25. Run DMC - Walk This Way

Rap might have been headed for the fate of disco had it not been for the unlikely pairing of rap pioneers Run DMC and hard rock veterans Aerosmith.  Their collaboration, "Walk This Way," exposed rap music to a whole new audience - white kids, especially suburban white kids.  And considering where I grew up and who I was, a white kid living in the suburbs of Los Angeles, that meant me.  But here's the kicker.  I was already a Run DMC fan when their 1986 album Raising Hell came out.

I had originally been exposed to rap with the silliness of "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang, but then moved on to Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J and, of course, Run DMC.  The first album I bought of theirs was King of Rock and I loved the rock elements that they brought to rap.  They took the drum machine beats and the scratching of samples and added a harder element to it that was little heard at the time.  I also loved the back and forth of the high pitched Run paired with the gravelly vocals of DMC.  Run DMC was a band that pioneered mainstream rap while remaining true to their roots.  Much like Nirvana, they didn't make music for the masses, the music they made brought the masses.  So although they had enjoyed some success prior to "Walk This Way," that unlikeliest of pairings changed rap forever and laid the groundwork that would eventually become hip-hop, where more complex music and sung vocals were mixed with the rapping.* 

It's hard to believe now, especially given the fact that Run DMC are now basically extinct rap icons while Aerosmith continue to put out popular, relevant (to most) rock music, but back in 1986, their fates were reversed.  Run DMC was a band on the rise in the rap world and Aerosmith had become a cautionary tale of egos gone awry.  They were the hard rock Beatles who had gotten back together, but then made a sucky album and were falling off the cliff to obscurity.  That all changed when Run DMC DJ Jam Master Jay received an album from a friend of his to search for cool beats and scratching opportunities.

DJs often ripped the labels off their records so no one would know what beats they were using when they were scratching.  Jam Master Jay received Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic this way.  Jay had no idea who the artist was or what album it was.  He was working on a scratching technique with the opening riff from the fourth track when producer Rick Rubin told him it was a famous rock song from Aerosmith.  Jay just shook his head and said that either way, it was an awesome beat.  Rubin then tried to convince the band not only to record it, but to record it with Aerosmith.  Jay & Rubin called Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and suggested the collaboration.  Brilliantly seeing it as a new opportunity to get their music heard by new fans, Perry said, "It took me all of a minute to say yes,"  Run, on the other hand, had his doubts.  Reading through the lyrics, he thought, "What the hell is this?" and didn't want to do it.  But Rick & Jay were persistant and a few months later Joe Perry and Steve Tyler met up with Run DMC at their studio and cut their portion of the track in a day. 

The result was a song that Run DMC wasn't even sure would make the album.  But Rubin insisted it was brilliant, and "Walk This Way" was put on Run DMC's 1986 breakout album, Raising Hell.  That album became the first rap album to go platinum (it ended up going triple platinum) and "Walk This Way" was the crossover hit that rap had never had before.  Suburban white kids who had never given rap the time of day were now rapping along with Run & DMC with their friends in the car.  

And it's easy to see why.  It starts off with the iconic drum beat from the original (although it's cleaned up with a more modern sound).  But by the second iteration of the riff, Jay scratches it into something completely different.  Aerosmith fans around the world were tilting their heads to the side and saying, "Huh?"  Then Jay scratches the opening guitar riff and it's clear this is a whole new ballgame.  Just as Steven Tyler's lyrics are set to kick in, you instead get the iconic back & forth rapping of Run & DMC.  Their vocal styles are so opposite that they become complimentary, going together like orange and blue on the color wheel.  When they get to the chorus, though, Steven Tyler comes screeching in with his trademark wail for the choruses, punctuated by Run & DMC's interjections.

