“Welcome to the coolest school / repping orange and blue / Big Ten University …”
Champaign’s own Jarrel Young raps on a slickly produced track, underlined by a recognizable low brass sample from the Marching Illini.
“Where we kick it like karate / got the smartest student body / and we strive for diversity …”
This is the track “Illini Anthem,” the brainchild of Lamont Holden — known by his independent producer title TheLetterLBeats — an instructor in the UI School of Music and former Illini football player.
A fusion of Holden and Young’s school pride and hip-hop backgrounds, it’s a musical project more than a decade in the making that’s gaining steam with the community, faculty, the marching band, even Illini Athletics.
The plan? A performance of the Illini hype track at Sights and Sounds, a staple of the UI’s freshman orientation, set for Aug. 19 this year.
And another gig at Memorial Stadium during the football season opener against Nebraska on Aug. 28, where the group might bring in other young hip-hop talents to perform with the band.
“The biggest thing to me is getting the community on board,” Holden said. “It’s one thing for me to like it or Jarrel to like it, or people like the DIA and marketing to like it. Are the students going to like it? Is the public going to like it?”
To answer that question, Holden embarked on a marketing journey, trying to pull in different community stakeholders over the last month.
He started at an event in the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Culture Center, where an impromptu playing of the anthem got a fantastic reception.
“There were a couple of students there; they loved it. The people, they were excited,” Holden said. “They couldn’t believe this was of the University of Illinois, an orange-and-blue association.”
Next was a live performance for an Illinois Summer Youth Music Hip Hop camp. Then for the UI’s Black Greek Council. Both loved it.
Even state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, had a listen, and he was all in, Holden said.
“Music goes nowhere without a movement behind it,” he said.
Since Holden partnered with Marching Illini Director Barry Houser, the anthem’s momentum has accelerated fast.
According to School of Music Director Jeff Sposato, that quick pace and fervor for ideas is what makes Holden who he is.
“At the university, we’re so used to things taking a colossal amount of time,” Sposato said. “You go, ‘What was that blur that went by?’ and that’s Lamont with his project.”
The group’s ambitions go beyond just a couple in-game performances.
“A lot these things are preliminary — we’re seeing a lot of plans come to fruition — but I think the sky is really the limit with the opportunities this collaboration could open up,” Houser said.
A decade in the making“Screaming out I-L-L! I-N-I! I-L-L! I-N-I!”
The inspiration for an Illini-inspired hip-hop track goes back about 10 years, when Holden was chopping it up with former UI hooper Sergio McClain.
McClain used to substitute teach at Edison Middle School, where Holden worked at the time. Chatting with him is where the idea of a UI/rap fusion started.
“Lamont has always been a little mastermind, always had these ideas of how we can get the U of I more notoriety, make it more of a hip thing,” Young said.
Both Holden and Young, the song’s producer and performer, have deep ties with Champaign.
Born and raised in C-U, Young went to Central High School and graduated from the UI in 2010. He’s getting a master’s in social work while coordinating before- and after-school programs for kids at Illini Extension.
He’s also an established local artist, with a couple albums and handful of singles to his name, a couple of which Holden gave a production assist on.
“Jarrel’s the perfect person for the song,” Holden said. “He’s also been cutting football and basketball players’ hair for like 10 years.”
Holden kicked around versions of the anthem for years, at one point combining it with a clip of the UI’s old “War Chant.” But when Houser got involved and provided his band’s classic brass soundbyte, the creative process took off.
“Barry’s been our number-one champion, because Barry legitimizes us,” Holden said.
Once Holden had the beat together, Young came over one Thursday night and immediately started writing. They had his vocal track wrapped within 24 hours, Young said.
“To me, it’s authentic Blackness, homegrown here in Illinois, and somebody finally decided to pay attention to it, honor it and make it part of the mainstream celebration,” Holden said.
Now, their hope is — pending approval from UI athletics — to have performances or recordings of the song at each game and weekly pep rallies, even at State Farm Center during basketball season.
The group wants to start bringing in local emcees for new performances, hosting hip-hop workshops with high school students, even taking the show on the road for new audiences.
First, Holden and Houser have to debut the song to the Illini football team, but they know it’ll be a “home run” with athletes, Houser said.
“The bigger hope is engaging with communities and schools and population that UI has not had a strong connection with,” Houser said.
Holden’s been instructing UI courses in popular music and production for a few years now, going full-time as a clinical assistant professor in fall 2020.
His course in beat-making has garnered serious acclaim from students, Sposato said. That Holden’s anthem would be of the same high fidelity was no surprise.
“Once he came in and played Jarrel’s arrangement, it just seemed like such an incredible no-brainer,” he said. “I went, ‘This is fantastic; by all means, go ahead.’”
The project represents some of the school’s broader goals: to have a music school that reflects the state it’s in, and that appeals across all ages, tastes and demographics.
After all, hip hop is the most consumed genre of music there is, Houser said.
“We’re trying to legitimize hip-hop in academia,” Holden said. “Our population of students might not honor Beethoven and Bach, but honors Nipsey Hussle and Jay-Z.”