January 2, 2015

“Walk this Way:” Rock and Rap Tie the Knot

“I met a cheerleader, was a real young bleeder / Oh, the times I could reminisce / ‘Cause the best things of lovin’, with her sister and her cousin / Only started with a little kiss, like this!”

The lyrics smack of macho, male-centric lust. They are unabashed, explicit, adolescent fantasies of sex, and nothing but. The character who only seems to matter is the first-person singer, the misogynistic bravado ringing out like a thump to his chest. Is it a rap lyric? Or is it rock? These days, the line between the two mediums has blurred. Rock music today cannot be defined solely by long-haired or grunge-scowled musicians who strum their instruments to three chord ditties. And rap is surely not the sole lexicon of the inner city African-American youth. The two genres of music seemed to combust and spread from the epicenter of the song quoted above. The fact that the song had all the sexually-charged, self-centered perspective common to many rap lyrics made this rock tune a natural “crossover” to the world of hip-hop. First recorded in 1974, but later reworked to incorporate the burgeoning rhythms of rap in 1986, the song was Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” and when it was re-tooled with the vocal accompaniment of Run-DMC, a floodgate of musical avenues opened which has never waned to this day. And once the song’s rule on the charts cleared, one of the bands was reborn, more popular than ever, to a new legion of fans, while the other group reached a possible pinnacle of their career, sliding away to near obscurity shortly thereafter.

The Boston quintet named Aerosmith are the definitive example of American rock stars. Having survived career lulls, overwhelming drug and alcohol abuse, and years’ worth of tour sex and failed marriages, they have scaled to the top of the mountain of dinosaur rock, invigorating it with crystal-clear production sound and hook-filled, memorable tunes. With two albums to their name, a hit song in “Dream On,” and a constant, profitable tour schedule, the boys were close to the top of their game by the mid-1970s. Then came their 1975 masterpiece album, “Toys In The Attic,” and its monster hit “Walk This Way.”

The seeds of the song began while the band was on tour in 1974, supporting acts like The Kinks, Sha Na Na, and Mott The Hoople. Lead guitarist Joe Perry was riffing five minutes before a soundcheck in Hawaii, when out came the main opening rhythm to “Walk This Way.” He related in the band’s autobiography, “I was into funky stuff, had played James Brown songs over the years, and at the time was listening to lots of the Meters from New Orleans, one of the best bands in the country, and I was asking, ‘Why don’t we write our own songs that have that feel to them? Let’s try to write something funky so we don’t have to cover James Brown.’ Back in New York, the band laid down the track, and then it came time for Steven Tyler to write and sing the lyrics. For four days, he was stumped as to what to write about. The band took a break one afternoon and saw the Mel Brooks comedy “Young Frankenstein” at a nearby theater.

Bass guitarist Tom Hamilton said in the Aerosmith autobiography, “…we came to the part where Marty Feldman as Igor limps down the steps of the train platform and says to Gene Wilder, “Walk this way,” which Gene does with the same hideous limp. We fell all over ourselves laughing because it was so funny in a recognizably Three Stooges mode. The next day at rehearsals we tell Steven, ‘Hey, the name of this song is “Walk This Way.” He said, ‘Whaddaya mean, I didn’t write the lyrics yet!’ But we said, ‘Trust us.”

Tyler spent time writing at his hotel and later, after losing his lyrics, in the stairwell of the Record Plant studios to get just the right words for the new song. He explained his mindset behind the lyrics to author David Fricke of Rolling Stone magazine in 1994: “The thing for me has always been not to be blatant. But the difference between you and me is, you sit down as a writer with a preconceived thought. I don’t just go blither, blither, blither. With “Walk This Way,” I did not go: ‘Masturbation. Let’s see. I can do it with one hand or the other, or pretend one of them is a girl. Hmmm. ‘Backstroke lover / Always hiding ‘neath the covers / ‘Till I turned to my daddy, he say / You ain’t seen nothin’ / Till you been down on the muffin / Then you sure to be walkin’ this way.’ It’s just boom. Like you tap a hole in the side of your head and it falls out.”

