Run DMC and Aerosmith were in as different stratospheres as could be. The Boston rock band — made up of Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Tom Hamilton, Joey Kramer and Brad Whitford — were music legends who had hit a rockstar midlife crisis.
Meanwhile, the rap trio from Holis, Queens — which included Joseph Simmons (“Run”), Darry McDaniels (“DMC”) and Jason Mizell (“Jam Master Jay”) — rebranded themselves as Run-DMC in 1983 while they were still teens and they were intimately familiar with Aerosmith’s music. Mizell had been using Aerosmith’s 1975 hit “Walk This Way” between his decks and Run had rapped over the track since he was 12
But it was the genius move to combine the two disparate groups that created one of the greatest genre-crossing hits — and arguably changed the face of American music forever.
Mixing up genres wasn’t a new concept for Rubin. He had already sampled AC/DC’s riff from “Back in Black” for the Beastie Boys’ Def Jam debut “Rock Hard.” Even though he was technically finished with Run-DMC’s Raising Hell album in 1986, he still felt like it was missing something, according to Geoff Edgers’ 2019 book Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith and the Song that Changed America Forever.
He felt he needed a tool — a secret weapon of sorts — to take the rap group out of its underground scene and propel them to mainstream success so that others could understand how nuanced and intelligent the genre is.
“I was looking for a way to bridge that gap in the story of finding a piece of music that was familiar and already hip-hop friendly so that on the hip-hop side it would make sense and on the non-hip-hop side you’d see it wasn’t so far away,” Rubin said. So he called up Tim Sommer who used to be a NYU radio jockey with a very specific request: “I need a white rock song that can be turned into a rap song.” And that’s when the idea of “Walk This Way” came up.
The iconic beats of the song were familiar to everyone involved (although the members of Aerosmith still argue about who came up with it). But the lyrics did cause some fundamental issues, with Run calling them “hillbilly gibberish … Country bumpkin b***s**t!”
But the song got recorded and a new version of “Walk This Way” made its way as the track onto Run-DMC’s 1986 album and became the No. 89 song on Billboard’s Year-End chart.
In a literal shattering of the wall between the two genres, the accompanying music video starts out showing the two bands on opposite sides of a wall before Tyler punches a hole to break down the barrier — and ends with the bands united on stage. It became so popular on MTV that it was shown twice an hour.
The success propelled Run-DMC into mainstream popularity (the album Raising Hell with the track on it went three times platinum) and gave Aerosmith the boost they needed to jumpstart their career (their 1987 album Permanent Vacation sold 10 times as many copies as its predecessor). But more importantly, it opened the doors for hip-hop and rap music to become part of mainstream American culture.
Watch the video below to learn more about Walk This Way!