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When Run-DMC met Aerosmith

Was “Walk this Way” by Run-DMC and Aerosmith the moment rap went mainstream?

Today, when nearly every creative industry has submitted to rap’s gravitational force, it’s hard to recall how tribal pop culture once was. Yet in the 1980s rap and rock artists only mixed when Americans outraged at the language of popular music protested outside the offices of record companies such as Time Warner and destroyed albums by groups including Slayer and 2 Live Crew.

For most of rap’s infancy, the years following the release of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash in 1982, hip hop was largely excluded from corporate patronage, MTV and mainstream radio. While a handful of artists such as LL Cool J and the Fat Boys found crossover appeal, rappers were as absent from the cultural landscape as their forebears, the blues musicians of the 1930s and 1940s.

Hip hop was also exiled from sections of the African-American community that treated the genre as a passing phase, or crude. In 1985, Run-DMC, who had already released the first rap album to go gold, submitted a treatment for an appearance on The Cosby Show. According to the script, the three members of the group – two rappers called Run and DMC and their DJ, Jam Master Jay – visit the Huxtables and gain the endorsement of Cliff (Bill Cosby) by speaking about the importance of school and hard work. The episode ends with the family patriarch and Run-DMC rapping together. The treatment was returned unread.

According to an entertaining new book titled Walk this Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song that Changed American Music Forever, the solution to hip hop’s mass appeal would ultimately present itself from within. In 1986, Run-DMC’s producer Rick Rubin asked the group to cover Aerosmith’s 1975 song “Walk this Way”. Rubin was looking for a single for Run-DMC’s upcoming third album, Raising Hell; a song that would find both stadium appeal and critical acceptance. As one participant tells Edgers, “What Rick wanted was a specific kind of rock. That meathead kind of rock.”

According to Edgers, the new version of “Walk this Way” “made it safe to be black and mainstream” and “proved that hip hop, dismissed by many as a fad, had legs”. The collaboration acted as “hip hop’s Trojan horse”, crossing geographical and racial lines. “After ‘Walk’,” writes Edgers, rap “became a nation, a genre that would soak itself into virtually every element of culture, from music and film to fashion and politics”.

In 1986, “Walk this Way” didn’t immediately convince as rap’s calling card to the world. Its musical stylings may have been appropriate – on the original song, Tyler delivers his vocals in a quasi-rap rhythm – but no one expected a creative rebirth from Aerosmith. The group – once a stadium giant – had become synonymous with cocaine and heroin abuse, plummeting sales and shrinking audiences. The guitarist Joe Perry had already resigned and embarked on a disastrous solo career. A producer who went to see Aerosmith in 1983 described watching the singer Steven Tyler: “That night, Tyler couldn’t sing. He would wave the mic at the audience, asking them to fill in the words. Then he was done, flat-out, passed out.”

Rubin pitched “Walk this Way” to Aerosmith. The band had never heard of Run-DMC, but Tyler was welcoming. Perry had a better understanding of the history: “I heard a direct connection between what they were doing and the blues.”

Persuading Run-DMC took more effort. The group’s third album was already set to be their breakthrough. They had never heard the original song; they only knew its first four seconds – a drums-only intro – as a popular breakbeat widely used by rap DJs. “This is hillbilly gibberish,” Run complained. “Country bumpkin bullshit.”

Aerosmith agreed to participate in the recording of the song for $8,000 – of the group’s five members, only Tyler and Perry were invited to contribute. Rubin booked time at Magic Venture Studios in New York and both MTV and Spin magazine were invited to chronicle the recording.

Released on 4 July 1986, “Walk this Way” became the first rap song to be played extensively on US mainstream radio and hip hop’s first Billboard top ten hit. Raising Hell would peak at number six. The passing decades have treated the song with deference. It has been named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “Greatest Songs of All Time”. Both Run-DMC and Aerosmith won Soul Train awards in 1987. An MTV news report from the day of the recording shows Tyler and Perry nodding as Jam-Master Jay scratches the hook from the original song. An accompanying music video would turn white unlaced Adidas trainers into a global trend.

Edgers’s book began life as a long-form feature and, while meticulously researched, his contention that “Walk this Way” “changed our culture” is perhaps a little hyperbolic and can’t survive 300 pages. By 1986, black artists such as Michael Jackson and Prince had already begun to redraw the borders of music. The guitarist Eddie Van Halen provided the snaking guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” in 1982. Edgers is also relatively silent on the political climate or race relations of the era.

If “Walk this Way” says anything significant about the music industry, it should be seen as an example of how momentary success is no accelerant for longevity. In the years to follow, Run-DMC would release four albums highlighted by declining creativity and interpersonal tensions. The group also failed to anticipate rap’s shift towards Afrocentrism, black nationalism and G-funk. After several years of stasis, a 1997 dance remix of Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” reached number one in a number of countries in Europe. The group disbanded when Jam Master Jay was shot and killed during a robbery at his studio in Queens in 2002.

The post-rehab career of Tyler and Perry, the “Toxic Twins”, also revealed the group’s deficiencies. After “Walk this Way”, a sober Aerosmith, aided by songwriters, regrouped for two blockbuster albums, “Permanent Vacation” and “Pump”. The group achieved its first number one in 1998 with Diane Warren’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”.

In Rocks: My Life in and out of Aerosmith, Perry recalls the moment he heard about the number one. He and Tyler were in New Hampshire, shooting rounds from Tyler’s new six-wheeler amphibious hunting vehicle when the singer received the call. “Surprised, we were happy as hell and, in celebration, ripped through a couple of magazines,” Perry writes. In 2011, Tyler joined the TV singing competition American Idol for two seasons; he released a country album in 2016.

One figure still unscathed from the “Walk this Way” session is Rick Rubin. In the three decades since, he has become a Svengali figure to artists including Kanye West and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a paramedic to the careers of fallen legends such as Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. Rubin’s mastery of studio ambience has occasionally eluded him (in his work for AC/DC and Black Sabbath) and he has suffered a little from what has been dubbed music’s “loudness war” (recordings such as Metallica’s 2008 album Death Magnetic were criticised for increased audio levels and compromised sound quality). Regardless, he remains unrivalled as one of the most commercially successful producers of the post-Beatles era.

“Walk this Way” appeared just as two debuts unleashed a series of musical revolutions. In 1987, a group of college friends from Long Island called Public Enemy put out a startling collage of studio ingenuity called Yo! Bum Rush the Show. One year later, five friends from Los Angeles going by the name of NWA released Straight Outta Compton. What is now described as rap’s “Golden Age” was fully under way. 

Walk this Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song that Changed American Music Forever
Geoff Edgers
Blue Rider Press, 288pp, £19.99

This article appears in the 12 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure