Bieber vs. Beethoven; a new twist on battle rap
YouTube hit 'Epic Rap Battles of History' meshes traditional contests of wit, rhyme and raw humor with the random collisions of characters real and fictional.
Comedian Lloyd Ahlquist steps onto the stage, girded for battle. Wearing the uniform of a Soviet officer, with medals dripping from his chest, he channels dictator Joseph Stalin and prepares to deliver a rhyming smackdown on Russia's mad monk, Grigori Rasputin.
The cameras roll, the music playback reverberates through the Culver City studio — then an unexpected glitch halts production on "Epic Rap Battles of History's" second-season finale. Ahlquist's thick mustache is obscuring his mouth, making it difficult to see him snarl such insults as "All your wizard friends: shot! Anyone who sold you pirogi: shot!"
Ahlquist, director Dave McCary and a makeup artist consult: Should they compromise authenticity and give Stalin's mustache a trim? After a 10-minute discussion, co-creator Peter Shukoff enters the studio wearing Rasputin's flowing black garment and a long, scraggly beard. He says the mustache "looks great" — it's the overcompensation that's the problem.
"I've been trying to keep my mouth open a little bit, and jut my jaw out," Ahlquist explains. "I just don't want to look too much like Wario."
The mustache would retain its Nintendo antihero glory.
This fanatical attention to detail pays off with the audience: The Rasputin versus Stalin rap battle has attracted nearly 12 million views since premiering on YouTube three weeks ago.
The series' YouTube channel has exposed millions of fans — three-quarters of them males ages 13 to 34 — to F-bomb-laced altercations between Adam and Eve or Justin Bieber and Beethoven, jousting in a format born among rappers on the streets of New York City in the 1970s.
Reputations were made on the sidewalks of Harlem — and occasionally preserved on audio cassette tapes or hand-held camcorders.
Def Jam President Joie Manda remembers traveling to Harlem in 2003 to witness the verbal sparring match between rappers Jae Millz and Murda Mook. Only a few hundred people knew about the contest of wits, rhymes and raw humor.
"It was a lot like 'Fight Club,'" Manda says. "Let's meet at 125th Street at 4 o'clock, and see who's better."
Shukoff recalls the eureka moment when he suggested adapting a segment of Ahlquist's improv comedy show for the Internet. They experimented with taking old-school rap battles in a new direction, freestyling an exchange between "Back to the Future" star Michael J. Fox and Chucky, the movie doll possessed with the soul of a serial killer.
"It was totally stupid, but you could tell it was cool — and infinitely refillable."
The duo met in a freestyle rap session on Ahlquist's front porch in Chicago.
Originally from New Hampshire, Ahlquist, 36, moved to the Midwest with a group of friends who had founded the improv group Mission IMPROVable.
Shukoff, 33, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and made his stage debut at 8, when his mother made him join an Irish dance troupe. He taught himself to play guitar in high school — "it seemed like a really good way to get attention and laughs" — but set aside his music ambitions to pursue a comedy career in the Second City.
Ahlquist invited Shukoff to audition for his traveling comedy troupe in 2002. For years, they toured colleges and clubs together.
"Some days you would be in a gorgeous Orpheum Theatre, with like 2,500 people, and you'd feel like a rock star," Ahlquist recalls. "The next day, you were in a community college [performing] next to a Snapple machine."
They parted ways when Ahlquist headed west in 2005 to develop a sketch comedy pilot for MTV, and became a co-owner of M.i.'s Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica. Shukoff stayed behind to chase his music dreams.
They reunited years later, when Shukoff relocated to Los Angeles and found work as a songwriter for the Culver City digital production company Maker Studios. He began making and uploading music videos to his own YouTube channel.
"I was old enough and I had failed enough to know: 'This is it,'" Shukoff says. "No more driving for four hours to play 45 minutes on a sound system I set up myself for $100 and cheeseburgers."
Shukoff was hungry for fresh material when, in 2010, Ahlquist described the rap battle segment in his improv show, Check One Two. Shukoff was convinced that Internet audiences would thrill to the random collisions of characters real and fictional who would only ever meet "at a party in transdimensional space."
In what became the first installment, John Lennon threatened Bill O'Reilly, "I'll take Maxwell's Silver Hammer and give you a lobotomy," while O'Reilly retorted, "You longhair living in your yellow submarine, you're about to get sunk by the right-wing political machine." The video has gone on to reach 26.7 million views.
