For zoomers like me, the scenes of ridiculous two-minute hip-hop skits like the one where Darth Vader raps against this other guy (dunno, some guy called Adolph?) are forever etched into our collective memory. Yes, it was not so long ago that prepubescent 9-year-old me was watching random videos on the haven that is YouTube, laughing and quoting some hypothetical insults thrown out by some random famous people I don’t even know, all while I was at the age where I didn’t even know what a dick joke was. I was just laughing at all the funny bad words. And the beats were catchy too.
If you are somehow older than the zucchinis in my fridge and don’t know, Epic Rap Battles of History is a series that has had an unbelievable amount of longevity in Internet terms. It was a project started by a duo of Nice Peter and EpicLLOYD (two white dudes doing comedy, as was usual for the time) in which real historical figures and fictional characters alike spit hot bars and use slick lyricism to… just prove that they’re better, I guess. Well, that’s what regular rap battles are for, anyways. This project has been going on since 2010, and has been actively uploading – well, consistently but infrequently, considering that as of now (March 16, 2023), there are only 86 battles split across 6 “seasons”.
Considering the production value, it does make sense why there aren’t that many. The creators go through the effort of creating elaborate costumes, acting it out, and throwing in various visuals in the videos to go along with whatever the rappers are throwing out. It’s a pretty impressive set of technical feats involving writing, sound design, choreography, and film-making, to be completely honest.
But anyways, now that I’m older and have a little more knowledge of how media and the world works, let’s have a few retrospective thoughts about what makes ERB kind of an anomaly for how ubiquitous it’s stayed basically the entire time.
First of all, ERB was and still is somehow one of the most time-dense entertainment to have made it this far. They aren’t really meme videos by themselves, though the series as a whole is certainly a staple of meme culture, but as a creative endeavor there really isn’t much footage to go around. The first season had 15 rap battles, and with a runtime (not including intro/outro) of about 2 minutes on average, that is only half an hour of content. Hell, even with all 86 rap battles that have been made, that comes out to, like, 3 hours? (Though the later ones tend to be longer.) That’s just about as much as a single long movie, though to be fair, there are single movies that have just as much of a cultural impact.
But for how short the videos are and how little there is to work with, the rap battles have never seemed to get boring. Especially for kids, there was just something about how the battles were written that ensured that one watch, two watches, a hundred watches wouldn’t be enough. It catered to the generation’s shortening attention span, maybe. Maybe the point was that we wouldn’t get all the historical and fictional references, so we’d learn something new each time. That probably worked with adults, too.
This kind of short-form content was a big departure from a lot of other popular YouTube content that was preferred by the algorithm, though. At the time, gaming Let’s Plays, vlogs, and other variants of raw, dude talking into a mic with minimal editing stuff was kind of getting all the attention. There weren’t many videos this short. Perhaps ERB was a prototype of the popularization of high-effort but extremely short videos that would come in the form of Vines and TikToks and YouTube Shorts later on. But even I’m too old for those things now.
Anyways, something else that was kind of special was that even though kids like me didn’t understand a lot of the lyrics and references, it still felt as if I was being included in the joke, unlike a lot of the other comedy of the time. Watching something like Smosh, I wouldn’t really get what was so funny when someone said “haha, your last name is HECOCKS?” They’re just awkwardly laughing while I’m sitting there thinking it’s a total flop. But if there’s a rhyme, reason, and meter, I can really get into it and follow along. “Yeah that’s right, limp-dicked Luftwaffe!” Never mind what the Luftwaffe was, I didn’t even know that Hitler was German back then. I thought I was laying down a smackdown too when I recited those lines.
The deluge of derivative memes also created a bunch more content to consume. Even things like top ten lists felt like novel content back then – it was kind of a low bar. But we also had gratuitous YouTube Poops and fanmade rap battles (which themselves have also persisted for a super long time). Making more quotable memes from an already quotable meme makes it doubly as funny when someone else actually does get the reference. And nowadays, we can even see that some of these derivative memes are even more popular than the original, like the MrBeast fanmade battle and its infinite YTPMVs.
But shifting to what might have been a bit cringe in retrospect – what’s so difficult for the creators of ERB about having such an influence on young minds is that who they choose and what they choose to say can instill widely-held beliefs about who is important and even the political field of acceptability. Who are the most important icons of pop culture, the most influential great men and women that changed history? More importantly, who is forgotten? Maybe I am just afraid of the concept of overwhelming cultural hegemony, but the overwhelming America-centric nature of the battles kind of makes me a little bit less enthusiastic about them nowadays.
Another thing is that are the two figures rapping against each other really equivalent? There is (nearly) never an actual winner in the battles, leaving it up to the viewers to decide for themselves who won, and who’s next. Sure, I guess the leaders of the two largest computer companies in the world can be judged to be reasonably well matched, but Genghis Khan and the Easter Bunny? Really? Okay, sure, I guess that one is a bit of an exaggeration. But if we talk about something like Gandhi vs MLK Jr., not only does turning them into comedy kind of spit in the face of their movements and ideologies, it makes a dick measuring contest out of people that would likely agree with each other. Do we have to take a side between them? Are we really reducing two influential progressivists into profanity-hurling, vitriolic bags of hatred?
It gets worse with things involving real and current politics. Personally, I think every single election-based rap battle (except Obama vs Romney, because of the memes) was a massive flop and even potentially dangerous. Especially for Trump vs Clinton, I understand that the writers wanted to make them as comically ridiculous as possible, especially Trump, but what if the kids (and adults) really do come to think that because one of them spit hot bars, that they are actually a good politician? I’m sure that has resonated with actual fascists before, lol. And while it’s true that Abraham Lincoln swoops in on an eagle and smacks both of the candidates for being shit, that only serves to shift the idolizing somewhere else. It might sound stupid, but ERB might actually be one of the largest modern proponents of great man theory. Everything is ideological, and it’s dangerous when kids don’t recognize it as such.
Anyways, those are a couple of my thoughts on one of the staples of my childhood. I’m not sure if its popularity will extend even to the new generation, but eh, they’re chugging along. It’s not nearly as groundbreaking as it used to be, but it will always be there deep in my brain.