How 'Walk This Way' Opened Up The Airwaves For Rap And Hip-Hop

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"Walk This Way," by Geoff Edgers. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Walk This Way," by Geoff Edgers. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Aerosmith was one of the biggest stadium bands in the world in the 1970s. But then came the cliché: drug addiction for lead singer Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry, infighting and, by the 1980s, rock's bottom. And as Aerosmith fell, rising hip-hop stars Run-D.M.C. passed them in the other direction.

But while Run-D.M.C. had hits, they didn't have air play — no hip-hop group did.

"It's very hard to understand today, when hip-hop is a part of every element of our culture ... that there was a point where rap was just not in the mainstream, that if you wanted to hear it, you'd listen to a college radio station or you'd have to really seek it out," says Geoff Edgers, national arts reporter at The Washington Post.

Then in 1986, Run-D.M.C. producer and Aerosmith fan Rick Rubin had a thought: Maybe a mashup could help them both, specifically the Aerosmith monster hit "Walk This Way," off the 1975 album "Toys in the Attic." Rubin thought, Run-D.M.C. already used the beats at the beginning. Maybe they could put their spin on the lyrics?

The subsequent joint venture made music history.

Edgers tells the story in his new book "Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song that Changed American Music Forever," and says one of his goals while writing it was to revisit and revise the prevailing thinking about exactly which group helped which.

"There's a false idea here that Aerosmith — the rock gods — came in and helped Run-D.M.C. become popular. And what in fact happened was Aerosmith — the fallen rock gods, who were really in terrible shape ... [were helped by] Run-D.M.C., they were the first rap superstars," Edgers (@geoffedgers) tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "Before this record, they had already sold a couple million of their previous record, and they were young and energetic, and they were rising.

"I would say they saved Aerosmith, and they were kind of the sacrifice for that. This wasn't great ultimately for Run-D.M.C. But for Aerosmith, it just totally relaunched them."

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "Walk This Way"

Interview Highlights

On Run-D.M.C.'s rise to prominence in the 1980s, and how the group shaped hip-hop's sound

"Run-D.M.C. emerges in the early '80s, and basically, in clubs, there is hip-hop. You've got deejays as early as ... the mid '70s. But there was no actual music industry for hip-hop, because what would happen is, you'd have these great groups and deejays and MCs in the clubs, and then the record company would come in and sign them, and they would turn them into disco with some rapping over it. So people always think of 'Rapper's Delight' as one of the first hip-hop songs, and it is, but it's really a disco song with rapping over it.

"You can listen to 'Rapper's Delight,' which is by The Sugarhill Gang, and then you put on 'Sucker MCs,' which is one of Run-D.M.C.'s first songs, and it's startling, the difference. What Run-D.M.C. did is they took the sound of the playground and the club, and they actually put it on record."

"They did not like it. They called it 'hillbilly bull' — we know what comes next."

Geoff Edgers, on Run-D.M.C.'s reaction listening to Aerosmith's original version of 'Walk This Way'

On how Run D.M.C. became aware of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way"

"Run-D.M.C. didn't even know there were lyrics in that song. They knew it as 'Toys in the Attic No. 4.' What happened is, Rick Rubin, he gives them the record, he gives them a yellow notepad and he gives them a pen, and says, 'Go to Darryl's basement, listen to the song and write down the lyrics.' And that's the first time they say they heard the words. And they did not like it. They called it 'hillbilly bull' — we know what comes next."

On the spark that helped "Walk This Way" become such a popular cover, despite Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith not being enthusiastic about making it

"The spark is this: You have Rick Rubin and you have Jam Master Jay, he's like a calming force, and they're really in control of the situation. But it's hard to explain why good art comes out of something, like why you go to the symphony one night and it sounds electric, and then the next night you go and it sounds flat. They just happened to be in a moment, that March 9, 1986, where that beat and the energy in that room, whatever, created something special. The song was too good and the artists were too good."

On why the song wasn't as good for Run-D.M.C. as it was for Aerosmith

"[Run-D.M.C.] could have just fizzled out anyway. It was such a big hit for them that you couldn't help but not do as well but next time out. And I think once that happens, people say, 'Oh, they're not selling as many as last time.' And also you have Run and Darryl, who really had some conflict, and ... Jam Master Jay was tragically killed in 2002, an unsolved murder. That basically ended it. No amount of money — I think Darryl said, 'I wouldn't get back together with Run for $200 billion.' "

Editor's Note: The excerpt below contains some explicit language.

