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Brittle Battle 

by ANDREW MATSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & P & lt;/span & an left to right through your TV news channels and the song remains the same. Anderson Cooper explains the inadequacies of "'hood ethics" to Cam'ron. Bill O'Reilly lectures Ludacris about how rap music speeds America's moral decay. You don't have to look far to see how our cultural commentators feel about hip-hop.





"In the media, it's just not shown in a favorable light. It's been that way for a long time." The sentiment is delivered in weary monotone by Chris Tensley, Spokane realtor and sometime rap promoter. He's the brains behind Northwest SoundOff, an emcee battle that pits Spokane, Boise, Missoula and Tri-Cities rappers against each other for $1,000 in prizes.





Tensley knows that as far as the average American's opinion of rap is concerned, ain't a damn thing's changed since Tipper Gore's salad days. "I'd like to change that and bring hip-hop out in a more positive light," he says.





He's not going to change anyone's mind overnight, though, and certainly not with this slate of rappers. Go to Tensley's MySpace page (myspace.com/maculuis_entertainment) and you'll find links to the 16 competitors' pages. A brief sample of each paints a grim picture, ethically and artistically.





Lusty violence and party-animal escapism abound in nearly every artist's lyrics. The rhyme schemes are underdeveloped. The beats are repetitive and under-produced.





Sexism, homophobia and an anti-authority mindset that's more reckless than rebellious. Check, check, check.





The order of the day is aggressively ignorant and hard to rationalize. In the handful of songs each artist advertises, there is little to redeem hip-hop from its many detractors.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & oundOff itself, though, transcends its artists' MySpace pages, most of which won't hold the same songs for more than a few weeks. Spokane is not a hip-hop hotbed. Every rapper here is "aspiring" -- in the development phase of a God-knows-how-long career. The ways in which the SoundOff emcees are offensive are the same ways most young rappers are offensive, and focusing on the content of their music misses the point.





The point is existence. There are rappers in and around Spokane, rap crews even, and they're growing. They are organized by style and color -- gangster/hardcore/other, white/black/Chicano -- and they have fans. Chris Tensley feels these disparate limbs and sees the octopus for the tentacles.





"It's an organizational thing," Tensley says. "The goal is to have artists unite with each other and for fanbases to get together. It's a unity thing." He's banking on the idea that fledgling rappers/crews have more in common than they think and that they need to be brought together. Tensley's vision is that if he can assemble a huge group of emcees and fans, they will recognize each other as peers and a more cohesive community will result. It's not a bad idea.





From his real estate office, Tensley explains to me the importance of rappers coming together for positive reasons. He completely skips over the lyrics and images of the contestants, all of whom he selected. The negativity of the message is overshadowed, in his mind, by the positive result: 30 percent of the SoundOff's proceeds are earmarked for the Vanessa Behan Crisis Center Nursery.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he competition has contestants perform three pre-recorded songs and one fresh composition. They'll be judged traditionally -- by overall performance and crowd participation -- and awarded semi-handsomely: $500 in cash, the same amount in tattoos, and a 6' trophy. But winning is secondary to ambition. Tensley emphasizes, "The goal is for artists to donate talent to a good cause and unite hip-hop fans."





Tensley's also a businessman, and he thinks SoundOff has Hoopfest potential. He envisions a well-oiled tour through Idaho and Montana, and I think he's not far off the mark. I recently flew to Boise to judge a battle similar in structure to SoundOff, and while the rappers weren't very skilled (OK, they all sucked), the energy in the club was positively crackling. With only a few songs per performer, there was little time for things to get boring, and advances/eliminations between rounds built momentum absent from your average rap show. The idea of a traveling SoundOff amounts to hitting sleepy rap towns with a defibrillator, shocking scenes into realizing, "Hey, there's actually a lot of us here."





The idea that SoundOff will expose you to mind-blowing rap music is a little off, and Tensley's hope that the winner will carry their 6' trophy around to their subsequent concerts strikes me as a tad grandiose. SoundOff, though, is Spokane's formal introduction to Tensley's Maculuis Entertainment, a rap promotions company, and I get the feeling that he's using SoundOff as a calling card. When clubs reach out to promoters for hip-hop shows, maybe they'll remember, "Oh yeah, the guy that did SoundOff. Let's use him."





But for Tensley's potential entrepreneurial gains, the spirit of SoundOff resides in the desire to build a community, the idea that many small things can become big together. It's a founding principle for a lot of things, not least America itself. Say what you will for the artistic content on display, then, SoundOff celebrates the most overlooked of American initiatives: the right to organize.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hese days, as in the ones that came before, rappers are vilified and made into scapegoats, constantly and falsely held accountable for instigating the ills so many propagate. When "hip-hop youths" walk past grandmothers on the sidewalk, purses are clutched. Sometimes it's a race thing. Mostly it's a too-big-T-shirt-and-sideways-hat thing. Common knowledge would tell you that rappers are to be feared. A cursory glance at Spokane's rap scene proves the point.





But look deeper and you'll see people organizing unapologetic thugs and lapsed Christians, shades and grades apart. The money goes to charity. The fame evaporates. The spirit and the struggle remain.





Northwest SoundOff featuring w/ Romaine, G-Notesluggs, Bazil, Sharod, Serio, Haze, Boss Makackaline, S.M.W., Stacc Addictz, Mr. Six, Certified, Trigz 1, Seven Crown, Dead Poet, DC Gesus, and Unique at the Grail on Saturday, June 23 at 9 pm. $8; $10 at the door. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.
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