1986. Rap music is explosive and on the rise but still misunderstood and barely represented in the mainstream. The leading innovators are Run-DMC, a trio from Queens who sport black leather jackets and unlaced Adidas sneakers.
Two albums into their career, Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell are already minor stars and musical revolutionaries. For their third album, producer Rick Rubin, a 22-year-old white kid from New York University, comes up with a crazy idea: He recruits Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, the leaders of the down-and-out arena-rock group Aerosmith, to collaborate with Run-DMC on a new version of their 1970s staple “Walk This Way”.
The rappers hate the idea. The rockers, struggling with drugs and low record sales, don’t know what to make of Rubin’s pitch. But on a Sunday in March they meet in a Manhattan recording studio to create what will become one of the most important songs of the modern pop era. This is the oral history of Run-DMC’s cover of “Walk This Way”.
Who invented the beat?
It’s 15 December 1974, and Perry, Aerosmith’s 24-year-old lead guitarist, is messing with a riff before a gig in Honolulu. He asks drummer Joey Kramer to play along. Singer Tyler jumps up when he hears the jam.
Joe Perry, Aerosmith guitarist: I was really into the Meters, the esoteric, funky kind of music. Sly and the Family Stone. I started fooling around on this riff. I asked Joey to play basic, straight twos and fours. Like an AC/DC song. If I had a drum machine I would have done it. And Steven heard it and I think he came up onstage and ... sat down at the drums and played something a little bit different than Joey was doing. I’m not sure.
Steven Tyler, Aerosmith singer: He was up onstage doing sound check and he started playing that song and I ran out from the dressing room and started playing. I came up with it. Let’s just leave it at that. I’m a drummer at heart.
Joey Kramer, Aerosmith drummer: Basically, to the best of my recollection, I came up with it. I don’t remember anybody else being a part of it. It was a no-brainer. The drum lick kind of goes hand in hand with the guitar lick.
Jack Douglas, Aerosmith producer: No, actually, Steven came up with it. He’s a drummer. And Joey embellished on it with the high-hat figure.
Perry: They both had a hand in that, but the main bom, da, be-dom da da, that one part is something that, after talking to Jack, Steven played that part. As far as the rest of it, the swing and the feel and all that, that’s Joey. I think it’s probably both of them.
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Brad Whitford, Aerosmith guitarist: Did Steven or Joey invent it? The jury’s still out on that one. Now, Steven is a drummer at heart and he’s very inventive and creative. But then you have to take into consideration that Steven would probably take credit for everything that’s on every Aerosmith record.
Douglas: When we needed lyrics, we would go out for walks. Being Sunday afternoon, there was absolutely no one on the street. When we got to 42nd Street, ”Young Frankenstein“ was playing in one of those theaters. The whole band went in to see the movie, and when that line came up – ”Walk this way“ – we were all in hysterics. And when we got back to the studio, I started walking around like Marty Feldman.
Richie Sambora, guitarist, Bon Jovi: If you listen to the cadence, the way Steven sings, it’s almost a rap. He just puts a melody on top of it. ”Walk This Way“ was the predecessor of white rap in a way.
Slash, guitarist, Guns N’ Roses: ”Walk This Way“ was the first Aerosmith song I ever heard, and I remember it distinctly. I was 10 years old. It was and still is one of the most exciting lyrics about teenage sexuality I’ve ever heard and one of the best f—-ing guitar riffs of all time.
As Aerosmith tours arenas, in New York City a kid from Barbados, James Saddler, renames himself Grandmaster Flash. He experiments with DJ-ing, searching for records with beats he can mix on his turntables. There are tapes of Grandmaster Flash using the beat from ”Walk This Way“ as early as 1978 – eight years before Run-DMC’s remake.
Grandmaster Flash, pioneering hip-hop DJ: When I went record shopping, I didn’t just look in one area. I looked in the rock, jazz, funk, disco, R&B, alternative, Caribbean section. And in looking, I was able to take one copy out and look at the vinyl in the light and see that it was pretty shallow. And when it’s shallow that means it is mild accompaniment in the song. That ”Toys in the Attic,“ when I got that it was relatively new.
Kurtis Blow, ‘80s rap star: Those breakbeats ... we would listen all day to music trying to find one beat that was good enough for us to rap on. We loved (”Walk This Way“) because it was rock ‘n’ roll. There were DJs in the early ‘70s. When Flash came out, he took it to the next level. He understood that when you played the song, the greatest part of the song was the break, when it came down to the drums. So he decided to play just the break.
Joseph "Run" Simmons: We found beats like Billy Squier’s ”The Big Beat,“ Bob James’ ”Take Me to the Mardi Gras,“”Mary, Mary“ from the Monkees. And we would just find great beats that were usually in people’s crates and had the name scratched out. So we did not know the name of the song was “Walk This Way”.
Darryl "DMC" McDaniels: Our thing was, ”Go get ‘Toys in the Attic’ and play No. 4.“ We had no idea that there was singing or what the song was, but we knew the beat. It was a hard breakbeat.
