‘Walk This Way’ pioneered an enduring form of rap-rock that resonates to this day
For one glorious season, Run-D.M.C. was the rap group your grandmother knew about. By 1988, after Yo! MTV Raps brought the full kaleidoscopic variety of hip-hop music to middle America, they became fedora-clad, gold chain-wearing faces in a rapidly growing crowd. In less than two years, the group was no longer emblematic of the genre, but they continued to loom over the scene as its first and perhaps greatest supergroup.
Today, Raising Hell is usually distilled to a singular pop-culture earthquake: Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry that pioneered an enduring form of rap-rock that resonates through Public Enemy, Eminem, Rage Against the Machine, Kid Rock, Linkin Park, and countless other descendants. Last week, theWashington Post posted a lengthy oral history of the circumstances that led to “Walk This Way,” and the song’s lasting impact.But there’s more to *Raising Hell *than “Walk This Way.” Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell’s commercial breakthrough also reflects shifting tastes within hip-hop music, and a scene that changed with leaps and bounds each passing year.
It was the era of the drum machine, when producers programmed Roland TR-808 keyboards to emit percussive blasts that could rupture car stereos. Younger rappers — who would become known as the “new school” — began to pay homage to hip-hop pioneers through sounds like MC Shan’s “The Bridge,” Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx,” and Just Ice’s “Back to the Old School.”
Most important was an increasing use of sampling. In the past, rap acts would employ a backing band to recreate or “interpolate” a popular break, like Planet Patrol performing a rhythm from Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” on Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock.” But for “Peter Piper,” the lead single from Raising Hell, Run-D.M.C. looped the break from Bob James’ jazz-fusion number “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” while spinning battle raps in quick, free-flowing cadences. The “Mardi Gras” break has been a staple among hip-hop DJs since the late 70s; the same goes for John Davis and the Monster Orchestra’s “I Can’t Stop,” which Jam Master Jay cuts and scratches into staccato noise as D.M.C. raps on “Hit It Run.”
Raising Hell was an album designated after that whole Force MCs/Furious Five/Cold Crush Brothers routines,”D.M.C. told Complex while naming a few legendary old school hip-hop pioneers.
When a station in Aerosmith’s hometown of Boston played ‘Walk This Way,’ listeners called in with racial epithets
While Raising Hell found Run-D.M.C. evoking a recent yet already mythical past, they also focused on the present. Their rivals were men who bellowed rhymes as proof of their mental and physical superiority, and whose hardcore chants were matched by the drum machines exploding under their voices.
The teenaged LL Cool J quickly turned into a black sex symbol with his 1985 Radio debut; when he toured with Run-D.M.C. the following year, he often argued with Run, who accused the upstart of biting his crew’s routines. Schoolly D built a reputation as the first gangsta rapper with aural assaults like “PSK (What Does It Mean)?,” and U.T.F.O. clowned a girl named “Roxanne” over sludgy, booming bass.
The increasingly macho tone of rap music didn’t always serve Run-D.M.C. well, and one of the few bum notes on Raising Hell is “Dumb Girl.” Yet the trio also found ingenious ways to absorb new rap trends. On “It’s Tricky,” they rapped the chorus in a cadence reminiscent of Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” hearkening to an old school tradition as well as a recent uptick in rap novelties like Doug E. Fresh’s “Inspector Gadget”-sampling “The Show.” Also falling into the novelty tradition is “You Be Illin’,” which is as corny and fun as Joeski Love’s “Pee-Wee Herman.”
Then there was “Walk This Way.” Run-D.M.C. had delved into rap-rock with “Rock Box,” “King of Rock” and “Can You Rock It Like This,” but those songs, produced by the late Larry Smith (who died last year), also had a funk groove. The group’s management, label, producer (Rick Rubin), and Russell Simmons wanted the trio to double-down with crossover tracks that would fit in with the pop metal songs beamed out of MTV, according to Ronin Ro’s Raising Hell: The Reign, Ruin and Redemption of Run-D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay.
But Run-D.M.C. wanted to nurture its street following. They initially planned on recording “Walk This Way” like they had done with “It’s Tricky,” by scratching and cutting the original drum-and-guitar break into a slamming beat. Rubin convinced the trio to do a full-fledged remake alongside Perry and Tyler, even though D.M.C. thought, as he told the Washington Post, that Perry’s vocal on “Walk This Way” sounded like “hillbilly gibberish.”
Early audiences were equally apprehensive. When a station in Aerosmith’s hometown of Boston played the track, listeners called in with racial epithets. But the track also earned the respect of influential New York hip-hop jocks like DJ Red Alert. By the fall of 1986, “Walk This Way” had become a national smash, peaking at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
Meanwhile, the Beastie Boys, three snotty Brooklyn punks who had converted their novelty hits “Cooky Puss” and “She’s On It” into a disastrous opening slot on Madonna’s Like a Virgin world tour, were ever-present at the Raising Hell sessions. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine Rubin, whose ideas were often overruled by Jam Master Jay and Run, pouring his ambitions and frustrations into the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill.
“We had definitely been inspired by Run-D.M.C.,” Ad-Rock told Ro for the Raising Hell book. And even as Licensed to Ill dominated popular music in 1987 — and outsold Raising Hell — it became a generation’s totem to the brawling male id, but Run-D.M.C. clearly remained the paterfamilias.
By 1988, Run-D.M.C. had been overtaken by Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, N.W.A and others who virtually owed their styles and careers to the first mainstream rap superstars. That year, the trio released Tougher Than Leather, which felt something like an afterthought, save for one singular moment in “Run’s House,” a song based around a call-and-response routine Run had deployed while conquering stadiums around the globe. “Who’s house? Run’s house!” Decades later, it’s hard to disagree with him.