"Walk This Way" is often credited as original prototype for the rap-rock genre. While Run-DMC and other rappers had experimented with rapping over rock guitars before, this was the first time that rock and rap vocalists appeared on the same track together.
The first thing you'll notice is the beat, which is exactly the same as the original rock version. With an open hi hat on the first beat, a snare on the second, and triplet bass drum hits inside the third sending you to the snare on the four, this beat is great on its own. So Run-DMC kept it unchanged, but they stuck it in a drum machine to get more of a hip-hop feel.
Beat boxes and other new technology were crucial to the history of rap, and even other 1980s genres, like new wave. As disco and dance music became popular in the 1970s, artists strayed away from live instruments and moved toward synthesizers in search of things like "the perfect beat." Some early drum machines didn't even bother making a bass drum hit sound like the real thing, because people at the time actually thought the fake sound was more interesting.
Running concurrently with the evolution of disco was the emergence of hip-hop culture. As you might have guessed from the name alone, hip-hop started with dance parties. DJs like DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa hit upon gold when they realized that they didn't have to play full records at parties. The instrumental breakdowns and the hooks of songs were what people really loved to dance to. Thus "sampling" came to be. When rappers discovered the beat box, they combined it with sampling. Jam Master Jay's use of a drum machine to make an exact electronic copy of Aerosmith's rock beat is emblematic of hip-hop culture.
The opening beat of Run-DMC's "Walk This Way" transitions quickly into Jam Master Jay scratching a sample of the Aerosmith riff into the song. The "sample" isn't actually a sample, though. Originally DMC and Run wanted to rap over a sample of the original record, but producers Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin flew in Aerosmith's lead singer Steven Tyler and lead guitarist Joe Perry to help play a flat-out cover of the song.
Joe Perry came up with the "Walk This Way" riff in March 1975, while he was hanging out in Hawaii. The riff is in the E blues scale. It climbs up chromatically from A to B-flat to B to the middle E and then loops back, landing on the low E. That B-flat is an extra note called the "blue note" in a common rock scale, the pentatonic, and the idea is that it sounds just weird enough to give the scale a kick in the pants without sounding totally off. The blues scale is, of course, most commonly used in the blues, but blues-derived music like jazz, funk, and rock and roll employ it as well.
Aerosmith cites bands like The Meters and The Yardbirds as influences on the riff. Tyler noted specifically the influence of The Yardbirds, the pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page rock group. He explains, "The Yardbirds' music is a gold mine waiting to be stumbled upon. Aerosmith did, because we grew up in that era. The riff in 'Walk This Way' is just us trying to explore the blues in the Yardbirds model." While Aerosmith is known as America's answer to Led Zeppelin, some of the band's biggest hits are derived from the Brits, like their cover of The Yardbirds' "Train Kept a Rollin'." Joe Perry says the "Walk This Way" riff is Meters-derived, even though it's a guitar riff, not a horn riff: "I didn't have too many guitars back then. To really sound like a Meters hook, we knew we needed hornlike parts. We weren't going to bring up the horn subject, We're guitar players." You can get a real sense of how the riff grew from The Meters if you listen to the beginning of the song, "Look-La Py Py, Jungle Man."
With deep roots in both the rock and the rap traditions, the song's "rap-rock" status is derived from more than just Tyler's rock and roll swagger and Run-DMC's tag-team rapping. Run-DMC found ways to add elements of the hip-hop tradition while staying true to the original song.
With their two previous albums, Run-DMC and King of Rock, Run-DMC made a name for themselves as hip-hop innovators. Where their predecessors had focused on making dance music (Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and most songs by The Fat Boys come to mind), Run-DMC wanted to build their rep on lyrical skill. They optimized this by wearing all black clothes, fedoras, and Adidas attire. Think of them as the turtlenecked Steve Jobses of rap. Their raps were hardcore: the beats and the samples served to intensify their boasts, not just to create something you could dance to.
In looking for the hardest, most aggressive sounds to rap over, Run-DMC often turned to distorted rock guitar. "Rock Box," "Raising Hell," and "King of Rock" are some of the most in-your-face examples, but "It's Tricky" (which samples "My Sharona") and "Walk This Way" are more familiar ones.
Run-DMC's lyrics on "Walk This Way" are virtually identical to the original Aerosmith lyrics, which might make you wonder: what makes rap and rock so different?
Great question. In fact, the primary muse and subject of many a rock or rap song has been the same for decades: women. "Walk This Way" is a coming-of-age story about a teenager trying to be attractive to a girl, something we hear about on pretty much a daily basis.
The lyrics definitely reflect a shade of teenage boy immaturity. A lot of them sound like schoolyard jump-rope rhymes made more male-oriented and more explicit: for examples, take "And the best thing (love it) was your sister and your cousin," or "Singin' hey diddle diddle with the titty in the middle."
These types of catchy, rhyming lines are perfectly suited for a rap song, which is probably why Run-DMC decided to cover the song rather than rap over a sample from it. The verses are incredibly tight, with ABCCBA rhyme schemes squeezed into three lines apiece. Check it out:
And her feet are flyin' up in the air
Singin hey diddle diddle with the titty in the middle,
And you swingin' like you just don't care
That's not all that's going on. Take a look at who's singing what:
DMC: And her feet are flyin' up in the air
Run: flyin' up in the air
Tyler: flyin' up in the air
DMC: Singin hey diddle diddle with the titty in the middle
Run: diddle middle
Tyler: with the titty in the middle
DMC: And you swingin' like you just don't care
Tyler: swingin' like you just don't care
With the words flying back and forth so fast, Tyler and Run need to pick out the rhymed words to emphasize them. But Tyler and Run also play the part of the hype man here, not only pulling out rhymed words, but also shouting out in the background to make the rap more exciting.
When you get down to it, the cover of the song and the original version aren't that different, except for delivery. And that, in itself, definitely says something.
Though we sometimes think of rap and rock as polar opposites, each has a strong macho streak, perhaps even (as many have complained) a sexist one. The chorus of "Walk This Way"—"She told me to / Walk this way, talk this way"—is about acting a certain way in order to attract women. The only really important characteristic of this "she" is that she is, well, a "she." And maybe this is part of rap and rock's common heritage: both genres were dominated by male groups in their beginnings, and Aerosmith's classic rock and Run-DMC's old school rap postures have one of the same goals in common: looking good to girls.