Adam Blackstone is the transcendent multi-instrumentalist, hit songwriter/producer, and Emmy nominated music director to Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Eminem, Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, Maroon 5, Nicki Minaj, and numerous other global superstars. He is the embodiment of where strong work ethic, divine musicality, and humility can take you in the industry. Discovered by Questlove in Philadelphia, Adam was catapulted into the spotlight after playing bass for Jay-Z at age 22. This led to a rich and unforetold season of opportunity. In the film and television space, Adam served as bandleader for the Oscar-nominated soundtrack for The Greatest Showman, garnered an ASCAP Award for his contribution to BET's The New Edition Story, and has lent his expertise to The Voice, The Four, The Oscars, The Grammys, and many other elite productions. In our inspiring discussion, Adam reveals the passion and hard work that went into Justin Timberlake's mind-blowing Super Bowl LII performance and sheds light on the mentality one needs to attain their wildest dreams.
I understand that you were raised in a musical family in New Jersey, exploring your artistry at a young age through your local church. Can you elaborate on how your journey began?
Definitely. My upbringing and my family have had a major, major influence on my musical trajectory. My dad was a full-time musician, church organist as well. My mom sang in the choir and several of my uncles and cousins were into music. They were singing and had gospel groups.
As I look back on it, they showed me right away that it was cool to do music as a job. I never grew up thinking that this was like a side hustle or anything like that. I was always taught that number one, I could do anything I wanted, but it was cool to follow your dreams and live out your passions creatively. So, I'm super thankful to my parents for that.
My dad up and left his nine to five job to do music full-time and we were sustained. That’s really all I knew. Even though he didn't do it on the level that I'm doing it, he still took care of us financially. He and my mom stuck together. So, that just opened my brain up, made me want to continue to be excellent, and even if it was in fine arts, that was okay.
What was the music defined your formative years and what were your aspirations for the future?
Totally. My dad played a lot of Top 40 music at the time. He was what they called a one-man-band, so he would do weddings, receptions, church events, concerts around town, anywhere they needed a musician. So, I heard a lot of Top 40 growing up and honestly, just saw my dad entertaining people. Of course, growing up in church and gospel music were big influences on me as well. A lot of gospel and Top 40 hits were played in my house, whether it was my dad learning the new hot song off the radio to play at his next gig for a wedding, or whether it was him and my mom learning a popular song to sing at church on Sunday.
I never exactly knew what I wanted to do. At one point, I was like, “I'm going to teach music”. My mom was a teacher full-time. The other thing I said that I would do was maybe make music for video games. I don’t think it was until high school where I was like, “Hey, I got something”.
In my school, primarily everybody played drums. I was a drummer naturally. My second-grade music teacher knew my family lineage and said, “Man, I really would love for you to play the bass”. They didn’t have a bass player. I was like, “I hate this. I got to carry this back and forth to school every day. This is terrible. I’m a drummer”, but man, I fell in love with the bass. It is the foundation. As bass players, I feel like we create the pulse of music a lot of the time, whether that be sonically or rhythmically. I’m thankful for that. I also loved being the leader in my class. I think those were my early, early years of shaping up to become what we now called a music director.
After cultivating diverse musical expertise with a focus in jazz, you were afforded a full scholarship to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Can you tell us about your practice regimen and how you went about refining your command of drums, bass, and piano? Who were the most influential figures in your life musically?
One big transition for me was coming out of my senior year of high school. I equate this to athletics. I went from being “the man” at my high school, awarded Best Jazz Improvisation Soloist at the State Finals of Band, Best Band, and Best Rhythm Section of the Berkeley Jazz Fest to being a freshman at college, listening to these guys swing and play funk, watching them read music a little bit better than me. I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I’m not going to come here and be the weak link at all”.
It was definitely a wake-up call, coming from being the best, whether that be age-wise in high school, to being the least sought after, whether that be age-wise at college. It's almost like a freshman going to play for the University of Alabama football. Like you were just “the man" at your high school, but now, you’ve got to sit the bench. I wasn't used to sitting on the bench and I was not going to sit there. So, I worked tirelessly and hard, hard, hard. I gave major effort. I took extra classes, did extra gigs, I got an upright bass instrument to be able to compete with the other bass majors in my school. I didn’t want age and at that time, race, to be a factor in who was the best musician.
I wanted it to be undeniable that this is my gig, and if it's not my gig, it's really because the other dude is just better than me. My work ethic continues to come from the fact that I don’t want anybody outworking me because the opportunities are not afforded to all of us. There's a limited number of slots available in life to win and I need one of those slots.
