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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Nice Peter interview

I didn't get a chance to see Nice Peter's show here in Vancouver last week but I enjoy his Epic Rap Battles of History videos on YouTube. They are truly epic. I spoke with him a few weeks ago for a story I did in the Georgia Straight. Nice guy that Nice Peter.

Nice Peter
May 9, 2014
"I was going to be a history teacher. I went to school to major in education and history. It didn't work out but it's fun to be able to learn about people. And I feel like we're tricking kids into learning about Russian history without them knowing about it." 
Nice Peter

Nice Peter: I'm on the beach on this big film set. Please tell me if it's too windy. I'm trying to find a sheltered spot.

GM: What's the film?
NP: That's the thing is I don't know if I'm allowed to put it in print. 

GM: I'll say you're on a film set at the beach. So Nice Peter, you sound nice.
NP: I try.

GM: Is that how you got the name?
NP: The name actually used to be a little bit more ironic. I used to play a little bit of a bawdy, kind of raunchy, humour musical comedy set. And my name is Peter. One day an MC at a hip-hop open mic called me Pete Nice, and then that changed to Nice Pete, and then Nice Peter kinda stuck.

GM: You never used Shukoff? Or is it pronounced Shoo-koff?
NP: Exactly for that reason.

GM: But your parents might want some recognition.
NP: I think they like to keep it private.

GM: Take me back to when you got started. The videos are incredible both in terms of numbers of viewers and the production value. But how did it all start?
NP: I was a songwriter for a long time and a comedian. I was doing both. I met a guy named Lloyd on a porch in Chicago about twelve years ago and he hired me to join his touring improv troupe. So I learned a lot in that. We performed in a lot of less than ideal venues. I learned abilities to make a good show out of not much. And then I started to do my own music thing, touring all over the midwest. Same kind of idea. And then I started touring England. And that was great. And then I eventually kind of hit a wall and I moved out to Los Angeles and was trying to do the classic become a standup comedian, become a musician, get a manager, all that kind of stuff, go on auditions. I was failing pretty miserably. And then Lloyd again sent me this notice that a production start-up was looking for writers. And I got hired to be a songwriter. I got hired to write ten songs for about a hundred bucks a pop. I think I was the 25th employee at this very, very small company. And now that company is this giant entertainment enterprise that just got sold to Disney for half-a-billion dollars or whatnot.

GM: That sounds like old Tin Pan Alley, churning out songs.
NP: Yeah. It was quite a journey, man. At the start it was all of us just doing everything. I would write a song, I would record the song myself, and I'd come into the office and fucking vacuum. It was just all of us really in the trenches together trying to make something. It was a lot of people who kind of failed in the conventional – I don't want to say 'failed', but just kind of hit blocks or walls – in the conventional entertainment business that it was easier for us to just do everything ourselves and do it on a smaller scale.

GM: What would happen to the songs? Would other people record them?
NP: No, that was my gig. Literally I got hired to write, produce, record, sing, make music for songs. So I was like this one-man little factory of music, which is not really a good skill set to have in the classic entertainment business because you just have to work with more people. But it worked out perfectly for YouTube, for me to be able to turn around a whole song in two days, or whatever. And then the company would make a music video for it but then after about four of those, they encouraged me to start making my own videos for them and start experimenting with different formats. I started making songs and I started building an audience. I made this song about this family that makes daily videos about their life and they played it on their daily vlog that they make and they have about 200,000-300,000 people watching them every day. So I made this song about them that was pretty touching and all of a sudden there were hundreds of thousands of people checking me out for the first time. And it just started to grow from there. I realized that people watching YouTube videos are all real people and you can kind of connect to them. It's like one big concert but the whole world can watch at the same time. It's kinda weird. That's what it feels like making YouTube videos sometimes.

GM: What was the company you worked for?
NP: It's called Maker Studios. And I joined in when it was just a really, really tiny company doing things a new and different way. It allowed me a lot of freedom to experiment with different theories and ideas. I started writing different songs and started gaining some popularity that way but then I tried out this Epic Rap Battles of History concept and that just performed better than anything else I had ever done. I think I was old enough and had made enough mistakes to realize I should put a lot of attention into this. So we did.

GM: Just before that when you were touring the States and the UK, were you just alone? What did that look like? What were you doing?
NP: Yeah, it was just me. I'd get up and I would do about an hour to an hour-and-a-half of material. I'd say half of that was planned and half of it was just improvised about the moment and about the audience and about the venue. I'd show up in a town and I'd do some research about the town and I'd put together a couple stories and ideas and sing songs about that actual moment. I think that's what really connected with people, was that 'Oh, I think he's making this up right now!' 'Yeah, he's singing about your hat!' It was, I think, a different experience for people.

