Meet The Man Behind Hip-Hop’s Most Thrilling Live Performances - 17 minutes read

Meet The Man Behind Hip-Hop’s Most Thrilling Live Performances

Lil Uzi Vert may have a reputation for high-octane, visually thrilling performances, but he didn’t always prioritize the production quality of his live shows. “I feel like a lot of the younger hip-hop acts don’t focus on production, but that’s one thing I got Uzi to understand,” says Michael Mauro, the rapper’s creative director and the man behind the monstrous inverted crosses that have come to epitomize Uzi’s live appearances. “I think it worked out really well in his favor because now there’s a certain level of execution that’s attached to his name, and with that comes more money.”

With barely three years under his belt in the world of stage design for musical artists, Mauro already boasts a lengthy résumé, having collaborated with Uzi, ASAP Rocky, Russ, Diplo, Playboi Carti, SZA, Erykah Badu, and more on memorable, immersive live shows. The 27-year-old’s rapid ascent is due in part to his eagerness to be successful, largely evading the typical hierarchy of production design to get his flashy, sci-fi-esque creations before audiences. One may chalk it up to him being a millennial, seeking instant gratification, but Mauro surely knows the value of hard work ("I don't sleep much," he jokes) and monetizing his talents. Case in point: In order to establish his own reputation for quality productions, he's been carefully intentional about with whom he chooses to collaborate. "There’s a certain level of exclusivity that I’m trying to maintain," he says. "I don’t want to just take on anything that comes my way.”

He’s also admirably differentiated himself and his team with M99 Studios, his L.A.-based creative agency that’s a one-stop shop for production design, equipment, tour management, and performance and art direction for TV performances, festivals, one-off shows, and full tours. Apart from guaranteeing high quality, Instagram-worthy live shows, M99 also ensures that Mauro and his team have extended business relationships with artists—a rarity in the field. “It’s hard to bring value in the creative space in a way that makes people want to keep coming back to you,” says Mauro. “I think that was a good way to develop my business even more: providing a service that makes sense on the touring level.” 

M99 has done more than make sense; it's made dollars as well: The company boasts $3M in sales over the past 16 months. And Mauro isn't stopping at production, seeking to lend his creative eye and connections as head of a record label and management company in the coming months, and aspiring to expand to other fields, namely fashion. Regardless of what productions he works on, his philosophy is simple: "Sparking an idea that people are going to remember is all what I want to do."

Here, Mauro talks about carving a space for himself in the field, and reflects on a few of his most exciting stage productions.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You studied film and animation at the College for Creative Studies. What was your initial post-grad plan?

I really had no idea what I wanted to do, to be honest. I started shooting reality television in hopes of transitioning to movies, but I realized the film industry has this older mentality, that you need to climb the ladder. I didn’t necessarily agree with that, as millennial as that sounds. I also thought the style of work I was making didn’t really fit into the film industry either because I was into experimental animation and abstract art. So, after that I pivoted and started focusing all my energy into the music industry because that’s what I was interested in anyway; from [when I was] a kid, I was obsessed with concerts and live events, so I thought it’d be great to take a stab at it, and it worked. 

How did you actually go about making that leap?

I linked up with an artist named Elohim. We just did her visual content for her live shows, and when we played at this small club called Tenants of the Trees in L.A., somebody took a video of her performance and showed it to one of the managers at [Atlanta-based record label] LVRN. They hit me up to do Raury’s first tour. From there we went on tour with ASAP Rocky as an opener, and my relationship with Rocky’s camp developed. Then we went on tour with Macklemore, and that relationship developed as well. I met a tour manager who I connected with, and we do business together still. It was just a snowball effect, honestly. 

The evolution seems really organic. 

Yeah it’s kind of crazy: we’ve gotten this far without any marketing or promotion, really. It’s organic, relationship-based work and that’s why I like it. 

How atypical is your journey into stage design different from the average designer’s?

Your average designer probably starts as an assistant somewhere, and I didn’t do any of that. I don't think there’s anything wrong with it. It just didn’t really make sense for me to do it that way because I wanted things to move quickly and I knew they could if I just focused my energy on them. I moved to L.A. and literally knew nobody at all. I would hit up 10 Craigslist ads a day trying to generate some sort of income for myself, and trying to get animation jobs or literally any creative role that I could take on. I met some cool people doing that, though. 

What do you think made Uzi’s set during the Endless Summer Tour so memorable?

Considering he was an opener, we did come with a cool production design. Most of the time you see a direct support act and [their production quality is] like nothing really, but I think we came with something pretty special. We had all these upside-down crosses and a 15-foot fabricated skull with diamond grills and tattoos that replicated Uzi’s tattoos, so it was cool. 

How does music factor into your visuals?

Visual content and the music you’re hearing in a live setting go hand in hand. Certain sounds or cues in a song can make people feel a different way, and visuals enhance that. It’s a really good way to pair and take over the room by utilizing all of those aspects. 

How exactly do you describe your aesthetic? You’ve described your work in college as being “experimental,” so what does that mean for you now?

It’s definitely still experimental in the sense of i’m not scared to do some off-the-wall s**t. I’m not scared to do a huge, upside-down cross on a tour where people are definitely going to get offended by it. And that’s not a religious view; it’s art, and part of Uzi’s brand. But it’s good to mix a contemporary aesthetic with something random and abstract.

Some of my favorite filmmakers have inspired me to think in a unique way, like Stan Brakhage and Matthew Barney. Sparking an idea that people are going to remember is all what I want to do. 

How does social media factor into that?

Everything I do I want be photo-worthy, whether it’s the look of the content or stage design or lighting. No matter where you’re taking the photo from, the stage has to look full. 

Who are your musical inspirations?

Was it always part of your plan to own a business?

I definitely had it in my mind that I was always going to create a full service agency, but—don’t get me wrong—it took years to learn the ins and outs of the production side. It took a while to really get well versed in it because it involves a lot of moving parts and different jobs that need to be filled to execute a tour or event. 

What helped you recognize the need for M99?

After doing the smaller tours and moving up to larger arena tours, I noticed there would always be a gap in staff that you could trust. People were always coming and going, people weren’t vetted properly—the relationships just weren’t there with the management teams and I wanted to build a business that could provide reliability on all fronts, even down to reliable equipment. It just seemed like a business model that was going to work. 

How did you go about funding?

It was all personal finances, for the most part—just doing it until I had enough money to invest in equipment, and then invest in employees I could rely on. From there we just got bigger jobs, bigger clients, and now we just moved out of our spot in uptown L.A. and are looking for a new warehouse. 

How much does it cost to execute these performances?

It really depends on the size of the tour and artists, but typically anywhere from $150k to $1M plus. Typically, festival appearances are limited in terms of change over and build time, unless the artist is headlining the festival. It depends on the size of the artist and the scope of the production, but anywhere form $15k to $250k.  

What distinguishes M99 Studios from other production design studios?

The way that we’re different from other production design studios is that we offer a fully self-contained service, whether you want to come for just creative or you want us to produce everything. Tour management to full staffing, to trucking, vendor coordination, LED lighting—all of it can be done as a one-stop shop. I think a lot of management teams love that because it takes so much stress off of them, trying to coordinate with staff and make sure what they want to do is being executed on the level that we’re presenting it. It helps me, too, because if we come up with this crazy stage or production concept, I want to make sure that the people who are getting it up in the air every day are people who have attention to detail and who I trust to make sure it’s right. 

What was the most unexpected challenge of launching M99?

Getting people to trust us with larger chores was definitely a hurdle. After working with a client for a year, they have a certain idea of what you do in their head, so we had to convince them that we can do everything, not just visual content or lighting design. But once we got the first one it was smooth sailing from there. 

It’s understandable, though. The stakes are pretty high.

Totally, because, one, they need to save as much money as possible so they can make money and management and everybody else involved can make money; and two, the only way you’re going to grow as an artist is to continue to level up in the live performance world. Your touring presence is very important in terms of the longevity of your career. 

There’s a bit of a stigma surrounding millennials wanting instant gratification, even when it comes to our careers—you said yourself you didn’t want to climb the ladder, so to say. Things worked out for you, however, so what’s your take on that perception? 

At the end of the day, you’re going to take out whatever you put in. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have to work hard—you need to put in the hours and treat whatever you’re doing like any other job. I feel like a lot of people in our age group do want instant gratification, and there are alternate ways to create careers, but at the end of the day it always comes back to putting in work. People on Instagram may have all this clout and gratification from social media posts, but they may not be able to translate that into money or business ideas. 

Do you think it’s necessary for all creatives to understand the business side of their line of work?

Definitely. This is something I would like to eventually teach a class on because art school didn’t teach me how to make money in the real world. At the end of the day, you can be as artistic as you want to be, but if you can’t translate the work into something monetary you’re doing it for nothing. Obviously, keeping artistic integrity is important, but you’ve got to eat at the end of the day. It’s difficult. The music industry is not set up for creatives to truly win, because of the payment structure, so you really have to find your lane. It’s something I’m really passionate about. 

How else are you translating your creativity into a business?

I’m looking to start a record label and a management company this year. I have a couple potential artists that I’m going to sign.

How do you envision your label and management company distinguishing itself?

I want to be involved in all aspects of the artist’s brand. When they sign to a label, they get assigned to a creative or marketing team that really doesn’t do anything cool, so if I sign an artist it’s not going to be just because I believe in their music—it’s going to be because I believe that they can eventually become a brand, or even big enough to be one of the top touring acts. The company will be all-encompassing, synced from creative to music to the management. 

I feel like what I’ve already done in the creative space can easily translate to album rollouts or creative direction for an artist’s projects, so we’ll be providing the artist that plus financial backing and connections. I’ve been doing this for almost three years now, so everybody that I’ve met I’ve tried to maintain a personal relationship with, from artist managers to label heads. The industry’s super small, and I feel like I have some people who look out for me, so when the time comes to jumpstart [the label and management company] I don’t think it’ll be too difficult to put the right people in the room. 

You’ve been talking about putting in the work but almost three years isn’t that long to have all of this on your résumé. 

I don’t go outside that much. [Laughs]

Got anything else in the pipeline?

I’m hoping to get into experiential events. I’d love to work in fashion, like with Louis Vuitton or another brand that does really interesting runway shows.

Mauro: "For this project, M99 handled production design, lighting and video design, and personnel/equipment rentals for the tour. I have worked with Uzi since early on in his career. Uzi and I have always been on the same wave length in terms of taste/vision. I know what he wants to see and I know what's going to magnify his brand on stage.  He directs himself, and everything else falls into place. 

This design, in particular, was heavily inspired by '90s metal. The upside-down crosses were a theme we played with for a while, along with the skull centerpiece, which we designed and produced in Los Angeles. The skull prop was hand sculpted from foam core, given a diamond grill and then airbrushed and painted to match Uzi's face tattoos. Since Uzi was the direct support on this tour we were forced to work within the constraints of G-Eazy's production.  We were limited to the amount of space and time we had to get this up and out every night, but we were still able to successfully make a huge look without a ton of resources."

Mauro: "I was the lead lighting and notch designer on the project, working closely with Rocky, Jed Skrypazk (stage designer), Chase O’black (video director), Ryan Sheppard (programmer), and Darrius Medina (programmer).  The goal with this design was to make it feel as big as possible, while still keeping Rocky centered and in focus. It was important that the lighting complemented his movements, whether he was 30 feet in the air on a vintage Porsche or running around the stage interacting with the crowd. Jed and I wanted to bring as much life to this as possible, so we decided to make all of the lights inside and out of the car controllable, which definitely added another element and enhanced the performance, especially for songs like 'F**k Sleep.'" 

Mauro: "M99 handled content design and show direction for Diplo's headline set at Coachella 2019.  In total, we spent five weeks working on the content package, lighting programming, and production design. The narrative behind the project was a loose acid trip inspired by '70s blacklight art and vintage psychedelic references.  This was one of his first sets that had a lot of deep house so we really tried to complement that sound visually."

Russ, I See You Part Two Tour

Mauro: "M99 developed the production design, lighting and video design, and handled tour management, production management, personnel and equipment rentals.This was an exciting project because of the scale and the control we had with the production, automation, SFX, etc. The goal with Russ is to always design with his brand in mind. He’s such a versatile artist and being that his catalog is so extensive we really locked in and tried to make this feel massive. The highlight of it all was when he sold out Staples Center in L.A.  It was a pretty surreal moment—everyone involved was really proud, as we put a ton of energy into it."

Mauro: "We handled creative direction, stage design, and visual content for the performance. Since the song is called 'Pure Water' we wanted to stick as closely to that theme as possible. We programmed a live rain curtain to sync with the show to display images & patterns in real time as well as an LED staircase with water simulations. Because there were so many artists and dancers involved, it was important to figure out spacing and some kind of structure to break everything up, and that's what the staircase added."


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