‘Epic Rap Battles’: The Science of Not Giving a F**k
In the spirit of honesty, I have to tell you that I hate parody songs. Growing up, most conversations about music centered on Weird Al and how he was the greatest living musician in the world, if not the universe. During these debates, I remained quiet, silently hating parody while hating my friends for loving it so much. It’s the reason I was hesitant to write about Peter Shukoff (Nice Peter) and Lloyd Ahlquist (EpicLloyd). The problem is this: Shukoff and Ahlquist created “Epic Rap Battles of History,” which I can safely say is the most popular parody YouTube channel in the world.
But first, let’s step back and talk about the origins of “ERB,” which are admittedly hazy. Ahlquist, a longtime comedian and rapper explained that Shukoff first approached him after he performed a freestyle rap battle at a Santa Monica comedy club.“There was a segment that had performers take suggestions of celebrities from the audience and then freestyle rap battle them against each other,” Ahlquist says. “Pete saw that segment and then approached me about making a YouTube video that was kinda similar.”
Shukoff, however, has a different “ERB” genesis story. The YouTube creator explained that he actually never saw Ahlquist’s aforementioned comedy show and was, in fact, holed up at home making YouTube videos. “One day Lloyd came over to my apartment and told me about the show, and the segment that struck me was the rap battle between two famous people,” Shukoff explains. “I set up microphones and we freestyled a battle between Michael J. Fox and Chucky. Not our best work, but we did know right away that there was a very good idea there.”
Looking at Shukoff and Ahlquist, it’s clear that two performers could not be more suited to battle each other week after week. Hell, they can’t even agree on how they met. But that’s the genius behind their collaboration. They are two very different personalities channeling one unified vision, a vision that results in opposition between two historical figures.
If anything, Shukoff and Ahlquist themselves seem to be the ultimate rap-battle pairing. “We work together by listening and learning and making mistakes and trying to own them. We argue for a living, it works,” Shukoff explains.
Shukoff, notoriously warm (hence “Nice Peter), is detailed and thoughtful. In a Reddit AMA, a fan talks about attending Digitour 2012 two days after Shukoff was fired from the event. “I attended in Chicago in 2012 in hopes of meeting you [Shukoff] again (even got VIP to make it happen) and you left the tour like two shows before mine,” the fan writes to Shukoff.
According to a statement released by Shukoff immediately after leaving the tour, his departure was due to creative differences. He explained that the tour was solely “about money,” which led to him leaving.
“I’m sorry that happened. it was just a mess from the start and I was a bit of a mess personally at the time and it all went badly,” Shukoff tells the fan on Reddit. “It makes me very happy to know you’re still interested in the music and seeing another show, and I will try to make it out that way as soon as I can.”
And that’s Shukoff synthesized, brutally transparent and genuinely dedicated to his craft. In an age when YouTube creators are being offered buckets full of cash to endorse Brand X, Shukoff is still deeply opposed to corporate branding.
In the same Reddit session, after being asked if he would ever do a branded rap battle for McDonald’s (McDonald’s has sponsored multiple YouTube creator videos in the past), Shukoff responds: “I don’t think McDonald’s is awesome, I think they make shitty, unhealthy food. If I wrote a rap about Ronald McDonald, I would tear his creepy clown ass so wide open I don’t think McDonald’s would be too happy to work with us.”
If Shukoff is the gentle Steve Wozniak of “ERB,” then Ahlquist could be described in this equation as a hip-hop loving Steve Jobs. Ahlquist is less forthcoming as he speaks, his answers are short and succinct. It would seem standoffish if not for the fact that Ahlquist seems just as dedicated to the “ERB” fanbase as Shukoff.
But Ahlquist comes from a different school of entertainment. While 24/7 fan interaction on YouTube was sanding off Shukoff’s rough edges, Ahlquist was working at a comedy club, a place where hecklers and drunks take rough edges and sharpen them.
I ask both creators if they ever worry about taking their raps too far. If you’ve never watched an “ERB” battle, they can often border on offensive. In the channel’s season 3 opener — “Hitler vs. Vader 3” — Ahlquist dressed as Hitler spits the following lyrics at Darth Vader:
You call yourself a Dark Lord / you couldn’t even conquer Space Mountain /
you’re just a sad asthmatic robot freak who needs some loving /
well I baked you something / here / pop into my oven.
It’s the kind of joke that’s targeted at an age group that grew up on “South Park” and “Family Guy.” It’s hard to see Millennials taking offense when Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Osama Bin Laden regularly makes cameos on both animated shows.
Ahlquist answers my question about whether they shy away from edgy content with razor-sharp clarity: “No. At least not yet. We model ‘ERB’ after actual rap battles,” he says. “There are a lot of battle circuits out there (Don’t Flop, KOTD, Grind Time) and if you watch them, you can tell they do a lot of research on one another and don’t hold anything back when they go at it.”
Ahlquist says that the “ERB” fanbase would know that the creators were blunting their attacks. “If we held back I think people would sense that and be turned off.”
As for my problem with parody, it’s hard to argue with results. “ERB,” according to its bio, is “the most-viewed format on YouTube on a per-episode basis.” And in the channel’s defense, fictional rap battles between historical figures (Adam vs. Eve, Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates, etc) don’t necessarily constitute parody.
To dust off Webster’s, parody is defined as “a piece of writing, music, etc., that imitates the style of someone or something else in an amusing way.” But in a less strict sense, “ERB” is creating a world in which problems are settled through rap contests. If anything, Shukoff and Ahlquist are parodying the course of human culture going all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
If God’s first creations had a conflict (I’m told something came up involving an apple), we can all probably agree it didn’t end with Eve telling Adam he had a small d**k, as seen in “ERB’s” “Adam vs. Eve” video.
That’s the beauty of “ERB” though. In a single three-minute video, Ahlquist and Shukoff are able to rewrite history’s greatest conflicts sans the bloody wars and brutal dictatorships. The battles help us imagine a place where beef was settled through razor tongues and not WMDs. Sure, you could call it parody, and I don’t think the “ERB” crew would care if you did. At the end of the day, they are just looking to make people happy. As Ahlquist explains, their goals for the future are simple: “We plan to continue to making videos that we’re proud with people we enjoy working with and create some funny ass s**t.”