“Toys In The Attic” was released in April 1975 and by September of that year it had reached No. 11 on the U.S. chart. The album stayed on the charts for over a year, and the single “Walk This Way” climbed ever so slowly up to No. 10 by January 1977. Aerosmith started headlining their own stadium shows, beginning with a performance before 80,000 fans in Michigan on June 12, 1976. Throughout the mid-to-late 1970s, they attained superstardom. But they also began to decline as a band. The drugs and fights were taking their toll. By the time they were putting the finishing touches on their album “A Night In The Ruts” in December 1979, Joe Perry quit the band in disgust, citing creative and personal differences with Steven Tyler. Guitarist Jimmy Crespo replaced him, and Perry started his own group called The Joe Perry Project. Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford followed suit in 1981, quitting Aerosmith as the band was in pre-production for the album “Rock and A Hard Place.” Whitford was replaced by guitarist Rick Dufay.

By the early ‘80s, a new form of music was being heard on the streets and in clubs of big cities across America. Expressing the dissatisfaction and anger with conditions plaguing urban environments, rap was a voice through which, artistically, a musician could relate stories indicative of social injustices. Disco had brought a beat to American radio, but its sugary-sweet, vapid lyrics did nothing to intrigue the mind. The Sugarhill Gang and Debbie Harry had usurped some of the rapping styles they heard in the streets of New York and placed them in polished songs of their own. But the urban youth, as a whole, were being drawn to a more raw sound.

A young man named Russell Simmons, from Queens, New York, began managing upstart rap acts like Whodini and Kurtis Blow. Rap of this period was basic – vocals with either scratch turntable or heavy drumbeats, backed with a smattering of occasional guitar and bass riffs. Russell encouraged his younger brother, Joseph, to start a rap group of his own, which Russell, in turn, would then manage. Just out of high school, Joseph teamed with Darryl McDaniels and Jason Mizell, both friends of his from Hollis, Queens, and began writing and performing songs. Both Simmons and McDaniels were inspired by the rock bands of the 1970s, and like many of the rap groups performing at clubs, they began sampling rhythms from the great rock albums they had listened to as kids. While Mizell scratched on the turntable, Simmons and McDaniels began a style of rapping that was equal parts caustic and intelligent. Their approach consisted of overlapping each other’s lines and finishing each other’s sentences.

It was Joseph’s brother, Russell, who eventually named their group. McDaniels told Sonicnet, “(Russell) called us and said the name of your group is going to be Run-DMC. It sounds so good now, but back then, we thought it was the worst thing to ever come out of someone’s mouth.” Joseph became Run, Darryl, of course, was DMC, and Jason took up the moniker, Jam Master Jay. They released their first single record “It’s Like That” backed with “Sucker MCs” on Profile Records in mid-1983.

Meanwhile, Russell was tired of just managing acts. He wanted to form his own record production company. He found a partner in Rick Rubin.

Rubin was a white kid from Long Island who was attending New York University. Unlike many of his fellow students, who were embracing either the Athens’ sounds of newcomers R.E.M. or snapping up everything New-Wave, Rubin was into rap. He told Shark magazine, “I used to go into the rap clubs in New York – I’d be the only white guy there – and they’d be playing rock ‘n’ roll records with guys rapping over them. Like ‘Walk This Way.’ ‘Walk This Way’ was an original record that every rap DJ would have and use…And the rap records that were coming out at the time were like Sugar Hill Records, which were essentially disco records with people rapping over them. Kids who liked rap bought them because there weren’t any records representative of their rap scene. So I saw this void and started making those records, just because I was a fan and wanted them to exist.”

Both he and Russell formed Def Jam Records, and began producing acts already under Simmons’ management. Def Jam snapped up Run-DMC.

The rap trio had been steadily gaining a following. Their eponymous album debut in 1984 was the first rap album to go gold. Their 1985 follow-up LP, “King of Rock,” was the first rap album to knock into platinum territory. With their fedora hats, big gold chains, and Adidas track suits, Run-DMC were helping to define a style, outside of the music, for the fashionably-conscious hip hop culture to embrace. Their song “My Adidas” probably inspired thousands of teenagers to go out and snap up sneakers emblazoned with the company’s logo.

