‘Epic Rap Battles of History’ Is Really Biased. But So Are You.


It’s the question that’s been burning you up for the last four years, ever since your first encounter with a foul-mouthed Adolf Hitler on YouTube: Is Epic Rap Battles of History actually that historical?

Pictured: Not actually Adolf Hitler. (Image via Epic Rap Battles of History/YouTube) Pictured: Not actually Adolf Hitler. (Image via Epic Rap Battles of History/YouTube)

Or is it biased?

Then again, maybe you’re not a gigantic nerd. But I am, so I went through and analyzed the 126 characters the show has featured in its four seasons thus far.

Did I waste my time? I don’t think so.

Here’s the thing: While ERB’s definitely not appropriate for a classroom, the series contains a bunch of solid historical tidbits and fact-based jokes, especially when it comes to rap battles between sets of real historical figures (like the excellent “Eastern Philosophers vs Western Philosophers” battle). The guys writing these raps rely on viewer comments (or so they say) to pick the characters they feature in each battle, so in a big way, ERB is a cultural chronicle, reflecting just how much history Internet-dwelling, early 2000s Americans know.

If ERB is biased, it’s because we’re all biased when it comes to history.

So how much do we know?

The first figure is heartening: Only 20 percent of ERB’s characters are pop culture inventions (Batman, Superman, Goku). More than 3 in 4 are real people (though that includes Sarah Palin and Justin Bieber, folks I guarantee won’t appear in any 3015 history books).

A better question: How are ERB’s characters spread out over time?

To get that answer, I used birth dates instead of death dates, since many of ERB’s stars are still living. For pop culture characters, I used the date that the work they appear in was first published (Romeo and Juliet in 1597, for instance).

The result: Tremendous bias.

More than half of the characters were born after 1900. For a thousand years of human history, between 1 and 1000 AD, just a single ERB character was born. Guess who?

Santa Claus, weirdly enough, is the sole ERB character born between 1 and 1000 AD. But I guess it's OK; he's used to being lonely, living at the North Pole and all. Saint Nicholas was born around 280 AD in Asia Minor, or so historians believe. Santa Claus, weirdly enough, is the sole ERB character born between 1 and 1000 AD. But I guess it’s OK; he’s used to being lonely, living at the North Pole and all. Saint Nicholas was born around 280 AD in Asia Minor, or so historians believe.

Here’s another visual to put things in perspective. The chart below starts with Genghis Khan’s birth in the 1160s, and shows ERB births in each decade from then up until the present.

Things are incredibly sparse until the late 1800s (and remember, the chart below cuts off the barren wasteland between 1 and 1000 AD).

So what gives?

As it turns out, ERB is just demonstrating something that historians have always wrestled with: Epochcentrism.

People tend to think of the recent past as being more important than it actually was. Further, we tend to lose our sense of perspective when we think about long spans of time. We might think Julius Caesar and Socrates were born around the same time, when actually, the time span separating their births is longer than the entire time the United States has existed.

So we wind up giving the recent past too much weight. Charles Murray delved into the epochcentrism problem in his book “Human Accomplishment,” in which he conducted a massive historical survey to try to see which figures had had the biggest impacts on human history.

Murray’s findings were pretty similar to ERB’s representation.

“[R]eally intense levels of accomplishment didn’t begin until a few centuries ago (fully half of all the significant figures make their appearance after 1800),” Murray wrote, detailing his survey of histories and encyclopedias.

But Murray offers some decent explanations. The world’s population has been growing over time, so of course more historical figures pop up in the recent past — there are more people in general! And Murray attempts to correct for epochcentrism by cutting off his analysis at 1950.

So ERB, as it turns out, is roughly as biased as everything else. Yeah, the recent past gets too much emphasis, but that’s an inescapable human problem, not just a YouTube Age phenomenon.

And that dead spot inhabited by only Santa? They didn’t call a big chunk of that the Dark Ages for nothing.

Care to know about other types of bias besides epochcentrism?

I’ll just leave this chart here. You can draw your own conclusions.

Women are only 8 percent of the population, right? Women are only 8 percent of the population, right?

Below is the complete ERB character list I compiled by watching every rap battle multiple times. If you want to hang out, hit me up. I obviously have too much time on my hands.

