Epic Rap Battles of History, created by Peter Shukoff and Lloyd Ahlquist, imagines what would happen if some of the biggest historical, political and cultural names verbally sparred for supremacy. Most of the time, the pairings are whimsical fabrications—a “what-if” of sorts that reimagines the past through a musical-comedy lens—but sometimes they include pertinent political or cultural commentary about the current state of affairs. Donald Trump has already battled Ebenezer Scrooge, but one wonders what it would look like if he squared off against Hillary Clinton or, even better, Bernie Sanders.
Over the series’ four seasons, the episodes have increased in post-production value and the various rap styles they feature, so what makes each one work differs every time. Whether it’s for their sharp rhymes, clever references, hilarious impersonations or special effects, here are the 10 best episodes.
The rap itself isn’t one of the series’ stronger ones, but what makes this episode such a standout is what takes place in the background. Once Bill and Ted slam Lewis and Clark for relying so heavily on Sacagawea’s help, she develops her own storyline. Shukoff explained, “I believe it was Lloyd’s wife Josie who was whispering in my ear that there needed to be more Sacagawea.” From there, the idea spiraled and more Sacagawea is what viewers got.
Epic Rap Battles has focused on a few different musical pairings over the course of its existence. (Beethoven and Justin Bieber, anyone?) But when Mozart takes on Skrillex, it hits all the right notes both musically and comedically. Whether it’s Mozart’s gentlemanly rap, or Skrillex’s hyped up production, this episode is easily one of the series’ most memorable music showdowns.
It’s the ultimate battle of the sexes between the two who supposedly started it all. Rather than a complacent Adam or a wistful Eve, what viewers get is a hardcore couple who’s had it up to here with one another. Throw YouTube star Jenna Marbles into the mix and Eve will never look the same again. “Jenna was perfect for it,” Shukoff said, “this kind of raunchy Eve.”
What happens when two of the most infamous proprietors for non-violence square off in a battle for rap supremacy? The gloves come off. Not only do Key & Peele lend their strong impersonation skills and comedic timing to this rap, but with lines like “yoga fire” and “naan violence,” there’s also a clever wit brewing beneath the surface.
Many Epic Rap Battles pairings are whimsical “what-ifs” that would never happen in real life. Obama and Romney squaring off, on the other hand, seemed totally plausible during the 2012 presidential campaign. Its take on Obama and Romney—starring YouTube star and Obama impersonator Alphacat—quickly became an Internet sensation, and it’s still sitting pretty with over 100 million views on YouTube alone.
It was bound to happen one day: Those crime-fighting Turtles named after some of the greatest artists in Western history would inevitably come across their namesakes. The episodes work best when the actors and actresses involved hit upon a specific impersonation, which doesn’t happen so much with the artists, but does with the Turtles. Their costumes and rap make this one of the more fun episodes.
After meeting Weird Al at a YouTube event, Shukoff was surprised when the famed musician-comedian expressed an interest in participating in an Epic Rap Battles episode. After Shukoff worked up the nerve to contact him with a potential part, things took off. “He was totally into it,” he said. “He worked harder than we did.” The rap takes a turn when Neil deGrasse Tyson shows up to back up Bill Nye, but Weird Al holds his own as Sir Isaac, proving he’s still got serious flow.
A veritable who’s-who of new media stars, this particular episode showcased Hannah Hart and Grace Helbig’s rap and impersonation skills. Helbig plays the brooding Shakespearean damsel to a T, while Hart delivers a sharp Southern drawl and mad rhymes as Bonnie. “We wanted to work with Hannah Hart and Grace Helbig years before we were able to do it, and it was waiting for the right role to come along,” Shukoff said of getting the two YouTube stars involved.
Easily one of the series’ more intricate raps, what initially starts off as a showdown between Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock quickly blooms into a free for all including Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick and Michael Bay. “I was pretty proud of what we did,” Shukoff admitted. Making the video may have been a bear, but the final product is a mash-up of five different characters replete with their own rap styles, and a prime example of the series’ ability to match music with character.
In what has to be one of the better Jim Henson impersonations, the mild-mannered puppeteer doesn’t bring a big ego to his rap battle with Stan Lee. “We knew Jim Henson could never raise his voice, and so we chose a beat for his part that’s really kind of mellow. It guided the writing, it guided the music,” Shukoff explained. When Lee realizes that Henson isn’t going to match him on the aggression front, things quickly subside…until Walt Disney shows up, that is.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance writer specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.