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Run-DMC's 1986 cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" launched rap music into the American mainstream.
The song was a top five pop hit, sold millions of copies, and helped relaunch Aerosmith's then-faltering career. It also introduced a huge number of people to Run-DMC – and to rap music in general – paving the way for the genre's subsequent massive worldwide success.
But why did it happen with this particular song?
First of all, Aerosmith and Run-DMC were both perfectly positioned to blend genre lines. Run-DMC had rapped over rock music before ("It's Tricky" samples The Knacks' "My Sharona") and the band even features wailing electric guitars on some of its songs ("Rock Box" and "Raising Hell" are excellent examples). With King of Rock (1985), their second album, the group proved that rap and rock could coexist on a record.
Aerosmith, meanwhile, had Steven Tyler on the microphone. His quick-lipped lyrical style and talents for rhyme and storytelling meant that his vocal skills were already a bit reminiscent of rap. Listen to the original version of "Walk This Way" to see what we mean. And let's not ignore the rest of the band: the fact that Aerosmith has been able to stick around for so long surely has something to do with Joe Perry and the other members' seemingly magical ability to put together catchy beats and riffs. Catchy beats and riffs—that's exactly what rap producers look for when they pull samples for hooks for their songs.
There's a bigger picture, too. The story of "Walk This Way" has just as much to do with Def Jam Records as it does the two bands themselves. Without legendary producers and Def Jam founders Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, this song never would have happened. The truth is that Simmons and Rubin saw the potential of a "Walk This Way" cover and forced Run-DMC to record it; at the outset, the rappers hated the whole idea.
Def Jam Records and mainstream appeal
Let's take a step back to figure out why Def Jam Records would even want to put out a rap cover of a rock song. When Rubin and Simmons created the label, they had a vision: they believed that rap was the future of music. What set Def Jam apart from other early hip-hop labels was its appreciation for rock and its eagerness to bring rap into the mainstream. Bill Adler, who did early publicity work for Def Jam, noted that Russell "was never gonna just be a guy who operated within the confines of black cultural institutions. He was gonna take this black culture and promote it everywhere" (Jeff Chang, Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, 244).
Musical crossover was always part of the plan. Rap, at the time, was still almost exclusively "black music," but Def Jam believed that it didn't have to be. Pushing rap into the mainstream really meant getting white listeners interested. By 1986, Run-DMC had already found great success success; their music, sometimes laced with rock guitar, was the first rap ever to go platinum. But although King of Rock sold over a million copies, it peaked at a rather pedestrian No. 52 on the sales charts. To hit the top of the charts, Def Jam needed Run-DMC to get white listeners' attention away from Michael Jackson, new wave, and hair metal.
In 1986, Def Jam was using a three-pronged strategy to break the lines of color and genre. LL Cool J ("Ladies Love Cool James") stole the hearts of countless women with "I Need Love." The Beastie Boys broke through as a white rap band with License to Ill, appealing to black audiences, too. Run-DMC was already starting to gain notoriety with white audiences with their rock-infused rap sound. And that brings us to "Walk This Way."
Hip-hip meets Aerosmith
Run-DMC was ten songs into recording the album Raising Hell, but the band felt the album needed another hit single —something mean over a rock track that would show off their rapping skills. They were fiddling around with some hard-banging guitar music. As Ronin Ro writes in his biography of the band, Raising Hell, Rick Rubin walked into the studio, heard what the band was looping and asked, "Do you know who this is?" Nope. "This is Aerosmith! Toys in the Attic by Aerosmith! It would be really great if you did this record." That's what we're doing, said DMC, thinking of sampling the track to create a new hip-hop beat. "No," Rubin insisted, "Let's make the whole record. Do a remake. Take the lyrics home and learn them" (136).
When the band members went home and played the song past its opening beat, they were horrified. "This is fake!" screamed DMC. "This is hillbilly bulls--t! You're gonna ruin us!" To the emcees Run and DMC, who both stood in opposition to deejay Jam Master Jay's support of the idea, covering this song would be selling out. Run-DMC wasn't about getting crossover appeal, it was about making mean beats and rapping better than anyone alive... right?
After all, Run-DMC had first hit the hip-hop scene when Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" was the biggest rap record in the world. Next to Afrika Bambaataa – the colorfully flamboyant, cape-wearing grandfather of hip-hop – Run-DMC's pared-down, all-black aesthetic seemed more serious and more mature. With hits like "Sucker M.C.s," Run-DMC had given rap credibility. Now they were being asked to cover someone else's lyrics instead of showing off their own skills. They worried they might lose their authentic status if they "Walked This Way."
The label didn't leave them much choice, though, with Rubin simply insisting they cut the record. So Run-DMC returned to the studio and covered the song, in spite of their doubts. As the album was being released, Run-DMC did everything they could to minimize the importance of the track. They made certain that their original raps came first; when deliberations were taking place over which track should be the lead single, executives pushed "Walk This Way," because of its massive crossover appeal, but the group insisted on the undeniably hip-hop "My Adidas" going first.
"My Adidas" did do well... but when "Walk This Way" finally hit the radio, it blew "My Adidas" out of the water. The single quickly sold well over a million copies, boosted Raising Hell tour ticket sales, became the most-requested song on the radio in Boston (Aerosmith's hometown), and made it to the No. 4 spot on the Billboard pop chart. The song actually did better on the pop charts than on the R&B charts, where it peaked at No. 8. With Def Jam's Beastie Boys and LL Cool J simultaneously climbing the charts, "Walk This Way" was poised to solidify the place of rap in the pantheon of American music.
Timing definitely played a part in the song's importance to Aerosmith, as well. By 1986, the band hadn't had a Top 40 hit in nine years. In the meantime, band members had been struggling with drugs, alcohol, a four-year break-up, and a flopped comeback album, 1985's Done With Mirrors. Even with all of these troubles, though, Aerosmith still had respect. Their 1970s career had spawned timeless hits like "Dream On" (which Eminem would sample in the 2000s), and many fans still looked up to them as an ideal rock band. Their reputation meant that by the time Aerosmith was up and running again by the mid-1980s, the band found that it could sell out concerts but needed a way to break into through to a younger generation of fans. MTV and Run-DMC were the answer.
Rap and rock: not so different after all?
Once the "Walk This Way" single was ready to go, Aerosmith joined Run-DMC to shoot a music video. The resulting video is one of the classics of the medium. It starts out with Run-DMC angrily shouting through a wall to Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to turn down their music. In retaliation, Jam Master Jay samples one of Perry's licks (the famous "Walk This Way" riff) and the rappers start stealing Tyler's lines just as he's about to sing them. As the chorus comes up, Tyler breaks through the wall with his mic stand and wails "walk this way, talk this way."
This metaphor of "breaking the wall" between rap and rock may actually be slightly misleading, since rappers had been sampling rock for years, and Tyler's original lyrics have an obvious rap cadence. The video does do a great job, however, of capturing the artificial boundaries that radio stations and music listeners had put up between rap and rock. The pseudo-feud played out between Run-DMC and Aerosmith tells the story: with Tyler, Run, and DMC shouting "walk this way, talk this way" at each other, the message of the song is recast to convey a culture war between rockers and rappers that, by the end of the four-minute video, is resolved (phew).
In the end, Aerosmith and Run-DMC show us that rap and rock can get along... and that they are actually more alike than we might have thought.