Run-D.M.C.’s 1986 cover for “Walk This Way”
Thirty years ago, a song — and a look — changed everything
From Earth, Wind & Fire’s metaphysical vinyl album covers to the holographic CD covers of No Limit Records’ prime, cover art is in fact real art, and its impact can often be more (or less) influential than the artist intended. Run-D.M.C.’s sleeve for the “Walk This Way” 12” (Def Jam) is the perfect example of a cover that means more than it appears to. Straightforward in its art direction, this cover is a snap of music history.
The year 1986 was a good one for Run-D.M.C. The NYC trio from Hollis, Queens — Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell were on top of the world and the music charts with the release of their third album, the triple-platinum Raising Hell. “My Adidas,” the stomping debut single, set the tone for the album’s second, “Walk This Way” the one that transported hip-hop into mainstream consciousness. The song, a collaboration with Aerosmith, and produced by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, was an international hit, and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard’s pop singles chart. But it was about way more than that — rock and rap existed beautifully together — and the three guys on the vinyl single looked like, But of course it did.
“The impact of hip-hop on global popular culture has been so vast as to be immeasurable,” said curator and former director of publicity for Rush Artist Management and Def Jam Recordings, Bill Adler. “It changed everything … and Run-D.M.C. were its crucial messengers, the group most responsible for taking hip-hop out of the ’hood and introducing it to the rest of the world. They embodied the whole culture, just as the Beatles had embodied and transmitted hippie culture a generation earlier.”
The sleeve for “My Adidas” was boldly text- and logo-based. But the photographed “Walk This Way” was as instantly iconic. Legendary NYC photographer Glen E. Friedman is responsible for the shot. “It was the first ‘picture sleeve’ single Profile Records ever did,” said Friedman. “before that, they’d only used generic label sleeves.”
The photo juxtaposes the trio against a graffiti and vine-covered wall. This is capped by autumn-burned leaves perfectly placed around Run-D.M.C. to draw attention to their crisp sneakers. Friedman said picking the location was “pretty much a no-brainer.” They’d journeyed through Queens for a few blocks. “This was overtly obvious, a mural on the wall that says ‘HOLLIS TOWN.’ ”
Working with Run-D.M.C. was a great experience for Friedman, but working with their label was not as pleasant. Ultimately, the label agreed to pay him $100 for his work. Friedman thought this was “f—— ridiculous,” and let Run know how the label treated him. “Run dipped into his pocket, pulled out a wad, peeled off four $100 bills and slapped them in my hand.”
As on the “Walk This Way” cover, the members of Run-D.M.C. were typically laced head to shell-toe in adidas, just because they loved the brand. With the success of “My Adidas” and “Walk This Way” the trio became pioneers in sneaker culture by signing the first nonathlete shoe endorsement. “The hardest thing about getting the deal to work,” said Angelo Anastasio, former adidas marketing director, was getting the people at adidas in Germany to believe in hip-hop.” The 3-stripes brand still capitalizes on these kinds of collaborations today with artists like Kanye West, Pusha T, Rita Ora and Pharrell. After being jokingly asked, “So without you, there’d be no Yeezy Boost?” Anastasio chuckled. “I wish,” he said, “they’d say thank you.”
The “Walk This Way” 12” sleeve is an imprint left behind by Run-D.M.C. — and a preview of what was to come. “Back then, we could have only hoped or dreamed it would have some impact,” said Friedman, who has photographed everyone from The Beastie Boys to Ice-T to Dead Kennedys to Jay Adams. “But even those of us who believed hip-hop was important never … imagined it would have the impact and influence it eventually did.”