So, what does it take to get one of those slots? That takes hard work, dedication, tireless energy into your craft, and pouring into your own greatness. You got to believe in yourself and put the hard work in to do that. So, I was practicing, man. Six hours a day. Electric bass, upright bass, taking lessons on the side, doing theater gigs during the day when I had an off-school day, doing restaurant gigs at night, and then doing an after-hours club after that. Just to play and hone in on my craft. I'm very thankful for that work ethic that was instilled in me because it still continues to be a part of who I am right now.
During your time in Philadelphia, you attracted the attention of The Roots’ Questlove. Can you tell us about how you originally connected and what events led to your participation in Jay-Z’s Fade To Black show at Madison Square Garden?
So, around my sophomore and junior year of college, I was a regular at the Philly Five Spot, which was an open mic night on Tuesdays that we called the Black Lily. It was run by The Roots manager, Richard Nichols, and Shawn Gee. At any point in there, anybody could come in there and at that time, neo-soul was popping. So, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, India Arie, Erykah Badu, Bilal, Jazzyfatnastees. At that time, this was the place to be for soul music. I just came there, like I said, to learn, to get great, to listen to some other amazing players that were way better than me.
As I became a regular, I developed relationships with some of The Roots crew and of course, Questlove. He introduced me to the managers outside of the club and said, "This is the young boy that's been coming around. I really think that you guys should hook up," and the rest is history. Here we are, 15 years later. He’s still an amazing mentor of mine and I’m following in his footsteps to be as great a Musical Director as he is.
We locked real good on those first couple of times playing. I remember Jay-Z doing an MTV Unplugged series and at that time, that was a big deal for a hip-hop artist because Unplugged meant no DJ and no tracks. The Roots were his band and once he took that Unplugged album on tour, Ahmir [Questlove, drummer] was the Music Director and they didn't want The Roots to be a part of that because they were on their own label and tour and all of that. Because of that, Ahmir put this all-star band together that he was still the MD of and he asked me to be a part of that. That Fade to Black concert at Madison Square Garden was my first big introduction to a huge stage. So, I was so thankful for that opportunity at 22 years old.
Congratulations on your Emmy nomination for your musical direction of Justin Timberlake’s extravagant and truly vibrant Super Bowl LII halftime performance. Can you walk us through the early discussions surrounding the performance and how it evolved into the final result?
First of all, I just want to say that Justin is one of the hardest working artists I've ever dealt with before. That's such an amazing feat to me because he's what we call "on" already. You know what I mean? He doesn't need to get greater, but he continues to push himself and the people around him, which make us want to do the best job possible for him as well. I'm very thankful to him for entrusting me with this amazing show. We don't do this for accolades, but it feels great to be recognized for some of the hard work that was put into it. I’m very grateful to him and the Television Academy. I am so excited for what the future holds. I'm going to do my best to bring this trophy home for my squad and this is definitely not the end, only the beginning.
One of the first steps that go into producing a show like this, musically, is the set list. We talked briefly about what songs should be involved, and the order at that time, around October, November. We talked about which guests we wanted. I had done my research on the last 17 Super Bowls and realized that in some cases, you don't even realize who the main act is. Once we nailed down what I thought would be a show-stopping lineup of songs, then it was my job to put them in order, put them in a key segway, tempo segway, so that it all flowed. Then because of the limited time that we had to be on television, what part of the song is the iconic moment that we want the people to feel?
We had 14 minutes, and the wishlist setlist he put together, that we ended up doing, was 11 songs. Normally, songs are three-four minutes each, so I had to condense that. I think we did a great job of executing the feeling of being at our concert, experiencing us live, experiencing Justin live, and also not missing certain parts of the music. We wanted to hit the people’s favorite parts of his songs. We also wanted those who may not be a fan of Justin, to walk away from that performance saying, "Man, he's a great entertainer. I want to go listen to his music." That, in the short form, sums up how we led to the Super Bowl song list, order, length, key, tempo. Then all the transition stuff came after that, which was me just toying with some different ideas.
Out of curiosity, did you work a little segment of Kashmir by Led Zeppelin in there?
I definitely put a little Zeppelin in Cry Me a River, for sure. It was just a nod to another one of the greats, man. Certain people who may not be pop music fans, they know a good rock 'n' roll song when they hear one.
What would people be surprised to know about the performance from a behind-the-scenes perspective?
That's a good question. There's so much. I think people would be surprised to know how much the music plays a part in lighting, choreography, video screens, lasers. All of those departments who are so, so, so great at what they do were relying on me first to basically tell them, through music, what their job is, where to do it, how long it should be done for, and to make what impact. When I do a hit on Filthy, which was our first song, where you hear the guitars rise up, the lighting wants to hear that first, so he gets inspiration. So he can say, "I'm gonna raise the lights up the same time the guitars are being raised up."
