When I first started covering the YouTube community a thousand years ago in 2012, I had never heard of Philip DeFranco. I knew the name Jenna Marbles but had never watched any of her videos. I only recognized the word Smosh from a New York Times article I had read one time. The world of YouTube stars was mostly a mystery to me.
But Epic Rap Battles of History — I knew them.
The first Hitler vs. Vader battle was fewer than two years old then, and I had seen it dozens of times. I had broken down each verse to conclusively determine which villain had truly “won.” (It was Vader — there was no way Hitler could come back from “so many dudes been with your mom, who even knows if I’m your father.”) Now, after almost a decade of activity, that video has broken past 100 million hits. I’m pretty sure I’m responsible for about a quarter of them.
Peter “Nice Peter” Shukoff and Lloyd “Epic Lloyd” Ahlquist’s web series, commonly abbreviated to ERB, was so much fun that it made me eager to dive into a world of cultural commentators and beauty haulers, Let’s Players and mommy vloggers, pranksters and drama queens. For me and many others, it was an online video gateway drug. At parties, when asked what I write about for my job, I would mention DeFranco and Marbles and Smosh to people who fell outside those creators’ target audiences. When met with a glassy stare, I would mention that I also cover ERB, and my conversation partner’s eye would invariably light up. “EP-IC RAP BATTLESOFHISTORY!” they’d shout, adopting the voice of Shukoff’s ERB narrator.
What is it about ERB that has captivated so many of its viewers?
The entire show amounts to fewer than four hours of runtime, and yet it has cultivated an outsized cultural legacy and continues to reach a loyal fanbase. Last December, when Shukoff and Ahlquist ended a hiatus of nearly two years by pitting Elon Musk against Mark Zuckerberg, they wasted no time returning to the sort of viewership that has long made them two of YouTube’s top draws. In the five months since its release, the Musk vs. Zuck battle has been watched more than 15 million times. Judging from the comments, everyone was happy to have ERB back.
“Hip-hop speaks honestly; it speaks bold and brash”
To get a sense of ERB’s origins, the development of its trademark style, and the plans its creators have for their new batch of episodes, I spoke with Ahlquist over the phone. The way he tells it, the show’s first brush with internet virality was, as you might expect, unexpected.
“It was definitely not something we started as like, ‘here’s our plans to make a viral video series and this is what we’re going to do and we want to pitch it like this,’” he said. “It was more like, holy crap, this thing is happening.”
Before they matched up Shukoff’s John Lennon and Ahlquist’s Bill O’Reilly, both ERB creators cultivated their own careers. By August 2010, Shukoff had gathered about 100,000 subscribers to the Nice Peter channel, where he delivered Picture Songs and other content.
Ahlquist, meanwhile, got his start in the Chicago improv scene, performing at vaunted venues like Second City and Improv Olympic. That experience, he told Tubefilter, aided the transition to a new platform.
“Some of the skills that I acquired as an improv actor really helped play these big, over-the-top characters that we ended up playing a lot,” he said. Ahlquist became ERB’s villain, hamming it up as O’Reilly and then Hitler.
The show’s second episode, which features Ahlquist’s outrageous take on the Nazi Führer, proved so legendary that it was soon banned in Germany and Italy. The excessive performances of ERB’s two stars soon became one of its strong selling points.
“I remember auditioning for commercials and TV shows and being told, bring it down, less energy, don’t be so big,” Ahlquist said. “And all of those things that I would naturally do on stage as a stage actor didn’t work for commercials, but for the rap battles, to play Napoleon Bonaparte and Genghis Khan, all that stuff helped a ton.”
From the start, ERB episodes and the performances within them were big and bold, a style that fit the show’s musical genre. “Hip-hop speaks honestly; it speaks bold and brash,” Shukoff told Forbes in 2011. “We had John Lennon say ‘suck my dick.’ We had Bill O’Reilly say ‘fuck.’ I guarantee you both men have.”
Through the grandiose nature of its early battles, ERB quickly established a reputation that made each of its new installments must-watch entertainment. A 2011 article in Wired calls the series “seductively forwardable,” and it’s hard to think of two words that better capture the thrill new ERB episodes generated as they spread rapidly across the internet. By the end of the show’s first season, it had outgrown its home on Shukoff’s Nice Peter channel, and a distinct ERB hub was created to house future episodes.
