30 Years Ago: Run-D.M.C. Release ‘Walk This Way’ and Help Aerosmith’s Comeback
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The impact of the legendary collaboration between Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. on a reworking of the former’s “Walk This Way” cannot be overstated. Released in July 1986 as the second single from Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell, it didn’t take long for the track to blur the lines between music genres, break down color barriers and play a major role in reviving the career of one of the greatest American rock bands.
At the time, Aerosmith were on the fast track to becoming just another forgotten ’70s outfit that had a strong run in the beginning but petered out as the ’80s wore on. Done With Mirrors, released the previous fall, had flopped spectacularly, despite a brilliant title, production duties handled by white-hot Van Halen studio architect Ted Templeman and the much-heralded return of guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford.
Run-D.M.C., on the other hand, were an on-the-rise, platinum-selling act about to release their third album. For all intents and purposes, Raising Hell was done in early March 1986, but producer Rick Rubin was still toying with a way to broaden its reach, and came up with the idea to bring in Perry and Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler. Between gigs in Philadelphia and their home state of Massachusetts, the duo made a stop at a New York City recording studio to see if it could make something happen with the rap trio.
The two camps couldn’t have been more different. Run-D.M.C. initially thought the name of the band was Toys in the Attic, the 1975 album on which “Walk This Way” originally appeared. Tyler and Perry claimed to be somewhat familiar with hip-hop, with Perry hearing the music emanating from his son’s bedroom.
“I didn’t know what was gonna happen when I walked into the studio,” the guitarist recalled in Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith.
“At the time, we didn’t know what Steven was singing,” D.M.C. said in his own autobiography, King of Rock: Respect, Responsibility and My Life With Run-DMC. “We were, like, dissing him so bad because the song jumbles a lot of lines together. We came up with all sorts of weird interpretations, but wrote the lyrics to the best of our ability, and then we went in the studio and laid them down.”
At first, it wasn’t a given the song would even appear on Raising Hell, but “Walk This Way” ended up being released as the second single from the album, with its smash success bringing Run-D.M.C. a further triumph by getting them played constantly on MTV and bringing their music deeper into the suburbs of white America. The door was then left wide open for Beastie Boys to bust through as well, with their full-length debut Licensed to Ill becoming the first rap record to top the charts shortly after its release that November.
How much it did for reinvigorating the career of Aerosmith has been the subject of endless debate over the years, with the mythology of the past three decades muddling the facts a bit. For one thing, Tyler and Perry weren’t sober during its recording; that wouldn’t happen until just before recording their true comeback album, Permanent Vacation, the following year. Bringing in outside writers to purposefully assist in crafting the songs on the record into radio-friendly hits didn’t hurt, and the group was still playing arenas even when record sales had dipped. The bonus of having overcome nagging substance abuse issues helped tremendously in creating a clearer trajectory in the right direction.
But there’s no denying the union with Run-D.M.C., at the very least, set the wheels in motion for the potential of a rebound. A generation was beginning to align themselves with musical acts based just as much on their MTV presence as they did radio airplay. “Walk This Way” did both, showing more than a dozen times a day at its peak on the video channel and reaching No. 4 on the Billboard chart. “Steven and I saw it as a double blessing,” Perry said in his autobiography, Rocks. “A chance to revisit one of our favorite songs and, at the same time, bring it to a new market.”
The MTV audience had gotten used to seeing Tyler and Perry multiple times a day via the “Walk This Way” video, so it was a familiar set of faces when they returned with “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and “Rag Doll” the next year. Run-D.M.C. were certainly in the line of thinking that they deserved the lion’s share of the credit for resurrecting Aerosmith and reintroducing them to the consciousness of music fans.
“That video got them motherf—ers a new $40 million record deal,” DMC said in the book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. “They should have given us 10 percent of that.”
Regardless of who or what was responsible, or if it was just a timely combination of things, Aerosmith were back in the saddle and given a second chance at relevancy. As for “Walk This Way,” the partnership with Run-D.M.C. was such an event that its aftershocks would be felt for years to come. From spawning the merging of Public Enemy and Anthrax on “Bring the Noise” five years later to the 1993 hip-hop-meets-rock Judgment Night soundtrack, it was the foundation for providing an “anything goes” mentality when it came to mixing together musical styles.
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