The Story Behind Walk This Way

Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever by Geoff Edgers

Run-DMC’s third album changed the landscape of popular music.

Their first two albums were overseen by super-producer Larry Smith. Unfortunately, that is not a name everyone is familiar with these days, but he “oversaw six records—three by Whodini, two by Run-DMC, and the debut of the Fat Boys—that sold millions of copies. That’s Phil Spector territory. . . [he’s] the greatest hip-hop producer nobody knows about.”

The third album, Raising Hell, was overseen by a producer that every hip-hop fan knows the name of, Rick Rubin. When the album was complete, however, he felt like something was missing. “I was looking for a way to bridge the 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,” he said.

That is where Aerosmith comes in. Jam Master Jay, as well as a variety of other DJs, would often use the intro to their hit, “Walk This Way” for emcees to rap over. Run-DMC wanted to sample the song and create something original. Of course, we all know they ended up covering it and the song proved to be one of the most popular rap songs ever released. It revitalized the career of the rock band and introduced a lot of people to the genre of rap music.

“That melding of different crowds had already been underway.” Edgers recalls how Blondie performed on Saturday Night Live and brought along The Funky 4 + 1 with them a few years earlier. He writes,  “If [Debbie] Harry and [Chris] Stein could go uptown to hang with Flash or Freddy, the Funky 4+1 could come downtown, into Manhattan, and play what were once white clubs”

“That’s the story of popular culture in America,” said Braithwaite (Fab 5 Freddy). It’s been a collaborative effort between blacks, Jews, and Italians, particularly in New York. That’s how everything kind of happened in this place.”

Edgars tells the story of the record company that gave Run-DMC their big break and changed the game by asking them for more than just singles.

“Robbins and Plotnicki each borrowed $17,000 from their parents and formed Profile in May 1981. They then promptly began to blow their bank account. . . “We were on the edge of failure,” said Plotnicki, “We were down to our last two thousand dollars. Until Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.”

They followed the same formula employed by Sugar Hill Gang, rapping over somebody else’s song . . . Like ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ ‘Genius Rap’ didn’t even pretend to be anything but a musical carbon copy of the original. Where Sugar Hill tried to get away with all-out theft, Profile credited the song to the Tom Tom Club from the start.

Robbins and Plotnicki made ‘Genius Rap’ for $750. It sold more than 100,00 copies of the 12-inch single.

That formula mean they didn’t have to fall in love with every song they put out. They just had to keep the costs down. This was Investment 101. A low-risk deal increased the pay-off potential of a hit record.

The first Run-DMC single hadn’t been an immediate hit, but it quietly sold 25,000 copies. . . That led to Profile’s next request. They wanted a Run-DMC album. . . . The guys are Russel were like, ‘No, rap albums don’t sell.’

Their first album had a stripped down sound that really changed the direction of rap music, but it could have been completely different if the producer of that record had his way. It turns out the budget constraints really helped.

“If I had the budget,” Larry Smith said, “I would have hired live performers on the whole first Run-DMC album.”

The budget didn’t remain a problem, however.

Run-DMC made a video for “Rock Box” in a time when rap artists weren’t making them. Profile spent $25,000 on it, much more than it cost them to record the entire album.

I took more notes when reading this book.  Even as a huge Run-DMC fan, I was able to learn some new things. Fans of both groups will enjoy this book. I was an easy, entertaining read, about a moment in time that changed popular music forever.

My List of 2020 Reads – my annual reading (b)log.