It’s 2003 and Jay-Z is planning a farewell concert at Madison Square Garden to celebrate his retirement from music.
But his bass player is unavailable. Adam Blackstone, a jack-of-all-trades who plays bass, drums, piano, organ, tuba and sousaphone — and is also a songwriter, producer, composer and everything else under the musical sun — is more than ready to step in.
Twenty years later, Blackstone, now 40, is still working closely with Jay-Z; both are Emmy winners for last year’s hip-hop-heavy Super Bowl halftime show. And the musician who has helped everyone from Rihanna to Justin Timberlake shine is stepping into his own limelight.
After winning an Emmy in 2022 for music direction, Blackstone is nominated again. This time, however, he’s a double nominee. Not only is he competing for his work on Rihanna’s explosive Super Bowl performance (a nom shared with Omar Edwards), but he’s also nominated as the musical director of the 2022 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, when Dolly Parton, Eminem, Carly Simon and Lionel Richie received the organization’s honors.
“I want to be up against myself five times next year,” says Blackstone, whose musical director credits include the Oscars, the Grammys, BET Awards, The Voice and The Masked Singer. “And that’s no disrespect to any other show, but just more about putting the greatness process on myself to be recognized.”
Blackstone says winning the Emmy for the 2022 halftime show starring Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar and 50 Cent “validated hip-hop.” He adds, referring to himself, that it “validated a young African American male who sometimes is deemed ‘hip-hop.’”
“The music and direction that I brought to the Super Bowl did permeate the world on the level of Kennedy Center Honors, on the level of the Oscars, on the level of Grammys, on the level of Saturday Night Live and on the level of Tony Bennett,” he adds. “It was a win for the culture.”
Blackstone was booked and busy before adding “Emmy winner” to his résumé, but he says the honor has “brought more eyes and attention” to the work he’s been doing for decades.
He’s been the musical director of four halftime shows, including those starring Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. He’s also worked with Rihanna on her 2023 Oscar performance, all four of her Savage X Fenty television specials and on her tours. He’s performed on the road alongside Nicki Minaj, Janet Jackson, Chris Stapleton, Jonas Brothers, Kanye West and Demi Lovato; and he’s written songs for Usher, Al Green, The Roots, Mary Mary, Kem and Vivian Green. He earned his first Grammy nomination for co-writing Musiq Soulchild’s 2007 R&B hit “teachme.” And he’s played bass or keys on albums by Alicia Keys, Corinne Bailey Rae, Joss Stone, Marsha Ambrosius and Estelle.
When the Oscar-, Tony- and Grammy-winning songwriting duo Pasek and Paul needed a special touch on music for the box office smash The Greatest Showman, they called on Blackstone. “They knew my live arranging skill set and credits, whether that be for Rihanna or Justin Timberlake or whatever, and we wanted to bring that to the movie screen,” he says.
Soon after The Greatest Showman, Blackstone landed on a track with none other than Barack Obama. Blackstone was summoned to work on “One Last Time (44 Remix),” a song featuring Obama, Christopher Jackson and BeBe Winans from the album Hamildrops, inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. On the track, the former U.S. president delivers George Washington’s farewell address.
“They wanted that soulful church swag,” Blackstone says of the song, which landed Obama on the Billboard Hot R&B songs chart at No. 22 in 2019.
It wasn’t his first time working with 44. Blackstone was the musical director for two of his farewell parties at the White House. He says that prepping for Obama’s soirees was always a ball.
“What do you want the vibe to be tonight? Are we going to go full Essence Festival? We dancing? We electric sliding? Are we going to go more classic? Nat King Cole? Or are we going to be a little more hip-hop?” Blackstone recalls querying. “He loves The Roots. He loves Common, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu. We did everything from Hamilton to Usher to gospel with Yolanda Adams. My wheelhouse is to make everything I do feel authentic, and I’m glad to be on President Obama’s call list for that.”
His ties to Obama don’t end there. The politician’s widely read playlist of favorite songs last year featured Blackstone’s “‘Round Midnight,” a collaboration with Jazmine Sullivan from his debut album, Legacy, released in September 2022. “Fast-forward years later, he and Michelle are fans of my music,” he says proudly.
Blackstone was able to perform the Obama favorite on tour as the opening act for Jill Scott — another full-circle moment because he credits the Grammy-winning soul visionary with giving him his first opportunity as a musical director.
“I’d seen Adam around the studio often, just a guy carrying a bass and an easy smile. He seemed to love what he was doing. I liked that energy and I’d heard he was ‘really good wit dat thing.’ Rumors were true [and] I hired Adam as my music director,” said Scott, who has also written songs with Blackstone for her own albums. “What I loved most was that nothing was impossible with Adam. There wasn’t a wild idea or dream he couldn’t create for my vision. Adam is a legendary music director and now he’s his own. My heart swells for his amazing future. I love my friend and so proud of my colleague.”
Legacy helped Blackstone reach another height: “‘Round Midnight” earned a Grammy nom for best traditional R&B performance this year. “I [have been] part of four Grammy-winning songs,” he says, but adds: “As an artist myself, Adam Blackstone, [to win] is a goal of mine, for sure.”
His jazzy album features collaborations with Scott, Queen Latifah, John Scofield, Leslie Odom Jr., Robert Glasper, Mary Mary, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Kirk Franklin, while Simone Boseman honors her late husband Chadwick Boseman with a rendition of Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Blackstone met Simone in 2021 at the Stand Up to Cancer telecast, where she performed “I’ll Be Seeing You” in remembrance of Chadwick.
“It was so beautiful, and putting it on my album and making it a tribute to him — that has been nothing short of amazing,” he says. “She is an incredible artist that I think, at that time specifically, her voice may have not been found or was even muted because of grief. And for her to execute that and come out and sing it as beautiful sounding as it was, super-duper excited for that moment.”
And there’s a chance the duo could create more music magic together. “We dibbled and dabbled with some things, but I think in the proper time span, it’s going to happen again.”
While we wait, we also wonder: Is there anyone Blackstone — who has roots in hip-hop, pop, jazz, R&B, country, gospel, musical theater and more — hasn’t worked with? He answers by naming Eric Clapton and Garth Brooks, and adds that although he personally knows Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder, he’d like to work closely with those music maestros.
For Blackstone, there are no limitations to his art and skill set.
“When I first got called to do The Masked Singer or when I get called to work with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, I don’t go into it saying, ‘Well, no, I’m the Jay-Z guy,’” he says. “I’m going into it saying, ‘I am a great musician and my music serves a purpose no matter what color, what age, whatever.’ This has the ability to translate ears and cross genres and all of that.”
It’s why the New Jerseyan who also established roots in Philadelphia was so ready when the call — a referral from Questlove of The Roots — to play bass for Jay-Z came along two decades ago.
“And here I am today, 20 years later, just super thankful for that,” he says. “Because that concert alone spawned me meeting a young Mary [J. Blige], a young Kanye, a young Beyoncé — all of these people who are now my friends. And because of the integrity that I kept to keep that music up, I was able to work with all of them throughout the course of my career.”
A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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