GM: So they were improvised songs.
NP: Yeah. Almost all the time. I'd say about half the show.

GM: And were you doing standup between the songs? Was half of it music?
NP: No, the whole thing was music. I would do pre-written songs that were kinda funny, sometimes kinda racy, and then just improvise songs and little bits and jokes with the audience. But no standup.

GM: Were you performing with other people? Other British comics?
NP: No, just me. I had a band for a while. A three-piece band that did the same thing but a lot of times it was just me and my manager, Ed.

GM: Did you have a following at that time?
NP: A little bit, yeah. Not a huge one, but enough of one, especially when I went over to the UK. I'd say a couple hundred people if I really dug in. But it took a lot of work. Getting ready for a live show and travelling and all that took a lot of work. When I started focussing all those hours on just making one video that anyone could see anywhere, it was a new direction for my life.

GM: But you miss the direct interaction with fans.
NP: I did, and that's why I'm doing this tour. This isn't a tour really to do anything but just connect with the people who watch my videos and need them. I'm going to do a meet-n-greet pretty much after every show just to meet as many people as I can. Just say hi. I'm really grateful to be able to do what I do and I want to thank the people that helped me get there.

GM: Are the shows you're doing on tour now similar to the shows you did back in the UK?
NP: Yeah, it’s similar as far as the spirit and vibe of it. Probably a little less swear words than I used to use. I'm not sure what to expect with the age demographic but I think it's going to be a mixed bag of people. I just want to make it accessible to everybody, I guess.

GM: You can't do the battles.
NP: Oh, yeah. I'm going to do the battles on stage, yeah. The way I'm going to do that is – Lloyd's not coming with me; he's working on some other projects over the summer – we get an audience volunteer and they come up and they choose what battle they want to do and they play one character and I play the other. Usually they know the words better than I do.

GM: So the fans are so rabid that they know all the lyrics?
NP: I wouldn't even say it's rabid; I think they're just passionate about these videos. I want them to be able to experience performing them up there with me. I think it's fun for everybody.

GM: How did you come up with the idea for the first rap battle of history? What was the inspiration?
NP: That was Lloyd again, honestly. I was a little recording studio in an apartment and I was just looking for new ideas. He was working on a stage show that used an improvised rap battle between two celebrities. And I thought that was pretty cool. And I asked the audience. Audiences have been pretty collaborative along the whole way. I made a little vlog just talking to my camera, talking to the people that I had just recently realized were real, and I said, 'Hey, we're thinking of making this video. We need a suggestion of two different people from history.' And they came back with John Lennon versus Bill O'Reilly and that kind of set the tone. It was like, Okay, it can be anybody. For any reason. Someone who has some kind of ideological beef and we'll settle it.

GM: That's an underlying extra laugh is just seeing who's pitted against who.
NP: Right. And that's 100% from the audience, man. Honestly. I did not think of Bill O'Reilly versus John Lennon nor did I think of Adolph Hitler versus Darth Vader. That was the third party of the audience coming up with that.

GM: Have they come up with all of them?
NP: I'd say they've come up with about 75% of them. Well, they kind of come up with all of them. Some of them are more just like this character is really popular right now, who should we put him up against? We might sometimes lean into more history than the whole audience might but we try to keep it pretty real and organic as much as we can.

GM: How long does it take to do each one?
NP: Anywhere between two weeks to a month of focus and another month of research and reading and talking. A while. We're usually working right up to the last minute, right up to when we upload them.

GM: Was there a regular schedule for the uploads?
NP: Yes, every two weeks for the rest of the summer. From now until the end of July, I think. We uploaded our first one of this set of six on May 5. So it'll be every two weeks from there.

GM: How many have you made in total?
NP: We just made our 40th.

GM: It must be such a blast coming up with the lyrics and researching it.
NP: Yeah, the learning part is really fun. Honestly. You know, I was going to be a history teacher. I went to school to major in education and history. It didn't work out but it's fun to be able to learn about people. And I feel like we're tricking kids into learning about Russian history without them knowing about it.

GM: There's lots of swearing and you're pretty ruthless, too.
NP: You have to be.

GM: It would be pretty hard to get on network TV.
NP: I think we embrace the fact we're not on network TV. Also, that's the way we talk and that's the way our fans talk. We just decided that if it's appropriate for the character then it works. We've got one coming up with Weird Al Yankovic playing Isaac Newton. Just because of his fans and his personality, we kept that one very clean. There's a lot of science education in it, there's a calculus equation. There's that constant thing, we hope, that if we can get ten kids somewhere excited about calculus for the first time, that's a score.

