There’s no instruction manual for the rap industry. A streaming marketplace flooded with music means it takes more than ever for an artist to stand out from the pack, and figuring out how to improve on your craft and navigate the business end at the same time leaves many rappers scrambling for answers. And in some cases, it leaves artists susceptible to scammers and promoters peddling false promises of easy fame.
Mickey Factz wants to change all that. He’s spent the last 15 years building his own career from the ground up. He landed on XXL’s 2009 Freshman Class cover, released heralded mixtapes like Mickey MauSe, spit viral freestyles, traded bars with lyricists like Lupe Fiasco and Skyzoo, and started a marketing firm that had Nipsey Hussle among its clients. He’s also continuously active in his own rap career; he released his album with producer Ayo Shamir, titled It’s Only Us Here, weeks before the new year.
While contemplating life after rap not long ago, he teamed with Jerome “Chilla” Jones to create Pendulum Ink, an online school for lyricism and hip-hop that’s boosted by guest appearances by hall-of-fame-level MCs.
Students can enroll in more than two dozen courses over an eight-month term to help them improve their rap skills, hone their social media profiles, address their mental health through their art, and wisen up on music-business basics like sync licensing, touring, ghostwriting, and more. Along with a roster of other rappers turned professors, Factz digs into his deep contact list for guest lectures. The beta year included Wu-Tang Clan star Method Man, Twista, and revered battle rapper Daylyt, while Big Boi, DMC of Run-DMC, and Killer Mike are lined up for the next semester. Bun B served as commencement speaker for the beta year, while Black Thought is scheduled to celebrate the next class of graduates. Ten pricing packages offer a variety of options for elective courses, core courses, and legendary guest speakers: $50 for live one-night access to a singular elective or $300 for one-year access; $2,500 for all Legendary Guests and electives for a year; $2,500 for all guest speakers and electives for a year; $3,000 for a core class along with guests and electives; or $5,000 for the largest package, which includes two core classes, all guest speakers, and all electives.
“We want to be able to show people that if you can’t make it as a Drake or as a Kendrick Lamar, you can still be successful and live a life strictly based around hip-hop and have fun,” Mickey told Rolling Stone days after Method Man appeared for a guest lecture course. He fielded attendees’ questions about chorus writing, sharpening his cadences while working with other artists, whether certain songs were inspired by real-life events, and low creative points in his career. Other celebrities such as producer Pete Rock and host and media mogul Sway Calloway also stopped by to show love. “As this continues to grow, I could take a back seat on my career as a musician, focus strictly on the school, and see where this takes us into the next generation,” Factz said, adding that institutions such as Clark Atlanta University, the University of Virginia, and Tulane University have enlisted him to bring Pendulum curriculum for their students. “I’m starting to realize that universities want hip-hop, but hip-hop has never been set in a structured space.”
When did you come up with the idea for Pendulum Ink?
I decided in January of 2021 that I wanted to do a master class on lyricism. I was trying to partner with a couple of companies, but all of that fell through and I got discouraged. Then, around December last year, an artist who is now one of my professors reached out to me and said, “Yo, I have a master class on teaching people how to rhyme. Would you mind being the guest professor, and I’ll pay you?” I didn’t realize how much fun it was gonna be. Once the class was over, I called him back and said, “We can modify this and make it grander with my name attached to it.”
I am not lucky enough to have a hit record like a lot of my peers, so I started to contemplate, what does retirement look like? A lot of our pioneers are dying with nothing to their name. DMX died, and he basically had no assets. Obviously, he was dealing with some demons, but still, nothing. Same with Black Rob. It began to trouble me.
I was like, “I want to retire and teach somewhere.” The issue with that is I don’t have a degree, and institutions don’t look at hip-hop as structured music, because there is no one universal thought process on how to define what we do. So I had to physically create terminologies that are congruent to not only the English language and the poetic world but also the music-industry world. Once I was able to do that and show proof of concept, the same universities [that turned me down] were reaching back out to have me teach at their universities.
