In 1986, rap group Run-D.M.C. collaborated with rock band Aerosmith on a cover version of Aerosmith’s 1975 track “Walk This Way.” The result was a hit song that opened up radio stations and MTV to rap music.
Journalist Geoff Edgers writes about what happened in “Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song that Changed American Music Forever.” Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Edgers (@geoffedgers), national arts reporter at The Washington Post, about the book.
Editor’s Note: The excerpt below contains some explicit language.
by Geoff Edgers
It almost always begins with two. Keith and Mick. John and Paul. Chuck and Flav. They meet on a train, in a club, in homeroom. They realize they’ve got something in common, share a record, a rhyme, and a chorus, and they’re off.
Years later, when it’s all gone mad, when the mishegas of superstardom turns even the tightest brotherhood into a made-for-TV movie, that initial spark can be easy to forget. But it’s always there, at the center, and it’s why fans never stop longing for a reunion.
Start with Run, who put them together. And start in Hollis, where they met, and upstairs, where he first heard those sounds.
“Number one, there’s the attic,” he said.
Forty years later, Joseph Ward Simmons was a minister who liked everyone to call him Rev. Run. He lived in a mansion in Saddle River, New Jersey. He was shiny-bald, heavy, and wearing a black Adidas sweat suit.
Asked about growing up, though, he would snap straight back to the Me Decade, to Joey, that scrappy, basketball-playing kid with an Afro and dirty-dawg smile. And the attic.
Rev. Run wouldn’t even drink Red Bull anymore. But when he closed his eyes, he could still smell the weed stench leaking out the door and down the stairs as his older brothers cranked up the radio.
There were three brothers in that house. Danny was the oldest, Russell in the middle, Joey the youngest. The Simmons family had moved into a three-bedroom brick house at 104-16 205th Street in 1965, when Joey was not yet one year old.
Daniel Simmons Sr. worked in the New York City schools as an attendance supervisor. He also participated in the civil rights movement. He marched on Washington in 1963 and taught a course on black history at Pace University. Evelyn, his wife, taught preschool and painted in her spare time.
They were close with their boys, but they couldn’t control them.
Danny Simmons, eleven years older than Joey, got deep into drugs. Russell dabbled, favoring angel dust, cocaine, and weed. He also liked to toss around his gang credentials, telling anybody who asked about his start as a dealer and his street smarts. But he was no thug.
“Russell, like any other kid who did anything on the street, they like to glorify that shit,” said Danny.
“Russell sold a little weed for me. I would buy a pound of weed and give Russell a quarter pound. But our father had a bachelor’s degree, our mother went to college. Russell was taken care of. The only thing Russell ever sold was a little weed and some cocoa leaf incense faking it was coke. He was in a neighborhood gang because every other kid was in a gang. I personally do not like to further that stereotype that all these kids came from nothing and music made them. What made them is our parents, who got jobs and woke us up in the morning to go to school. We had college funds.”
If Russell at least dabbled in the life, Joey stayed firmly out. He watched what it did to Danny, who was hooked on heroin at one point.
“He saw it all,” said Russell. “His own brother shot a lot of dope. I went through hell. He had a good father, a good mother, and he was able to escape. But you still got family out there, you still got friends. It’s not that much peer pressure. It’s not like you got to come out and join the game.”
Hollis is a 525-acre, southeastern stretch of Queens. For Run-DMC, it is what Liverpool was to the Beatles, but something more. The Beatles left the Mersey behind, and years later, they weren’t writing elegiac remembrances of hanging out on the docks or playing the Cavern Club. They moved on. Run-DMC, on the other hand, held up their home neighborhood as a source of pride, whether rolling past their boys with the radio blasting or celebrating “Christmas in Hollis” on record long after they could afford to leave it behind. It’s no wonder the cover of their authorized autobiography, Tougher Than Leather, features a Janette Beckman photo of the guys-and their crew-standing outside in Hollis back in the day.
It wasn’t Bel-Air or even Long Island, but it wasn’t something to turn your nose up at. Hollis in the ’70s was an urban oasis compared to the burned-out brick buildings of the Bronx. “Moving on up” was the operative phrase, taking its cue from the popular sitcom The Jeffersons. In Hollis, you had a fenced-in yard, a driveway, and your own walls. You could be safe, plan for college, and build a life. Which is not to say it was perfect. There was crime, there was dealing, there were times and corners you didn’t want to be out on by yourself.
The local high school, in particular, did not inspire confidence. The Simmons brothers and Jay Mizell went to Andrew Jackson High School. (Darryl, who became DMC, did not; his parents sent him to Catholic school.) When the school shut down in the early 1990s, state officials noted that a “heroin factory” had been run out of the basement at one point. Its four-year graduation rate hovered around 30 percent.