Book Excerpt: 'Walk This Way'

by Geoff Edgers

It almost always begins with two. Keith and Mick. John and Paul. Chuck and Flav. They meet on a train, in a club, in homeroom. They realize they've got something in common, share a record, a rhyme, and a chorus, and they're off.

Years later, when it's all gone mad, when the mishegas of superstardom turns even the tightest brotherhood into a made-for-TV movie, that initial spark can be easy to forget. But it's always there, at the center, and it's why fans never stop longing for a reunion.

Start with Run, who put them together. And start in Hollis, where they met, and upstairs, where he first heard those sounds.

"Number one, there's the attic," he said.

Forty years later, Joseph Ward Simmons was a minister who liked everyone to call him Rev. Run. He lived in a mansion in Saddle River, New Jersey. He was shiny-bald, heavy, and wearing a black Adidas sweat suit.

Asked about growing up, though, he would snap straight back to the Me Decade, to Joey, that scrappy, basketball-playing kid with an Afro and dirty-dawg smile. And the attic.

Rev. Run wouldn't even drink Red Bull anymore. But when he closed his eyes, he could still smell the weed stench leaking out the door and down the stairs as his older brothers cranked up the radio.

There were three brothers in that house. Danny was the oldest, Russell in the middle, Joey the youngest. The Simmons family had moved into a three-bedroom brick house at 104-16 205th Street in 1965, when Joey was not yet one year old.

Daniel Simmons Sr. worked in the New York City schools as an attendance supervisor. He also participated in the civil rights movement. He marched on Washington in 1963 and taught a course on black history at Pace University. Evelyn, his wife, taught preschool and painted in her spare time.

They were close with their boys, but they couldn't control them.

Danny Simmons, eleven years older than Joey, got deep into drugs. Russell dabbled, favoring angel dust, cocaine, and weed. He also liked to toss around his gang credentials, telling anybody who asked about his start as a dealer and his street smarts. But he was no thug.

"Russell, like any other kid who did anything on the street, they like to glorify that shit," said Danny.

He continued.

"Russell sold a little weed for me. I would buy a pound of weed and give Russell a quarter pound. But our father had a bachelor's degree, our mother went to college. Russell was taken care of. The only thing Russell ever sold was a little weed and some cocoa leaf incense faking it was coke. He was in a neighborhood gang because every other kid was in a gang. I personally do not like to further that stereotype that all these kids came from nothing and music made them. What made them is our parents, who got jobs and woke us up in the morning to go to school. We had college funds."

If Russell at least dabbled in the life, Joey stayed firmly out. He watched what it did to Danny, who was hooked on heroin at one point.

"He saw it all," said Russell. "His own brother shot a lot of dope. I went through hell. He had a good father, a good mother, and he was able to escape. But you still got family out there, you still got friends. It's not that much peer pressure. It's not like you got to come out and join the game."

Hollis is a 525-acre, southeastern stretch of Queens. For Run-DMC, it is what Liverpool was to the Beatles, but something more. The Beatles left the Mersey behind, and years later, they weren't writing elegiac remembrances of hanging out on the docks or playing the Cavern Club. They moved on. Run-DMC, on the other hand, held up their home neighborhood as a source of pride, whether rolling past their boys with the radio blasting or celebrating "Christmas in Hollis" on record long after they could afford to leave it behind. It's no wonder the cover of their authorized autobiography, Tougher Than Leather, features a Janette Beckman photo of the guys-and their crew-standing outside in Hollis back in the day.

It wasn't Bel-Air or even Long Island, but it wasn't something to turn your nose up at. Hollis in the '70s was an urban oasis compared to the burned-out brick buildings of the Bronx. "Moving on up" was the operative phrase, taking its cue from the popular sitcom The Jeffersons. In Hollis, you had a fenced-in yard, a driveway, and your own walls. You could be safe, plan for college, and build a life. Which is not to say it was perfect. There was crime, there was dealing, there were times and corners you didn't want to be out on by yourself.

The local high school, in particular, did not inspire confidence. The Simmons brothers and Jay Mizell went to Andrew Jackson High School. (Darryl, who became DMC, did not; his parents sent him to Catholic school.) When the school shut down in the early 1990s, state officials noted that a "heroin factory" had been run out of the basement at one point. Its four-year graduation rate hovered around 30 percent.