  • Adam    -5,000
  • Eve    -5,000
  • Zeus    -2,000
  • Moses    -1393
  • Lao Tzu    -571
  • Confucius    -551
  • Sun Tzu    -544
  • Leonidas    -540
  • Thor    -500
  • Socrates    -470
  • Julius Caesar    -100
  • Cleopatra    -69
  • Santa Claus    280
  • Genghis Khan    1162
  • William Wallace    1270
  • Donatello    1386
  • Joan of Arc    1412
  • Christopher Columbus    1451
  • Leonardo da Vinci    1452
  • Michelangelo    1475
  • Raphael    1483
  • William Shakespeare    1564
  • Romeo & Juliet    1597
  • Sir Isaac Newton    1643
  • Blackbeard    1680
  • Easter Bunny    1682
  • Voltaire    1694
  • Ben Franklin    1706
  • George Washington    1732
  • Mozart    1756
  • Napoleon Bonaparte    1769
  • Beethoven    1770
  • William Clark    1770
  • Meriwether Lewis    1774
  • Shaka Zulu    1787
  • Abe Lincoln    1809
  • Edgar Allan Poe    1809
  • JP Morgan    1837
  • Ebenezer Scrooge    1843
  • Friedrich Nietzsche    1844
  • Thomas Edison    1847
  • Nikola Tesla    1856
  • Gandhi    1869
  • Rasputin    1869
  • Wright Bros.    1870
  • Harry Houdini    1874
  • Josef Stalin    1878
  • Albert Einstein    1879
  • Pablo Picasso    1881
  • Sherlock Holmes    1887
  • Jack the Ripper    1888
  • Hitler    1889
  • Nikita Khrushchev    1894
  • Babe Ruth    1895
  • Al Capone    1899
  • Alfred Hitchcock    1899
  • Walt Disney    1901
  • Dr. Seuss    1904
  • Clyde Barrow    1909
  • Bonnie Parker    1910
  • Frank Sinatra    1915
  • Stan Lee    1922
  • Marilyn Monroe    1926
  • Mr. Rogers    1928
  • Stanley Kubrick    1928
  • MLK Jr.    1929
  • Clint Eastwood    1930
  • Elvis Presley    1935
  • Jim Henson    1936
  • Gandalf    1937
  • Superman    1938
  • Batman    1939
  • Bruce Lee    1940
  • Chuck Norris    1940
  • John Lennon    1940
  • Kim Jong-Il    1941
  • Bob Ross    1942
  • Muhammad Ali    1942
  • Stephen Hawking    1942
  • Donald Trump    1946
  • Freddie Mercury    1946
  • Steven Spielberg    1946
  • Mitt Romney    1947
  • Stephen King    1947
  • Bill O’Reilly    1949
  • Mr. T    1952
  • Vladimir Putin    1952
  • Hulk Hogan    1953
  • Oprah Winfrey    1954
  • Bill Gates    1955
  • Bill Nye    1955
  • Steve Jobs    1955
  • David Copperfield    1956
  • Billy Mays    1958
  • Michael Jackson    1958
  • Ellen DeGeneres    1958
  • Barack Obama    1961
  • Doctor Who    1963
  • Michael Jordan    1963
  • Quentin Tarantino    1963
  • Sarah Palin    1964
  • Vince Offer    1964
  • Michael Bay    1965
  • Captain Kirk    1966
  • Lance Armstrong    1971
  • Darth Vader    1977
  • Kanye West    1977
  • Mario Bros.    1981
  • Hannibal Lecter    1981
  • Goku    1984
  • TMNT    1984
  • The Terminator    1984
  • Ghostbusters    1984
  • Doc Brown    1985
  • Lady Gaga    1986
  • Robocop    1987
  • Skrillex    1988
  • Bill & Ted    1989
  • Miley Cyrus    1992
  • Justin Bieber    1994
  • Dumbledore    1997
  • Master Chief    2001
  • Mythbusters    2003
  • Napoleon Dynamite    2004
  • Walter White    2008
  • Rick Grimes    2010

Zach Noble is a journalist who has covered everything from the OPM hack to a rescue dog’s retirement party. He’s been wrestling to reconcile his bleeding heart Catholicism with his pragmatic libertarianism since that freshman year love affair with Ayn Rand. He tweets erratically as @thezachnoble.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *