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Virtual Beats

Ansel Averitt is a closet rapper.

The Phoenix twentysomething has a loyal audience of three friends, and his finest piece of music equipment is the tape recorder he keeps in his back pocket. But soon, Averitt and any other talented underground rapper could be as big as an American Idol winner without leaving the comfort of the keyboard, thanks to Flexbeats.com.

Flexbeats is a Tempe-based Web site backed by big money, big names and big ideas. The site's front man is Public Enemy's Professor Griff, and the creative team includes members of Bionic Jive, a Phoenix-based hip-hop group that came close to making it big until they were dropped from Eminem's 2002 tour and lost a record deal.

In an effort to snub the recording industry that snubbed them, the Flexbeats crew has come up with a way for anyone with hip-hop skills to work around America's monolithic recording empire.

Flexbeats is an online music community and independent record label. When it formally debuts in mid-February, the site will connect musicians and fans in a way similar to American Idol, in that the fans vote for the musicians.

"There's a lot of talent out there," said Emerge McVay, a Bionic Jive member and Flexbeats' public relations man. "We want to develop it and give these cats a chance."

The Flexbeats team members have other goals, too. They want to make money. They want to unite Arizona's fragmented and feuding hip-hop community and put Phoenix on the hip-hop map. But mostly they want to expose and develop underground talent, says Chris Elsner, Bionic Jive musician and one of Flexbeats' creators.

"With our Web site, a kid in Idaho can win and be good and get recognition and prizes without being on a label or looking like a supermodel," he says.

Elsner and his friend Tim Richards came up with the idea for Flexbeats about a year ago and built their team quickly. The group has musical know-how, industry experience, underground connections, talented techies, former 20th Century Fox animators, and the backing of a successful investment company, Phoenix Rising International.

"The sky's the limit," says McVay, who goes by "Merge." He's 30, a hefty guy with a baby face who wears baggy, hip-hop-style clothes.

McVay is an important link for the group because of the industry connections he made even before his Bionic Jive days. He, Elsner and another Flexbeats team musician, Ako Mack, were all in the group together and learned how the industry works, or doesn't.

"Our time of playing to stadiums of crowds was over just as quick as it started," Elsner says. "In the end, we had no control over our own destiny as artists or businessmen."

He believes that Flexbeats could change the future for aspiring hip-hop musicians.

The first step in the Flexbeats process is to log on to the Web site as either a fan or an artist. Fans vote and listen to the free Flexbeats radio. Artists produce the radio music and pay $9.95 a month.

They can produce their own beats at home or in studios -- which is often difficult and expensive. Or they can use a beat from a collection of 200 original beats that Flexbeats staff musicians have produced.

The next step is to record vocals, which can be done with a USB microphone. Other tools such as beat mixers are provided on the Web site.

The artist who gets the most fan votes in his or her genre will receive cash prizes and have his or her work published on Flexbeats-label CD samplers sold nationwide. McVay says artists will get 50 percent of the profits and Flexbeats will get the other half.

The Web site is in a testing phase through January and will be officially released after a barrage of advertising that includes ads in rap magazines and an animated commercial on MTV.

If Flexbeats is successful, it could help underground musicians everywhere -- but especially in Phoenix, says local beat mixer and DJ Joseph Edrozo, known as DJ Klutz.

Edrozo is not affiliated with Flexbeats but is familiar with its members. He said Phoenix's frequently feuding hip-hop musicians need a unified front that Flexbeats could provide.

"Right now nobody around here wants to help each other because they all want to be on top and don't want to see anyone else make it," Edrozo says. "They've all been ripped off in the past and don't know who to trust.

"Something like Flexbeats is more trustworthy because it's made from people like us and isn't just a big corporation."

He expects that Flexbeats representative Professor Griff will help the group gain legitimacy.

Professor Griff emceed a recent hip-hop event that Flexbeats held at Club Freedom in Tempe.

"Griff puts a real face on Flexbeats," McVay says. "People respect him and know who he is."

Flexbeats' members say that competition is the only thing that could hurt them. So far, however, they're not concerned. Childish sites called Fruity Loops Studio and Hip Hop Starz are already offering online production equipment, but Flexbeats member Zack Richards says they are inadequate.

"Those sites have tired sounds and old technology," Richards says. "Plus, they don't give artists nearly as much exposure as we will."

That exposure is meant for anyone no matter what they look like, as long as they're talented, he says.

Ansel Averitt is a perfect example. He's young, wide-eyed, soft-spoken, dresses plainly and is very, very white. Averitt found out about Flexbeats from his neighbor, Zack Richards. Richards calls Averitt a "closet rapper" who needs to step out.

Averitt, an Arizona native, has started hanging around the studio and is eager to sign up as an artist when the site officially launches. McVay says that Flexbeats has "an open-door policy" and that local musicians are encouraged to stop by.

Time with established musicians is huge for Averitt.

"A lot of people wouldn't believe that a white boy like me would be rapping and making beats," Averitt says.

He walks around with a mini-tape recorder that his girlfriend gave him and tapes music as it comes to him.

Averitt might be even more ecstatic about the Flexbeats launch than its creators.

"I just can't believe I'm going to be able to make music," he says, "and have people hear it without me spending thousands of dollars to get my name out."