There are so many situations trying to take advantage of young rappers. People trying to convince artists to buy followers, buy playlist placements, or opening slots at shows. What do you think makes younger rappers so susceptible to situations like that?
I would compare that to the streets. When you’re in the streets, everything is fast-paced: You get it, you sell it, you get your money immediately, and then you either go home or you do it all over again. That’s the fastest way to get rich. If it’s not selling drugs, it’s boosting, it’s scamming. These things attract younger people because they want to skip the line to get ahead in life. And that is the exact thing with the music industry: They would rather pay for the followers and pay for the looks, as opposed to working hard and letting someone find them the regular way.
The music industry is so elusive, so secretive. The information is hoarded and gate-kept. So a lot of the knowledge that you should know about the industry, you find out through trial and error. For my school, I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. You come to my school, I will give you everything that I have. My Rolodex is your Rolodex. These people that I trust will tell you exactly what you need to know to go to the next level. You just have to apply it to take it there.
How were you able to take all of these ideas and experiences and distill them into an actual curriculum?
We have a curriculum editor named Rob Santos; he owns a company called Rap Seminar. He has been putting together curriculums and lexicons and syllabuses for 10 years. So I hired him to put together our curriculum. He has done a fantastic job of taking our ideas and concepts and making them into an academic realm of learning. We tried to frame it so things get progressively more difficult from a writing standpoint. From a business standpoint, we started off very simple as well. How do you brand and market yourself? What does a contract look like? What does signing a record deal look like? What does ghostwriting look like? What does music supervision look like? Sync licensing? What do taxes as an independent vehicle look like? What does celestial radio look like? How do you get on the radio station?
We went through the gamut. We had to build it up so that people knew, “These are the steps to get to this step, and these are the steps to get to this step.”
Are there any specific classes that have been surprising for you in terms of student feedback or how effective they’ve been? A lot of the rap theory classes taught by Professor Cam were shocking. In these applications, [students] will submit their MP3s and their written rhymes. And then eight or nine months later, we show them the growth and what they were able to do. A lot of these guys weren’t able to rhyme on beat. Professor Cam is a jazz musician, so he’s able to work in flow pocket, tonality, cadence, breath control, and delivery, and get them where they need to be.
Some students joined and they were trash, and we help them to get to mid. Not every student is going to be super nice after just eight months. If you go through rap theory, technically you need another two years to get better. If you go to advanced techniques, you need about a year and a half; you’re already good, you just need some fine-tuning. There are guys that are lyrical miracles, but they can’t flow as good as Ludacris or Twista. So we saw that, and recognized that we didn’t want to just create underground MCs from a boom-bap standpoint. Let’s try to show them different ways and cadences and pockets and deliveries to help them go to that next level. We got a student from Greece whose second language was English, and this guy’s great now.
The class I sat in for was the one with Method Man. How close would you say that class is to, like, the usual class with a guest rapper?
Typically, I would say that is the closest that we get. We usually have our students of the month ask a question, and they get to rhyme for the guest. These people would never get to rhyme for Phonte or Inspectah Deck or Twista and then get feedback from that. That made a couple of their dreams come true.
How difficult is it for the younger artists to speak to these legends in a way that’s academic, as opposed to just fanning out? Or is fanning out just unavoidable?
Some of it is unavoidable, but we have a code of conduct that lets them know the only questions that you are able to ask are pertaining to their writing process, their delivery style, the mental-health space in writing particular songs, and business questions. We don’t get into tabloid stuff. We keep it strictly about the writing process, delivery process, business, and mental health. So for instance, when we had Inspectah Deck come, they asked about “C.R.E.A.M.” “What was your mindset writing “C.R.E.A.M.,” and how did that affect you as a 17-year-old?” We make sure to funnel them in that space where it doesn’t feel like they’re fanning out. Yeah, you’re talking to them, but you’re not getting personal with them. So it’s a fine line of direct communication that can still be safeguarded behind our control.
Do the guest artists ever present in the type of class format that your other professors do, or are they just answering questions from the students?
