For History Mine’s first ever interview, I thought it was important to send a message about the kind of interactions between history and modern culture that we want to see more of. To that end I had a word with Nice Peter, part of the team behind the massively successful YouTube series Epic Rap Battles of History.
History Mine: History, rap and YouTube are an inspired combination, but not an obvious one. How did the channel come about?
Nice Peter: Lloyd Ahlquist came to my apartment, and told me about a hip hop improv show he was performing in. There was a game in that show, where he and Zach Sherwin (later to play Einstein among others) took suggestions of famous people from the audience and did an improvised rap battle. I was at a point in my career where I saw everything through the lens of a YouTube video, and this idea was no exception. It struck me as a great concept, and after Lloyd and I recorded a quick demo example, I got very excited and started flushing out the idea in my head. I reached out to my small but attentive audience on YouTube, and asked them for suggestions.
One that stood out immediately was John Lennon vs Bill O’Rielly. It had a special, quirky mix of characters that really set the tone for the series. I started putting together the full concept, a rap battle that takes place in a surreal, trans-dimensional space, with an other worldly announcer who is bringing together two characters from any time and place to settle their ideological differences in a funny exchange of insults set to music. The idea was clear to me, but pulling it off was not something I could do myself.
Maker Studios paired me up with Dave McCary, our director and editor. When I told him my strange hazy idea he understood it immediately, and guided us through making it a reality on screen. Lloyd and I wrote and recorded the song ourselves, and together with Dave and one camera operator, filmed it in front of a green piece of cloth. Dave created a logo to go with the announcer’s voice, and together we refined the edit until it was a fast, flashy and entertaining little burst of history and comedy. That first video was not a hit, but the reception was strong enough to get us to try again.
Our second battle was taken from the suggestions left on the first, and came out as Darth Vader vs Adolf Hitler. That video got featured on the front page of YouTube, front page of Reddit, got banned in Germany and Poland, and never stopped spreading. The iTunes sales from that song and some of my earlier YouTube songs enabled me to move out of my apartment and into a small recording studio. Although we had no shower and no kitchen, we could suddenly make noise 24/7, and a whole new world opened up to me. Over time, as the rap battles continued to grow, it became clear that I should focus more and more of my energy on it, and it also became clear that it was growing into something larger.
HM: How much research do you do into each person? Is there a balance between getting good dirt, and making sure your audience is aware of it?
NP: I do as much research as I possibly can in the time I have. Our earlier matchups were between characters I already knew and loved. As we went, we had to dive into new people and become true fans of their work and life. I think real jokes can only come out when you know the person inside and out. There is a balance; we want one third of our jokes to appeal to everyone, one third to only those who know a bit about the history of the characters, and one third to make real die hard fans say “oh snap… you did not just reference p-branes”.
HM: Do you think other people working at the cross-section of history and modern culture could learn something from your approach?
NP: I think we enable and inspire our audience to do their own learning. We write jokes that some kids don’t get when they hear them, but because they enjoy our videos and songs, they are motivated to dive in, to learn about why we chose those words. We get passionate about our subjects, and we express that passion in our own way. I don’t think anyone can learn from my approach because I learned my own methods from watching other independent content creators online. We all have a lot to learn from each other.
HM: How the hell did you convince Snoop to pretend to be Moses?
NP: Lol. I wrote him a spec rap in the voice of Moses, and sent it to his management. He thought it was funny, and agreed.
Thank you Nice Peter!