GM: I was thinking about your ruthless ones with Stephen Hawking and Freddie Mercury. They're pretty funny.
NP: Thank you. Yeah, you gotta be a little edgy, you know? It helps things spread.

GM: So at the show on tour, there are going to be these rap battles with somebody from the audience. But are there also just songs of yours? Because I know you have albums out.
NP: Yeah, just songs of mine. It's going to be me on a guitar and a drummer. I'd say it's going to be 50% songs I've written, 25% rap battles, and 25% just making up songs with the audience and just being in the moment.

GM: It's pretty great when you think about you're encompassing all that you love: comedy, music, and history. 
NP: Yes, sir. That's the idea. And meeting people. Sometimes that's half of it, also, afterwards where I just stand around and say hi to folks.

GM: When did you realize you could make money at it from YouTube?
NP: I got hired with the intention of making money. YouTube just opened up, being possible to earn revenue. I learned about it really fast. I learned about what kind of numbers and quotas had to be hit to make some sort of sustainable living and I just kind of dove in.

GM: Do you have any favourites that you've done?
NP: I'd say the Dr. Seuss vs William Shakespeare, Beethoven vs Justin Bieber was a lot of fun. The Russians battle was a real proud moment for us, I think. It was five different characters played by just two of us. We really went through 20th Century Russian history from start to finish. It's pretty cool to be able to put that into a piece, a 2.5-minute viral video.

GM: Who were the five Russians?
NP: Rasputin, Stalin, Lenin, Gorbachev, and Putin. And they all kept one-upping each other.

GM: Are you a big fan of rap?
NP: Yeah, oh yeah. We got to work with Snoop on a rap battle and that was amazing. We get to work with a guy from Jurassic 5 coming up. Our engineer used to work with the Wu-Tang Clan. I am a big fan of rap. I had a couple of albums that I memorized start to finish.

GM: But you can't play the guitar and rap.
NP: Sure, you can. It's not easy. I was a guitar player first and I had to learn how to rap. I'm still learning quite a bit. Every new character's gotta have a slightly different [pitch?] so I've got to learn new ways to do stuff, I guess.

GM: Which ones can we look forward to seeing? Or are they always a big reveal when they come out.
NP: I mean, it's a big reveal but we've got George Washington coming out against William Wallace, two revolutionaries who fought the British. We've got Weird Al playing Isaac Newton and the opponent is a surprise still. We just did Rick Grimes versus Walter White, two television heroes. We've got a big grand finale with a lot of different characters. But we try to keep it a little bit of a surprise. I'll give away the William Wallace versus George Washington.

GM: How long will the series go?
NP: We're in the middle of our third season. We're definitely in for a fourth season next year and it's going to be a matter of seeing whether it's still great. We do it because we really love it and we're lucky enough to make a living at it, also. But if we still really love it, we'll keep doing it. Maybe we'll work on something else. Hard to say. We gotta take it day by day. We're still working on the video for next week. We're on this set all day then we're going to home and edit till one in the morning. It's still pretty real. We really do get our hands on every piece of the process. I'm doing press in the morning and some surfer scene in the afternoon and then editing at night. And then getting ready for the tour. At some point I gotta practice, I guess.

GM: Is there a set number of episodes each season?
NP: We're really figuring it out. I think we're one of the first YouTube-based productions to even do a season. It was just all very new. To say something is a show on YouTube I think is a relatively new idea. And then to have that show be broken into seasons, we don't know how it's supposed to work so we decided to call it a season.

GM: Make it up as you go along. Just like your songs.
NP: It's a great thing. It's the greatest thing about doing what we do – even at Maker, which is now a big company – but no one really tells us what we can or can't do, no one's given us a problem on language or censored us or censored our sense of humour. It's really just between us and the audience. If they don't like it, they'll tell us and we'll listen. But there's no gate-keepers.

GM: I'm a little confused. These videos are made through Maker Studios?
NP: Yeah, it's a partnership. When I first started with them, it was a revolutionary kind of way of working, where we kinda go in 50-50 on work and revenue. Like, Let's partner up and do this, like we were doing it together. It's a very different approach to doing things, I think. We do a lot of stuff ourselves but that's good because we get a lot of freedom. We trade independence for a lot of self-effort. And I like it that way. I think that's what held me back in the mainstream entertainment business. It's an asset when you're doing it for YouTube. You're able to do a lot of things yourself.

GM: How long will your tour show be?
NP: I think it's going to be about an hour to an hour-and-a-half of music. We have an opening band that's in front of us from England. So they'll open it up, get the energy going. Then I'll play for an hour. And then, like I said, I'll probably stay for another hour-and-a-half to two hours afterwards just saying hello to people.

