There's a wonderful Lloyd Nelson photo which shows Run-DMC and Aerosmith in a tiny, cramped studio on West 24th Street. Ironically, the only one not looking directly at the camera was the VP of Publicity for Def Jam, Bill Adler, who was not only present during the making of "Walk This Way," but also for many pivotal moments for the label between 1984-1990.
Asking Adler questions about Def Jam is like a would-be-Jedi seeking advice from Obi-Wan-Kenobi. There are simply too many questions for a single phone conversation. We've distilled some of the best quotable below.
On "Walk This Way":
That happened in 1986, and the studio itself is long gone. I don't think it was a very well-known studio. It certainly wasn't in a commercial district. It was just in the neighborhood. There was a small sound booth, and there was that soundboard that you see. The reason that Jay is sitting next to Rick is because he was really stepping up as a co-producer of Run-DMC's records by that time. So that explains him sitting there. And the track was Rick's idea.
"Walk This Way" was unknown to Hip-Hoppers by that name. It was a well-known break beat, and the thing about break beats and the way that DJ's and MC's used them in the early days is that a DJ would've gone through a record and found what you might call a reusable piece — a sample of it — that could be repurposed as the basis of a rap song. And that's the first, whatever it is, eight measures or 16 measures of "Walk This Way."
As far as Run and D knew, the name of the song was 'Toys in the Attic" [by Aerosmith]. That's how b-boys knew it then. They'd never heard of "Walk This Way," because guess what? They'd never heard the vocals. They didn't know what the song was about. Their idea was they were going to use that sample and write a new song and perform over it. The thing about Rick Rubin is that he was also a rock and roll lover, and a punk rock lover, and all of that. And so when he heard about Run-DMC's interest in this he says, "Listen. Let's not remake it, or if we're going to remake it, let's remake it with Aerosmith."
And so it was a big idea. It was a good idea, and it was a discomforting idea to D and Run, and it only got less comfortable once they listened to it. Once they heard the lyrics for the first time, they were really put off. DMC said it sounded to him like hillbilly gibberish. That was his idea. And so having to memorize it was burdensome to them.
By the time that photo was taken, that might have been the second session. I think the first session, it's just Run and D, and they cut some vocals and they split. And they did a shitty job. And then all of a sudden, Jay has stuck around. And here comes Steve and Joe from Aerosmith, and they plug in, and they're playing their asses off. Of course, Tyler can sing as well. And Jay gets on the phone to Run and D and says, "Y'all better come back here, because these guys are about to make you look bad." Then they turn around and come back to the studio, and I guess at some point they did their best to learn the lyrics accurately, and they cut what they cut.
On Public Enemy performing on Riker's Island:
It might have even been Chuck's idea. I was doing PR for the guys at that time, but so was Leyla Turkkan. She was working independently for her own company called Set to Run. They had their album out, that would've been '87, I guess. And one of the key tracks on it was "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," which is basically shot in a jail somewhere. And the album cover was shot in a jail cell. So how and why the administration at the prison decided, "Oh yeah, we want to do this," it's a little odd. It's a little unlikely. I'd say it's to their credit that they were that open. Inside the prison, the inmates loved Public Enemy. It's like when Johnny Cash went to Folsom Prison. They were embraced from the moment they stepped on the premises.
We were honored guests. We had to make our way from one part of the prison to another prison. You'd go in a door and they'd lock it behind you. You'd go to the next door and it was locked in front of you. That had to be opened, and then you'd walk on to the next part. So it was fucking prison. It's not a beach, but again, we were honored guests. We were beloved by the inmates. I certainly didn't feel fearful. I'm guessing there were no less than 300 guys sitting there watching and cheering.
On the 1984 Fresh Fest:
It was a measure of the popularity of this music. Cedric "Ricky" Walker was a young Black promoter out of Atlanta, and his idea originally was to put together a funk tour. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but it turned out there just wasn't that much interest in it. And I don't know who proposed to him to do something about this rap music, but he just went with it. And that turned out to be huge for everybody involved. It was great for Cedric Walker and Associates, and was great for Rush Productions, and it was great for Charlie Stettler and the Fat Boys.
When we're on the road, we're playing 10,000-seat arenas, right? So it's my job to do tour press, and I'm just sitting in New York and calling the rock critics wherever our guys we're going to be. I call the Providence Journal in Providence, Rhode Island, and I'm speaking with, I didn't know him, but I looked him up and I gave him a phone call and I said, "We got this rap show coming to town on Saturday night. Do you want a couple of tickets?" And the guy says, "Yeah, I don't know. I'm not really following it. I don't care about it." Yada, yada, yada, yada, yada. I said, "Listen, we don't have to talk about your critical taste. I'm not going to sit here and bore you with my opinion about what's exciting and wonderful when it comes to this music. I'm just going to say look, we're at the Providence Civic Center on Saturday night. 20,000 local kids have paid $15 a ticket to see the show. I would say that as not just a critic, but as a reporter you can't ignore this. This is going to be a large social event in the heart of your downtown district on Saturday night. You have to cover it for news value alone."
And I said, "By the way, as obscure as you might think this is, you've got a copy of Billboard Magazine in the office. Pick it up, and you'll notice that three of the acts on the bill have top 20 albums, and not just on the Black charts but on the pop charts." And so he'd say, "Okay." The most times they'd say, "Okay, I'll go check it out." So it was helpful to me to make an argument about the popularity of this stuff, and not even have to argue about the critical appeal of it.
*HEADER CREDIT: Chuck D. and Bill Adler attend DJ Chuck Chillout's Birthday Party at the Shadow Nightclub on October 24, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)