the Rolling Stones’ tongue to the brand for Iron Maiden, they held the rock world together,” he’s said. The PE logo—the silhouette of a b-boy in the crosshairs of a rifle sight—reflected Chuck’s belief that every young black man was a target in the eyes of the powers that be.
As the decades have passed, Cey Adams has tracked the influence of hip-hop visual style—and hip-hop-oriented artists—in the worlds of fine art (Banksy and Shepard Fairey, among many many others) and commercial art (from clothing to cars to fashion). This thesis is spun out at some length in Cey’s book, DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop (Collins Design 2008). That book can be seen, I think, as the catalog for an exhibition that is waiting to happen.