WALK THIS WAY
Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever
By Geoff Edgers
In 2017 Nielsen Music reported that hip-hop and R & B had officially surpassed rock as America’s most-consumed genre. The news elicited international headlines, but for many of us it elicited a yawn. Who didn’t know by then that hip-hop was not just — to cite the rapper Nas, the comedian Katt Williams and countless pundits of the past decade — “as American as apple pie,” but one of America’s greatest exports: a music, culture and ethos that lives and breathes from California to Cape Town, New York to New Delhi?
It wasn’t always so, of course. Such is the premise of Geoff Edgers’ “Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever,” which argues that before the July 4, 1986, release of the hit in his title — one of the first rap songs played on mainstream radio, the genre’s first in the Billboard Top 10 — almighty hip-hop was merely “a small underground community of independent labels and scrappy promoters.” As Edgers, the national arts reporter for The Washington Post, tells it, the crossover rap-rock tune “made it safe to be black and mainstream,” “proved that hip-hop, dismissed by many as a fad, had legs” and became “so many things to so many different people, from bar mitzvah boys in Westchester County to Ice-T.” It accomplished that, essentially, by being “hip-hop’s Trojan horse, the music camouflaged enough to give timid programmers permission to play”; this fomented a movement like the Harlem Renaissance and San Francisco’s Summer of Love, one that “crossed geographical, economic and, most important, racial lines.”
All of this is well-trod territory. There has been no dearth of ink spilled about Run-DMC, Aerosmith or hip-hop’s rise to cultural domination. So in a book that is occasionally hyperbolic yet fastidiously thorough — sometimes too thorough: “Walk This Way” grew from a long-form article and often feels better suited as one, unless you’re enthralled by the nitty-gritty of industry insider-ness — Edgers carves out a niche by creating in narrative fashion the very mash-up he’s documenting, merging two racial and spatial histories just as Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s hit fused disparate sounds and scenes.
On the one hand, there’s the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll story of Bronx-raised Steven Tallarico, joining forces with Joe Perry in ’70s-era Boston to become Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. Edgers pegs the two as polar opposites: While “Perry has his personality knob set on permanent mumble,” Tyler “blasts into a conversation. He makes up words and phrases and draws on entire waiting rooms of personalities. He dances across decades, cities and relationships.” They made an electrifying onstage duo — until they fell victim to the clichés of rock stardom, battling addiction and going from filling stadiums to grasping at straws for a hit.