Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ‘Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’
Adam Blackstone’s DNA probably looks like musical notes. The 37-year-old Trenton, New Jersey native is the child of a man — which Blackstone described as a “one man band” — who quit his job to pursue music full-time. By the time Blackstone was in high school, the musical prodigy was already well versed in playing the bass guitar, organ, piano, keyboard, as well as classical music.
Is it really a surprise he’s been the musical director for Kanye West’s “Glow In The Dark Tour,” Rihanna’s seven countries in seven days “777 Tour,” multiple Soul Train Music Awards, Eminem’s return to festival stages, and played bass guitar for them and dozens of others, at the same time?
“How I got into music directing is the artists I was playing with, locally, trusted me to put the rehearsals together, put the music together, and stuff like that,” Blackstone told REVOLT TV. “I kind of fell into it because I was passionate about structure and things like that.”
Blackstone is one of the gold standards for music direction, recently winning the Best Original Song award at this year’s Academy Awards for his work on “This Is Me” from the musical “The Greatest Showman.” On this week’s Tour Tales, Blackstone discusses how he resurrected Prince during Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII performance, the lessons Questlove taught him during JAY-Z’s retirement concert at Madison Square Garden 15 years ago, and why he’ll never do another tour like Rihanna’s “777 Tour.”
Questlove was the musical director for JAY-Z’s Fade To Black concert at Madison Square Garden in 2003 and you were a bassist. What did you learn from Questlove about being an MD during that performance?
First of all, that’s my big brother. He will forever be my favorite MD. He really taught me the art of transitions in music and in shows. That shows, specifically, there were 15-20 artists and it seems like the music never stops.
This was your first major gig as a bassist. How soon before the show did you know you’d be part of it?
I think we rehearsed for about a week. So, maybe a week before that we got the call, ‘Hey, JAY-Z is retiring (laughs). He wants to do a big farewell concert.’ At that time, The Roots had just did his [MTV] ‘Unplugged’ [performance], I want to say about a year, a year and a half before that. That was huge, man. ‘Unplugged’ is one of the greatest shows ever and we never had a hip hop artist on there because being live was always taboo. So, he had tapped The Roots to be his backup band and then, tapped Amir [Questlove] to do his farewell concert. It was a great experience.
That night was anywhere from JAY to Beyonce to Mary [J. Blige], to Pharrell, to Missy [Elliott], to Dipset, to Jaguar Wright, Foxy Brown, DMX, Kanye. It expanded so much.
What were those rehearsals like?
It was a lot of stars coming through there, man, just wanting to be part of it. It was a lot of Jay re-learning some of his old raps. There was a lot of us reworking some of the music, so that it fit from song to song. So, it was a big production that can’t really be replicated because it was a time and a moment to say, ‘This Black Album, he’s out of here.’ So, we took it very seriously.
Were there one or two songs JAY-Z rehearsed that never made it to the stage and that you wished did?
I’m going to get killed for this. But, all JAY’s songs with Amil. They had some bangers. ‘Two a.m. at the Waffle House/ 6:00 a.m., I was kicking her out.’ I never got to play those songs. Those were them New York/East Coast/Philly joints. We rehearsed those songs like one time [for the retirement show] and then, they just went away (laughs).
When you’re 70 years old and your kids want to hear about the time you played during JAY-Z’s retirement show, what will stick out in your memory the most?
The main thing I can remember that still sticks [out] to me today is the relationships that I built just being in that process. I got my next gig from that. I met this kid with a pink Polo from the Chi. He said, ‘Yo, I like the way you sound. I like the way you play. You should work with me. I got an album coming out.’ I was like, ‘Cool, let’s keep in touch. What’s your name?’ He said, ‘My name is Kanye West.’
Also, Just Blaze came in to DJ. I’ve worked with him now for the past 16 years based off of that one experience. Swizz Beatz, as well. That process developed a lot of core relationships for me and put my face out there because it turned into a movie.
