In the 1980s, the televised destruction of two walls forever changed the course of human events. One was the Berlin Wall, which came down on November 9, 1989, signaling the end of the Cold War. The other was the wall separating Aerosmith from Run-DMC in the music video for the latter’s 1986 cover of the former’s “Walk This Way.”
When Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler busted through that wall with his microphone stand, putting the two groups suddenly face-to-face, it sent a powerful message about rock and hip-hop being equally valid genres that didn’t have to exist separately. The symbolism was as blatant as it was effective.
Thanks in part to that video, Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” (which featured Tyler and his guitar hero bandmate Joe Perry) exploded in the summer of ’86. The single peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100—a full six places higher than Aerosmith’s 1975 original—and became the first rap song to crack the Top 10. For the first time ever, mainstream rock and pop radio were playing hip-hop, a still largely underground genre that would ultimately come to dominate American music and conquer the globe.
In his 2019 book Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever, author Geoff Edgers argues that the song had an even broader impact on American culture. Edgers traces the song’s success to a number of subsequent events, including the creation of Yo! MTV Raps, Public Enemy’s collaboration with the metal band Anthrax, Fox’s launch of the Black-centric sketch comedy show In Living Color, and even the election of Barack Obama.
“Is it a stretch to say those things are all connected to ‘Walk this Way’ and Run-DMC?” Edgers asked on the Sound Opinions podcast. “Well, I don’t know. It’s a stretch maybe to talk about President Obama being directly connected to that, but all of those other things I mentioned didn’t exist until this moment in time when hip-hop became part of our mainstream culture.”
Who’s the Real “King of Rock”?
When Aerosmith and Run-DMC entered Magic Venture Studios in New York City on March 9, 1986, for their historic collaboration, the two groups were in very different places. Run-DMC were ascendent: Their first two albums, 1984’s Run-DMC and 1985’s King of Rock, had sold well, and the trio from the Hollis neighborhood of Queens, New York, were the biggest hip-hop act on the planet. They were on the verge of taking the genre to places it had never gone before.
Aerosmith, on the other hand, were largely seen as over-the-hill has-beens far removed from their ’70s-era glory days. Perry, the lead guitarist, quit in 1979, leaving the band to muddle through the first half of the ’80s without a major hit. Although Perry returned for 1985’s Done With Mirrors, the album was a total flop. To make matters worse, Tyler and Perry were both battling drug addictions. Things didn’t look good for the so-called “bad boys from Boston.”
In other words, Aerosmith needed Run-DMC much more than Run-DMC needed Aerosmith. That fact has been lost to the ages, as many fans assume Tyler and Perry were somehow doing Run-DMC a favor when they agreed to the team up. Edgers has said that one of his goals in writing the book Walk This Way was to set the record straight about the nature of the partnership. Aerosmith had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
A Hard Breakbeat
Several people have taken credit for the idea of pairing Run-DMC with Aerosmith, but it’s generally acknowledged that producer Rick Rubin, the legendary co-founder of Def Jam Records, was the man with the masterplan. Rubin had been hired to produce Run-DMC’s third album, Raising Hell, and he wanted a single that would break the trio in Middle America. Rubin had grown up worshiping Aerosmith, so he decided Run-DMC should cover “Walk This Way.”
In one sense, this wasn’t that bizarre a request. For starters, Run-DMC had rapped over electric guitars on their singles “Rock Box” and “King of Rock.” More importantly, “Walk This Way” was a popular record among New York City hip-hop DJs—though the turntablists would only play the first four seconds, the part where Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer lays down a flat, funky beat. The DJs weren’t interested in Perry’s guitar riff, and they certainly didn’t want to hear Tyler’s horndog vocals. It was all about that snippet of drums, looped over and over again.
Run-DMC’s in-house turntable maestro Jam Master Jay would often spin “Walk This Way.” The group’s two rapping members, Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, simply knew the song as track four on Toys in the Attic, Aerosmith’s 1975 blockbuster. “We had no idea that there was singing or what the song was, but we knew the beat,” McDaniels told Edgers for a piece in The Washington Post. “It was a hard breakbeat.”
Rubin instructed Run and DMC to go home with Toys In the Attic and transcribe the lyrics to “Walk This Way.” The MCs did as they were told and quickly decided there was no way they were going to rap Tyler’s corny lines about a young dude’s sexual exploits. In an interview with Loudwire, DMC recalled telling Rubin, “This is country-bumpkin, mountain-climbing hillbilly gibberish.” But Rubin and Jam Master Jay convinced the rappers to give it a shot.
