How Epic Rap Battles of History Became Accidentally Educational
Nice Peter (left) with EpicLLOYD (right)
Courtesy of Maker Studios
Nice Peter doesn't live up to his name. At least not when he's in the middle of a rap battle. But while most emcees like to revel in their own reputations as cutthroat, lyrical badasses, Peter and his partner EpicLLOYD usually let people like Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley and Hitler take all the credit. Since about 2010, they've been pushing the virally popular YouTube web series Epic Rap Battles of History, a series dedicated to their fully costumed throwdowns between two iconic or celebrity figures chosen by their fans online.
Over 1.5 billion views later, what started out as a hobby has become more than a full time job for the duo and their production crew. After a brief absence from the web, ERB popped up once again--literally with guns blazing--for a match between pistol packing sheriff Rick Grimes of The Walking Dead (played by Nice Peter, aka Peter Shukoff) and Walter White of Breaking Bad (played by EpicLLOYD aka Lloyd Ahlquist). In honor of the series' brand new episode, we spoke to Nice Peter about the inner workings of the episodes, some future guest cameos in Season 3 and we learned a little more about the man behind the assortment of hilarious bars, costumes and accents.
For those who want to see his skills live in the flesh, Nice Peter is also going on a summer tour, bringing some of the battles to life with the help of a drummer and any brave fans willing to go toe to toe against him--make sure to bring the memorized lines from your favorite ERB episodes! The tour hits LA with a date at the Troubadour on June 1.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): You've said before that you started learning about how to direct videos by watching YouTube and now ERB is one of the most watched channels on the site. That's gotta be a bit surreal for you.
Nice Peter: It's very surreal for me. Part of it is that [Lloyd and I] still use YouTube as our way to get information and our way to get entertainment and we share things and it keeps us a little closer to our viewers. We try to keep the same perspective as them and we're just performers that get up and do our thing. I still love it, it's a great, free place to make entertainment.
Were you guys on a production hiatus for the current season until you came out with this latest battle, or did you just not upload any new ones until recently?
Yeah it's not really a hiatus from working on them, it was a hiatus from the upload cycle. It's a pretty small, intimate crew and I guess I'm guilty of liking to touch every part of the projects. So it's a relatively obsessive, 24-hour-a-day process. We dream about songs and visions of the video edits haunt us as we try to sleep. So we decided to just make it really intense and then step back from it.
What was the preparation like for the most recent episode where you play Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead battling Walter White of Breaking Bad?
Well, I didn't know Breaking Bad too well. I'd only seen like two episodes and I never really got into it, it kinda made me depressed. It's a heavy show [Laughs]. So I had to watch like four or five seasons of Breaking Bad in like three weeks. So it was a little intense. I was watching like four to five episodes a day because I didn't want to miss any nuances of who I was insulting. With being Rick, it was easier because I'm a big Walking Dead fan. I guess part of it was learning how to rap with a drawl, which was a little strange. And I went on a special diet. I'm already a pretty slim guy, but Rick has an almost emaciated look to him, he just got out of the hospital. So I wanted to look like that.
Ah, the zombie apocalyptic cleanse?
Is that one of the hardest character you've had to prep for?
We try to make them all that hard. I guess in the beginning we stuck to characters we knew really well. Like I didn't have to do any research to play Darth Vader. Probably the hardest one to prepare for was Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates. I just had to learn about computer science in a way I never have before and watch a lot of documentaries and read a lot of fucking boring books. But it was really important to get to the Linux humor that I never would have understood otherwise. It's really gratifying when I meet a computer programmer and they're like "yeah you guys nailed that!" It makes it all worthwhile. If we're gonna hit a niche of people, we wanna hit 'em with something substantial.
Every battle feels like there's something in there for people who know nothing about the character and something for those who know everything about the character.
Our three-level joke system is that we want some jokes that everyone can understand, some middle jokes that most people could get and then those jokes that only a few super nerd, diehard fans will appreciate. What's cool about that is now that the series has developed a fan base of its own, we can see it inspiring young people to learn stuff so they can understand what that joke about Gorbachev was. We didn't get into this thinking we were gonna teach people about history, I think, but we accidentally started to.
