Thirty-three years ago this July 4, Run-DMC's cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" was released to the masses. What was unusual was the fact that Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry guest starred in the song that they wrote. It was a pivotal moment in music, so much so, that Washington Post music and arts writer Geoff Edgers wrote a book about it. Edger's book is titled "Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and The Song That Changed American Music Forever," and he spoke with WGBH News' Henry Santoro about his book and the song's release. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Henry Santoro: Like many books, they begin with an article, and this one was no different.
Geoff Edgers: Yeah, I mean I I noticed that the anniversary of Walk This Way was coming up. I was 15 years old, and I remember when that song came out, because, like everybody else in America, I hadn't really been exposed to rap. And, like every other white suburban kid, it wasn't played on the radio to me. And this song changed all of that. So, I started doing an oral history, and I found that there was more to the story than just that one moment. I wanted to sort of tell the origin story of both Aerosmith and Run- DMC, and also explain why this was so important.
Santoro: Were these two bands destined to meet?
Edgers: No, they were actually destined not to meet. Run-DMC, they used the beat from "Walk This Way," they used that on songs, just like countless other rappers, but they didn't listen to the words. They didn't even know it was by a band called Aerosmith. They just knew it from the record. They knew Toys In The Attic, number 4. Aerosmith, I don't know what they knew at that point, they were so drugged out that they basically said, "Oh, $8,000 to go do a session, we'll do it."
Santoro: Credit really goes to Run-DMC's young producer Rick Rubin. He heard something in the song that spoke to him and it really took some convincing for Run-DMC to hear what Rubin heard, right?
Edgers: Well, Rubin had a very specific aesthetic. It wasn't just that he wanted to mix rap and rock. He wanted to mix a very specific kind of rock, kind of meat head rock. He didn't like anything that was at all glitzy or hair metaly. And yes, Run and Darryl did not want to be part of it. Jam Master Jay, who is no longer with us, he understood the point here and he yelled at his buddies in the group to get back in the studio and record this song.
Santoro: As you said, Rubin offered Steven Tyler and Joe Perry $8,000 to come to New York be a part of that recording, and as you said they were drugged up and drunk as skunks. They would snort a $1,000 worth of cocaine in a night.
Edgers: Well, at that time, they were in such bad shape that Steven Tyler was being given, like, a $20 a week allowance by his management. Then Joe Perry was in this third version of the Joe Perry Project, roaming around town in a van, barely selling any records. So they really were desperate.
Santoro: And that's when Tim Collins was their manager, correct?
Edgers: Yes, Tim Collins. He is really a savior in the Aerosmith story. They pushed him out later on and feuded with him, but without Tim Collins, you don't have this "Walk This Way" recording, and without Tim Collins you don't have the comeback that came afterward.
Santoro: You interviewed some 75 key people for the book. As most reporters know, the more people that you interview, the more different everyone's stories are going to be. So what were the big discrepancies in stories that jumped out at you?
Edgers: Well, I have a whole chapter with Steven Tyler and Joey Kramer arguing about who created the beat on "Walk This Way." Steven Tyler is the singer, but he's a drummer at heart, and he grew up drumming. Joey Kramer is the drummer in Aerosmith, and I had to call those guys back multiple times, I had to talk to management, and finally I determined that I'm not going to tell you who created it. Was it Steven Tyler in Hawaii in 1974, which is what he insists, or was a Joey Kramer in Framingham a little bit after that? Well, I'm just going to leave it to the reader, but it's hilarious to me that there is that debate.
Santoro: What were Joey and bassist Tom Hamilton doing during the recording of this version of "Walk This Way"?
Edgers: Well, the mythology is that they weren't into it, and John Kolodner, the record executive who signed Aerosmith to Geffen, used to refer to the three other guys as the L.I.3. or "less important three." But what's interesting is, when I talked with Kramer and Hamilton and Brad Whitford, the guitarist, their feelings were hurt. They said they felt like they were kept out of it, and they wanted to be part of it. And who knows what the real answer is, but there wasn't a lot of money floating around to bring in the three other guys from Aerosmith to hang out in the studio. So maybe that's why they were cut out.
Santoro: You first heard at the same place that I did which was WBCN. It turned Boston on its ear.
Edgers: Well, it turned the world on its ear. People don't really understand, since WBCN no longer exists. Radio entertainment people, I don't need to tell you, Henry, but people are lemmings. They follow the leader, and the reality is, WBCN was a leader, and when they played that song it gave permission to all the other radio stations to add it to their rock format. And when they gave that permission, MTV then said, Okay we can put this in heavy rotation.' And suddenly the world changed. People think the title of my book is hyperbole, but I remember it well. Right after this song, Yo MTV Raps, Arsenio In Living Color, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I think all of that was brought to life faster because of "Walk This Way."
Santoro: Is there a point in the song when Run-DMC just plain steals it from Aerosmith and makes it their own?
Edgers: Well, I'd say the beginning. The thing about that song is it's not the greatest Run-DMC song, and, in fact, it's not the greatest song on that record, "Raising Hell." But when you listen to that record in sequence, as soon as that beat kicks in, you know, they own it.
Santoro: And all in all, it was the music that did the talking.
Edgers: You know what, another good reference. Yes, let the music do the talking, I love that song. It was part of a failure for Aerosmith, ultimately, that record "Done with Mirrors." But I love it.
Santoro: It's one thing to say that the song had a major effect on the rock and hip hop world. It's another thing altogether to say that song changed American music forever, which is the hyperbole in the title. Have you met naysayers along the way while you're doing the book tours and interviews?
Edgers: Well, yeah, because people don't recognize the fact, until I point it out, that hip hop is our culture now. It is part of our fashion. It's who makes the political statements. Rappers are winning Pulitzer Prizes. But before 1986, you couldn't get it on the radio. You had no mash ups, there was no such thing as Paul McCartney and Kanye West doing something together. Hip hop culture was not in the mainstream. It just wasn't included. So I wrote that title for a reason, because it's true.
Santoro: And the American culture was changing, in part thanks to the rise of hip hop.
Edgers: Absolutely. Would "Public Enemy" have had as much impact? Maybe. Would "Tribe Called Quest?" I don't know the answer to that, but I know that those groups had way more influence than The Fat Boys, or even Houdini or Kurtis Blow or whatever, and those groups weren't on Saturday Night Live, and they weren't making news.
Santoro: You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a music collaboration right now. Just look at the Grammy Awards shows. Some of those collaborations are great, some are just outright ridiculous. Have you ever thought about artists that you would like to see pull off a collaboration like this?
Edgers: Boy, I don't know until I hear it. I just mentioned the Paul McCartney, Kanye West thing with Rihanna. I wouldn't have ever thought of that until I saw it.
Santoro: Because collaborations are everywhere now.
Edgers: Yes, but I don't love that Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X, and that's weird to me anyway, that the real Nas is still here and there's this Lil Nas X running around, but I don't know until I hear it. It's a good point, though. In the wake of "Walk This Way" there were some terrible collaborations. The Fat Boys and The Beach Boys, but even worse was The Fat Boys and Chubby Checker. I mean Limp Bizkit may not exist if this hadn't happened. So I don't know the answer to that, but who would've thought, KRS One going on REM or Chuck D going on Sonic Youth. I don't think anyone would’ve even thought of those things.
Santoro: And I remember a Grammy award show where B.B. King and Billy Idol did this ridiculous collaboration.
Edgers: That's terrible. That's so terrible, I'm gonna go look it up as soon as we're done.