When the going gets tough, the tough get going, and Milwaukee’s DJay Mando has proven that his mental strength is second to none as he has climbed his way from free shows at whatever venues he could to selling out the Miramar week after week for his Friday night shows.
Growing up in Milwaukee, Mando never opened up the curtain on his musical aspirations, it was his secret project and one that he didn’t plan on putting into action until the time was right. He possessed a deep passion for hip-hop, diving deep into dusty crates as well as the good ole streaming classics like LimeWire. Most of his time was spent building up his mental library of music, laying the foundations for himself to be the complete DJ. “As a DJ, it’s kinda your job to be a historian of hip-hop, and understanding the connections it has everywhere”, Mando explained when discussing his values as a DJ. As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I can without a doubt vouch for the fact that for a hip-hop loving kid, the general negative viewpoint towards “explicit” music can make it difficult to get ya hands on the latest drops. Until one day, when a Rap God emerged from the charred chassis of the Motor City and spread his gospel across the United States, converting many suburban non-believers into loud and proud followers.
Mando’s mom is partially white and like so many other white people across the country, began tuning into hip-hop when Eminem came busting out of Detroit in the early 2000’s. Eminem was the big bad wolf who huffed and puffed a gust of wind and opened the doors for Mando to have explicit music around, which he immediately began taking advantage of. The various sounds of the South during its rise to prominence in the early 2000’s were the soundtrack of Mando’s early high school years. Starting at Marquette,an all boys high school left Mando feeling as though something was missing. For someone who’s all about the vibe, Mando knew that he just couldn’t keep attending an all-male school. So he transferred over to Pius where the missing piece of the puzzle was waiting, girls. Looking back, it only makes sense that Mando was destined to move on. As someone who cultivates perfect vibes and sells out the Miramar week after week after week, an all-male school doesn’t exactly allow one to spread their party planner wings and fly.
After making the switch, Mando breezed through the rest of high school, graduating from Pius before heading on to UW-Madison. He found himself surrounded by like-minded individuals focused on finding their own path in life. This support, along with continued practice on his own, converged at the beginning of his junior year. As a result, Mando decided that it was time to let his light shine. Mando was working as an RA in the dorms when he first started publicly spinning, using his RA position to paper the dorms with flyers. He began by DJing house parties and smaller venues around the city. Between Mando’s playlists (which were filled to the seams with bangers from all eras) and his high-energy performances, he was able to quickly build a fanbase who came out to shows rain, snow, or shine. One thing that became clear to anyone dealing with Mando, was that as solid as his skills behind the boards were, his business-savvy stood above all else. In quick succession Mando was able to parlay his success around town into gigs Djing for UW Badger sporting events. In less than the time it takes for David Bhaktiari to slug down a beer, Mando had proven himself to the university and was promoted to being the official DJ of all Badgers sports.
This put him in charge of rocking both Camp Randall and the Kohl’s Center during games. It was during this time that Mando signed to a now-defunct artist management label in Madison, Strange Oasis Entertainment (SOE), that was starting to do big things locally. In fact, it was through SOE that Mando and I first met, after I joined the SOE team as an intern trying to get my foot in the door. Separately, Lucien Parker, Bravo, and Mando were making concrete moves establishing themselves as prominent up and coming artists not only in Madison, but throughout the Midwest and beyond. As a team they gelled rapidly, and it allowed them to stand head and shoulders above the field. Things were moving quickly, and Mando was ready for it.
Just as fast it all came together, the etch-a-sketch was shaken, and SOE dissolved, leaving Mando, Lucien, and Bravo free to pursue their own paths forward. Mando graduated from UW-Madison in 2016 and turned his focus to building his presence around the Milwaukee area. He was already hosting regular events at the Majestic in Madison, packing it out with college kids going ham. So, post-graduation it made perfect sense to try and recreate those events in Milwaukee with Marquette and UW-Milwaukee providing a potentially-sizeable new fan base. It wasn’t long until Mando began performing regularly at the Miramar Theater in Milwaukee, and sure enough, the college kids were coming out in droves. At the same time, Mando was building up his own team, putting together a squad that was on top of their shit from top to bottom. Again, Mando’s business-savvy shone as he pieced the team together with individuals whose skills were complimentary, allowing them to focus their full attention on performing their roles to the highest possible level. Slowly but surely, Mando turned his vision into a reality.