For Joey-before he became Run-everything was about music and basketball. He loved shooting hoops down in the playgrounds. His connection to music began in the attic. The space first belonged to Danny. He and Russell sometimes let Joey come up. He stared at the nite-glow paint on the walls. The Gil Scott-Heron poster.
“And that’s where I hear Frankie Crocker, in the attic,” Run said. “The biggest DJ in the world and jammin’ to that when they let me come up there.”
Frankie Crocker. Amazing hair, almost heavy metal hair. You can see him in photos backstage with Barry White, just before Thanksgiving 1974, with that golden smile, neat tie, and those locks flowing over his shoulders. Two years later, he turned to an Afro and a white suit when his Heart and Soul Orchestra released a pair of albums on Casablanca Records, the label that also put out the Village People and Donna Summer.
Crocker ruled the airwaves on WBLS-FM, 107.5. He cruised the city in a flashy car or, more famously one night, rode a white stallion through the New York streets to make the grandest entrance at Studio 54. He was purely disco and would claim to hate rap, at least the rap that came later, stripped of the slap bass and four-on-the-floor beat. But Crocker’s raps were famous, as much a model for the first-generation MCs as for the harder rhymes of Caz or the Funky 4+1. Because Crocker’s rhymes weren’t being heard only in nightclubs. They were blasting over the airwaves, bristling with confidence and cool where anybody could hear them.
“Good evening New York,” Frankie would say to open his show over a waterbed of R&B chords. “This is the show that’s bound to put more dips in your hips. More cut in your strut and more glide in your stride.
“If you don’t dig it, you know you’ve got a hole in your soul.
“And you don’t eat chicken on Sunday.
“Tall, tan, young, and fine. Anytime you want me, baby, reach out for me. I’m your guy. Just as good to you as it is for you.”
And then a James Brown grunt.
“Ha ha ha. You get so much with the Frankie Crocker touch. After all, how could you lose with the stuff I use.”
Yes, Frankie Crocker was everywhere. Joey Simmons hustled down the block to 197th Street, cutting through a backstreet instead of the main drag, Hollis Avenue, so he wouldn’t get hassled, to see his buddy Darryl McDaniels. They’d been friends since grade school. Then they went to another kid’s house and the dial was set to WBLS.
“And it’s the coolest echo chamber ‘experience experience, experience,'” said Run.
“‘Frankie Crocker, Crocker, Crocker, the cool chief rocker, Frankie Crocker.'”
His head was spinning. Who was this Frankie Crocker? Then, one day, he begged Russell for a little brotherly guidance. He pointed to the radio.
“‘How do I get to Frankie Crocker?’ He said, ‘It’s so easy. Go to the end of the radio station and the second you turn it like you’re trying to go back, WBLS will come up.’ I’m fascinated. I’m the king. I now can create and listen to Frankie Crocker.”
By then, Danny was out of the house. Russell was still there, but he’d left the attic to the kid, the kid who by that point knew how to tune his radio to 107.5. Rev. Run told the story:
“Then I hear in the streets, ‘Your brother was at the party last night.’ What?” A dramatic pause. “Russell was at a party last night? What is he doing? ‘Your brother, I heard your brother got on the mic last night.’ My brother got on the mic? What is this?”
The parties started in the parks in the early ’70s. There were full bands playing until DJ Kool Herc, in the Bronx and a good twenty-five-minute drive away from the Simmons kids, came around with two turntables and big-ass speakers he’d haul around in his convertible. They say Herc held the first hip-hop party in the common room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Bronx, on August 11, 1973. A copy of the original invite is in a case at the Smithsonian. But what came next shaped the scene more dramatically, when the turntables came off the streets into the clubs.
And by the time Joey was old enough to get into an R-rated movie, what mattered is that Russell had moved onto the circuit. He even had a name for his company, Rush. And when he’d get back to 205th street, early morning, the kid would be waiting.
“I’d see him walk through the door with a guy named Kurtis Walker. Kurtis Blow. I did my job here when I’d hear him coming in at five, six in the morning. Immediately go cook breakfast. They’re hungry. They probably got the munchies. I got to cook breakfast. Make sure Russell get those socks, that I didn’t use up all the tube socks out of the basement. Cook breakfast to keep my brother happy. Bacon and eggs.”
Kurt and Russell would be eating and the kid would be thinking about “Rush, a force in college parties,” and he’d be asking, What can I do?
Excerpted from Walk This Way by Geoff Edgers Copyright © 2019 by Geoff Edgers. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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