When Aerosmith Met Run-DMC
Bom bat, be boom-boom bat. The groovy drumbeat that opens Aerosmith’s 1970s arena banger “Walk This Way” is one of the most legendary riffs in rock.
Grandmaster Flash and other hip-hop pioneers certainly thought so—they’d been sampling it for years by the time producer Rick Rubin called Queens-born Run-DMC into the studio in March 1986 to record a cover of the song with none other than Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.
The resulting track became a smash crossover hit, simultaneously reviving Aerosmith’s flagging career and propelling rap music into the mainstream.
In 2016, Washington Post national arts reporter Geoff Edgers, A92, put together a sweeping oral history of the pivotal collaboration, tracking down unseen video footage from the recording session along the way. He’s now expanded that newspaper piece into a new book, Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever.
“There was a narrative that I wanted to tell—not just do a few more interviews, but really crack it open,” Edgers said “This was not these young, unknown black kids getting thrust into the spotlight by these famous rock stars. What this really was, was these incredibly dynamic rappers saving a washed-up band.”
Tufts Now recently talked with Edgers about unexpected mashups, the rise of hip-hop, and tips for getting Steven Tyler on the phone.
Tufts Now: In the introduction, you write that the 1986 recording of “Walk This Way,” “would change not just music, but society itself.” Did that idea crystallize early on for you?
Geoff Edgers: The question is: What came before, what came after, and how much of it was directly tied to Run-DMC and “Walk This Way”? It’s stunning when you look at the timeline: you don’t have Yo! MTV Raps, you don’t have In Living Color, you don’t have Arsenio, until after. It’s a sad thing to imagine, but because there were these two white guys on this song, it gave permission to the rock-radio programmers—the people who controlled almost everything—to put it on mainstream radio.
So, did you go into this project knowing the cultural stakes, or did they reveal themselves to you bit by bit as you went along?
I don’t think I quite realized how rare it was then for this kind of collaboration to take place. Today we’re used to it. We turn on the TV, we flip on the radio, and we’re like, “Oh, Paul McCartney and Kanye collaborating, well, that’s interesting.” But, it’s not shocking, right? The idea of Paul McCartney and someone like Kanye West doing something together would seem almost unthinkable in 1980. I mean, “mashup” wasn’t really even a word.
Everything was so subdivided. To be on MTV, which in many ways controlled what kids saw, you had to be a mainstream rock black artist. You could be Billy Ocean, but you could not be Whodini or the Fat Boys; you had to be a very specific thing.
You interviewed more than seventy-five people for this book, including both living members of Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and music execs. Is there anyone else you wish you could have talked to?
The only people I didn’t get that I wanted were the Beastie Boys, and that’s because they were working on their own book, which has one page on “Walk This Way.” Basically, this book meant a year and a half of having my computer with me at all times, so when [producer] Rick Rubin calls—because he doesn’t necessarily schedule a time—I could pull over and get in the passenger seat and type stuff out. It’s about understanding that the way to get Steven Tyler is to talk to Joe Perry. And then Steven feels like, “Hey, why isn’t he talking to me?”
David Halberstam wrote a book on Michael Jordan [Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made]. It was not his best book, but what was fascinating to me is that it was written without Jordan’s participation. I asked Halberstam what happened. And he told me this long story about how Jordan was going to do it and then he didn’t and whatever. But what he also said was, “Sometimes it’s not Scottie Pippen, the second guy on the bench, the star, who tells you the best stuff. Sometimes it’s the tenth guy on the bench who doesn’t get any minutes and is just watching things.”
So, I found talking to Brad Whitford, Aerosmith’s other guitarist, to be invaluable. I thought what he had to say was incredible. And I rode on this hip-hop bus tour that Grandmaster Caz gives, and I went back to his apartment and talked with him. Someone like Grandmaster Caz to me is just as valuable as, if not more valuable than, someone famous.
Courtney Hollands can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE: Geoff Edgers will talk about Walk This Way—and how to develop your dream writing gig in the post-print age—at noon on Wednesday, February 27, at the Granoff Music Center's Varis Lecture Hall. Free; no tickets required. Guest parking passes can be purchased at the Tufts University Police Department (419 Boston Avenue, Medford, MA).