Aerosmith, on the other hand, was hardly inspiring any of their fans at that time. Narcotics abuse soared to an all-time high (no pun intended), and their output of hit singles had atrophied to the point of being nonexistent. Columbia Records, the act’s label, was particularly getting fed up with the lack of winner songs Steven Tyler and company were failing to produce. Meanwhile, Joe Perry, who was wrestling with a drug addiction himself, wasn’t faring much better in his solo group. In March 1984, both Perry and Brad Whitford rejoined Aerosmith, and their replacements, Crespo and Dufay, were dismissed.

As Perry explained to Guitar World magazine, his and Whitford’s reunion with Aerosmith did not come without conditions. They stipulated, “no old management, no old road managers, no old coke buddies. None of the old s**t.” The band obtained a new manager, Tim Collins. Collins quickly realized that the drugs the group had taken, and continued to take, might become an issue when, during the band’s initial reunion meeting, a friend played “You See Me Crying” from the “Toys In The Attic” album over a stereo. According to Collins in the band autobiography, Steven said, “Hey! That’s great! We should cover this. Who is it?” Joe Perry said, “It’s us, f**khead.” Tyler didn’t recognize his own song.

The group rehearsed for a comeback concert series known as the Back In The Saddle Tour which commenced in May 1984 and ended, after fights and drug scenarios on the road, in Oakland at the end of the year. Through the guidance of A&R guru John Kalodner, the band signed with Geffen Records. The first album they recorded for their new label was “Done With Mirrors.” The group showed up with about 16 songs at the recording sessions in California, but the drug abuse snuffed all energy out of their performance. The album came out in November 1985 and sold a meager 400,000 copies. Geffen management was understandably underwhelmed.

Aerosmith hit the road to support their new effort. Joe Perry told Musician magazine, “The ‘Done With Mirrors’ tour, I remember not remembering anything from the night before. I used to drink to blackout, and it wouldn’t be any big deal, but it got to be every night. I’d have a few beers while I was warming up and then wake up the next day. I’d have to call somebody to find out how I played. I’d think I should drink a little less the next night which is impossible to do.” Even though all of Aerosmith was espousing sobriety, they were stoned to the gills. Their career was nearly flushed down the bowl. That’s when Rick Rubin entered their lives.

Joseph Simmons had been rapping to “Walk This Way” since he was 12 years old. The rap impresarios wanted to take a crack at covering the tune for their third album, “Raising Hell,” which they were in the process of putting the finishing touches to. Rick Rubin saw a unique opportunity to capitalize on two genres, to perhaps broaden the scope of rap, by incorporating one of rock’s leading figureheads into the equation. He called manager Tim Collins and said he wanted Steven and Joe to play on the rap version of the song with Run-DMC. Collins said, “Um, Rick, what is rap?”

If Collins seemed clueless as to what rap was, Run-DMC seemed almost equally clueless as to who Aerosmith were. Russell Simmons said that Run-DMC always played “Walk This Way” but “they never knew who Aerosmith was. To them, Toys In The Attic was the name of the record, the group, everything.” Rock and rap were about to meet.

As Collins related in the band bio, he phoned A&R man John Kalodner and asked his advice about the pairing. “(Kalodner) said, ‘I don’t know if I want them singing with those f**king rappers. Let me look into it.’ John called back an hour later. ‘I think this could be really cool. I think we should definitely do this.” After the promise of a quick $8,000, Tyler and Perry flew to New York for the session at Magic Ventures Studios in Manhattan on March 9, 1986. They still hadn’t kicked their habits. Joe Perry told Kerrang magazine, “The ‘Walk This Way’ thing was strictly Rick Rubin’s project which he asked us to sit in on. We realized we needed new input but at that point we were so f**ked up we couldn’t even get into a studio and stay awake…like I say – it didn’t have anything to do with the way we were thinking at the time. We did the Rick Rubin session, and we realized we were too f**ked up to move along. We also never realized what a big hit “Walk This Way” was, especially in Europe. When Steven and I went over to do a press tour, we realized just how big it was.”