About how long does each video take? Is there a solid formula to creating them at this point? We're still experimenting. We used to turn them around in about two weeks with everyone working at the same time. But it didn't really work that well as far as keeping our sanity. So now we spend like a month or so on each one. You can only read so many comic books before you gotta switch over to a physics documentary. When we're in the research phase, we're just consuming as much information as possible.
So does the preparation spill over into your personal life?
Oh yeah, it's all I do is work on these. It excites people's imaginations around me too. Like a family member of mine will say "Hey, I got this great idea for a rap that would be really cool. We just let people imagine two people that they already think are awesome and then we come through with delivering it with properness.
Were you a closet rapper before coming out with ERB? What made you wanna rap in the first place?
I was a singer/songwriter doing a comedic song routine at a bar in the Midwest for years in front of a couple hundred people who probably didn't really care. And I just played funny songs for 2-3 hours. I had a lot of experience with using my voice to perform, but I'd never really rapped. Then I met Lloyd like 10 years ago in Chicago and he was a rapper as a hobby. We had this blossoming friendship and I would help him record his rap songs and I'd learn about rap and I'd see him at a party and we'd rap or whatever and I started practicing it. But I still don't have a classic emcee's technique or experience. But I think it helps me sometimes because it helps me flip into other voices because I don't have a strong rap voice of my own.
So part of your writing process has to do with adapting to the character's voice and the way they would say things?
Yeah 100% so that's where my lack of a rap voice was a blessing because I'm not firmly rooted in one style. I had to figure it out as I went along.
Do you guys typically write your battle raps together or apart from each other?
It's a whole stew of different scenarios. We have another rapper named Zach Sherwin who played Einstein and Sherlock Holmes in some of the previous episodes. He was part of this idea since it was a sketch that was part of a stage show. So there's usually two or three really clever rhymes that come from him and I weave them into whatever I'm working on. With Lloyd, an idea will come up and we'll get a beat from one of the producers we work with from all over the world. Lloyd will go in a room and write and I'll go in a room and hit my head against a wall and then suddenly it all comes together and it comes out at once. And we'll share some ideas back and forth and push it, push it and stay late at night. And we have two other guys who help us write so it's five total and we just crank out jokes and see if we can work 'em in.
Can you talk about the summer tour you've got coming up where you're performing some of these battles live?
Yeah, I spend a lot of time behind the computer now, whereas before I used to be out a few nights a week performing. It was such a different cycle of energy. And now I edit! I do it for hours or sit in front of Pro Tools for hours and I missed connecting with the audience and I'd like to meet people who are helping us do what we do. One of our other writers, Dante, is playing drums and I'm playing guitar. I think Lloyd and I both decided to give each other some loving space for a little while. He's working on an improv show with YouTube and I'm gonna tour around. And the way I do rap battles during the show is I get an audience volunteer to come up and I let them choose which character they want to battle as and I perform the other character and we have a beat and I let someone do a rap battle with me.
That sounds hard!
Yeah and they usually show up having their lyrics down better than I do. They practice and get it together. And it's usually either these tiny girls or big Swedish guys and seeing them rap with passion and abandon. And it's pretty great.
Is there anyone that you refuse to parody on principle?
I have so far avoided doing Jesus. If I put Jesus in a rap battle, it's guaranteed to upset a lot of people. And while I'm not scared of that reaction, it's not really what I'm trying to do. I think for the same reason we've avoided Osama Bin Laden...I think religion is touchy, even though we did Moses. Religion changes the argument into something else and people get weird about it.
Now that you guys have garnered 10 million subscribers to your channel and 1.5 billion views, have you been surprised by what kind of celebrities or mainstream industry people have shown interest in your show?
We became friends with the creators of Sponge Bob SquarePants because they like our rap battle videos and we like their show too...so that part has been really cool, I've never had a body of work like that before. So to have it is really great. We try to keep it pretty much the same. It's still a small group of people and we still work on every frame and every joke and every beat with our own to hands.
Anything you can offer as far as a sneak peak for upcoming shows
We have Weird Al coming to play Isaac Newton, and it was an honor of an experience and it was so incredible and he worked so hard. And that goes back to your previous question...that's a dream that never would've happened. We have our biggest battle ever with the most people we've ever done. And I don't wanna give away too much but we have George Watsky coming back to do a cameo--he [previously] played William Shakespeare. We really wanted to come back really strong and show people what we can do after doing it all these years.
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