There are so many factors that went into this show, choreography, lighting, video screens, any of the gags, the fire, fireworks. All of that is stemming from what the music is doing, and they're waiting on me, like I said, to musically tell them what to do. My job as an MD is so much more than just music, it's almost controlling the whole event being told through melody.
Of course, there was the whole marching band element. Did you have to write charts for all those horn arrangements?
Yes, I did. It was a ton of instruments. Me and my partner, Dontae Winslow, who's actually the trumpet player in the Tennessee Kids, and also an amazing composer, we sat down and I told him the parts that I wanted the marching band to play. We did a mock up of it with him, his trumpet, and our horn section, then we went and recorded at the University of Minnesota and wrote out the charts. He was very instrumental in doing that for me after the idea came out to have the marching band on Suit and Tie. Brian Frasier Moore [drummer in the Tennessee Kids] was also very instrumental in pre-recording the marching band snare and tom-tom rudiments for me to teach the University of Minnesota drummers.
We basically orchestrated that 80-piece marching band. It came out very, very good, man. Also, I had to know how to incorporate them into our pop element too. For that specific song, I didn't want to take away from why Suit and Tie is a favorite of fans and the value of what people were used to hearing. I wanted to just make them an addition and have them enhance what we were already doing. It's a whole lot to think about and it paid off.
The tribute to Prince was a touching inclusion especially in light of the Super Bowl taking place in Minneapolis. How has “the purple one” influenced you musically? What did you collectively hope to achieve in honoring one of music’s most legendary figures on the world stage?
Well, I would just like to say first, it was an honor to "play" with Prince. As we came up with that idea, we made sure to do our best to honor his legacy. To musically honor what we thought that he would have loved to be a part of. We just did our best to do it with class and grace, and it went very well. Prince has been a huge influence on me. I think it was more his musicianship than anything. I know people love his songs, his lyrical content, his wide array of artistry, but some people don't know he's one of the coldest guitars to ever play.
That guitar lends itself to being a super amazing bassist and a super amazing drummer as well. I love his music, I love his songs, but I also loved just watching him play with somebody else’s work at times. His Live in Vegas show, where he was doing a bunch of cover tunes, and even his Super Bowl show, where he did a couple covers. To hear his approach on guitar and vocals to some of our favorite songs is just magical.
I saw him live in Australia. The beat didn't stop one time. I think he played for about an hour at a little club, a random pop-up club. Just how he would segue in and out of songs without stopping. All his concerts are known to be a big party. Those type of things, I really pay attention to because people come out to these concert specifically to have a good time and escape their troubles at home or escape what they may be going through at work. He always was one to let you escape into the music as a fan. I’m so appreciative that I got a chance to see him live and work with him a little bit when he sat in on the Mary J. Blige set I was playing on. Then also for his estate to welcome us to do this pseudo-tribute to him for the Super Bowl as well.
What were some of the technical logistics of the tribute?
Well, the video and the audio were two different things. I did get masters, and it was a lot of work, but that was our band playing to Prince's vocal. It's almost like we backed up Prince. That was not by no means, an original Prince recording of him musically playing. That was his vocal as a master, but just his vocal was playing while our Tennessee Kids band played and backed him up. If you watch the performance, we inserted him into a song of ours called “Until the End of Time”, and then we segway right into “I Would Die For You”. We did it as a cut time, half-time ballad. It was pretty clever if I do say so myself.
I sat down with the president of his estate and pretty much gave them our whole spiel of what we thought we wanted to do and asked them to be involved by getting us some of those old recording master files. I was able to get a nice old vocal and manipulate it. That was just step one. Step two was time stretching it, making it in the right key, making it flow to what we were doing in tempo. It was a lot. The way that that song was sung, there’s a bounce to it. I actually cut it up, beat by beat, to have the same flow as he would have if he was singing to us. That what I wanted it to feel like. I wanted it to feel like he walked on stage and just jumped in and jammed with us. You know what I mean?
You have served as a music director for many of the biggest names in music, including Eminem, Janet Jackson, Rihanna, Maroon 5, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, and Dr. Dre. What are the traits you possess that make you excel in this role? What have been some of the most meaningful lessons you’ve learned from this dynamic array of experiences?
Like I said before, I think one of the main things I’ve learned, especially as I have climbed the ranks, is that the higher up I get, it is very interesting to see how much hard work people are still putting into their craft. That’s very inspiring to me because I want to continue to get better as well.
