Back before Thug Notes or Drunk History, Epic Rap Battles first brought the distinctive Millennial high-culture/pop-culture blend to YouTube with their vision of what it would like if some of the great names of history –or pseudo-history –were to face off in no-holds-barred rap battles. From the start, their productions were distinguished both by a genuine appreciation and respect for the musical genre, and by a level of research and intellectual heft to their portrayals. The first quality made the music actually fun to listen to, and spawned a number of surprise hit recordings. The second quality made the jokes twice as funny for the informed viewer, and threatened to result in actual learning for everyone else. Most important, however, the pieces were reliably hilarious, with their juxtaposition of respected icons and rapid-fire, no-holds-barred, below-the-belt insults. Somehow the series managed to get in digs in on race, gender, sexuality, religion, and even death and disability, all without causing genuine offense –perhaps because the cheapest shots were often portrayed as backfiring on their originator. More bravely, the series even bit the hand that fed it with an unusually scathing indictment of parent company Disney’s corporate takeover of individual creativity (in their “Jim Henson vs. Stan Lee”).
Of course, with 70 episodes total, not every one could be a winner. So here is my own personal list of the Top 5 most essential Epic Rap Battles of History.
- James Bond vs Austin Powers
Nice Peter doing a dead-on Austin Powers versus Ben Atha’s icily self-satisfied Daniel Craig era Bond is funny enough, but all bets are off when Lloyd Ahlquist’s Darrell Hammond-esque Sean Connery era Bond sneaks into the frame.
- Stephen Spielberg versus Alfred Hitchcock
One of the show’s best ensemble pieces, this piece is a loving tribute to some of the greatest directors of all time; all of whom get blown away at the end by a nakedly avaricious Michael Bay.
- Eastern versus Western Philosophers
Hands down the show’s smartest episode, this somehow manages to dramatize passable renditions of the character’s distinctive philosophies, add sly commentary on ethnocentrism, and make it all hysterically funny.
- Moses vs Santa Claus
Although the concept itself dances on the edge of blasphemous, a blissful Snoop Dogg as Moses facing off against an apoplectic Lloyd Ahlquist as a not-so-jolly Kris Kringle takes things instead in some unexpectedly whimsical directions.
- Albert Einstein versus Stephen Hawking
This first season standout was when the concept itself hit its stride, as an auto-tuned Stephen Hawkins verbally pimp-slaps a flabbergasted Albert Einstein