Music

Breaking Down the Wall

Run-D.M.C., fake Aerosmith, and a teenage riot: the making of the “Walk This Way” video.

Members of Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith at Magic Venture Studios.
Members of Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith at Magic Venture Studios in New York on the day “Walk This Way” was recorded, on March 9, 1986.
Lloyd Nelson/Adler Archive

This essay is excerpted from Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever by Geoff Edgers, out now from Blue Rider Press.

“Walk This Way” felt like the best chance Run-D.M.C. had to take a leap, to become rap’s first superstars. And to do that, Profile Records co-owner Steve Plotnicki knew they would have to crack MTV, and not just for an occasional play after midnight. They were going to need to find a slot in the music network’s regular rotation. And that, for a rap song, wasn’t just rare in 1986. It was unprecedented.

MTV modeled itself after the dominant rock-radio format—album-oriented rock, or AOR. And AOR meant REO Speedwagon, Starship, and Styx were going to dominate the airwaves. It also meant black artists, particularly those who fell outside traditional rock radio, were going to struggle to make the rotation.

Mark Goodman, the first VJ to appear on MTV that early morning in 1981, found the format frustrating, but not surprising. The guys running MTV all came out of radio, and in radio, you stuck to the format.

“And that format was a rock format,” he said. “Nobody called WPLJ in New York, where I worked before, and said, ‘Why aren’t you playing Michael Jackson?’ It was a rock channel. But as things moved forward, it musically didn’t make any sense. I don’t really think the people who were programming were racist. I just think they were shortsighted.”

There’s one thing beyond debate. If by 1986 some black pop stars had become MTV stars—Jackson, Prince, Aretha Franklin—most of the artists in heavy rotation were white. Journey. John Parr. Night Ranger. And rap? It simply wasn’t in the mix. The few hip-hop videos that existed were played rarely and at odd hours.

Plotnicki didn’t have to go far to find the creative answer for “Walk This Way.” Profile’s offices at 1775 Broadway were in the same building as Jon Small. In the late ’60s, Small had played drums in two of Billy Joel’s early groups, the Hassles and Attila. As MTV grew, he had become one of the industry’s most successful video directors. He and Joel, eager to diversify the network, made a particular effort to add black actors to the pop star’s 1983 video for “Tell Her About It.” In 1986, Small produced another video hit with Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All.”

“That’s why we went to see him,” Plotnicki said. “He got a black artist on MTV.”

Plotnicki had already developed a fascination with the network. He viewed videos as a rare opportunity to broaden the group’s audience. On “King of Rock,” Run and D jog up to the front door of a fictitious museum of rock and roll—the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum wouldn’t open until 1995, for another decade.

“You ain’t gonna believe this place,” Run said.

“Word,” replied D.M.C.

As soon as they walked in, they were met by an elderly white security guard played by Calvert DeForest, known for playing Larry “Bud” Melman on Late Night With David Letterman.

“This is a rock and roll museum,” DeForest told them. “You guys don’t belong in here.”

It was an inventive, electric, and funny video. It also got a lot less airtime than Mr. Mister.

Small wasn’t naïve. He told Plotnicki there was only one way a Run-D.M.C. video was going to get heavy play on MTV. He had to get Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to be part of the shoot.

Two weeks before the shoot, Small decided to call up Tyler to explain his concept for “Walk This Way.” Tyler admitted he was worried.

“Just don’t make fools of us,” he told Small. “I don’t want people laughing at us.”

Small developed the concept after a few listens to the song. It wasn’t subtle. Tyler and Perry would be jamming in one room. Run-D.M.C. would be hanging in another. The only thing separating them would be a wall. And when Run-D.M.C. began the first verse of “Walk This Way,” the music would overpower their “neighbors,” eventually forcing a frustrated Tyler to smash a hole in the wall. Physically and metaphorically, the wall between rock and rap—between white and black—would come down.

Small got a modest $67,000 budget and did his best to stretch his cash. He found an old closed-down theater in Union City, New Jersey, for the shoot. Early on, Small decided to recruit three members of the local band Smashed Gladys to serve as a kind of fake Aerosmith rather than fly in Brad Whitford, Tom Hamilton, and Joey Kramer.

Small needed to fill the theater for the post-wall segment, when the two groups would perform together. So he had local radio stations announce the shoot and the need for an audience. When he and his crew reported to work that June morning, there was a problem. The kids outside were mostly black. According to Small’s concept for the video, the crowd was supposed to be there for Aerosmith.

