“Walk This Way”: an unexpected partnership for the hit that revived the downcast spirit of a troubled band
“What is rap?” Tim Collins asked Rick Rubin after hearing the offer. the manager of Aerosmith he sniffed out the possibility of a good deal, but first he had to clear up an elementary doubt. It was 1986 and he had received a surprise phone call from a hip-hop producer who, at just 22 years old, had already founded a label (Def Jam) and spoke to him with the ease and security of a much more experienced man. The idea was adventurous: record a “rare” version of a hit by Steven Tyler’s band, which was precisely in need of some new strategy to overcome a bit the pronounced drop caused by the low sales of their records from that decade –Rock in a Hard Place (1982) and Done with Mirrors (1985)- and the problems derived from the uncontrolled consumption of cocaine by some of its members. Rare enough for Collins to formulate that candid question with the secret hope that the answer would allow him to glimpse a springboard to reach the fabulous display case that in those years had enhanced the careers of stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson: the MTV channel , a key piece for the dissemination of video clips that the industry now considered essential.
Aerosmith had hit the ground running in the 70s, but their sound -a melodramatic hard rock recharged with simple and catchy riffs, very common in glam- didn’t quite work in the 80s: bands like Metallica or Iron Maiden captured the interest of fans. From heavy rock, genres such as thrash and speed metal began to grow, and the Boston quintet was unable to re-accommodate themselves in this new context. Partnership with a group of rap musicians was a risky test but also had the benefit of novelty. “Walk This Way” had been the last single that had reached the Billboard Top Ten, back in 1975. And Jam Master Jay, founder and DJ of Run DMC, the jewel of New York hip-hop at the time, used it as an input for his sessions: instead of the typical recycling of funk or disco songs, he appealed to mix his solid bases with rock riffs. Although he did not know with great certainty where they came from: he once confessed that he thought that Toys in the Attic, the title of the album that included “Walk This Way”, was the name of the band to which the song belonged.
A fan of the Meters and James Brown, Steven Tyler had written that song thinking that the best thing for a lewd lyric focused on adolescent sexual appetite was a base funky which he specially requested from drummer Joey Kramer. Joe Perry was in charge of the adherent riff that was needed for it to become a hit and soon fatten the account of the main author, also very applied to spend money on vices. It is not known for science which is the true version, but Tyler said in some interviews that in those years he spent six million dollars on cocaine and raised the figure to 20! in his memoir Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?. In any case, it was a lot of money, and a good part of those revenues burned at full steam were due to “Walk This Way”, whose title -a nice fact- was inspired by a phrase from the unforgettable Igor played by Marty Feldman in young frankensteinTyler’s favorite movie. In the midst of depression due to the erratic course of the 80s, neither he nor any of his Aerosmith colleagues could imagine that the lifeline would come from the hand of a rap trio that had revitalized the genre by adding to the groove contagious of the pioneers -Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, The Sugarhill Gang, Whodini- the distortion of the guitars of hardcore and heavy metal, and changing the colorful and extravagant looks of those predecessors for more sober ones, dominated by black leather.
But Rubin’s insight was truly prodigious. He was still a puppy producer, but he was already showing his teeth. Over time, he would become the main mentor of the Beastie Boys, the person responsible for the artistic resurrection of Johnny Cash and the ideal interlocutor of the excellent Star+ documentary. McCartney 3,2,1. Rubin can be attributed the authorship, or at least the initial impulse, of a crossover of styles that in the 90s would be important in the repertoire of bands like Faith No More, Living Color and Rage Against the Machine. I had already tried the hybrid with Beastie Boys (“Rock Hard”, with AC/DC samples) and Lloyd Coll J (“Rock the Bells”). And Run-DMC had also explored territory with “Rock Box,” produced by Russell Simmons, and “King of Rock,” both featuring the magnetic riffing of Eddie Martinez, a session player who worked with Mick Jagger, Robert Palmer and Blondie.
However, Aerosmith was not very confident in the proposal. Motivated by Collins, more determined by necessity than by conviction to travel an unknown path, the band appeared at the Magic Ventures studios in Manhattan on March 9, 1986 and on that single day -which cost eight thousand dollars- recorded with his new rap partners a song that would relaunch his career on the horse of a video clip that opted for literalness and won: Tyler pierces the wall that separates the adjoining spaces where Aerosmith and Run DMC are playing with the foot of his microphone, the barriers that separate rock and rap, the music made by whites and the one that became strong in the black community, and in that leap into the void he ends up finding an unexpected treasure.
“Walk This Way” renewed the spirit of Aerosmith and legitimized rap among white audiences with a momentum similar to that caused by Eddie Van Halen’s solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, a historic bridge between hard rock and black pop. Suddenly, Run DMC was going platinum (Raising Hell) and made it to the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. They had already been the only rappers included in the Live Aid poster the previous year, but with the noise of this hit the scenario of the future seemed to change completely, although in the end the Beastie Boys were the band that got the most revenue from the popular interest in the results. of that adventure. Aerosmith, for its part, managed to attract the attention of the young people who were massively following bands like Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses: their next album, Permanent Vacation (1987), sold five million copies (ten times more than its predecessor) and definitively consecrated them as a stadium band.
Then came the collaborations of Public Enemy with Anthrax and a much less happy one between Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, landmarks of a route that was enabled for new routes. The door was opened by this song that – try listening to it today – retains its magic and its power, virtuous results of the temperance of an intelligent and daring producer who, above all, had confidence, an essential ingredient to cook up a success.