Q&A: Epic Rap Battles bring feudal hip-hop to SF Sketchfest

Before unboxing and haul videos, before disembodied hands very quickly mixing ingredients, before whatever it is Logan Paul did, there was YouTube’s first class of breakout stars. Taking advantage of early streaming video’s Wild West freedom, they pushed the limits of creativity, producing everything from Star Wars comedy to excessive foods.

SF Sketchfest: Epic Rap Battles of History
TWO SHOWS: 7:30 p.m., 10: P.M., Friday
Great American Music Hall
Tickets: $30.

Of those, few, if any, are more well-known than Epic Rap Battles of History. Started in 2010 by rappers Nice Peter and EpicLLOYD, the novel concept, well-researched, witty writing and legitimately good music earned 11 certified gold singles and guest appearances by everyone from Weird Al Yankovic to Snoop Dogg.

While the show itself is on hiatus for Peter and Lloyd’s side projects and personal lives, the duo still performs live, including two shows at SF Sketchfest on Friday. While the shows will focus more on the Epic Rap Battles process, fans will still get a chance to perform onstage, and there will also be some rap battle improv.

We spoke with Peter “Nice Peter” Shukoff ahead of the show about music, guest stars and the future of Epic Rap Battles.

RIFF: Have you ever been to Sketchfest?

Nice Peter: I’ve never been to Sketchfest. My brother has and Lloyd has, but I’ve never been. I think even Zach Sherwin has gone. Zach, another of our featured rappers and writers—he played Einstein, Alexander the Great and Stephen King—he’s gonna come with us. It’s gonna be the three of us performing—myself, Lloyd and Zach. We’re doing something a little bit different. Because of the comedy style of the venue, we’re gonna try to make it less of a big sing-along, rock-and-roll type show and more into a peek into our process. More of a comedy show where we’re talking to the audience, getting some volunteers up on stage to rap with us, maybe writing new rap battles during the show.

Is that something you’ve done before?

We’re rolling it out for Sketchfest. We did a big concert tour with 60 shows, and we’ve done some concerts recently, but this is gonna be a little different. We also haven’t had Zach at many shows. We’ll perform some of our strongest battles as part of a normal concert, but we’re going to improvise new battles on the spot. We’ve also never done two shows back-to-back before, but Lloyd is one of the most tireless performers I’ve ever worked with, and he never does the same thing twice. It’ll be really interesting to see what he does with the same show a different time. I think it’s gonna be completely different. Any audience members who feel like they want to come on stage, they’ll get to come on stage and rap a rap battle with us; we do that a couple times in the show. We found people practice and learn these raps better than us on some of them. And we always make them look good.

Do you have a plan or a schedule for the next season?

No, we don’t have a plan. It’s still out there. My baby is coming in April or May, so I definitely really want focus on that and be an active father. The thing about making “Epic Rap Battles of History” in the past was that it was really all-consuming. It was all that I did. I didn’t have a social life. And I loved it, but I want to learn how to balance it a little different. If and when we return to it, it might look different as far as how the season goes. We might just focus on making a few really great, really timeless battles instead of trying to make a big block of them all at the same time. I don’t know. I feel like one big season of rap battles is concluded, and the future is pretty wide open.

That’s the beauty of YouTube—it offers a lot of flexibility.

Yep, that’s the idea. I’ve definitely noticed there’s a lot of lousy content. There’s still some great concepts but, man, there’s a lot of trash getting pumped out. I hope YouTube can stay a place where really exciting, interesting content thrives. We never would have been able to do what we did without YouTube itself. We were really lucky to be where we were when we were there.

Does it feel like the landscape has changed?

It does. Well, so much money came in, man. When we started, we were at this Wild West frontier. YouTube had just opened up monetizations so you could make some money, but if we made a thousand dollars that was awesome. Like just incredible. So we were making things with a lot of passion. We were in our 30s when we started this. So we had a lot of experience and a lot of grit, and we didn’t have a lot of flash and shine and equipment. And I think sometimes, with some of the younger content creators, it’s almost the opposite. They haven’t been doing stuff for that long, and then all of the sudden they’re doing it for a million people. And I can’t imagine what that’s like, to be in your 20s and have 10 million people following you. It’s gotta be confusing. It’s gotta go to your head.

So back to the show—you’ve had some pretty famous guest stars. Do you have any favorites?

I can say honestly that all our guests have been, like, educationally great. Weird Al, I think, was a big personal achievement for us. But also he was so kind and generous with his time, and encouraging and professional. And that just really blew us away. Snoop Dogg was the same thing. We were all really nervous when Snoop came on set, and he told us, I know you guys are worried, but I’m here to be a part of your thing that you built, so tell me what to do and treat me like anybody else in here. And that was really cool. We were still nervous, but it was great. And he really does smoke a lot of weed. That’s real.

T-Pain was incredible. T-Pain, man, is one of the most talented singers I’ve ever heard. When he came into the vocal booth; he’s incredible. Without any effects on his voice or anything, he can make his voice sound almost just like that; the T-Pain effect. He can almost do it. He played Stevie Wonder and, god, he was talented. We’ve had a lot of luck getting big-name guests that had their ear to what’s going on. They wanted to do the show. It wasn’t like some agent told them they should do it so they showed up all sleepy; they were into it. Either they got a kick out of it, or their kid got a kick out of it.

You also had a guy who’s likely to be nominated for an Oscar with Jordan Peele. Did you pick up any of that?

He’s brilliant. It’s obvious from the moment you meet him. He’s hyper aware of his surroundings and the writing process. The energy of those guys, Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, they’re so different, and the collaborative energy is incredible. We did Martin Luther King vs. Gandhi with them—that was the first one—and they helped us write it a lot. They came into the writer’s room and helped us shape the story and what it was gonna be. Jordan Peele is one of those guys; he’ll say the funniest thing you’ve heard all day under his breath. It just comes out of him. But there’s also this seriousness to him, a darkness to him. I wouldn’t have seen it at the time, but when I saw Get Out it all made sense to me.

Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.

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