That has been one of the biggest inspirations to me, just to see the care, Dr. Dre, for instance, puts into mixing a record. To see how much care Justin puts in when he goes to a dance rehearsal. To see how much care Rihanna puts into recording a flawless vocal for the radio. To see how much care Eminem puts into writing a lyric for two years, meticulously going back and forth on it to make sure it’s how he wants to say it and how he wants to deliver it.
Those things matter so much to me because that shows me that there's no end cap on learning and getting better. This Emmy nomination means so much to me, but it is by no means the end of my goals. No rest for the weary.
Your resumé of high profile live performances casts a wide net and sometimes, borders on grueling. (ie: Rihanna’s buzzworthy 777 tour, where you played 7 shows in 7 countries in 7 days.) What are some of your favorite aspects of being on the road?
The greatest touring experiences would have to be just seeing the world and being able to see how music can impact people for the better. Playing my arrangements in Madison Square Garden never gets old. Playing at Coachella for 200,000 people never gets old. It's a blessing. I'm so thankful to God to be able to do what I do, to love what I do. Some of the best aspects of touring are just seeing how the music reaches the people.
Then developing lifelong relationships as well. I did the Bad Boy Reunion Tour and just to see that camaraderie that Puff Daddy had with people he had been working with for 24 years. That was very inspiring to me and I value those type of relationships. I value the musician relationships I've been able to gain. I value the bosses I've been able to work with. Justin Timberlake, for me, is going to be a lifelong friend. His son and my son play together. They don't care what music we do. Those things have been by far the greatest experiences of touring.
What gear do you continually bring with you on tour?
As far as my gear is concerned, I've been a GK [Gallien-Krueger] guy for a very long time. I play a 4’ x 12’ cab, which is pretty badass I should say.
I play a few different basses. It really depends on what the gig calls for, just to be honest. Fender is just classic to me. I love Fender jazz. I also play a Performance jazz bass, which is a Japanese style jazz bass. I play NS Designs upright basses when I'm on the road. I have a couple of Ibanez acoustic basses that I love. It's just been a wide array of things.
Lakeland was a big part of my sound growing up as well. I played Lakeland on the Jay-Z record. Again, it just depends on what the gig calls for.
Earlier this year, you received an ASCAP Award for your work on BET’s The New Edition Story. Is film and television composing something you want to prioritize in the future?
Yes, I've been into film and television a lot lately. My work on New Edition was an amazing, amazing feat of mine and I'm so thankful to have done that. It turned out to be an amazing body of work.
I am also proud of The Greatest Showman. I was able to be the bandleader for that entire soundtrack and that movie score, which we got an Oscar nomination for as well. It's been amazing. Those are the legacy things that I'm trying to leave behind.
It's amazing to be on tour and to be on that stage but it does only last for that moment. When you do something like make records or movie scores and soundtracks, which I'm getting into very heavily now, they last forever. I'm excited about the work that's coming up in those areas.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever given?
I think I would say to remain humble. You never know who you're going to need one day, especially in this business. It's so big but it's so small. The same people who are riding with you when you have everything, you want them to ride with you when you have nothing, when those songs stop or when those calls for gigs stop coming.
You don't want to be the guy that only reaches out when things are good. You want to just be an even keel, humble dude, know that our talent from me doesn't come from anybody but God. Our gifts can be totally taken from us at any time.
There are tons of people who have had terrible accidents. They can't play anymore. On a surface level, there are tons of people more talented than myself that are home and not working. I really feel like it's the grace of God, my relationships that I've been able to cultivate, and the talent that God has given me to be prepared when preparation is needed for success. That's the only reason I've been able to make it. So, I would just say to remain humble and be prepared when your time comes because you may only get one opportunity.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
I think it was to just listen to the music around me and when I’m praying. One of my other mentors from Philly was James Poyser. He and Ahmir [Questlove of The Roots] work together a lot, but he told me to always be listening.
Never close your ears off to a genre. Never close your ears off to a style, to a lyric that you may not be familiar with because it's going to tell a story and it's going to influence your playing because of that emotional story that music tells. I just try to always keep my ears open. I’m not up there playing for myself, you know? When Justin sings a specific lyric and I resonate a note, it has to mean the same thing. It's about listening for sure.
If you were to host a dinner party for four musical icons, dead or alive, who would you invite and what would be on the menu?
So easy. Jaco [Pastorius, legendary bass player], Miles Davis, Michael Jackson and the fourth would be…It could change every day, but today, I'm going to say, Diddy. Puff Daddy. All four of those guys have influenced me in a major, major, way. Diddy and Michael took the music to a global scale. For sure, Miles and Jaco are who I grew up on, especially coming out of high school into my jazz years.
I think we would all be in the back private room at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, eating filet mignon, crispy lobster tail, macaroni and cheese, a little yams…
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Adam Blackstone and White Bear PR.