For Joey-before he became Run-everything was about music and basketball. He loved shooting hoops down in the playgrounds. His connection to music began in the attic. The space first belonged to Danny. He and Russell sometimes let Joey come up. He stared at the nite-glow paint on the walls. The Gil Scott-Heron poster.

"And that's where I hear Frankie Crocker, in the attic," Run said. "The biggest DJ in the world and jammin' to that when they let me come up there."

Frankie Crocker. Amazing hair, almost heavy metal hair. You can see him in photos backstage with Barry White, just before Thanksgiving 1974, with that golden smile, neat tie, and those locks flowing over his shoulders. Two years later, he turned to an Afro and a white suit when his Heart and Soul Orchestra released a pair of albums on Casablanca Records, the label that also put out the Village People and Donna Summer.

Crocker ruled the airwaves on WBLS-FM, 107.5. He cruised the city in a flashy car or, more famously one night, rode a white stallion through the New York streets to make the grandest entrance at Studio 54. He was purely disco and would claim to hate rap, at least the rap that came later, stripped of the slap bass and four-on-the-floor beat. But Crocker's raps were famous, as much a model for the first-generation MCs as for the harder rhymes of Caz or the Funky 4+1. Because Crocker's rhymes weren't being heard only in nightclubs. They were blasting over the airwaves, bristling with confidence and cool where anybody could hear them.

"Good evening New York," Frankie would say to open his show over a waterbed of R&B chords. "This is the show that's bound to put more dips in your hips. More cut in your strut and more glide in your stride.

"If you don't dig it, you know you've got a hole in your soul.

"And you don't eat chicken on Sunday.

"Tall, tan, young, and fine. Anytime you want me, baby, reach out for me. I'm your guy. Just as good to you as it is for you."

And then a James Brown grunt.

"Ha ha ha. You get so much with the Frankie Crocker touch. After all, how could you lose with the stuff I use."

Yes, Frankie Crocker was everywhere. Joey Simmons hustled down the block to 197th Street, cutting through a backstreet instead of the main drag, Hollis Avenue, so he wouldn't get hassled, to see his buddy Darryl McDaniels. They'd been friends since grade school. Then they went to another kid's house and the dial was set to WBLS.

"And it's the coolest echo chamber 'experience experience, experience,'" said Run.

"'Frankie Crocker, Crocker, Crocker, the cool chief rocker, Frankie Crocker.'"

His head was spinning. Who was this Frankie Crocker? Then, one day, he begged Russell for a little brotherly guidance. He pointed to the radio.

"'How do I get to Frankie Crocker?' He said, 'It's so easy. Go to the end of the radio station and the second you turn it like you're trying to go back, WBLS will come up.' I'm fascinated. I'm the king. I now can create and listen to Frankie Crocker."

By then, Danny was out of the house. Russell was still there, but he'd left the attic to the kid, the kid who by that point knew how to tune his radio to 107.5. Rev. Run told the story:

"Then I hear in the streets, 'Your brother was at the party last night.' What?" A dramatic pause. "Russell was at a party last night? What is he doing? 'Your brother, I heard your brother got on the mic last night.' My brother got on the mic? What is this?"

The parties started in the parks in the early '70s. There were full bands playing until DJ Kool Herc, in the Bronx and a good twenty-five-minute drive away from the Simmons kids, came around with two turntables and big-ass speakers he'd haul around in his convertible. They say Herc held the first hip-hop party in the common room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Bronx, on August 11, 1973. A copy of the original invite is in a case at the Smithsonian. But what came next shaped the scene more dramatically, when the turntables came off the streets into the clubs.

And by the time Joey was old enough to get into an R-rated movie, what mattered is that Russell had moved onto the circuit. He even had a name for his company, Rush. And when he'd get back to 205th street, early morning, the kid would be waiting.

"I'd see him walk through the door with a guy named Kurtis Walker. Kurtis Blow. I did my job here when I'd hear him coming in at five, six in the morning. Immediately go cook breakfast. They're hungry. They probably got the munchies. I got to cook breakfast. Make sure Russell get those socks, that I didn't use up all the tube socks out of the basement. Cook breakfast to keep my brother happy. Bacon and eggs."

Kurt and Russell would be eating and the kid would be thinking about "Rush, a force in college parties," and he'd be asking, What can I do?

Excerpted from Walk This Way by Geoff Edgers Copyright © 2019 by Geoff Edgers. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Emiko Tamagawa produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on February 21, 2019.

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