For three decades and counting Cey Adams has been a fixture wherever creative visuals are habitual. From his early days in the graf and the ’80s downtown art scene (peep his appearance in Style Wars, yo) to his logo, merch and advertising designs for the likes of Run-DMC, De La Soul, and his pals the Beastie Boys to the Chapelle’s Show logo and album artwork for big timers like Maroon 5, he’s been there, done that, and still doing it. Cey may be best known, however, for his extended tenure with Def Jam Records, with which he worked from 1984 to 2002, partnering with Steve Carr as co-founder of the label’s in-house visual design firm, the Drawing Board, and then serving as its Creative Director. With the recent release of the literary monster Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label (Rizzoli) – designed, of course, by Cey – we thought it only right we speak to the man about the story behind one of the label’s most iconic album covers, LL Cool J’s 1991 classic, Mama Said Knock You Out.
Please take us through the process of how this album cover came together.
Cey Adams: It was one of the few times that I remember us having a staff meeting about a particular release. I remember Lyor [Cohen] calling this big meeting, and it was a priority that everybody in the office focused on LL and this release, Mama Said Knock You Out. It’s embarrassing to say, but that was really unusual. Normally it was: okay, this is the record. Sometimes we’d get to listen to music. We’d have sit downs with artists, but never with the whole company being told that this was the priority and we had to kind of get it right, so to speak.
It was a time when LL had already achieved a lot of success. But so had Def Jam. And because of that I think he was starting to feel a little neglected by the label. I think he was at a point where he really wanted to reinvent himself. Walking With a Panther had come before that. The thing about [that album] that was really funny was he had this panther on the cover, but I imagine that he envisioned it more being like a tiger – really looking ferocious. The way that panther was shot it didn’t look ferocious. I’m not saying it was not ferocious in real life. It was. I was there when they did the photo shoot. And LL was not excited about holding the panther. The trainer was just out of the shot. The minute we would stop shooting the trainer would come in and LL would jump out. It was a ferocious animal, but it didn’t come across as being that way in the photograph. It was an idea that wasn’t fully executed. The other thing that’s really funny about Walking With a Panther is I remember LL had his eyes on the inner sleeve made to look like panther’s eyes, and it looks ridiculous in retrospect. Absolutely ridiculous. But again that’s a bad cue that he gave to the art director. (I did not design that record. The folks at CBS did.)
So what was the big meeting about Mama Said Knock You Out like?
Cey Adams: We hadn’t heard the music yet. Everyone’s sitting around the conference room table and LL’s there. I don’t remember him being cocky at all. I remember him being concerned that people in the office would pay attention. I remember him being worried – because at that point in the workday everybody’s busy. They’re already working. They had a lot of other good things that were happening at Def Jam at that point. Before the meeting was called I don’t remember this album being a priority. But the fact was LL was panicked and he made sure that Russell and Lyor understood that. And they said, okay, we’re gonna call everybody’s attention to this. So LL was like, I need you guys to help me. And because he was humbled I think everybody rallied around the cause and wanted to make sure this was a really great record.