When the rock twosome arrived in the studio, Joseph, Darryl and Jay were huddled in a corner. Tyler said in his band’s bio, “I go, ‘Joe, what are they doing?’ ‘Probably smoking crack,’ he says. Later we went over to the corner. They’d been eating lunch from McDonalds.” Rick Rubin began the session by having Perry go through the tune, playing his guitar in the same style he had performed it countless times before. Steven treated himself to a little coke. Run-DMC were just antsy about finishing up the session fast enough so they could return an overdue rental car. Simmons and McDaniels were all prepared to rap the lyrics they normally performed over the Perry track, but Joseph’s brother Russell told them to stick to Steven Tyler’s lyrics. The lyrics to “Walk This Way” already sounded like rap, he reasoned.

For such a brief period of time in music history, this monumental meeting of rock superstars with rap superstars subsequently created the benchmark by which all rock-rap acts since then should owe their gratitude to. With Perry’s blistering guitar stylings and Jay’s scratch-master grooves, with Tyler’s amped screeches and Run & DMC’s staccato delivery, “Walk This Way,” the rock-rap anthem, was the most unique song to burst forth from the 1980s.

Two weeks after the session, the two groups rejoined at a rundown theatre in New Jersey to shoot the landmark video to the song. The video’s concept of their breaking down the wall which separates the two styles of music may have been overtly literal in its execution, but it drove home the point that rap was to become just as viable a force in the musical mainstream as rock had firmly established. The video received massive rotation airplay from MTV. The music channel had hardly featured an Aerosmith video to that point, thinking of them as a bit washed-up, and as for Run-DMC, MTV had never aired a rap video until this time. The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on July 26, 1986 and began a steady climb over the summer.

After the Run-DMC shoot, Tyler and Perry were ready to gear up for their next album. They approached Rick Rubin to possibly produce it. Aerosmith went into the recording studio in Boston intending to cut a few demos with Rubin. Perry told Musician magazine, “Steven and I were crazed at that point. We figured we’d go into the studio with him and record a song one night. I had methadone in one pocket, some blow in one pocket, some pills in another pocket, and a bottle of rum. So, I was set to record. It was so f**ked. The next day we listened to the tape and I was just embarrassed about how we must have acted. And the song sucked. It was time for a major change. For me, and for everyone else in the band.”

That change came shortly thereafter, as “Walk This Way” was cracking the Billboard Top Ten, and when Steven Tyler went to Tim Collins’ office, believing he was scheduled to talk on a BBC radio interview. He was confronted by Collins and the band. The intervention led to his being taken to a rehab clinic named Chit Chat, where he spent 45 days sobering up. The other band members, in turn, checked into clinics. Although they had reached the pinnacle of drug abuse up until the recording of “Walk This Way,” the success of the single showed them that they could all make a major comeback, if they just cleaned up.

For both groups, the video and the song put them squarely in the spotlight. The tune hit number 4 on the Billboard pop chart on September 27, 1986. Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell” album, which contained the “Walk This Way” single went multi-platinum. The trio appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, the first rap group to ever be given that honor. They were also the first rap act to appear on “American Bandstand” and as a musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.” When Aerosmith emerged from rehab, they went into the studio with veteran Bon Jovi producer Bruce Fairburn and songwriter Desmond Child and churned out their most polished album in a decade, 1987’s “Permanent Vacation.” Geffen Records was pleased that the now-sober band members had produced some solid singles for the album, most notably “Dude (Looks Like A Lady),” “Angel,” and “Rag Doll.”

Unfortunately for Run-DMC, as the 1980s wore on, their star began to fade while Aerosmith’s only got brighter. The rap trio’s two follow-up albums after “Raising Hell,” “Tougher Than Leather” and “Back From Hell,” did mediocre business. While they busted the doors of rap wide open to mainstream, they had also given voice to acts who had a more controversial point of view. The Beastie Boys, another Rick Rubin group, brought the rap message to white suburbia and were followed quickly by the politicized views of Public Enemy, who, in turn, vied for airplay against the visceral gangsta rappers N.W.A. Profanity, the glorification of weapons, and the denigration of women were never much a part of the Run-DMC rap. McDaniels told Pantagraph magazine, “We didn’t just say it’s bad in the ‘hood. We said it’s good and bad, so be cool and go to school.” Teens, eager to lap up the spirit of rebellion, soon saw Run-DMC as ‘old school’ and left their CDs in the cut-out bins.

