Some of hip-hop’s most iconic albums on display in Denton through collaboration between NYC artist and UNT

LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out, the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die and Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411?, are some of the 54 album covers making up the exhibition now at the University of North Texas’ CVAD Gallery.

“Cey Adams, Departure: 40 Years of Art and Design” opened last month in the College of Visual Arts and Design building. The exhibition examines 40 years of New York artist Cey Adams’ work creating the visual identities of popular hip-hop artists, his commercial collaborations with global brands and his extensive contemporary fine art pieces.

Adams is the former creative director of Def Jam Recordings, who co-founded The Drawing Board — Def Jam’s in-house visual design firm with his best friend Steve Carr. The design firm collaborated with the biggest music artists to create iconic album covers.

Adams didn’t hesitate to speak with any UNT staff, students or visitors who came to Thursday evening’s gallery talk, where he discussed his art.

“Every wall you turn to [in the exhibition] is a part of my life,” Adams told the crowd. “And it’s just so exciting to me. This is a feeling that I really hope everybody gets to experience at some point in time, regardless of the scale, because it’s just such a beautiful thing.”

Adams’ 40-year legacy 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, which has been celebrated worldwide.

“The pop culture recognizability of Cey Adams’ work is nostalgic and profound about historical and current hip hop culture and graffiti street art,” Karen Hutzel, professor of art education at the UNT College of Visual Arts and Design, said in a news release. “Within his work — past and present — he consistently raises critical questions about consumerism, race, gender, class, history, and our values as a complex society, all of which are as relevant today as forty years ago.”

Adams, a New York City native, emerged from the downtown graffiti movement in the late 1970s alongside fellow artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.

Adams was featured in the PBS documentary Style Wars, which focused on subway graffiti in New York in 1982.

The exhibition includes several photographs of Adams as a teenager, taken by photojournalist Martha Cooper to document his youth.

“To see those photographs, it’s just so amazing because it reminds me that the silly little dreams that I had, as a teenager, about being a professional artist were real,” Adams told the crowd Thursday.

Other photographs featured at the exhibition were from The Together Forever Tour, a 1987 tour co-headlined by Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys. Adams was close friends with the artists and would travel with them on tour.

The exhibition also features his collaboration with brands such as Hot Wheels and Levi’s.

Adams created a Levi’s trucker jacket with a chain-stitch embroidered “LOVE” design that is an homage to his own graffiti days.

He also designed a Hot Wheels toy van that has a “LOVE” graffiti design, and a 3D Hot Wheels logo sculpture.

“I collaborated with Hot Wheels — it was a dream come true,” Adams said. “They gave me an opportunity to do something that my 8-year-old self would have loved. I did not pay attention to what the budget was. I just talked about this idea that I wanted to make a dream come true. The same thing with my friends at Levi’s. I’ve been wearing the jeans for years. I never thought that one day I’d be collaborating with them.”

Adams said he was blessed to be able to become a successful in New York since it is the toughest city to become an artist in. 

“New York is the center of the universe,” Adams said. “It really is. I feel so blessed that I grew up in New York.”

Adams told the crowd not to let anyone derail the dream of being an artist, including family, friend or employers.

“I just want to remind people just don’t stop dreaming because good things will happen,” Adams said.

The exhibition will be up until Dec. 15 at the CVAD Gallery, 1201 W. Mulberry St. 

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