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Adam Blackstone Parlays Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl Spot Into His Own Score

He's nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Music Direction.

Veteran musical director Adam Blackstone is no stranger to awards recognition. The 36-year-old Trenton, New Jersey, native has earned a number of Grammy nominations as a songwriter, musical director or arranger with Pharrell Williams (“Happy [Live]”), Musiq Soulchild (“Teachme”) and Al Green with the Roots (“Lay It Down” album), and was recently the Music Director and bassist for “The Greatest Showman” soundtrack album as well as the Oscar telecast performance of its Best Song nominee “This is Me.”

Blackstone recently earned his first-ever Emmy nomination for Outstanding Music Direction of Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII Halftime Show at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis last February for NBC, a dynamic performance that culminated in a duet accompanying a projected image of the late hometown hero Prince singing “I Will Die 4 U.” More than 110 million viewers watched, scoring a higher rating than the game itself. Adam goes up against fellow music directors Bruno Mars (“24K Magic Live at the Apollo”), Davey Johnstone (“Elton John: I’m Still Standing – A Grammy Salute”) Harold Wheeler (“The Oscars”) and Gregg Field (“Tony Bennett: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song”) for the honor.

His musical career began while attending University of the Arts in Philadelphia, doing open mic nights at venues like the long-shuttered Five Spot, where The Roots’ Questlove and the band’s late manager Richard Nichols curated a neo-soul showcase dubbed Black Lily, taking the young bassist under their wing. As Music Director for Jay-Z’s announced 2003 “farewell” tour, Fade to Black, Questlove tapped Blackstone for tour bassist, a gig that led him to either touring or MD stints for the likes of Drake, Rihanna, Eminem, Maroon 5, Nicki Minaj, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and Rascal Flatts. One night after playing for Jay-Z, a young kid in a Ralph Lauren polo shirt came up to him. “You sounded great,” he told Blackstone. “Come work for me. My name is Kanye West.” Blackstone had no idea who he was but answered, “That’s cool… Let’s get together and make some music.”

“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, but I don’t call it luck,” Blackstone tells Variety. “I was prepared for every opportunity that could be life-changing or take me to the next level. … I’ve always loved being the support guy. The dream was always to make people happy, make them smile, with my music, and to infuse my sound and style into pop culture.”

Blackstone has been Justin Timberlake’s tour bassist “from day one,” eventually ascending to a role as Music Director for his much-anticipated Super Bowl halftime show.  With a medley of 11 songs delivered in a little more than 13 minutes in tightly choreographed lockstep, Timberlake entered the stadium singing “Filthy” and “Rock Your Body” before ending with “Mirrors” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” The kaleidoscopic, 360-degree performance was certainly an influence on the staging and execution of Beyonce’s historic “Lemonade” show at Coachella a little more than two months later.

“Just hit ‘em over the head with the hits,” says Blackstone of his halftime philosophy. “It was my job to help Justin narrow down a massive song list to convey his message, and which cuts would best do that.”

Blackstone adds that all of Timberlake’s vocals were “completely live,” while the instrumental tracks were doubled, with performers playing live on top of a previously recorded on-stage dress rehearsal – not the studio versions – as a safety net. “We wanted that live energy,” he says. “We put a lot of work into learning the songs, putting in the special breaks and accents.”

As for the climactic appearance of the Purple One, Blackstone knew the game’s Minneapolis setting would require some acknowledgement of its iconic musical native, who passed away the year prior at the age of 57. “Justin wanted to make the song his own, but also acknowledge the artist,” explains Blackstone. “We took all the instruments off the footage, leaving only Prince’s vocal, so the band could play live alongside it. We also wanted to match the slower tempo of the song which led into it, ‘Until the End of Time.’ Justin wanted to show, if Prince were alive, this is how a collaboration might sound. I think he would have appreciated it. I’m humbled that we did him and the song justice.”

Blackstone currently serves as Executive Producer and Musical Director for P. Diddy’s Fox hit music competition show, “The Four,” after being recruited as musical advisor and coach on “The Voice” by Adam Levine. He’s also active as a Music Director and supervisor, recently lending his talents to several worthy causes, including the D.C. March for Our Lives, protesting gun violence in schools; Hand to Hand, a benefit for hurricane victims in Houston and Puerto Rico; and the Stand Up to Cancer telethon.  “I’m blessed to be part of music helping heal people,” he says. With his wife Kaisha, Blackstone runs his own production company, BBE (for BASSic Black Entertainment), which also includes a record label.

“Discovering and cultivating talent is what I love to do,” says Blackstone. “I get the opportunity to use my experience, gifts and talents to help others follow and fulfill their dreams like I have.”

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