When Aerosmith takes the stage at the Grammys on Sunday to receive the Musicares Person of the Year honors, their set is expected to include an appearance from members of Run-DMC to perform their 1986 rock-rap mash-up “Walk This Way.” The million-selling single and its pioneering music video was a milestone for both groups: It exposed a wider audience to hip-hop, and also injected new life into a rock band on the outs.
Although they are legends now, back in the early ’80s Aerosmith was coming apart. Guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford had left the band amid in-fighting. “They took off. And by the way, they took off because they thought I was getting high too much,” Steven Tyler tells PEOPLE in a new special edition, Aerosmith: In Their Own Words, celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary.
They reunited in 1985, but years lost to estrangement and addiction had cost them dearly. Damaged relationships could be mended, sobriety was a work in progress, but they were still facing a falloff in sales and the feeling that the band lacked relevance to younger music fans now obsessed with MTV. Even older acts like The Who had a video presence in the rotation between Madonna and Michael Jackson. Fellow Bostonians the Cars had already won one of many awards for their visually witty shorts. But to that point Aerosmith hadn’t put anything on film more creative than concert footage.
“I can remember vividly, one day I was driving home and thinking about MTV, this new concept of making a mini-movie to go with a song,” says bassist Tom Hamilton. “I thought, “Oh my God, we will never be part of that.” It was depressing.
Run-DMC was one of the top-selling rap acts of the mid-’80s, but at the time MTV programmers largely ignored rap and hip-hop. Their producer, Def Jam Records cofounder Rick Rubin, wanted to see Run-DMC reach the kind of suburban rock-obsessed teen he once had been. He suggested to the group’s three members that they cover a 1975 Aerosmith hit that they’d been sampling. Then he reached out to Aerosmith with a proposal. A lot of explaining — on both sides — was required. “We didn’t even know who Aerosmith was,” Run has said. But they eventually got to “yes,” with Tyler saying, “Just don’t make fools of us.”
RELATED: Aerosmith Responds to Joey Kramer’s Lawsuit, Says Would Be a ‘Disservice’ If He Performed at Grammys.
When it came time to record “we were on tour in Detroit or something, and we had one day off,” recalls Tyler. He and Joe Perry flew to New York. “Thank God Joe brought his guitar, because had he not, they just would have used the drums that are all alone on the record. They were using that sample and playing it over and over.” He and Perry recorded the song with the members of Run-DMC: Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell. The cover appeared on the Run-DMC album Raising Hell, which went triple-platinum within the year.
“It wound up being so magical,” says Tyler. “Then [the director] Jon Small, who gets little to no credit, came up to me and said, ‘I got a really good idea for this . Why don’t we put Run-DMC on one side, Aerosmith on the other side, and there’ll be a wall, and we’ll cut out a piece in the wall.’ The whole idea was to show that rock and roll and rap could live together. It was a giant step outside anybody’s mind at MTV. That video was the whole thing. For us to be involved in that was just a miracle. It was without a doubt the second step of our career.”
Be sure to check out PEOPLE’s full Grammy Awards coverage to get the latest news on music’s biggest night.
The hit gave Aerosmith the momentum to make their next album, Permanent Vacation and suddenly they were back from the brink. “If we hadn’t done ‘Walk This Way,’ things would have been different,” says guitarist Brad Whitford. “We just had no way of knowing. Then it caught fire, and it was huge.”
The 62nd annual Grammy Awards will be broadcast at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT Sunday, Jan. 26 on CBS