“Glitter Meets Gold”
Rubin’s next brilliant move was getting Aerosmith (or at least Perry and Tyler) to appear on the track. For a fee of $8000, the rockers turned up one fateful Sunday in March 1986 to add new vocals and guitar. The members of Run-DMC were less than awestruck to be in the presence of the arena rockers. In fact, they might not have known who Tyler and Perry were. “We were like, ‘Rick went and got the Rolling Stones,’” DMC told Loudwire.
According to Edgers, who was given exclusive access to never-before-seen MTV footage shot the day of the recording session, Run-DMC and Aerosmith didn’t really jibe in the studio. Neither group was familiar with the other’s work, and Tyler and Perry were a little miffed about Run and DMC changing some of the lyrics. But they got over it, and Perry wound up tracking not just guitar, but also bass. He didn’t bring a bass with him, but fortunately, there were three “kids” (Perry's word) hanging out in the studio, one of whom volunteered to run home and get his bass. As it turns out, those “kids” were the Beastie Boys.
Due to their misgivings about Tyler’s lyrics, Run and DMC goofed around on their initial vocal takes and failed to capture the right energy. At the urging of Jam Master Jay, they returned to the studio to re-do their raps, and this time, they nailed it. Nevertheless, McDaniels recalls telling the label, “You better not put this out as a single.”
“Walk This Way” arrived in July 1986 as the second single off Raising Hell. Because Tyler and Perry were featured on the track, Boston’s tastemaking rock station WBCN decided to play the thing. That caused other rap-averse stations around the country to follow suit. The song also caught fire on MTV, which put the video in heavy rotation.
Director Jon Small came up with the video’s ingenious concept after listening to the song a few times. As the clip opens, Aerosmith and Run-DMC are situated in adjacent rooms, annoying each other with their loud music. When Run-DMC start rhyming over “Walk This Way,” Tyler busts through the wall with his mic stand to see what’s going on. Next thing you know, both acts are onstage together, rocking a theater full of screaming fans.
“I loved the video’s metaphor—that the wall between rock and rap was coming down and that the two music styles actually worked well together,” Perry told The Wall Street Journal. “It was glitter meets gold. Everyone who watched MTV then—rock and rap fans—got the message.”
“Walk This Way” would prove Run-DMC’s only Top 5 pop hit, and it propelled Raising Hell to a career-best No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Raising Hell also became the first-ever platinum-selling rap album. Run-DMC returned in 1988 with Tougher Than Leather, a less successful album that yielded the minor hits “Run’s House” and “Mary, Mary.” While the group’s commercial fortunes dwindled in the decade that followed, Run-DMC were recognized as elder statesmen who’d made essential contributions to the rise of hip-hop. In 2009, they became the second-ever hip-hop act inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, after Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Aerosmith ended up getting a much bigger boost from “Walk This Way.” Their next album, 1987’s Permanent Vacation, spawned three Top 20 pop hits: “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” “Angel,” and “Rag Doll.” With Tyler and Perry newly sober, the band cruised into the ’90s with renewed vigor and cultural cachet. More hits followed, and in 1999 the band went all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the Diane Warren-penned power ballad “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” from the big-budget asteroid flick Armageddon. In 2001, Aerosmith were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In the ’90s, echoes of “Walk This Way” could be heard in the new generation of artists merging rap and rock. Rage Against the Machine drew on the more socially conscious strains of both traditions to create ferocious songs about global injustice. Angsty nu metal acts such as Korn and Limp Bizkit riled up suburbia with their doofy anthems. Alt-rockers ranging from Beck to Sugar Ray utilized turntables. And then there was Kid Rock, who joined Run-DMC and Tyler and Perry to perform “Walk This Way” as part of a medley at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards.
A couple years later, Aerosmith co-headlined the Super Bowl XXXV halftime show with NSYNC. The performers closed the show with “Walk This Way,” featuring help from Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, and Nelly. Two decades later, at the 2020 Grammy Awards, Tyler and Perry again joined forces with Run-DMC (minus Jam Master Day, who was murdered in 2001) to give “Walk This Way” another public airing. This time around, Run-DMC busted through the wall—a fitting reversal, as hip-hop had long since replaced rock as America’s top genre.
In the eyes of DMC, there’s a moral to the story of “Walk This Way,” and he shares it with young people when he does speaking engagements at high schools. “Always be open to try something new, because it might not just change your life,” DMC told Loudwire. “It might change the world.”