Welcome to Pendleton.

The Round-Up City. Boots, chaps and cowboy hats. Belt buckles the size of turntables and jacked 4X4s with "Charlton Heston is my President" bumper stickers.

A percolating hick hotbed of hip-hop? A secret enclave of Slim Shadys in spurs who love Wu-Tang as much as Wranglers?

Not really.

It's Pendleton, for chrissakes. A former Oregon Trail wagon rut where the tallest building is a grain silo. An outpost far more Area 51 than Studio 54, hours from big-city light, with nary a bottle of Cristal in sight. Yet on Nov. 16, seven rhymeslingers moseyed into the Pendleton Convention Center to put some yizzeah in the town's yee-ha at the "It's a Northwest Thing" hip-hop showcase.

"Everyone everywhere loves music," explained Cool Nutz, the pied piper of Portland phatdom. "Whether it's Pendleton or Portland, there is going to be people who love hip-hop. If the demand is there, we'll seize the opportunity."

The only previous chance for live hip-hop in Pendleton came two years ago, when Portland's Madgesdiq performed at the Red Lion Hotel. The Convention Center endeavor was a little more ambitious. Portland's Cool Nutz, Madgesdiq and Brotha Luv would command the stage along with Washington talents Mr. D.O.G., J-Rod, Scratch Hounds and Menace-1. The prospect of Cool Nutz putting it down in Pendleton at first seemed as likely as a Toby Keith show at the Apollo, but the show's promoters maintained the town could morph from John Deere to John Blazin'.

"Nothing like this ever comes around here," promoter Donald Williams said. "People are ready for a change of pace."

Before the show, that pace was glacial. Streets were quiet. Few tickets had been sold, and a competing Sadie Hawkins dance threatened to sap key constituents. A handful of fans trickled in by 9 pm. Some chatted in the lobby. The rest sat listening to beats reverberate through the empty auditorium as optimism went Chernobyl with each tick of the clock.

Project Pendleton was crumbling. Sadie Hawkins. That bitch.

With the Gestapo-enforced
11 pm curfew looming, the house lights dimmed. Rod Serling wasn't the master of ceremonies. That task fell to Poltergeist, who beckoned fans to the stage, then bellowed, "Wassup, Pendleton! You muthafuckas ready to make some noise?!"

Somewhere a dog barked.

Studs with cockeyed hats and floor-sweeping Dickies eyed one another with smug self-consciousness. The little ho's on the prairie tittered in Saran-Wrap boob tops, anxious to grind against anything with a Kangol and a pulse. The 60 or so fans would have filled the Red Lion nicely, but were dwarfed by the 5,000-capacity convention center, like participants in an open-mic night at the Rose Garden. More coaxing by Poltergeist elicited a smattering of cheers, and the show finally began.

Despite posturing like pros, Tri-Cities MCs Menace-1, Scratch Hounds and J-Rod proved more jay-vee than Jay-Z, with distorted beats, standard rhymes and mistimed deliveries. Lyrics like "from the backstreets of Pasco" and "players get eaten by gators" were a saving grace.

Cool Nutz and Brotha Luv possessed prose to match the pose, working the crowd with solid flows and more verbal dexterity than the wooden wordsmiths before them. Cool Nutz did what he does well, gauging the vibe and coaxing even the most reluctant customers to bob to his beats. The audience's apprehension melted as they nodded, grooved and ground their $12 worth of rhythm and rhyme.

Alas, it was short-lived. Mr. D.O.G. followed, sabotaging any enthusiasm with a string of decent but monotonous tracks. Wrong pace at the wrong time. The crowd dwindled until D.O.G. was bouncing rhymes off of an army of empty seats.

If the preceding acts were all in the same ballpark, Madgesdiq wasn't even playing the same sport. The final performer, a hip-hop hippie with dreads and a lyrical conscience, used stripped beats, smart lyrics and sophisticated rhymes to flutter free-style, stutter soliloquy and pepper his delivery with politics. It was too much for Pendleton. Too much poking, prodding and preaching, and not nearly enough booty-shakin' or discussion of tits and 20-inch rims.

The auditorium was nearly vacant as the Pendleton experiment came to a close. Those who weren't racing to beat curfew joined the after-party backstage.

"It don't matter if there's 10 people, 15, or a thousand: I'm-a do my shit," Madgesdiq told those lingering. "We do it because we love it."