Such success was the culmination of two long careers in musical comedy. “It was sort of like 15 years to make an overnight success,” Ahlquist told Tubefilter. “Both Pete and I were fluffing out a living, doing comedy and doing music for 10 to 15 years before the rap battles happened.”
“As good as possible” and “whenever we can”
As ERB continued on, its bold-faced style began to stand out even more against the backdrop of a shifting landscape. In 2010, YouTube trends favored “sharable, bite-size pieces of content,” as Ahlquist put it. In the platform’s early years, up-and-coming creators jockeyed for position on its homepage, which featured zeitgeisty viral videos and had the power to create stars overnight. The “seductively forwardable” ERB videos were perfect for that sort of sitewide distribution.
But YouTube’s design rarely stays put for long, and its homepage eventually shifted to favor user subscriptions and personalized suggestions. The platform’s all-important recommendation algorithm evolved, too. In 2012, it was reworked to focus on watch time, and many creators began to prioritize the length of their content. Gamers like Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, whose videos fit naturally into those extended runtimes, experienced explosive upward growth on their channels.
At this point, ERB could have rolled with the tide, but Shukoff and Ahlquist refused to abandon the “whenever we can” upload schedule and two- to four-minute runtimes that had first launched their series to digital fame. Their willingness to defy these conventions while still maintaining a tight-knit bond with the YouTube community is a big part of what makes ERB a special entry in the web series canon. “We just want to make these as good as possible and however long they are, however frequently they come, is how long they are and how frequently they come,” Ahlquist told Tubefilter.
Making something “as good as possible” is a fine goal to have in the abstract, but to achieve it requires a commitment to excellence both behind and in front of the camera. As ERB rolled through its heyday, it owed much of its success to its crew and creative collaborators, many of whom, like Shukoff and Ahlquist, were partnered with the multi-channel network then known as Maker Studios. The show’s sets, costumes, makeup, music, and special effects, funded in large part by Maker, grew more involved to match its bombastic tone and its confident performances. Between 2012 and 2013, the four most-viewed ERB installments arrived online. Chief among those viral smashes was a 2012 election special that remains the show’s biggest hit, counting nearly 144 million views.
Popular success led to awards. ERB won four Streamy Awards in 2013, three more in 2014, and a pair in 2015. (Full disclosure: Tubefilter is a co-producer of the Streamy Awards.) Shukoff and Ahlquist shared those victories with the members of their production team, underscoring the degree of excellence that went into each facet of each ERB episode.
Mary Gutfleisch, the creator behind the Mary Doodles YouTube channel, snagged a trophy for her art direction, which successfully recreated the milieux of historical eras and pop culture franchises. Sulai Lopez earned a win for her impeccable costume design work. Zach Sherwin, a longtime collaborator of Shukoff and Ahlquist, displayed his penchant for punnery and historical wordplay within the show’s Streamy-winning lyrics. In 2015, the ERB editing team accepted an award. And in front of the camera, YouTube’s top stars joined the fun. Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart co-starred in a much-feted 2014 collaboration, which also entered the Streamys winners circle.
The two most familiar faces of ERB upped their game as well, fine-tuning their rhymes and performances with the help of exhaustive research. Shukoff and Ahlquist excavated the lives of the historical figures they parodied with enough thoroughness to see their videos end up in classrooms.
“People send me pictures of their history test with some lyrics that I wrote or Pete wrote that’s the answer to one of their questions in their history class,” Ahlquist told Tubefilter. All over YouTube, fan edits of ERB episodes have scrubbed out the profanity, making the battles more suitable for scholastic audiences.
This full-scale effort helped create the sort of “kick-ass videos” ERB needed to keep its momentum. Ahlquist noted that his team’s primary desire has always been “giving as much love and detail and attention to each episode as we possibly can,” and for years, he and his co-creators did exactly that. And so while YouTube changed to favor watch time and upload frequency, Shukoff and Ahlquist stayed the course and never defied the expectations they set for themselves.
“Our goal is to just keep getting bigger and better”
ERB is not the only YouTube channel that has created its own definition of success. In recent years, many creators have taken extended breaks from their channels. In doing so, they have challenged a distribution model that seems to be prioritizing nonstop activity over the mental health of the people responsible for that activity.
In explaining their breaks, these creators often use language that sounds familiar to ERB fans. “I don’t care about the quantity of videos that I post, I care about the quality,” said social media standout Liza Koshy earlier this year. “That’s why I stopped making them, because I wanted to ensure good content.”
