Epic Rap Battles of History is one of the most successful YouTube series of all time. What started as a live improv skit by two friends has become an online sensation, with more than 10.6 million subscribers and 1.1 billion views under the Maker Studios network.
The premise is simple: founders Peter Shukoff (NicePeter) and Lloyd Ahlquist (EpicLloyd) pick two figures from history or pop culture and imagine what it would be like if they faced off in a battle in rap form. The videos are highly entertaining, with characters as varied as Darth Vader, Adolf Hitler, Abraham Lincoln, and Chuck Norris battling each other in full costume.
The videos have become so popular that the duo has been able to land cameos from celebrities like Snoop Dogg, Weird Al, and plenty of YouTube stars. They were featured in commercials during the World Cup and are now appearing on billboards in cities across the country.
Shukoff also just finished up a tour that took him across the country and Europe, from Los Angeles and New York City all the way to Amsterdam.
We recently caught up with Shukoff.
Business Insider: What’s the story behind your YouTube channel?
Peter Shukoff: That story is long, but very simple. I realised, in one flash of a moment, that the person behind each YouTube view is real, genuine, and they are present in real time. If you talk to them, they hear you. If you listen to them, they know you are really there. That basic philosophy has helped me grow into 5 different YouTube channels, with a total of approximately 14 million subscribers.
Each video I put out myself, or together with my partner in ERB, is as good as we can make it with the resources we have. When we had a $US200 budget, we did the best we could, and now that we have a larger budget for each rap battle, we still do the best we can.
BI: Do you have a background in comedy?
PS: Yes. I studied improv at IO in Chicago, and was hired by Lloyd Ahlquist’s (my partner in rap battles) comedy troupe, Mission Improvable, to tour colleges around the U.S. performing improv comedy. I also did a one-man show of comedy and music, anywhere I could get up and play.
BI: Where do you get inspiration for your rap battles?
PS: History, the audience, my friends, Netflix, books, television, my dog, my local farmer’s market, my mother, my girlfriend — everyone has input.
BI: There’s a ton of historical details in each of your videos — how much research is involved?
PS: As much as possible. I read and digest history constantly.
BI: What is a typical day in production like?
PS: Hectic, fun, full of stress turning into great celebrations of laughter.
BI: Has your production process changed over time?
PS: It has gotten more streamlined. We write the songs in a chunk, then shift to producing the videos. That helped us keep our eye on the prize: a great song first, with a great video to support it.
BI: How do you make a video go viral?
PS: You work on it until it makes people feel good to show it to their friends.
BI: Was there a moment when you knew you had made it? What was that like?
PS: I made it the first time I got paid anything to do what I love. That was many years ago — this is all just a wonderful bonus.
BI: How did it feel to see your commercial during the World Cup? And the billboards?
PS: I never saw the commercials, I don’t watch much TV. I got my joy from the fans’ tweets telling us how proud they are. It reminded me how much we and the audience are in this together.
I did see the billboards; it was surreal. I stood next to one waiting for someone to recognise me. They didn’t.
BI: What are your plans for the channel’s future?
PS: Which channel? Which future? What is a plan?
My goal is to make entertainment that is real, that is satisfying, that inspires and teaches, but perhaps most importantly, is fun and makes people feel good watching it. It’s a very simple plan, I’m going to keep doing that.
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