An important race relations moment occurred in 1986. It was a newly-recorded version of a song called “Walk This Way,” written by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, originally recorded by Aerosmith (1975; Toys In the Attic), but in 1986 released as a record from Aerosmith and Run-DMC. The song appeared on Run-DMC’s multi-platinum album, Raising Hell.
It’s easy to see some segment of the racial divide being brought together through this song and its subsequent music video (below), but let’s consider how disproportionately-slanted the mainstream music market of 1986 was towards the white population, and who needed who more in this pairing.
Rick Rubin, co-producer of Raising Hell and co-founder of Def Jam Records, along with Jam Master Jay, DJ of Run-DMC, conjured up and sold the idea of Run-DMC remaking the song for the Raising Hell project.
The “DMC” in Run-DMC, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, initially responded to the idea as such:
“Motherf*^ker, this is hillbilly gibberish, this is f*^king bulls*^t.” (quote from Andy Greene’s 10/15/09 Rolling Stone article on “Walk This Way”)
Prior to Rubin introducing Run-DMC to the music of Aerosmith, they didn’t know who the band was.
Rubin, trying to genuinely aid the creation of progressive art, and simultaneously bring it profitably to the masses, shared the following in the above-mentioned Rolling Stone article:
“The album needed one more element. I thought there had to be a way to present this to rock fans so people would think, ‘this really isn’t that different than the kind of music I like’.”
But who was really more in need of who? The all-white rock band, or the all-black hip hop group?
From the book Are We Not Men?: Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity, by Phillip Brian Harper:
“…Rolling Stone critic Mark Coleman suggested that, rather than benefiting from the ‘innovative’ quality of Aerosmith’s 1970s composition, Run-DMC’s cut actually modernized the rock band, ‘dragging guest stars Steven Tyler and Joe Perry into the Eighties, kicking and screaming’….Barry Walters (1986) has made a useful point by way of explicating Rick Rubin’s claim that his black classmates were more musically ‘progressive’ than their white counterparts: ‘The music industry treats white music as an ongoing history, and black music as just the latest thing. Many record companies will keep in print the entire catalog of white acts that don’t sell big numbers and delete product by all but the biggest-selling black acts…In other words, black kids are “progressive” because they’ve got no choice. (p. 23)’.”
Was the teaming of Run DMC and Aerosmith in the mid-80s “progressive”? There’s little question that it was. But it wasn’t all roses, and is still far from it.
This combination of musical styles, forms and audiences was a big step forward to truly bringing black and white together to appreciate, respect and enjoy their diversity, while also helping all to see that the melding of the collective creativity could be enjoyable to all.