GM: Is your opening band a straight music group or are they comedic?
NP: They're a music group. It's two brothers. They're called the Jackpot Golden Boys. They're really nice guys. I've been playing with them since I was in England for the very first time. I think I met them then. I was just kind of lost and didn't know what I was doing and they were there. I was not a big deal and they were awesome to me so now that I have the opportunity to share a stage with them, it's really special. It's just going to be a cool crew. It's five of us on the road. It's my manager, who I've known for ten years, lives in England and just been one of my best friends; Dante, who writes songs with me and helps with the Rap Battles and is on set every time we film, he's going to be on drums; and then these two brothers that I've known for years. It's very close to how it is in our business, too. It's a close circle of friends just working together.

GM: Have you ever performed live with Lloyd?
NP: I have. And we've talked about doing a Rap Battles tour also, maybe down the line. He's amazing. We used to perform comedy together for years. He's a great performer. This was just something to do, just kind of a personal journey before I come back and get back to work on the Rap Battles in August.

GM: That thing can go on for as long as you want because there's no shortage of characters from history, real or fictional.
NP: Yeah. That's the fun thing is that when something pops in the news, that could be a rap battle. There's a lot of science going on right now. Science is coming back and that inspired us to bring Isaac Newton into the fold. It's like something could happen in modern times that brings back a character from history.

GM: Did Weird Al approach you guys because he was a fan, or did you reach out to him?
NP: We met at a YouTube comedy event and he was such a wonderful man. Obviously that's kind of always been a dream of ours to do a rap battle with somebody like Weird Al. And I think it just came up and I grew the guts to send him an email and ask him and invite him to do it and he said yes. He's got a new album coming out. These videos reach a lot of people. Something about them. I've never questioned it; I've just tried to keep doing it. The one we put up on Monday is at 7.5 million views already and what is it, Friday? They move fast and they reach young people. Hopefully it's mutually beneficial that people find out Al's got a new album coming and we get a great piece of content. Everybody wins.

GM: Do you remember the first video that started getting big numbers of viewers? I'd imagine you were probably excited at 5,000 views at one time.
NP: It was actually a song. The first video that I really hit with on my own was a song that I wrote called Superman Socks. It's kind of a funny song about a video I did with another comedian and it hit the front page of YouTube and I got a million views in a couple of days. I remember definitely, like, 'Oh wow, this is a million people! You know how to do this now. If you did it this time, you can do it again.' And then I took that kind of energy and that focus and started putting it into the Rap Battles.

GM: And never looked back.
NP: Never looked back. I try to make something I really like and we make each other laugh. And if it works for us, hopefully it'll work for other people. If they like it, great; if they don't, they can move onto the next thing. But so far a lot of people like it.

GM: Is there a video component to your live show?
NP: Right now there isn't. I've tried to keep it as minimal and real as possible. I spend so much time in front of the computer, and I think my audience does, too. We all gotta get out and move our bodies a little bit. And this'll be a chance to do that. There's plenty of time to watch videos. So we'll see. I used to do these things called picture songs where I would scour the internet for funny pictures and then just improvise a song about them. That was another early viral success I had. Those got up to seven or eight million views, too. But I forget myself sometimes. It's weird when 5 million views is low. It's a weird perspective. That's because the Rap Battles have done such absurd numbers. I put out some other videos that are more personal and if they get 100,000 views, I'm very happy. If they get 10,000 views, I'm happy. That's still 10,000 people you're connecting with. It's pretty cool. The internet's pretty cool, man. It's a really cool way to make music and make art. I like to think of this as this kind of artistic middle class. They don't become super rich or super famous; they just connect to a group of people that sustain them and their art and they thrive in it. I think that's what's happening to the internet. It's pretty cool.

GM: Were you trained in music?
NP: No. I just practiced a lot. I was a sucker for attention and music was a good way to get it and share it with people.

GM: Were you ever in bands?
NP: No. No, I took piano lessons. I was an Irish dancer. I was 8-years-old dancing in a kilt at my elementary school, prancing around in a skirt in front of a bunch of third-graders. You don't really have any stage fright any more. I think that was a big asset for me.

GM: How old are you?
NP: I'm 34 years old. When I turned 30, I remember I was not homeless but I didn't really have an apartment, I didn't have a job, I was thinking about valet parking cars. It's been an interesting few years. I didn't give up and then sure enough it eventually cracked open. I'm really grateful for it. I think that's the main point of the tour is I want to give back to the [fans?] that kept me going all those years. That energy of performing for people, singing, seeing those smiles, and having that moment, it's something I really miss. And I'm eager to get it back.

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