Take one of the most popular YouTube series out there, transform it into a live show for cities across the U.S. and Europe, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. For Epic Rap Battles of History, those quick and clever match-ups between political, historical and cultural heavyweights, the result wasn’t quite the risk it might have been thanks to its creators’ backgrounds.
Peter Shukoff (Nice Peter) and Lloyd Ahlquist (EpicLLOYD) honed their improv skills in Chicago before making their way west to Maker Studio in L.A. There, they began transforming an original sketch idea into a video series replete with spot-on impersonations, costumes and polished post-production. Their combined experience, ranging from music to comedy to production, eventually led to what 12.5 million YouTube channel subscribers know today as the Epic Rap Battles of History, or ERB.
Shukoff and Ahlquist are seven hours ahead in Europe when we speak on the phone, each embodying traits of their rap alter ego in their tones, if we’re going on voice alone. For a series that has done so well online and relies so heavily on its post-production qualities, it seems like something could get lost in translation between streaming and live performance. But, in reality, the concerts are a chance for Ahlquist and Shukoff to get back to their improvisational roots. “The number one rule of improv is to say yes to things,” Shukoff points out. “We’ve been saying yes to things and to ideas and to each other. It’s almost getting back to our comfort zone to be in front of a real live audience.”
Thanks to pared down costumes, background videos displaying familiar characters from the videos, instruments and more, the two recreate live versions of some of ERB’s most famous battles. “Really, I think it comes from us making it a musical performance, and using the skills we have as live performers to make this a cool rap show essentially,” Ahlquist says. “Neither of us were trained musicians, but I think there are a lot of guys who go from comedy into music and vice versa. I think some of the timing and some of the connection to the audience is similar.”
For two stars who rose to fame thanks to the Internet, Shukoff and Ahlquist have managed to stay connected with their base audience on the road by posting footage from the concerts. It goes to show how nothing happens in a vacuum anymore, especially not for denizens of new and social media. It’s about building and maintaining a connection, sharing your time in Sweden with your viewer in Texas and vice versa.
The concerts aren’t all about rehashing what they’ve already created. There’s an improvisational note about the whole affair as well. Shukoff and Ahlquist tie local celebrities to each show. “When we were in Sweden, we did Pippi Longstocking, because a Swedish author wrote her,” Shukoff explains. “We did Christoph Waltz in Austria; we did the Pope in Italy. It brings all the things we can do up to the front in one little piece. It’s pretty fun.”
Of course, as they’ve traveled things have warped over time. Ahlquist says, “Now we have this show, and I can almost look at the show and be like ‘Oh yeah, we came up with that in Memphis, we came up with that in Atlanta, we came up with that in Vienna.’ It started as one thing and it’s grown.” The experience has pushed them both in new creative directions, which will benefit future ERB videos. “It stirs up whole new juices in you,” he continues. “It gets me excited to go back and do more.”
ERB made a space in the comedy industry by way of the YouTube community. Emerging around the time YouTube started becoming a larger phenomenon, producing new media stars left and right, ERB’s creators saw a way to bring their improvisational skills and musical backgrounds to fruition without following more typical paths that require creative permission. “The power has shifted more towards the artist,” Ahlquist explains. “They’re their own network.” The pair didn’t have to go through the checks and balances that so many other creative projects like sitcoms, films and the like must. “I think YouTube has been really smart in their approach,” Ahlquist says. “It’s been fairly hands off. Unless it’s something super offensive or super gnarly, they let people come up with their own brand.”
It’s a refreshing approach, one that yielded a medium offering people almost direct access to the stars, hosts and comedians they most appreciate. The rap battles, for example, always end with an audience vote, and both Shukoff and Ahlquist closely monitor the comments section to see how they can tweak future episodes. “You can really learn stuff about what is reaching people,” says Ahlquist. Sure there are trolls, but genuine commenters provide them a real service.
ERB might at first seem like a one-trick pony, but in actuality the videos showcase much greater skill. They wouldn’t work nearly as well if the performers didn’t do their best to sound like the people they’re portraying, or if the beat repeated itself across the videos. Rather than take one rap track and repeat it ad nauseam while switching out the players, Shukoff, Ahlquist and their entire team spend a great deal of time thinking about what beat matches what character. “We try to make each song its own thing” says Ahlquist. “If you listen to the Philosophers Battle, there’s a beat boxing section in it; if you listen to George Washington, it’s more of a trap beat. We try to be eclectic.” Shukoff adds, “We both have short attention spans. I think we would get so annoyed if we did the same thing over and over again.”
In addition to that kind of detail, ERB relies heavily on witty, referential lyrics. It takes a long time to orchestrate each video, beginning with researching the specific characters they intend to pair. “We watch documentaries, we read books, we use YouTube videos, we listen to podcasts. We try and really wrap our heads around who the characters are and what they mean, and once we get to a place where we really know them then we can start writing,” Shukoff explains. It’s like a mini history lesson of sorts that will eventually lend itself to the specific barbs each character throws at their opponent. Then, of course, there are the sharp impersonations necessary to convey a character’s quirks. At times, it seems like an impossible confluence to pull off, and yet they do, to greater or lesser extents.
As the seasons have progressed, celebrities like Weird Al Yankovic, Key & Peele and others have lent their talents to different characters. Weird Al played Sir Isaac Newton, who battled Bill Nye for the title of best “science guy.” Shukoff recalls first meeting the iconic musician-comedian. “We met him at a YouTube event and he expressed interest. It took me months to work up the courage to actually email him.” As important as these names are—and they are—ERB incorporates new media stars, too. Over the seasons, Jenna Marbles has played Eve, Grace Helbig has played Juliet and Hannah Hart has played Bonnie (of Bonnie & Clyde fame), among others. “It’s choosing the right person for the role. We make friends with these people at different events, because we’re all in the same business together. YouTube is a very collaborative atmosphere,” Shukoff says.
Although Shukoff and Ahlquist may be front and center when it comes to ERB, they have a dedicated team helping them. “It’s always been a family,” Shukoff says. “Even in the beginning, it was never just me and Lloyd. We try to make that pretty clear. We’re the faces of it, we’re the novelty of it, but from day one it’s never been just the two of us.”
YouTube has been a great resource to launch new names into people’s collective memory, names that might take years to reach the public if they took more traditional routes in the entertainment industry. Epic Rap Battles of History has clearly touched a nerve, as each video’s views and the overall channel’s subscribers prove. Offering viewers a different comedic take on history—sort of a Drunk History meets the Lonely Island meets something altogether quirky—Shukoff and Ahlquist have made their mark in the comedy world, one beat at a time.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance writer specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.