Time To Pop The Cork In “Champaign, ILL”?

Written by: Scott A. Best

An official trailer has been released for a new YouTube Original mini-series, titled ‘Champaign ILL’ as part of the YouTube subscription service, YouTube Premium. However, the immediate reaction from locals of the actual Champaign area following the release of the trailer, have not been all that positive.

Champaign ILL’, set for a release date of December 12th, follows the story of a famous hip hop group from Chicago. After the tragic death of their best friend and wildly famous rap icon, they are forced to give up their lavish lifestyle and move back home to Champaign, Illinois. Alf and Ronnie must learn how to leave their destructive behavior behind them, in order to get back what they’ve lost and make it to the top again.

Judging from the show’s description, as well as the trailer, it seems that what the producers of the show are suggesting, is that Champaign, Illinois is a place you are forced to go to after all else has failed. As the show’s tagline in the trailer suggests: “From champagne… to Champaign, ILL.”

“I think they just picked a name out of a hat… I don’t think they realized that Champaign has become a fairly substantial city and it will look silly in retrospect¨ former Mayor of Champaign, Don Gerard said on Friday to discuss the show, as well as his first impression of the trailer.  “The thing about this is, there’s a long history in cinema, in popular culture of appropriating things, and having a really wide birth of artistic license.”

The Netflix Original series Stranger Things, claims to be set in Indiana in the fictional town of Hawkins, but is actually filmed in Georgia which is also where Champaign ILL was filmed. The classic 1978 horror film, John Carpenter’s Halloween is set in Haddonfield, IL, but in one scene of the film, outside of the town, several mountain ranges in the distance give away the filming location to be California.

“There’s a famous horror film, one of the more popular Mystery Science Theater 3000, it was like ‘Attack of the Giant Caterpillars’ and their in Decatur Illinois and there are caterpillars coming over the mountains… you know, those mountains we have outside of Decatur” Gerard recalls. “It was obviously filmed in California, but they are in Decatur.”

“Even Hitchcock, North by Northwest has nothing to do with the movie, it’s not where they travel, it just has nothing to do with it whatsoever.” Gerard says. “‘Champaign Illinois,’ there’s a song by the Old 97’s, that really doesn’t have anything to do with Champaign, Illinois. They use Champaign as a metaphor of a college town, and quite frankly diss it, speak to it as purgatory, or your holding pattern before going to hell.”

In the song that Gerard references, “Champaign, Illinois” by the Old 97’s, the town is described like an alternate hell, in one line of the song: “Oh and if you die, fearin’ God and painfully employed. You will not go to heaven, you’ll go to Champaign, Illinois.”

“Bob Dylan wrote a song that Carl Perkins recorded called, ‘Champaign, Illinois’ that… it just sounded good, the sound rolled off the tongue.” Gerard says. Regarding the popularity and representation of Champaign in popular culture, Gerard believes “on one hand I think it would be fantastic and I’m happy that their are some web series and things being filmed here that are more centric to the University and to the city. Maybe they just picked a name out of a hat and thought, ‘we’ll dare them to say anything and we’ll get publicity for it.’”

“It is curious though that we have Shatterglass Studios here, we have the University here, we have so many things that you would think would be a touchstone.” Gerard says. Former Governor Bruce Rauner talked about Champaign negatively when he was in office a year ago, describing us as a city with “not much of a workforce” and “no companies with more than six employees.”

“Even the Governor of the State on a wider level didn’t seem to know anything about Champaign, a little bit of that is our fault, but I think we are doing better.” When asked why he thinks a little bit of it is our fault, Gerard says. “Champaign has never been good at telling its story, it’s only been in the past couple of decades that there’s been a real proud connection with the University… its been a lot of conservative white people who want us to be a bedroom community.”

“I remember when I was Mayor, the former Chairman of the GOP who was on the city council at the time, he really really advocated for Champaign just providing housing for the University. Don’t worry about Research Park, don’t expand, don’t try and be anything you’re not. What we are here to do is to be a bedroom community for the college. Which is ridiculous. It’s actually stupid.” Gerard says.