Some of them, yes. Masta Ace ran a class that was unbelievable, and I feel students walked away learning more about metaphor and multisyllabic [lyrics] from him. I think people really fell in love with the Twista class; that class really put us on the map, because he broke down how to rhyme fast. That was a very, very powerful class. We had [Kanye West collaborator] Tony Williams come and do a songwriting class for four months, and he taught them how to write courses. Sa-Rac came in and hammered home spirituality and intentionality, so people walked away feeling shifted emotionally. Method Man hammered home a lot of stuff on cadence and delivery, which is important for a song. So everybody has their own expertise, and next year is going to be the exact same thing, but even more powerful.
How difficult is it to land all these artists for these classes? How do you convince them?
It wasn’t difficult at all; it was actually pretty easy. This coming year, it’s been a little tough to lock down certain names. I’m having a bit of trouble locking down Kool G Rap, Common, and Lloyd Banks. But everybody else was easy: Big K.R.I.T., Big Boi, Killer Mike, DMC from Run-DMC, Lord Finesse, Shawnna, Ab-Soul, Pharoahe Monch, all of these guys are ready and they’re very excited.
Are all the artists you’re bringing to the class people you already have relationships with?
Most of them I have a relationship with, I would say about 95 to 98 percent. And I pay these professors. I think it’s important to keep and circulate this, so it can become its own industry within the music industry. It’s an educational/teaching gig/interview. These guys do interviews all the time; they don’t really want to do interviews.
But it’s different when you get paid to do an interview, and you get paid pretty well. For a 60-minute interview, yeah, I can sit and talk about what I love to do without any pressure. All the professors know what I do, so they’re like, “It’s coming from Mickey, and I respect what Mickey does.” So it’s not coming across as scammy; it’s coming across as giving back. Everybody’s just gung ho to do this.
I have a conflicted relationship with hip-hop and academia. On one side, if academia is supposed to reflect what’s going on in the real world, hip-hop should be a part of it. But on the other side, when these predominantly white spaces integrate hip-hop into what they’re doing, it often loses the essence of what hip-hop is. How do you think that hip-hop can retain its cultural roots in academia while still penetrating and making a difference?
You hire MCs. That’s the only way. What you’re saying is completely fact. We are the culture, because we built this culture. So the only people that should teach this culture should be those who are in the culture and live and breathe the culture. For instance, let’s say Rockness Monsta from Heltah Skeltah is living in Denver, Colorado, and he’s like, “Yo, man. Things have been a little slow. I want to see what’s up with Pendulum Ink.”
By the way, Rock didn’t say this, but there’s been some MCs that reached out to me already that want to teach here. I’m like, “OK, come to school for free. Because you’re a prominent MC, all you need to learn really is the techniques and the terminologies. We’ll give you the lesson plans; I will take meetings on your behalf at the University of Colorado, or the University of Denver, or the University of Colorado Springs, and show them the syllabus and lesson plans; and then you just follow the structure and teach it in your way.” And that is how it is breaking into the whole construct of what school is. All he has to do is grade MCs the same way we grade MCs when we listen to them. “Oh, that verse was like an eight.” You take that grading system, you just implement it into a structure, and then boom.
Oh, so you have other artists reaching out to you asking if they can teach your stuff?
Wow. I don’t think I ever expected that. At the most, I expected them to ask if they could do a guest course. But they’re asking if they can teach the entire curriculum themselves.
Correct. Hip-hop is getting older; it’s maturing. There’s no reason that we don’t have a Professor Rakim, a Professor Big Daddy Kane, or Professor Slick Rick. These guys are gonna get even older. Do we want them performing at that age all their lives? Maybe they want to, maybe they don’t. But a lot of artists that I speak to, some of them are just tired of performing. So the best way to make that kind of money is to broker deals with universities. Hip-hop is the number-one export in America. So we just broker the deal based on the student count, and they get a great-paying job, they get a 401(k), they get stipends, and potentially room and board through Pendulum as the liaison. We take a small percentage fee of that, and everybody eats. That’s the definition of everybody eats while changing the culture.