ERB, which has always prided itself on quality over quantity, began its own hiatus in 2017. “If you’re not in a happy place, if you’re not a happy person, it’s really hard to make good content, especially if you’re doing comedy,” Ahlquist told Tubefilter. “We’ve always had the philosophy that if we can’t do something great, we’re not going to do anything.” He expressed empathy for the creators who take similar leaves from their channel, noting that their digital life is akin to a “window” through which their fans can always observe them.
Ahlquist noted that an eventual return to ERB was never a given, and that the show’s status was a “big question mark.” But after a two-year break, he and Shukoff have returned and have pledged to release a new battle each month for the rest of 2019. The latest of those clashes pits two revolutionairies — English rabble-rouser Guy Fawkes and Latin American icon Che Guevara — against one another.
In the lead-up to the release of these new episodes, Shukoff and Ahlquist made a lot of noise about how their signature show is now independent. The two creators are now footing the production bill themselves, and instead of receiving assistance from a multi-channel network, they are turning to their fans on Patreon. (Maker Studios was absorbed into Disney Digital Networks in 2017.) Ahlquist was quick to point out that his team was “never shackled or handcuffed creatively, ever.” Instead, independence will allow ERB to maintain its high standard of quality. Our goal is to just keep getting bigger and better,” Ahlquist said, “not to change drastically or anything like that.”
ERB’s growth has come in several shapes. Shukoff and Ahlquist have recorded a few “Flash In The Pan Hip-Hop Conflicts of Nowadays,” which strip away the main show’s visual effects and feature battlers who are currently experiencing their 15 minutes but might not be famous enough to earn an appearance in an Epic Rap Battle.
“It was nice to be able to do something fun and light and cool that wasn’t quite as special effects heavy or green screen heavy,” Ahlquist said.
Those videos are presented on the secondary ERB2 channel, which also pulls back the show’s curtain to look behind its scenes. As the new season continues, Ahlquist’s plan is to incorporate some behind-the-scenes footage that feels more like a documentary, to continue to satisfy a fan base eager for more content. “One of the big reasons we decided to come back was because it seems like people were still really hungry for it,” Ahlquist said. “People were still excited for us to make these videos. They still loved the content we were making. So that was really encouraging.”
Perhaps the most exciting development in ERB’s new era is the launch of their Patreon page, which will offer perks and bonus content to patrons. Through that new financial pipeline, Shukoff and Ahlquist can continue to support their product while deepening their connections with fans.
“A little piece of the zeitgeist”
YouTube videomaking is a 14-year-old industry, and Shukoff and Ahlquist have been plying their trade on the platform for most of that period. With the ten-year-anniversary of the first ERB episode coming in the summer of 2020, it is a natural point to begin wondering what the show’s legacy will be. Years from now, will ERB stand out among the big hits of YouTube’s formative era? Or will it be muddled in a wave of programming that defined a new entertainment paradigm?
When considering those questions it becomes even more important that ERB is defined by its own standards rather than those of the platform around it.
In a community dominated by a rotating selection of trends, challenges, and tentpoles, ERB retains a certain amount of distinctiveness among the top 1% of YouTube channels, and that’s a point of pride for Ahlquist. He compared his show to Bad Lip Reading and The Try Guys, two other popular YouTube offerings defined by central gimmicks.
“We’re our own special thing,” Ahlquist told Tubefilter. “And I love that. I’m not sure I could exactly point my finger to exactly why we’ve had the luck or the success that we have. But I know a lot of it is about a ton of hard work and a ton of a passion in what we do, and we listened to our fans as much as we can.”
For those of us who have been following ERB since it was still tethered to the Nice Peter channel, the show’s continued excellence is not just an indicator of quality content. It’s also an uplifting story of two creators who stuck to their guns, cut their teeth during their long trip up the musical comedy ladder, and eventually found the perfect platform for their combined zaniness. They are reminders that prolonged YouTube success can be achieved through sheer ingenuity rather than the adoption of an ever-changing list of best practices. And hopefully those lessons will continue to be passed down.
When I asked Ahlquist what he thinks ERB’s legacy will be, he referenced Ready Player One and its nonstop nods to 80s pop culture. If there is ever a Ready Player One for the YouTube era, Ahlquist hopes ERB will be a part of it. He imagines seeing his series as “a little piece of the zeitgeist of a window of time.”
After sharing this vision, he paused for a moment. “That would be really great,” he continued. “You know, until whatever the next kick-ass thing we do is.”
Photo credit: Adam Hendershot