Lil Nas X performs at the 2020 GRAMMYs
Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
Go Behind The Scenes Of Lil Nas X's 2020 GRAMMY Performance With Stage Designer Jed Skrzypczak
At the 62nd GRAMMY Awards last week (Sunday, Jan. 26), Lil Nas X's performance began with a close-up shot of the artist on a living room couch. The 20-year-old Atlanta native was dressed from head to toe in a metallic two-piece and an equally sparkly black cowboy hat to match. Above him on the room's walls sat framed 2019 issues of Billboard, Variety and Time, respectively, each with Lil Nas X on their covers. The classic animated series "Chowder" and the inspiration behind the hook of the singer's 2019 hit, "Panini," played inaudibly on a TV set behind the artist. To his left was a chair with a purple and gold #24 jersey draped over it, in memory of late NBA hero Kobe Bryant who died earlier that day. As he strummed his guitar and belted out the opening chorus of his GRAMMY-winning single "Old Town Road," the stage began to revolve.
Jed Skrzypczak is a visual artist and stage designer who has worked alongside artists like A$AP Rocky, Charli XCX and FENTY, among others, leading creative direction on overall brand identity, live show design, experiential and interior design. After being recruited to produce a futuristic "Panini" set for Lil Nas X's appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" last September, Skrzypczak was asked to join the artist once again for his star-studded performance on Music's Biggest Night.
As the stage turned and Lil Nas X entered each new room along its circumference, the set revealed fresh dystopias. K-pop supergroup BTS gathered in a futuristic cityscape while Diplo and viral sensation Mason Ramsey joined Lil Nas X in a barn decked out with glittery-pink walls, cattle skulls and "dead or alive" Diplo posters.
"I presented a few performance ideas to Lil Nas, and he liked the diorama room concept, which was the most theatrical and unique," Skrzypczak tells The Recording Academy. "The challenge was creating multiple distinct spaces onstage, while taking both live and broadcast audiences on a journey through them. We then came up with the idea of using a rotating set, which ended up working perfectly."
"Lil Nas is a very online persona," Skrzypczak explained about the vision behind the show's hidden motifs. "He's all about memes and with his young fans that's part of their lives. So from the beginning when we started working on the performance, we were kind of thinking about how we can sort of translate that into stage performance. That's why throughout the show, there are lots of small bits like this."
Skrzypczak says that working with Lil Nas X to bring the story of his meteoric rise to life was a treat within itself, and that ideas for creating each room on the revolving stage came about organically between the two. The idea of having a gigantic green skull wearing a cowboy hat in one room, for example, came from Lil Nas X's desire to have a moment in the show that was cool and artistic while also true to rap music. The Kobe Bryant jersey sitting just to the left of Lil Nas X in the show's opening shot? That was a last-minute addition that Skrzypczak and Lil Nas X agreed to put onstage as a small gesture paying homage to the NBA star.
"Working with Lil Nas was a really amazing experience because he is really hands-on and he has so many great ideas," Skrzypczak said. "Even though he is so young, he is a really clever guy and he knows what he wants… He also wants to make sure that every artist gets their own part and is involved and [gets] credit for it. He created a really amazing atmosphere, so it was a pleasure to work with him and everybody involved."
In his approach to the show, Skrzypczak was heavy on the details. The team built a special mini tractor for Ramsey so that he could have his own moment within the performance. The stage's revolutions lead to appearances by Billy Ray Cyrus and legendary rapper Nas, who joined Lil Nas X for "Rodeo," concluding the performance with surprise fireworks.
Even if audience members or viewers at home may not notice, Skrzypczak says that creating layered meaning behind what you see onstage is key to helping create the stories that artists want to tell through their performances.
"For me, that's one of the most important parts for the artist and their fans because that's where they get to experience it in person," he said. "I always try to make sure their experience exceeds their expectations and also shows how amazing the artist is. That's when the artist gives the most to their fans."
There are rarely moving stages that can also cater to as many artists at once the way that Skrzypczak's dynamic set did.
"This project [was] the most challenging and amazing at the same time," he said, "the amount of people involved with it and also how different the idea originally was. When we were first presenting the idea to the GRAMMYs, I thought they would say no because of the intricate design and multiple moving elements."
Making an already-complex stage design fit his and Lil Nas X's standards as a live broadcast was not an easy task, but the risk paid off in the end.
"It's always important to know how the show and all of its elements are going to translate on camera," Skrzypczak explained. "If it's going to be visible, if it's going to be nicely shot, what kind of background there is—that was one of the big challenges because the set had so many different elements, so many different artists at the same time, and it was all revolving as well. My thinking the whole time was, 'Is this going to translate well for the cameras?'"