Thirty-two videos followed over the course of three years, including one in which rapper Snoop Dogg appeared as Moses dissing Santa Claus.
"Snoop rapped every word that we wrote," an awe-struck Shukoff says. "He Snoopified it and made it awesome."
The two comedians' work popularizes the once-underground game of rap battles, in which two participants hurl invective at each other in a progressive series of put-downs, known as "the Dozens," that have deep roots in African culture.
The phenomenon began creeping into the cultural mainstream with rapper Eminem's freestyle battles in the 2002 movie "8 Mile" and the "Freestyle Friday" videos on BET's video countdown show "106 & Park."
Now, the borderless reach of the Internet has given these competitions another boost. YouTube is home to more than 60 rap battle channels, including the newly launched paid channel Rap Battle Network, that have amassed more than 2 billion views.
"Rap battles come very much out of that [tradition] where different rappers go back and forth, and who has the best skills is decided by the crowd," says YouTube's Malik Ducard. "It existed before, but it found a real home on YouTube because it's not anywhere that is super accessible — unless you're really there."
I was old enough and I had failed enough to know: 'This is it ... No more driving for four hours to play 45 minutes on a sound system I set up myself for $100 and cheeseburgers."
— Peter Shukoff
"Epic Rap Battles of History" — whose channel now boasts more subscribers than Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift or Skrillex — has achieved a broad audience by departing from one aspect of the traditional rap battles, in which the keen-eyed observer lambastes an opponent's appearance, reputation or background. Instead, its sketches mine humor from the oddball matchups and funny outfits, and in lampooning the foibles of well-known characters.
"That's the most commercial side of it," Def Jam's Manda says. "That's probably the softer side — it's a lot safer."
Ahlquist and Shukoff pride themselves on authenticity — their sound mixer, Jose "Choco" Reynoso, has worked with such mainstream rap acts as the Wu-Tang Clan.
"One thing that we both agreed on was that we wanted to make good rap music. We didn't want the series to be a parody," says Ahlquist, who is known to fans as EpicLloyd. "We wanted it to be an honest take on what an actual battle would be."
"That's where we lucked out," says Shukoff, whose stage name is Nice Peter. "Lloyd was a comedian for a living, but he did rap music as a passion, a hobby. There were no jokes in his raps, back in the day. And I was a songwriter who found the easiest way to entertain a hostile crowd was to use some humor in my songs."
The collaboration succeeds, in part, because Ahlquist and Shukoff complement each other creatively. Shukoff, the self-described computer nerd, is in touch with the videos that resonate on YouTube, while Ahlquist draws from the timing of live stage performance and the sharp tongue of a rapper.
"That's what balances us out," Shukoff says. "Because if I had free rein, I would become too nerdy with it. It would lose heart. It would lose grit."
As the online audience of "Epic Rap Battles of History" has expanded, so has its production budget, staff and cachet with established Hollywood talent.
The channel, which is owned and operated by Maker Studios, has a team of six devoted full-timers who assist with the production of new episodes. It generates revenue through advertising, sales of songs on Apple Inc.'s iTunes and merchandise.
Privately held Maker Studios refuses to disclose revenue for the channel, other than to say it affords an attractive enough wage for Ahlquist to step back from his responsibilities managing the comedy club, and Shukoff to stop subsisting on $15 a day.
Advertising industry executives say such sites hold value for advertisers courting young male consumers who spend money on consumer electronics, footwear and energy drinks.
"With a site like that, and some of the other ones around specific subcultures, you can micro-target," says Geoffrey Colon, vice president of digital strategy for Social@Ogilvy, a division of ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. "You can find the audience you want, rather than do spray and pray — let's buy a whole lot of advertising everywhere and hopefully we'll reach our target audience."
"Epic Rap Battles of History" and its advertiser appeal may be new media, but the battles themselves are not.
"The idea of battling and executing at the highest level of your expertise in an art form like that has been a staple of African American culture forever," rap historian Nelson George says. "What you're having now is the latest iteration of that tradition."
Note: An earlier version of this story switched the identifications of Peter Shukoff and Lloyd Ahlquist in photo captions.
'Epic Rap Battles of History' on YouTube
More great reads
Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times