It turned out Small had his stand-ins. The trouble is, the white kids were in their cars. “They were scared to get out,” said Small. “Rap wasn’t big then. It was never on TV. So with a bunch of assistants, I knocked on the windows of the cars and told them to go to the backstage door. There were probably about 2,000 kids. They came in first. Then we started to shoot. And from all the black kids who were hanging out in the doorway, they could hear the music and hear everything, and they eventually broke through the glass, pounded it, and came in. It was crazy, almost like a riot.”

It was June, so Tyler and Perry were months away from rehab. “They were pretty coherent,” Small said. “They had their security guard with them, and Tyler came in carrying a huge medical book that had every pill in it.”

They didn’t look like they belonged in the same room. Run-D.M.C. were wearing what they always wore: all black and unlaced Adidas sneakers, flaps out. Tyler dressed as he usually did: He wore body-hugging tights, a long, flowing shirt open to reveal his bare chest. Perry placed a lit cigarette in his headstock as he pretended to play guitar.

That first day of shooting started early and stretched for more than 18 hours into the New Jersey night. Small shot the video out of sequence. His first shot was of the silhouetted Run-D.M.C. in the back of the stage before they bust out into the Aerosmith gig. On day two, Small focused on the two rooms and the wall.

“Small was a genius,” said Tyler. “It was his idea to build that set and put the wall up. And he said, ‘I’ll saw a hole in the wall and you just hit the spot.’ If you watch the video, the way I go up and fucking try to smash and knock a hole through the wall, it didn’t budge. Whoever was supposed to saw it didn’t really saw all the way through. It just about ripped every muscle in my back.”

Small laughed when he heard this.

“He hit that thing like a ton of bricks,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been good if it broke, one, two, three. It had to have a little tension in it.”

The dynamic between the two groups was, Plotnicki remembered, “beyond chilly.” He overheard Tyler and Perry worrying about their absent bandmates.

“They were worried that the rest of the guys in the group were going to be pissed off,” said Plotnicki. “They were worried about the shoot. ‘Make sure it doesn’t look like Aerosmith.’ ”

Bart Lewis, the Smashed Gladys lead guitarist, was also struck by the almost total lack of interaction between Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith.

“Steven almost went out of his way not to be involved with them,” Lewis said. “I thought it was kind of weird he spent as much time talking to me and ignoring them. I think maybe it was a music business thing. Somebody’s riding somebody’s coattails and each of them think it’s the other. Aerosmith is thinking, ‘This song is going to make you guys huger stars than you are.’ They’re thinking, ‘They’re going to get a comeback based on doing this with us.’ ”

The ice did seem to break as the hours went by.

Around 3 the first morning, Small looked over at Run and Darryl, sitting, their heads touching, exhausted. Tyler came over and shouted, “Wake up, wake up.”

“Why are you so up?” Run said.

“I eat pussy every day,” Tyler shouted back. “That’s what gets me so up.”

At MTV, it wasn’t a given that “Walk This Way” was going to get on the air.

“It wasn’t like we were waiting for the next Run-D.M.C. record,” said John Sykes, the network’s co-founder. “I don’t think we knew Run-D.M.C.”

But they knew Aerosmith, and Les Garland, who oversaw programming, remembered the day the video rolled in. “My office was a full-on dance scene,” he said. “I think I remember putting it on the next day.”

The video was an immediate hit, whether you liked rap or hated it, whether you cared about Aerosmith or considered them washed-up ’70s dinosaurs. It was hard to deny the joy of what Small captured. “That video, I still think it’s hysterical,” said Nina Blackwood, one of the original MTV VJs.

Bill Stephney also noticed. He was working with Public Enemy on Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Their debut wouldn’t be out until early 1987, a record inspired by Run- D.M.C.’s crunch, but with a political edge.

“As much as some folks will look back at the video as being corny, that’s really what happened,” said Stephney, a founder of Public Enemy and later the president of Def Jam Records. “Suddenly, it’s OK for young black men and young white men to have a relationship culturally.”

Even rockers who didn’t care for rap found themselves drawn to the video. “You couldn’t help but sing along to it,” said Tommy Shaw of Styx. “It was pretty brilliant. Everybody’s thinking, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ ”