Meet the Experimental Designer Behind Hip Hop's Most Influential (and Elaborate) Live Concert Performances

Michael Mauro has staged shows for acts such as SZA, 6lack, and Lil Uzi Vert.

Michael Mauro has staged shows for acts such as SZA, 6lack, and Lil Uzi Vert.

If the knock on millennials is their apparent distaste for tradition and the status quo, multidisciplinary artist Michael Mauro is a testament to how effective that mindset can be. Though he had little training or experience in stage production when starting out his career, Mauro, 27, has rapidly climbed the ranks of the music industry; today, he handles the creative direction for some of hip hop’s biggest acts in the grandest settings, from sold-out arenas and music festivals to late-night television. Lighting, video, set design, pyrotechnics, interactive elements—his purview includes everything that goes into producing groundbreaking live performances, and then some.

Through M99 Studios—the five-person, California-based creative agency he founded in 2017—Mauro has worked with SZA, Joey Bada$$, Erykah Badu, 6lack, and Lil Uzi Vert, among other prominent names in hip hop. (Mauro also serves as the latter artist’s creative director.) M99’s services are in high demand. Following in the wake of aesthetically progressive acts like Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, hip hop’s new generation of stars aspire to make genre-bending, high-concept music. And they insist on an immersive concert experience to match. So when an eclectic artist like Uzi Vert—an emo rapper who shops at Dover Street, likes Jeff Koons, and cites Marilyn Manson as an inspiration—prepares for a Tonight Show appearance or a summer tour, designing each element of the show requires a deft hand.

Stage design for Russ's "I See You Tour, Part 2."

Mauro, whose background is rooted in art, is uniquely suited to this kind of work. Born in Michigan, he studied film and animation at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit—where he frequently worked on “experimental pieces”—before moving to Los Angeles. Inspired by his childhood love for live musical performances, Mauro decided he wanted to channel his creative impulses into making live visuals for concerts and shows.

“I remember the first couple of tours I did—I had no idea what I was doing,” he allows. “I was kinda just doing the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ thing. I worked really hard to figure it out, and trained under some people that showed me the path. I got connected with an artist named Elohim. We did this really small club tour. A couple people saw it, and I got hit up to do another smaller artist named Raury. We went on tour with A$AP Rocky. I started working with him a bit and from there, it just kinda snowballed into the client list we have now.”

Lil Uzi Vert performing in front of Mauro's design.

Though he’s technically a new kid on the block, Mauro is earning cosigns from industry insiders, rookies and veterans alike.

“Mike is one of the most innovative creatives I’ve ever worked with,” says Leighton “Lake” Morrison, who manages Lil Uzi Vert. “His attention to detail and knowledge of the artists material makes his staging and visual setups second to none. I always tell him you can just watch his visuals without an artist performing.”

Indeed, Morrison regards M99 with admiration, some of the highest praise behind-the-scenes players can get. But it’s not just about Mauro’s eye. The logistics of delivering such a show require equal parts technicality and creativity. Like most multifaceted collaborative projects, it takes a village. M99 coordinates with vendors across the country to access equipment, which allows them to stage a show anywhere. For Mauro and his studio, providing a memorable experience—one that’s consistent across tour schedules—is always the end goal. But before the show can start, it has to be designed.

Stage design for Russ's "I See You Tour, Part 2."

“Everything starts with a 3-D rendering, just a basic light concept. From there, there’s revisions with the artist and feedback,” Mauro says.

“After that’s finalized, we take it into a 3-D CAD program called Vectorworks, and we just make everything to scale and do all the logistical planning of how it’s going to go together—how it’s gonna be rigged, how it’s gonna travel, how it’s gonna transport, how it’s gonna get set up every day in a way that it’s not super time consuming. From there, we have the base and we just develop the art around that to fit with it. We design everything in Cinema 4D and a couple other pieces of software.”

M99’s methodology, streamlined as it is, carves out special consideration for every artist on an individual basis. “As much insight and inspiration I can get from the artist, the better,” Mauro says. “At the end of the day, it’s meant to make them look better.”

But Mauro doesn’t consider himself tethered to music. He’s eyeing expansion into more interdisciplinary projects, citing the desire to work with fashion labels, staging experiential runway shows.

“We’re just trying to add another element to this experience and build this world for whoever the client may be,” he says. “We never want it to overpower or be conflicting with what they’re trying to do on stage. They’re the focal point, for sure. I want it to be very specific for the space, and to reflect their brand as true as possible.”

(Photos: Courtesy Michael Mauro & Alive Coverage)

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