Rick Rubin’s Big Idea
Rick Rubin was a 21-year-old NYU student when he met Russell Simmons at a nightclub in 1984. Before long, they were partners in Def Jam Recordings, a label run out of Rubin’s room at NYU. Rubin would eventually become Run-DMC’s producer..
Russell Simmons: He was brilliant. I knew this kid had it. I had no idea he was going to be the greatest producer of all time. But he was definitely hip-hop. He didn’t know what “def” meant. He thought it was deaf. That was kind of the beauty, his ignorance. Of not having grown up with R&B.
Bill Adler, former director of publicity, Def Jam/Rush Management: Rick was not going to listen to only the standard fare as a white suburbanite. He was also going to listen to the punk rock and the hardcore that was around and he dug the hell out of that, and I think he was disappointed that stuff didn’t break through. He saw rap breaking through in the way that punk and hardcore did not.
Rubin: We had finished the album [Raising Hell, Run-DMC’s third]. I listened to it and felt like there was something missing. That idea worked simultaneously with this conversation about how hip-hop and rap music was not music. To people who were not already fans of it, the gap was so far that not only did they not understand it, but they did not understand it to be music. I was looking for a way to bridge that gap in the story of finding a piece of music that was familiar and already hip-hop-friendly so that on the hip-hop side it would make sense and on the non-hip-hop side you’d see it wasn’t so far away.
Robbins: It was impossible to get [Run-DMC] played on pop radio. Not hard – not even in the realm of possibility.
Sommer: Rick tells me, “I need a white rock song that can be turned into a rap song.” And we spent about 10 or 15 minutes on the phone, shooting around ideas. We kept on coming back to “Back in Black” by AC/DC, but the Beastie Boys had just recorded a version. Then Rick goes, “How about ‘Walk This Way’?” And he begins to sing it on the phone, with imitation scratches. At this point, I go, “Rick, that’s a fantastic idea.” But I said, “You know you have to get Steve Tyler and Joe Perry to play on it.” And Rick says: “They’ll never do it. Old white guys don’t get this rap thing.”
Rubin: When I was growing up, Aerosmith was the biggest band in the world. It didn’t seem realistic. It seemed like a dream for it to happen.
Sue Cummings, Spin magazine, former associate editor: I was going to interview Aerosmith in Boston and Rick gave me a tape to give to them. I was sitting down with Steven and I said: “There’s this rap group in New York. You may not be aware of it, but a lot of these types of groups in this hip-hop area are really interested in your record, and I think they’d be thrilled if you’d record with them.”
Tyler: I loved rap. I used to go looking for drugs on Ninth Avenue and I would go over to midtown or downtown and there would be guys on the corner selling cassettes of their music. I’d give them a buck, two bucks, and that was the beginning of me noticing what was going on in New York at the time.
Joe Perry: We had a few reservations about it. Maybe our fans might not like it. But our love for music and trying new things far surpassed that. I heard a direct connection between what they were doing and the blues. All you had to do was have a boombox and some wit and some talent. And a way to express yourself, which is what they were doing on the street corner. Which is what blues was. They’d be on the street in the day or in the juke joint at night. They were singing about living wherever they were living, and to me it was like a direct connection. The only thing that was missing was my guitar.
Rubin tells Run-DMC about his idea. Russell Simmons is into it. Jam Master Jay, too. Run and D are confused.
Russell Simmons: I remember them not being enthusiastic.
9 March 1986: recording day
Russell Simmons: What do I remember about Aerosmith that day? They were in the bathroom a lot. They were sniffing a lot of coke.
Perry: We were pretty jammed. There were very few times where we weren’t.
DMC: It was one of the worst days of my life, because I was the first to get a credit card. Run didn’t have a credit card yet. That weekend, Run’s car was in the shop. I went to the airport to rent Run a car. Because him and Jay smoked a lot of weed ... Joe comes home and he leaves the key in the car and the rental car gets stolen.
Perry: Rick got them off the case about the stolen rental car: “Don’t worry about it. Insurance will cover it.” And finally Rick said: “Hey you guys, we’ve got Joe and Steven in here. Let’s do something.” They were very ambivalent about this whole thing. He told us: “I don’t even know if we’re going to get this on the record, on the album. But let’s give it a try.” I know Steven was upset because they didn’t know the lyrics.
Tyler: What was I going to say? I didn’t want to get into a big fight with the guys. I tried to show them a couple lyrics and they got it but it was clear to me, when I told them what the words were, that they were used to singing it their way and they wanted to sing it that way. When they said “looking at D,” I said, “D? You mean, ‘me’?” They said, “No, D, man.” It was just one after another.
Rubin: Run and D recorded a version that was a more lacklustre version than the one that’s on the record. It was more like going along instead of owning it.