The most ambitious single performance you’ve done has to be the Super Bowl LII performance with Justin Timberlake. When Prince appeared on this huge sheet and sang, ‘I Would Die 4 U’ with Justin singing with him, I lost it. How long did that take to go from idea to stage?
My boy got the call for the Super Bowl. Automatically, we went into brainstorm mode of who, if anybody, to invite out with us. It was just kind of like, ‘JAY-Z? Nah, maybe not. He can do his own thing. Do we be ambitious and call Ms. Jackson back, showing how y’all peaced it up?’ Then, it was like, ‘Nah, it would take away from the music moment. So, let’s not necessarily do that.’ Then, Justin was like, ‘I think I have the catalog to carry this.’ I was like, ‘I agree.’
When we brainstormed on the idea about Prince, it was really more of a nostalgic thing being in Minnesota, than it was let’s just do Prince. You know what I mean? Super Bowl is in Atlanta this year. I can’t say that we would have done it if it was another city. I reached out to Troy Carter, who is now the estate president for Prince. I explained to him the idea that I came up with, which was really to not do no hologram or nothing like that. It was really to have Prince play with us.
It wasn’t just play to a CD or nothing like that. If you really watch that performance, our band and Justin himself were backing up Prince, sonically. Troy went back to the estate, they was with it. I got the files, and then, it was my job after that to just fit it in. Those were his master vocals only. It was like our band was playing with Prince.
It was chilling. It felt like you resurrected Prince for a moment.
Yeah, for a moment. That was definitely what we were trying to convey. His music is timeless. That was his city. He represented Minneapolis everywhere he went. It was really cool to bring that purple energy, that purple power, for that moment. As show-stopping of a moment that it was, we still, on a music tip, fit him within the context of Justin’s set. We didn’t venture off of anything that we were going to do. We didn’t do a random music break, and it just stopped, and now Prince appeared. We were playing our song and in the middle of it, the surprise was Prince is now doing a duet with J.T.
How was it being the musical director for the The Soul Train Music Awards this year?
This is always one of my favorite shows. I’m an R&B baby; 90s, when true soul music was thriving and even neo-soul was able to come up. The Soul Train Awards has always been special to me to embrace our culture, embrace our blackness, embrace our soul. It becomes frantic, at times, only because it’s at a time of the year when a lot of people are on tour and working. So, sometimes we don’t know who is confirmed until the very last minute. That makes me have to scramble extra hard to get arrangements, personnel, program files, and stuff like that. A show of this magnitude would take me approximately two to three weeks to prepare. I do a lot of preproduction ahead of time just knowing what the theme of the show is. This year was 90s with Tisha Campbell and Tichina Arnold.
For the Soul Train Music Awards, were there things that didn’t air that were filmed? Or maybe things you had planned that never got shot?
Yeah, it was so hard. Erykah Badu, she got the Legend award. She is the type of artist, man, she goes off the cuff. She did about an 18-minute performance that we had to dwindle down for television to nine. We did two other songs, and we did an extended version of ‘Tyrone’ that only that room, that night, got to see.
You’re able to work with so many different generations of artists and still get down their essence. One person you worked with and really recaptured his magic was Eminem. You helped him return to the festival stages after a long hiatus. What was that like and how did it happen?
Eminem did the Grammys with Elton John, Questlove, and The Roots [in 2001]. From around that point, [Questlove and Eminem] kept in touch. Amir [Questlove] put me on to Eminem and said, ‘This is my young boy. You should use him when you ready to go back out.’ That’s how I linked up with Em. My first gig for Eminem was the 2009 Voodoo Fest. We’ve been working, man.
He took a while off from a lot of live performances before y’all linked back up in 2014 for his festival run. What was the difference between working with him in 2009 and working with him five years later?
He had put out Recovery and I think, literally, he was recovering from his drug addiction. Know what I’m saying? The biggest difference was that he got back to writing from a sober place.
What is the most memorable show you’ve done with Eminem?
I would say this last Coachella was pretty amazing, man; with 100,000 people. That has been pretty epic for us. I would also have to say ‘Saturday Night Live’ in 2017 where he did a medley for 12 minutes. He hadn’t had too much new music. He had put one song out. So, we combined both music segments and did it as one long medley of hits, which is one of the first times ‘SNL’ had ever done this. People were going crazy, so that was a good creative scheme for me and something memorable that I would definitely remember from Em. I put that together. I curated that.
The Super Bowl performance with Justin Timberlake was definitely the most ambitious single performance you were music director for. But, Rihanna’s “777 Tour” is probably the most ambitious tour you’ve ever worked on.
Yeah, I’m never doing that again (laughs). That was pretty crazy, man. I don’t even think I’ve recovered from the that. I’ve been tired ever since. That was pretty crazy, man. Seven countries in seven days with a new album coming out.
Why was that so difficult? To the average fan, all you’re doing is performing and then getting on a plane to the next show, a full day away.
The biggest craziness about all of that is every continent and country you go to is in another time zone. Us right now at 3:30 in the afternoon, it’s 1:30 in the morning somewhere else. Or it’s another day somewhere else. Once you start at the first country and the first show, you have to truck it to the next city. It’s not like you can rest. Due to the time difference in each of these countries, it was showtime every time we got there. We never had a moment of rest.
Was there a show on that ‘777 Tour’ where y’all thought y’all weren’t going to make the show?
I would say day five. We were kind of just like, ‘I want to go home. What are we doing?’ I think there was a couple times Rihanna was late getting into the flight because she hadn’t slept. We were all traveling together, so we couldn’t leave her. One of the blessings was I had my wife with me. I told Jay Brown (co-founder/CEO of Roc Nation), I couldn’t do this unless my wife was coming. I think we were celebrating our wedding anniversary or something like that. Even she was like ‘I don’t want to do this no more’ (laughs).
Was there a show on the tour that made all of the struggle and sleep deprivation worth it?
The final show, landing in New York, and the album was out that day. Radio was blowing it up. We had been playing those songs for the last week that nobody had really heard. I think landing in New York, the album being out and people knowing the music that we had just been playing, and singing along to was very validating.
Speaking of your wife, you actually met her on the road, as well. Right?
Yeah, she was a background singer Vivian Green. I met her on that gig. That was one of my first R&B gigs around 2004. We’ve been rocking ever since. She’s the love of my life. She helped me found BBE (BASSic Black Entertainment live production company).
What is your take on this whole new Amy Winehouse hologram tour that’s supposed to happen?
Oh, wow. I didn’t even know about that.
A hologram of Amy Winehouse is going on tour and will have a live backing band. How would you, as a music director, make that work?
Of course, when there’s a hologram, there’s no ad libbing, per se. But, me, as music director, I would want to still create those moments. That’s what gets fans engulfed and engaged in your show, you talking to them. So, one of the first things that I would do is see what are the talking moments because there is not a live artist there, how do we recreate that? Whether it’s pulling footage from her old shows and emulating the voice, or using that audio and say, ‘How you doing London?’ or whatever it might be. That’s how you make a show.
The reason I bring that up is because last year, artists made 12 percent of the $45 billion generated in the music industry with most of it coming from live shows. Since the vast majority of the money artists make comes from live performances, do you see a future where an artist might just say let a hologram go on tour in their place and do seven shows in one night?
Well, they wouldn’t make no money because the person who made the hologram would make the money, in my head. That’s still not the artist. There’s nothing like talking, seeing and feeling like Justin Timberlake is looking at you. Or that Puff [Daddy] is dancing to you. No disrespect to the hologram technology. But, that’s probably just a very well curated playlist, as opposed to an experience with that artist. Then, just on a technical business side, the artist makes their money by showing up (laughs).