By the beginning of 2020, the vision in DJay Mando’s head was becoming clearer every day. It was set to be another year filled with progress and learning, until it was harshly interrupted by the arrival of COVID-19. Although all areas of work and social life were affected, almost no industry was brought to a grinding halt as hard as live entertainment. For someone who built his name on live shows and the ability to bring people together, the dearth of social events could have easily left DJay Mando feeling trapped and dejected. But ever the intelligent person, Mando took the time to step back, reset his mind, and think of ways to still interact with his fan base during a pandemic. DJay Mando used Instagram Live to host trivia games with his followers, with participants being required to toss in a dollar to play. The games started small, the pots eventually growing as people would voluntarily toss in five, ten, or even twenty dollars. He performed a couple of streaming shows on Instagram Live, but the performances left Mando feeling like something was lacking, so he set out to find a better way to play live. Taking inspiration from an outdoor concert in Europe that he saw online, Mando started pulling together the pieces he would need for an outdoor concert with people sitting in their cars like a drive-in movie. He managed to get it set up quietly, even arranging for Lil Durk and Polo G to appear, and was feeling the itch to get back up there. The day before the concert was to be announced, on October 14th 2020, Wisconsin announced that they would be setting up a field hospital in the exact same location (State Fair Park) that Mando had settled on for his show. The news hit Mando like a ton of bricks, as he’d worked his ass off to pull it together and all of a sudden the rug was pulled from under him. “It was the closest I’ve felt to a million dollar-deal”, DJay Mando explained, and yet again he was forced to start from scratch.
At the same time that he was working on pulling together the outdoor concert, DJay Mando was on the front lines of the protests occurring almost daily throughout the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by the hands of Minneapolis police officers. With his parents being an interracial couple, seeing or experiencing racism wasn’t a new comcept to Mando. However, the summer of 2020 was the first time he really thought about how this will most likely be a societal problem his kids, his kid’s kids, and even beyond would most likely have to deal with. “It’s a problem that won’t get solved, so you can’t let yourself fall down the rabbit hole” Mando said, “If you go down that rabbit hole, you’re gonna fall into a depression because it seems like nothing you can do matters.”. One of the ways that DJay Mando tries to keep his mind moving forward is by putting down his phone. Going onto social media almost guarantees one witnessing another video or report of a cop on some fuckery, treating a non-white person in a way they would never consider treating a white person. That potential vision of his kids’ future is something that could paralyze Mando if he let it, but he stays determined to move forward and bring people together in the best way he knows how: late nights filled with sweat, great memories and even better spinning.
Fast-forward to the end of 2021; it had been almost 5 months since Mando had been able to step back on a stage in Milwaukee, his first time back being June 26th, and after that it was game on. The rest of the year passed by in a whirlwind of shows and travel, bouncing between Madison and Milwaukee (and plenty of other towns in-between), Mando has been able to bounce back harder than ever. His weekly shows at the Miramar started up again in September 2021, and have been sold out every single time, packing it full with 500 plus students looking for a space to be happy and forget the stress of life. DJay Mando would have every right to be cocky about how his resilience and business intellect combined to bounce back from potentially huge roadblocks tossed into his path over the last couple of years. But, speaking with him, it is clear that he is grateful for the position he’s in and he remains humble and knows that without the team around him all of this wouldn’t be possible.
At current full strength, Team Mando stands twelve to fifteen deep. The roster includes: two dancers and choreographers, Christopher Gilbert and Mando’s right hand man Dos; the managers, Riley and Gabe; two DJ’s, Lightskin Larry and DJ Brother Z; recording and performing artists Keyz and SunnyLou; and last but certainly not least the shutter shooters ShotByBasi, Dre Isidoro, Billy Klings, and Nations Stephenson. All together, the team seems to be on an unstoppable upward trajectory. While almost all of them have their own artistic pursuits, by coming together they can be a part of building something larger than themselves at the same time gaining knowledge and growing their own personal followings. So far, their choice seems beyond worth it, as their dividends steadily grow and will continue to do so as long as they keep on pushing.
If you’re someone living in Milwaukee and are looking to have a night you won’t soon forget, make sure you get out to one of DJay Mando’s weekly shows at the Miramar. You can find information about the shows on the Miramar website, https://themiramartheatre.com/, or by following Mando’s official social media channels: Insta- @djaymando, Twitter- @DJayMando, and Snapchat- @djaymando. Below are the Instagrams for the rest of the artists repping the Mando Flag:
Christopher Gilbert: @bmadboss
Lightskin Larry: @lightskin.larry
DJ Brotha Z: @djbrothaz
Sunny Lou: @s.u.n.n.y.lou
Dre Isidoro: @isidorocaptured
Billy Kling: @billyklingss
Nations Stephenson: @united__nations