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How ‘Epic Rap Battles of History’ influenced a generation

in retrospect

Imagine yourself 10 years ago. You’re at your friend’s house for a sleepover. It’s late at night, and all of you are crowded around your friend’s dad’s work computer, taking turns showing each other YouTube videos. Someone presses play on a video titled “Abe Lincoln vs. Chuck Norris” and says it’s part of a series called “Epic Rap Battles of History” (ERB). Before you know it, several hours have passed and you’ve gone through the entire channel’s catalog. By this point, the sounds of the birds chirping outside your window have ingrained themselves into the beats of the songs you’ve spent all night memorizing.

I know that the paragraph above is not universal for everyone my age, but it sure does feel like it. One thing that unites almost  everyone I know is that we all had an “ERB” phase. I guarantee if you play the beat for “Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates” within earshot of any of us we’ll resist the urge to complete Jobs’ opening line “Now lemme step right in I got things to invent…”  But I never expected that “ERB” would stick with me for so long. The web series got its start in September 2010 with “John Lennon vs. Bill O'Reilly,” which established the formula of pitting together two figures, either from history or pop culture, against one another in a rap battle. That formula has guided the channel through six seasons over the span of 12 years. 

It may seem that the formulaic and gimmicky premise of the show has a high risk of growing stale, and eventually, it did. But, at its height, the show deeply resonated with a large swath of people. Many of the most popular episodes have well over 100 million views each, and 11 of the singles released by the show are certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America

What was so special about “ERB?” Why was it so successful, and why do I personally look back on it so fondly? “ERB” was one of the first shows to truly optimize itself for consumption on the Internet. It was a product of its time and its medium, and much of the lyricism present in each episode is utlimately pretty clever. 

One of my favorite episodes is “Barack Obama vs Mitt Romney.” Viewership-wise it is the most popular episode in the series with over 157 million views, and is, to me, a perfect “ERB” episode. Released in the midst of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the episode pitted candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney against one another. From a technical standpoint, this episode was phenomenal. “ERB” creator and star EpicLLOYD does a phenomenal job playing Romney, and professional Obama impressionist Alphacat performs his job to perfection in the episode. The wordplay of both characters’ verses is on point as well; Romney opens the battle up by bragging about his “fat stacks and super PACs” and in Obama’s verse he states: “Republicans need a puppet and you fit / got their hands so far up your rear call you Mitt.” The battle is then upended by Abraham Lincoln barging in at the end, condemning Romney as a greedy businessman, and Obama for not going far enough in fighting for change. 

“Barack Obama vs Mitt Romney” is emblematic of “ERB” as a whole, and the episode serves as a time capsule for what the Internet looked like around the 2012 election. The episode also featured one of the more realistic matchups that the show had seen up to that point. One of the selling points of “ERB” was its community. Each episode ended with the announcer stating “Who Won? Who’s Next? You Decide!” along with a screenshot of the comment that suggested the episode’s matchup. This resulted in weird matchups early in the series such as “Mr. T vs. Mr. Rogers,” “Billy Mays vs. Ben Franklin,” and three separate matchups of “Hitler vs. Darth Vader.” The first season was representative of the phase in which online humor valued randomness above everything else. As the series progressed, however, the matchups started making more sense, and the quality of the episodes increased dramatically.

One thing that was very special about “ERB” was its ability to teach viewers something new through its lyrics. “Michael Jordan vs. Muhammad Ali” referenced events such as Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War and Jordan’s gambling addiction. “ERB” even released a clean version of “Frederick Douglass vs Thomas Jefferson” because the lyrics touched on so many historical events that it could potentially be used as a way to teach American history in schools. In fact, my teacher even put on “Artists vs. TMNT” in my freshman world history class during our Renaissance unit.

At the end of the day, though, the educational value isn’t why I watched, memorized and studied every “ERB” episode. It’s the unspoken connection that it facilitated between my friends and me whenever we watched new episodes together. It was the bonding between me and my brothers whenever we debated who won each episode. It was the fondness of discussing who should be next. And it was the suspense of knowing that it could be us who decided future battles. That, and “Rasputin vs. Stalin” is a work of art.

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