We went through a stock market crash. We went through a financial crash, and sports and music entertainment were two of the things that never went down because people want to be happy. They’re happy when they go to concerts. They’re happy when they go to a live sporting event. Being in this business, I’ve never had a lull in that area, as far as my job is concerned. So, I’m super thankful.
Music really is recession-proof. You expertly included a mini-tribute to Prince into Justin Timberlake’s set at the Super Bowl. But, you also were behind the full tribute show to Mac Miller.
That was very touching, very emotional. I didn’t know Mac personally. But, prepping for this show and being on that stage, I got to see his impact on people’s lives. It was really, really good to see the outpouring of love for him from the musician community that night.
Was it your decision to have artists perform that night with Mac Miller’s vocal track still playing, as if he was there?
Yeah. His estate asked me what I thought should happen. For different songs, we did different things. John Mayer came and played, and he wanted to sing-rap Mac’s vocals because the words meant so much to him. There were a couple other people — Vince Staples, Anderson .Paak, SZA, Miguel — who have features with homie and they were like, ‘Yo, I think that would be amazing if we let his vocal rock and it’s like I’m performing there still.’
I was a teenager when I first knew who you were. I saw you played bass in both the Fade to Black and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, 18 months apart. How did you get to be part of Block Party?
That was all Questlove. We took that same JAY-Z [Fade to Black] band, I think, and went and did Chappelle’s show. It’s so funny, man, if you watch that, we all got on sweatpants and stuff like that. We had no idea we were filming when we were filming. It was literally just a vibe and a block party. I didn’t get to change my clothes. It started raining and people were like, ‘Yo, let’s just go vibe.’ Then, we stayed onstage for the entire night. That was one of the cool moments of the evolution of my career, for sure.
You’ve been around the biggest artists in the world who can pretty much get whatever they want. Who would you say had the most interesting tour rider?
(Laughs) That’s a good question, man. Well, I just did Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. I know that’s not on the African-American tip. But, one of the things that Tim has is, he demanded a gym workout trailer. So, everywhere he goes, he has a traveling gymnasium and gym with him in the back of a tractor trailer truck. So, that’s pretty. Another rider thing, which is minor, but is major if you think about it, is Kanye used to have a full P.A. (Public Address) system in his dressing room.
Now when I say a full P.A. system, it’s like you could go in his dressing room and feel like you’re at a concert. It was so loud and that’s how it was every time. He would play his own beats. So, when I went on tour with him, that was “Glow In The Dark” [in 2008], he was kind of just bumping that stuff from 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and all of that. He was playing music, new music, right before he was going on stage. It was like, ‘Yo, what is that?’ To travel with a full out P.A. system was pretty epic at the time. I think a lot of people are do it now. But, he kind of started that.
What’s the most popular song you’ve seen created on a tour bus?
I saw Drake make ‘Forever’ on a tour bus. That was early, early Drake. Also, I was not there, but while on the ‘777 Tour,’ Rihanna put out ‘Pour It Up.’ She recorded ‘Pour It Up’ while we were on the plane. I don’t know if she did that in her hotel room. There were rumors they set up in her hotel room and ‘Pour It Up’ was the last song to go on the album. The album was coming out in a week and she hadn’t finished yet. So, they had to set up in her bedroom on our tour. When we landed in New York, the song came out (laughs). It didn’t exist like on a Monday and the following Tuesday, it was like the number one song in the country.
What is one tip you would give up-and-coming music directors for them to do it the right way?
Remain humble. You never know who the next anybody is. I did Kanye and Rihanna opened for Kanye. I did Drake and I think, J Cole opened for Drake. Even when I did ‘Fade to Black,’ real talk, we didn’t know Kanye was Kanye then. Beyonce was just coming out with her first solo joint. You’ve got to be humble and kind to people. Be a good people person because whatever gig you’re on at that time is your audition for the next cat. So, I would just say continue to do good work no matter what the setting, no matter what the atmosphere.
Be kind to people, because people are watching you.
More from Keith Nelson, Jr.:
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