Gerard thinks that we should be embracing the University and integrating with it. However, according to Gerard, “There is a certain section of Champaign’s population that wants to keep things the same, they don’t like attention, they don’t want people from the outside coming in and making money here. They don’t want people who are younger making money here. They kind of want to just control things the way they are.”

However, according to Gerard, a lot of this sentiment changed when former Chancellor of the University of Illinois, Phyllis Wise was here. “She really put a premium on telling our stories as a University, and when I was in office I tried to put a real premium on telling our stories as a University. Whether it was getting out on social media, just constantly reminding people of all the great things that are here. Both here and outside.”

When asked if he thinks the trailer for the new YouTube Premium show, Champaign ILL could give the town a negative image. Former Mayor Gerard says, “You know I’m a big pivote fan, what’s the saying? If life gives you melons you may be dyslexic… You know, I would say we have CJ Run, there’s a local artist named CJ Run and they are a non-gender specific hip-hop artist. It’s really a niche, there aren’t a lot of hip hop artists who are bold enough to come out and speak from that perspective. The hip-hop scene here is really pretty good, there’s your kind of run of the mill stuff, but there’s a lot of really progressive stuff, especially artists like CJ Run. So artists like that, could very easily take [Champaign, ILL] as a ‘hey you know what? This isn’t a place where these musicians go to die, this is a place where it happens. They should be so lucky to be in Champaign…’”

“I think that if artists are smart, you turn it around… I think it’s only negative, if you let it be.” Gerard says. “I would counter it, we have so many talented people here. I would parody it, I would have local rappers from Champaign, as soon as it hits, I would take the most iconic scenes, I would take the scenes from the trailer and I would recreate them and parody them with local artists and turn it around. Flip it around. Flip the narrative. That’s what I would do.”

Don Gerard believes that the best way to react to the show’s potential negative image of Champaign would be to flip the script, spoof it, parody it and use the opportunity to play off of the YouTube series to show the real Champaign; use the opportunity to show the talent that we have in Champaign, especially from the local hip hop and music community. To showcase our talent. “But wait and see if they get any juice first, no fun in kicking someone around who’s not even popular.” Gerard says.

When asked what he would tell the producers of the show, if he had an opportunity to talk to them in person. Gerard says he thinks they should, “pick another town.”

“Pick Rantoul, pick Charleston, pick someplace that’s struggling, pick someplace that fits their narrative. Champaign is the opposite, Champaign is actually a pretty hip place to be. I love Eastern Illinois, they’re really struggling. Things aren’t happening in Eastern, things aren’t even happening in Bloomington-Normal anymore. When I first came into office, that was the place to be and it’s kind of like sputtered out a little bit. Champaign is the place to be. I mean, Research Park is growing, our downtown is exploding. There’s always cool things here, Shatterglass Studios doing work all over the world with these types of things.”

“When I was in office, we were having these huge movie stars coming here to make films and it still goes on. Lovie Smith coaching the Fighting Illini. All of the Champaign-Urbana high school football coaches are black. You know it’s a distinction. It’s very progressive here. We have a black police chief. We have a female city manager. It’s extraordinarily progressive and happening and the economy is booming and the budget is balanced and the population is growing.”

Regarding the producers of the YouTube web series, “It’s more of a misstep on their part.” Gerard says. In response to the stigma that Champaign is a “failing” town, “This is just not the case, I mean, it’s just not.” Gerard says. “I think that Champaign really embraces stuff no matter what it is…”

“We’ll see what they do” Gerard says. “It could be a spectacular opportunity for Champaign, and for anybody here, for hip-hop artists, for anybody! For you!” Gerard believes. “I kind of hope the show is popular…” Gerard says. “It kind of gives us a chance to go like, ‘hey, wait a second,’ it opens the door for national publications to say, ‘hey that’s not the real Champaign, Illinois. Here’s the real Champaign, Illinois.’”

Don Gerard is optimistic that the YouTube web series could benefit Champaign in a positive way. He hopes that the town gets much needed publicity from it, and if it’s good publicity, perfect. If it’s bad publicity, then it’s Champaign’s opportunity to shine, and show the rest of the country what the real Champaign, Illinois is. “Any publicity is good publicity, it’s what you make of it.” Gerard says.


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