Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj rely on bassist as their musical director
By David Sands
July 8, 2015
If you hear Adam Blackstone’s name these days, it’s probably being spoken in the same breath as some of the country’s hottest R&B acts. His enviable skills on the bass have brought him a level success that allowed him to play alongside artists like Pharrell Williams, Jill Scott and Kanye West.
But adept bass lines aren’t the only thing he brings to the table. Blackstone also doubles as a musical director for a slew of A-list performers, including Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Justin Timberlake. In fact, doing this work with Maroon 5 even got him a gig as musical advisor to their soulful frontman Adam Levine during season one of The Voice.
If that’s not enough, the bassist, producer and Grammy-nominated writer also runs his own music services company, BASSic Black Entertainment (BBE), with his wife Kaisha. With all this on his plate it shouldn’t come as a shock that Blackstone has a reputation as a nose-to-the-grindstone guy with a packed appointment book.
On the day FBPO’s Jon Liebman got a hold of him, the busy bass player was en route to rehearse with Janet Jackson, another artist who employs him as a musical director. During their conversation, the two spoke of Blackstone’s musical background, his tools of the trade, the growth of BBE and more.
Asked about his bass influences, Motown session legend James Jamerson is the first name out of his mouth.
“He played very recognizable bass lines, but they were simple enough that with some practice I felt like I could get around it a little bit.”
The sounds of his childhood also played an important role in his development.
Music runs deep in Blackstone’s family. Growing up in Willingboro, N.J., his family was deeply involved in church, an environment with strong musical undertones. His father, Rod, served as their church organist, his mother sung in choir and other relatives sang and played instruments.
Blackstone’s fateful decision to pick up the bass, though, actually came at the urging of an elementary music teacher. Originally, he had his sights set on becoming a drummer, but in third grade he was persuaded to explore a different direction.
“The band teacher just knew my family and knew I was pretty interested in music and said, ‘All the little African-American boys want to play drums. Why don’t you try something else so you can be different?'” says Blackstone. “And he put a bass in my hands, and I loved it.”
Already familiar with electric bass when he started high school, he began studying upright bass in ninth grade to join jazz band. World-renowned bassist Derrick Hodge attended high school with him and served as an inspiration to pick up the upright and to improve his game in a general sense. It’s worth noting, he also studied classical bass in orchestra during these years.
At the turn of the millennium, he adopted Philadelphia as his new home, relocating there to attend the prestigious University of the Arts. Thrust into an environment where he was no longer “top of the totem pole,” he leaned into his studies, improving his craft with the assistance of talented teachers like, Craig Thomas and the late Charles Fambrough.
Attending school in Philly, he started to get known around town playing local gigs and open mics. One of his frequent haunts was a Tuesday night jam session at a place called the Five Spot, put together by the Roots.
“At that time their management… and then Questlove noticed that I was being more and more frequent and playing for more and more people down there,” says Blackstone, “and he gave me a shot to come out and jam with him. Next thing I know we’re doing Jay Z live at Madison Square Garden.”
From there, he began working with high profile clients, easing into an MD position with some of them.
“I moved into a musical director role, mainly because musically I was very opinionated… as just the bass player,” he says, “and eventually the artists started to trust my opinion and trust the personnel choices.”
“Being the MD is so much not about music,” he continues. “It’s about everything else: time management and setting up rehearsals and hiring the players and stuff like that.”
For the past few years, Blackstone has had his hands full with running a business too.
In 2007, Blackstone and his wife Kaisha launched their music services company, BBE. The firm casts a wide net, offering assistance with live and studio music production, staffing and artist development.
BBE was an endeavor born of necessity. Blackstone’s work as an MD was so in-demand that he couldn’t physically be everywhere, so he started sending out staff. Eventually that strategy turned into a company. Staff members are vetted thoroughly to assure clients get the quality they expect.
“The artists still get the Adam Blackstone treatment and sound,” he says, “even if I’m physically not there.”
When it comes to equipment, Blackstone has quite a collection of axes: several Ibanezes, including Soundgears and a BTB; a Lakland 55-01; and some Fender jazz basses—just to name a few.
With his talent in high demand, the collection really comes in handy, as it allows him to tailor his instrument to whatever show he’s playing.
“It’s kind of more about tone, and each gig has a different tone,” he says. “If I’m going to play a hip-hop gig I don’t think I’m going play a straight ’78 Fender Jazz, I think I’m going to play something a little heavier or a P-bass.”
Gallien-Krueger has been his amp maker of choice for some time. He prefers a 4×12 cabinet with a 1001-RB head.
One of the musician’s most enduring relationships is with Black Diamond Strings, which he’s been relying on for a dozen years.
“They’ve become a big part of my sound. I can tell instantly when they’re not on my instruments,” he says. “I’ve found out… the grittier the string, the more the bass sings through the wood. Those strings have a lot to do with that tone, so I’m very thankful to Black Diamond.”
A religious man, Blackstone is also thankful to God, without whom, he says, none of his success would be possible.
As for his future work, he’s not currently interested in any solo projects, though he’s excited to be working with Aaron Camper and Laurin Talese, two up-and-coming artists recently signed to his label, BASSic Black Entertainment Records.
Beyond that, his aspirations are presently focused on family; his first child, a son, is due later this month.
“I want to be a father,” he tells FBPO. “I want to be a great husband. I want to develop my business, so my son can one day take over. So it’s very nonmusical for me. I just want to be a great father, so my son can look up to me.”
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