Each One, Teach One | How Aerosmith and Run-DMC's "Walk This Way" made unlikely history
Author Geoff Edgers explores the dualities of each group in his new book.
As KRS-One articulated throughout his catalog and in his many teachings, “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” As the culture continues to evolve today, many feel it’s not only important, but vital to preserve and honor the fundamental elements: Graffiti, emceeing, breakdancing, deejaying and knowledge. This column called “Each One, Teach One” aims to do exactly that. It will highlight various lessons that can be passed between new and old generations alike.
Every now and then — and especially when you’re not necessarily looking for it — the universe delivers a pristine reminder that any given unassuming Sunday holds the potential to turn into something much more impactful. Such was the case with Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s curiously destined mashup, “Walk This Way,” a reworked cover of the 1975 hit that’s very existence came into fruition on March 9, 1986, against all odds.
On the surface, the song became a Top 10 hit, and later, a permanent fixture in the music libraries of both those who wax nostalgia over hip hop’s formative years and my classic rock-loving parents alike. However, as author and Washington Post arts reporter Geoff Edgers explores in his new book, Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever (out Feb. 5 via Penguin Random House), the undeniable ear-worm did much more than become the timeless classic that instantly gets stuck in our heads today upon mention. It helped introduce hip hop to the masses.
From reviving the careers of arena rockers previously facing a potential demise brought on by self-destruction to propelling Run-DMC from the underground to their hard-earned fate as hip hop’s first superstars, “Walk This Way” went on to make history. Thanks to a carefully curated group of people, the collaboration became the first rap song to hit mainstream rock radio, and subsequently, the first music video of its kind to be played in heavy rotation on MTV.
During an era where programmers simply did not stray from the confines of its rock-focused formatting, the song’s inclusion wasn’t just rare, it was unprecedented. As demonstrated by Edger’s vibrant storytelling and exemplary reporting, the creation of the genre-bursting track was not executed as smoothly or simply as it may appear in theory or in retrospect. In fact, the song was as haphazardly slapped together as it was the result of tactful, visionary planning.
Taking readers along for a deep dive into the song’s creation and its cultural influence, Edgers starts at the very beginning. By presenting an overview of where each group was career-wise and just how differentiating their trajectories were at the time, it becomes clear how the now-legendary collaboration has the conjuring of somewhat of a perfect storm.
“There were the two sides: a pair of pale-faced rockers itching for a fix, a trio of black kids still trying to figure out why they were there,” he writes. “What none of them understood is that together, in a single Sunday afternoon in Manhattan, they would change not just music but society itself. That’s not just hyperbole. Before Run-DMC covered ‘Walk This Way,’ there was no ‘Yo! MTV Raps,’ no ‘Aresenio’ no ‘In Loving Color.’ What’s more, hip-hop was not part of the twenty-four-hour video network’s rotation, and it was never, ever played on mainstream radio.” He goes on to add, “By tapping into the classic rock canon and surrendering the chorus to Steven Tyler’s distinctive howl, the song basically served as hip-hop’s Trojan horse, the music camouflaged enough to give timid programmers permission to play.”
In hindsight, it is pop culture moments like these that show how groundbreaking it can be when trust, spontaneity, risk-taking, a degree of indifference, pure talent and a universal longing for greatness — even when its buried or uncertain — come together. Foresight was something that the cast of collaborators, which included Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, the late Jam Master Jay, Rick Rubin, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Lyor Cohen and other key players, didn’t necessarily have at the time. But, they wanted to think that they did. Throughout his writing, Edgers pieces together interviews with over 75 people. This further showcases how culturally, the song’s impact would not have been fully realized if everything didn’t fall together in the fashion it did.
As the story goes, during the early conceptualizations of Def Jam, a young Rick Rubin encouraged the members of Run-DMC to try their hand at making their own version of the rock anthem, one that they were only vaguely familiar with thanks to its iconic opening guitar riff. As Chuck D wisely points out to Edgers, if a DJ let the song play long enough for Tyler’s voice to come on, they were doing it wrong (“That record was done for hip-hop after about 45 seconds”). With that in mind, the trio was essentially given a homework assignment to listen to “Toys in the Attic, track number four” on a yellow notepad and write down the lyrics, an exercise that would help them to reimagine it in their own way.
While the pioneering producer took on persuading Run-DMC to cover the song — something that simply nobody had ever done in rap — with ease, he then was tasked to remind the then-drug addicted musicians Tyler and Perry that they’d receive $8,000 if they just showed up to the session in the first place. Throw in media being present, Run and DMC being distracted by their rental car being stolen and other related details, Edgers’ retelling of the one-day session in question is as compelling as it is cinematic.
While transporting readers back to 1986, his reporting reveals how prior to the song’s colossal successes, neither party was as big of a fan of the other as they had let on in interviews after the fact. On top of that, both Run-DMC and the duo of Tyler and Perry (dubbed the “Toxic Twins”) felt the other needed the collaboration and accompanying video shoot to happen more than they did. An observer sums up this feeling very well to Edgers, noting, “Somebody’s riding somebody’s coattails and each of them think it’s the other.”
In addition to recounting the colorful scenes that lead to the now-momentous collaboration, the book also pays homage to ’80s super-producer Larry Smith, whose contributions to hip hop often fall to the wayside due to his eventual departure from working closely with Simmons. The book also recounts how LL Cool J worked to reunite his one-time mentors onstage in celebration of the 30-year anniversary of Run-DMC’s third seminal album Raising Hell. Through its comprehensive breakdown distinguishing fact from fading memories, Walk This Way offers an engaging look into how the revolutionary track is viewed now that its decades removed from its release, reminding fans across generations that sometimes history begins with a guitar riff and leads to cultural barriers being broken.
Geoff Edgers’ fascinating and thorough look into the record that changed music as we’ve come to know is available for sale via Penguin Random House.
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