Run: I’m running around, acting like I don’t care because I don’t know what I’m doing and why I’m singing this hillbilly stuff. “Backstroke lover always hidin’ ‘neath the covers.” What are we talking about? That’s not poetry from Hollis. We don’t know why we’re using somebody else’s lyrics. We never do. So Jay’s like: “Switch it up. Do your heart into it, man. Switch up like you all do.” That’s how I got “Back-seat lover that’s always undercover.”
DMC: Joe Perry was brilliant. He just didn’t say one word during the session. You would ask, “Joe, are you OK?” He would just nod his head up and down. But when it was time to go in there, he walked in there, cigarette hanging from his mouth, winked his eye, they pushed record and history was made. “Joe, are you done?” He’d nod his head up and down and he’d go back and sit down.
Perry: I laid down a guitar track and Rick said, “I really think we should have some bass in there.” I said, “I can do it but I don’t have a bass.” There were these teenagers hanging around in the back on the couch and one of them said, “I’ve got a bass at my apartment.” He ran back and he was back in 20 minutes. It was the Beastie Boys.
Rubin: The main thing I remember from the session was Joe playing guitar and how impressive it was and Run and D doing the calls in front of Steven and Steven doing the ad-libs and the chorus. And I remember just thinking how Run and D didn’t like the lyrics and here’s the guy who wrote the song. I felt like I knew a lot of information that a lot of other people in the room didn’t know and it was making me uncomfortable.
DMC: You know how you make a kid sit down and eat his vegetables? “Oh, hell no, you sit down and eat those greens.” And it takes the kid an hour to eat one green at a time? That’s what me and Run were doing.
Adler: Here come Tyler and Joe Perry. They did the work. Jay yelled at Run and D and said, “You’re going to look like chumps if you don’t come in and recut it.” Jay got it on a musical level. He’s a DJ. A music lover. ... So Jay clowns Run and D back into the studio and they do a better job of cutting the vocals and, hallelujah, it’s a great thing. (In 2002, Jam Master Jay was fatally shot at his recording studio. The case was never solved.)
Perry: Rick said, “Thanks for coming down.” We had to get back to tour. We said, “Hey man, it was a lot of fun.” We didn’t even know if it was going to come out.
The Wall Comes Down
Raising Hell comes out in May, and “Walk This Way” is released as a single in July. The next step is getting it onto MTV. Profile Records hires director Jon Small to make a video. He comes up with the idea of a physical wall separating Tyler and Perry from Run-DMC As the music gets rolling, Tyler smashes the wall with his microphone stand and the groups come together.
Tyler: Small was a genius. It was his idea to build that set and put the wall up. And he said, “I’ll saw a hole in the wall and you just hit that spot.” If you watch the video, the way I try to smash and knock a hole through the wall, it didn’t budge. Whoever was supposed to saw it didn’t really saw all the way through. It just about ripped every muscle in my back out.
Now Profile has to get MTV to play the video. In 1986, the video music network is key to scoring a hit. But its playlist is heavy on Mr Mister and Lionel Richie. MTV doesn’t do hip-hop.
Les Garland, former senior executive vice president, MTV: There was never, ever any racial attitude. Any conversations would be about the format. It doesn’t mean you don’t play Sly and the Family Stone and you don’t play Jimi Hendrix. But you play rock. That’s not racial – that’s a format. It had nothing to do with people’s colour.
Carolyn Baker, talent and acquisitions, 1979 to 1982, MTV: You can find any goddamn excuse for it, but it was industry-wide racism. To keep it all separated. They wanted a white channel. They didn’t want to muddy it up with black music.
Bob Pittman, MTV co-founder: Rap music was emerging and had not yet reached mainstream. Everybody thought it could. But how do you bridge rap music into the existing rock music, which dominated at the time?
The new “Walk” also revolutionises rock radio. WBCN, Boston’s hugely influential rock station, decides to make “Walk This Way” its first rap song. It rises to No 4 on the Billboard 100 – the first time Run-DMC lands on the mainstream charts.
Tommy Shaw, Styx: We were all threatened by it, but at the same time you couldn’t help but sing along to it. It was pretty brilliant. Everybody’s thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Oedipus, DJ and program director, WBCN: We didn’t care if the artists were black or white. We were not a rap station. What “Walk This Way” did is it opened up the possibilities for rock bands to incorporate rap music into their songs. Run-DMC defined it.
Perry: I think it really dawned on us when we went to Europe and we started doing interviews and we realized some people had never heard of Aerosmith until that song came out.
Kramer: I’m not crazy about it. ... It was more what it represented. The breakthrough of rap coming together with rock ‘n’ roll. It put them on the map and it resurrected us. It just shows you the power of one song.
Run: We did not perform “Walk This Way” in 1986 while it was exploding. It was a separate thing in my mind. I was happy about “My Adidas” about ”Peter Piper”. I got my Adidas sneaker, made out of pure gold, and performed every song on the album other than “Walk This Way”. Then I hear this exploding on a rock station in Boston and I’m seeing sales that are taking it well over 1.5 million. The next time out, I started to play it.
© 2016 The Washington Post
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