The combination of the two, supplemented by Jam Master Jay's masterful scratching create a song that is greater than the sum of its parts.  An experiment that seemed doomed to failure sparked a whole new way of looking at rap music in relation to its pop, soul & rock cousins.  Nobody holds back on this track.  Steve Perry plays a guitar track that is in many ways superior to the original and there's a crispness and vitality to Steven Tyler's vocals that are augmented by the more modern production values of the mid 80's.  Even with the intensity of Tyler's vocals, DMC & Run hold their own, feeding on the energy of the sung vocals.

The lyrics are verbatim from the ones that originally came from Steven Tyler's brilliant sophomoric mind that's eternally stuck in fifteen year-old mode.  He eloquently phrases what every young man wishes he could.  He throws around sexual similes and metaphors like he got them at a 99cent store.  Steven Tyler's the Edgar Allan Poe for the horny teenage male.  It only takes a few lines to see why:

So I took a big chance at the high school dance
With a lady who was ready to play
It wasn't me she was foolin'
Cause she new what she was doin'
When she told me how to walk this way

Now we all know that they're not really talking about walking, so there's the double entendre that has always been a bedrock of rock & roll lyrics.  Originally, they were meant to get lyrics past the radio censors, but as time went on, they just became a more fun and interesting way to phrase the real intent you were going for.  And no one, and I mean no one, does it better than Steven Tyler.  And although rappers no longer bother censoring themselves about their sexual exploits in their lyrics, back in 1986, you couldn't get away with that.  So it was a perfect combination, both lyrically and musically, for Run DMC and Aerosmith.

Back in 1986, I really doubt that Run DMC & Aerosmith knew that they were basically transforming the rap that we had always known into the hip-hop that we know today.  But it's those happy accidents that end up changing the landscape of everything - from play-doh to post-it notes.  (Just for fun, Here are nine things that were invented by accident.)  And although the collaboration between these two bands wasn't technically an accident, but rather a collection of seemingly inconsequential things, the influence of this convergence is unmistakable.  Beyond the influence, though, is the fact that this song still kicks ass almost twenty five years later.  And like every song on this list, if it comes on the radio or my Ipod, I'm staying for the ride.

*I have to give credit, though, to the likes of Africa Bambaataa, who were the first to add rock elements to rap songs, but Run DMC took that combination to a new level.

(Fun Fact #615:  One day, the members of the band went to go see the (then) new movie, Young Frankenstein, starring Gene Wilder.  There's a scene where Dr.
Igor asks him to "Walk this way," and then proceeds to walk off screen in a very silly fashion. 

(Fun Fact #523:  Although I think that "Walk This Way" by Run DMC is a fantastic song, there are those that I'm sure disagree with me.  While doing my research for this entry, I found a cool review of Run DMC's career, including some notes on "Walk This Way."  So I thought I'd share an opposing position in all fairness.  Here's what Tom Breihan had to say about the Raising Hell album, and "Walk This Way" in particular:

Raising Hell is generally considered to be the group's all-time classic, and it certainly has its share of classic moments. Rick Rubin had by this point taken over production from Larry Smith, and he kept the group's thunderous stomp while adding a host of sly sampled musical touches: unbelievably funky bells on "Peter Piper", a great cartoonish piano line on "You Be Illin'", a dirty Southern-rock guitar riff on the title track. Run and DMC had also stepped their rap game up; "It's Tricky" is basically as good as the two of them ever got, spitting quick-tongue witticisms and yelling booming threats with equal abandon. The album, however, has a ton of filler: the goofy human-beatbox jam "Hit It Run", the ridiculously tossed-off dis "Dumb Girl", the utterly blatant Slick Rick bite "Perfection". And "Walk This Way". "Walk This Way" totally fucking sucks, a weak and half-baked novelty-rap jam which got them (and Aerosmith) all over MTV but which sounds no better for having anticipated the commercial possibilities of rap-rock.

So I'm guessing "Walk This Way" isn't #25 on Tom's list, huh?)

Not much to do with Run DMC, but I gave a shout-out to Africa Bambaataa as one of the first to mix rap and rock.  One of his coolest examples of this is a song he did with John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, called "World Destruction."  I thought I'd just put the video here in case you were interested. 

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