How Epic Rap Battles of History Became Accidentally Educational
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.
Courtesy of Maker Studios Nice Peter (left) with EpicLLOYD (right)
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.