Thirty years ago this month, Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith teamed for “Walk This Way.” Eleven years after the Boston, Massachusetts band recorded the initial version of their single, its creators—Steven Tyler and Joe Perry would learn that the drums (courtesy of Joey Kramer) had been re-appropriated by the Hip-Hop community. As a result, a band looking for its next radio hit would intersect with a Hip-Hop trio that was skyrocketing pillars of Rap music’s impact for statements in both of their careers—along with producer Rick Rubin, that last into today.
The Washington Post looks back at the ’86 Rock-Rap reboot with contributions from nearly all living parties tied to the record. With rare video, interviews with Rev Run, D.M.C., Tyler, Perry, Rubin, manager Russell Simmons, the other members of Aerosmith and more, this comprehensive oral history reflects why this gold single (which many of its creators dislike or dismissed) is still walking tall on radio, video, and in the consciousness of so many.
The article traces the origins of Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic single. The band, reportedly on the verge of a reunion tour, disagrees with who exactly honed the magic of “Walk This Way.”
Kurtis Blow credits Hip-Hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash (who is also interviewed) as being the sound selector to integrate “Walk This Way” to the parties and stage shows of early Hip-Hop. “When [Grandmaster] 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 [of ‘Walk This Way’].” Easy for DJs like Flash and others that followed, Aerosmith opened their 1975 single with a prolonged break that allowed mixers to utilize. Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who recently worked with Keith Richards on Man Plans, God Laughs, deduces, “‘Walk This Way’ was done for Hip-Hop after about 45 seconds.”
For vocalist Steven Tyler (now a top TV personality thanks to a season as a judge on American Idol), that could have made him upset with the Hip-Hop community. Instead, the New Hampshire native told the Post that by the mid-’80s, he was a supporter of Rap music, often buying cassette tapes in Manhattan when he was looking to cop. “I loved Rap. I used to go looking for drugs on 9th Avenue and I would go over to Midtown or Downtown and there would be guys on the corner selling cassettes of their music,” says the superstar. “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.”
In ’86, Run-D.M.C. was fast at work on their third LP, Raising Hell. The trio of Run, D.M.C., and Jam Master Jay had ushered Rap music from its 1970s, post-Disco days to a grittier reflection of the streets. From Hollis, Queens, the Profile Records outfit dressed hard, rapped hard, and favored sparse, bass-and-drum sounds that pulsated from boom-boxes and car stereos. As a result, they were apprehensive to an idea their producer Rick Rubin had, in pairing them with a harder Rock & Roll act.
Rubin, the Def Jam Records co-founder, now an accomplished producer for LL Cool J, T. La Rock, and the burgeoning Beastie Boys, favored samples from ’70s groups like Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, and AC/DC. Despite Run-D.M.C.’s success with Hip-Hop Heads and the underground, the group had yet to break mainstream. Profile Records founder Cory Robbins wanted to find an in for the act to appeal to Pop radio. Speaking with two writers, Rick Rubin vetted ideas on who should (or would) collaborate with Run-D.M.C. Upon coming to the conclusion of redoing “Walk This Way,” Spin magazine associate editor Sue Cummings (a friend of Rubin’s) was on her way to interview the band. With her, she took a Run-D.M.C. cassette tape. Notably, Joe Perry’s teenage stepson already had the group’s 1984 self-titled LP in the family home.
After inquiring with his stepson about the legitimacy of Run-D.M.C., Joe Perry says he gave the idea some credence. “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…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.”
As the idea grew, D.M.C. recalls not being quite as open. After Rick Rubin urged Run and D to revisit the ’75 recording, Darryl recalls telling his producer, “Hell no, this ain’t going to happen. This is hillbilly gibberish, country-bumpkin bullshit.”
Lyor Cohen, who has since become one of Rap music’s biggest executives, was then Run-D.M.C.’s road manager. He too, disliked the idea. “My eyes were on my feet. And Rick’s eyes were forward. I respected his vision and creativity. And I don’t remember myself feeling comfortable with trying to knock that recording down.”
Despite the reservations, seemingly coming from all sides, recording pushed on. According to the accounts, Aerosmith’s Tyler-and-Perry duo, newly reunited, found their bond through cocaine. The rest of the band was not included in the sessions. Joe Perry recalls Steven Tyler being upset that the new guys on the block were not showing respect to the ’70s Rock stars. “I know Steven was upset because [Run-D.M.C.] didn’t know the lyrics.” The ’86 version would feature only slightly altered lyrics to the original, critical to nailing the recording.
Notably, after one poor take, it was Run-D.M.C.’s DJ, Jam Master Jay, who would prod his band-mates to step it up. According to Rev Run, J.M.J. (who would later produce for the group, as well as 50 Cent and Jayo Felony) told his squad to, “’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.’” Rubin recalls, “I remember just thinking how Run and [D.M.C.] 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.”
After the second take of the vocals, thanks greatly to Jam Master Jay, the two bands parted ways. Recorded in March, Raising Hell released in May. In July, the genre-fusing single released—to gold-certified success.
Even after the song was included (despite cautions stated in the studio) on the album, the band and its road manager were resistant. “We did not perform ‘Walk This Way’ in 1986 while it was exploding,” Run admits. “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.” Cohen adds, “I hated the record. In fact, I would always leave the arena or the performance when they did [it].”
In the 30 years since, Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith have performed the hit together.
Aerosmith admits that the crossover record (for them) opened them up to younger audiences. Moreover, ’86 would be a pivotal point for Aerosmith to release five consecutive platinum (or multi-platinum) albums between 1987 and 2001. The group had not enjoyed a charting single in the 1980s to date. Run-D.M.C.’s collaboration would go to #4 on the Pop charts.
The group that had wavered a bit from their ’70s pedestal found the right vehicle to be relevant to the MTV generation, and stick with them for 15 years and counting. Through “Walk This Way,” Run-D.M.C. was able to make impact at Top 40 radio, and break through the walls of race, genre, and compartmentalization—just like Steven and Joe did in the video.