McDaniels spiraled into bouts with alcohol in the ‘90s and Simmons was accused of a rape. But they fought through the hard times. McDaniels sobered up, and the charges against Simmons were dropped. Both men became born-again Christians, Simmons was ordained as a minister (Reverend Run), and as a reflection of their new-found faith, they released the uplifting rap album “Down With The King” in 1993. The title track cracked the R&B top ten chart and the album went gold.

The rap trio continued playing small venues through the 1990s. Aerosmith dominated the airwaves and arena rock during this period. On March 5, 1999, while performing at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, Run-DMC was joined onstage by their old rock chums, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry for a rendition of “Walk This Way.” The two groups had never performed the song together in concert. Aerosmith invited Run-DMC to open some of their shows during their 1999 tour. But the biggest example of how far the influence these two musical groups’ collaboration had reached was displayed in September 1999, when they appeared together onstage with Kid Rock at the MTV Video Music Awards. After rapping one verse of Run-DMC’s “King of Rock,” Kid Rock was joined by the trio for a rendition of their “Rock Box.” From the audience, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry walked forward to chime in with “Walk This Way.” Kid Rock told Simmons backstage that Run-DMC and Aerosmith had a baby and it was Kid Rock.

The union of Aerosmith and Run-DMC had also arguably spawned the likes of other current chart-toppers like Korn, Limp Biskit, Sugar Ray, DMX, Lil’ Kim, Nas, and Prodigy to name but a few. Not that McDaniels sees the current crop as being better than his old-school mates. He told Sonicnet, “Lyrically, a lot of these rappers I can’t relate to. I think Chuck D (of Public Enemy) is the greatest rapper to ever live. When I first heard him, I felt like God was rapping.” Nonetheless, Run-DMC takes adulation where it can, and right now, the current rappers seem honored to partake in a little contribution to their forebears’ recent recording. Run-DMC’s latest album, “Crown Royal,” features the cream of the current rap/rock crop, but it has yet to be released, due to continued artists’ label disputes.

McDaniels recently told Sonicnet, “Back when we started out, people always asked whether rap and hip hop was a fad. And we’d say, nah. It’ll last forever. And look at it. I’m happy for what the music has done.” As for what it did for legendary rock gods like Aerosmith, guitarist Brad Whitford seemed to have summed it up when he said, “It made us look hip for a change.”

“Walk This Way” lyrics
by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry

backstroke lover always hidin’ ‘neath the covers
till I talked to your daddy, he say
he said, “you ain’t seen nothin’ till you’re down on a muffin
then you’re sure to be a-changin’ your ways
I met a cheerleader, was a real young bleeder
oh, the times I could reminisce
‘cause the best things of lovin’ with her sister and her cousin
only started with a little kiss
like this!

seesaw swingin’ with the boys in the school
and your feet flyin’ up in the air
singin’ “hey diddle diddle”
with your kitty in the middle of the swing
like you didn’t care
so I took a big chance at the high school dance
with a missy who was ready to play
wasn’t me she was foolin’
‘cause she knew what she was doin’
and I knowed love was here to stay
when she told me to

walk this way (8x)
just gimme a kiss
like this!

schoolgirl sweetie with a classy kinda sassy
little skirt’s climbin’ way up the knee
there was three young ladies in the school gym locker
when I noticed they was lookin’ at me
I was a high school loser, never made it with a lady
till the boys told me somethin’ I missed
then my next door neighbor with a daughter had a favor
so I gave her just a little kiss
like this!

(repeat second verse, substitute this at the end)
when she told me how to walk this way, she told me to
walk this way (8x)
just gimme a kiss
like this!

© 2000 Ned Truslow

Comments are now closed.