From 'Walk This Way' to Rico Nasty, Rap-Rock Collaborations Reveal Power Shifts in Music

Left: A still from Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C.'s "Walk This Way" music video. Right: Rico Nasty performs at Coachella 2019. (Def Jam via YouTube/Right: Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella)

In 1986, rap was still a fledgling genre largely thought of as a fleeting trend—even though multiple hip-hop singles had reached the Billboard charts and Sugar Hill Records enjoyed seven years of success. Yet the genre's new, creative energy proved to be the saving grace of one of the biggest rock bands of all time: Aerosmith, who were all but washed by the mid '80s, with drug issues threatening the future of the band. 

When Rick Rubin approached Aerosmith’s manager about working with the buzzing rap trio Run-DMC, both sides had reservations. But the groups got into the studio and pushed out a reworked version of the band’s 11-year-old track, “Walk This Way,” in a single day. The song peaked at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100, charting higher than the original, and propelled Run-DMC’s Raising Hell to become the first Platinum-selling hip-hop album

Six months later, Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill, their rock-inspired debut album, also produced by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, that has since gone Diamond. (Beastie Boys had attempted to kick off the rap-rock trend two years earlier: in 1984, Def Jam withdrew their single “Rock Hard” because of an uncleared AC/DC sample.) Two months before Licensed to Ill came out, LL Cool J’s 1986 Rubin-produced song “Rock the Bells” also made Billboard’s Top 40. Def Jam was on top.

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“Walk This Way” was a win-win for Aerosmith and Run-DMC. Run-DMC got the mainstream music industry cosign they needed to transcend the underground. And Aerosmith enjoyed sustained longevity and pop-culture relevance: they released their album Permanent Vacation in 1987 (with three top-20 singles and over five million copies sold) and went on tour almost immediately. Executives and fans alike realized how powerful rap-rock was. Over the next 35 years, the two genres worked together to create career-defining material for multiple artists, and also created space for the genre-bending solo artists that are popular today. 

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In the 1990s, rock artists inspired by hip-hop, like Korn, Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit, were on the rise. Korn’s lead vocalist, Jonathan Davis, was a fan of Ice Cube and the gritty sounds of N.W.A., which was evident in the music he helped create. In 1998, the band collaborated with Ice Cube on “Children of the Korn,” exchanging hardcore verses that spoke to Gen X and Y rebellion, advising parents to “Report to your local church / Report to your local police department / It's going down.” But Davis always resented the “rap metal” label, calling it “corny” in a 2007 interview

The '90s also birthed the rap girl/pop girl formula that was showcased on Melanie C (of Spice Girls) and Left Eye’s 1999 song, “Never Be The Same Again.” Two years later, a newly-solo Gwen Stefani and Eve worked together on “Blow Ya Mind,” which won a Grammy for a new category: Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. 

Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” released in 2003, came during the beginning of an important shift in American pop culture: as The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan noted, by October 2003, none of the top 10 songs on Billboard were by white artists for the first time. “The ascendancy of rap and contemporary R&B as the music of choice for young Americans, black and white, was total and irrefutable,” he wrote in 2004. Before “99 Problems,” rap historically leaned on rock, its older, angsty and rebellious sibling, for validation from the mainstream pop world. But in 2003, when Jay-Z shared his Rick Rubin-produced, cop-dodging anthem, rap was decades strong and was slowly overtaking rock as the more popular art form—though it would take nearly 15 years for it to dominate sales in the streaming era. 

Unlike “Walk This Way,” the rap-rock collaborations of the early 2000s reflected a spirit of fun and collaboration rather than career-reviving necessity. Rap-rock group Linkin Park, which formed in 1996, released Collision Course with Jay-Z in 2004. The EP’s only single, “Numb/Encore” went on to win a Best Rap/Sung Grammy. But this collaboration wasn’t about resuscitating anyone’s career: both acts were at the top of their game.

Collaborations like Avril Lavigne and Lil Mama’s 2007 solid “Girlfriend” remix continued the formula’s success into the late 2000s, but by the end of that decade, rap-rock had all but lost its cool. As Jayson Greene noted in Pitchfork, listeners associated the genre with projects like Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, an album that brimmed with toxic masculinity and copious amounts of shock value. Lil Wayne’s 2010 guitar-heavy album Rebirth didn’t do as well as his previous releases, and Gen Xers and older millennials began to scoff at rap-rock’s seemingly irredeemable corniness.

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Nonetheless, by the second half of the 2010s, enough time had passed for cringe-worthy rap-rock memories to fade, and a new generation that grew up with this fusion took up the mantle. Rock star rappers that came after Lil Wayne, like Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert and Travis Scott—and even more underground performers such as Bones and Xavier Wulf—picked up the pieces. In 2018, Neilson reported that rap usurped rock as the best-selling genre, and rock continued to serve as a crucial source of inspiration for rap’s newer faces, including chart-topper Trippie Redd and 2019 XXL Freshman Rico Nasty. 

In a sense, the shift marks a return to form, as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton and other black innovators are often credited for the invention of rock’n’roll. Collaborations continue, but the reception is different. Kendrick Lamar worked with U2 on his Pulitzer-winning album DAMN. (the first-ever rap album to win the prestigious award), but the album’s glowing reception had everything to do with Lamar’s vision and little with the rock giant’s cosign. The fledgling finally spread its wings and soared higher than anyone could’ve imagined in less than 40 years. 

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So now, when artists like pop-rap-rock crossover act Post Malone reach out to 21 Savage, the intent is different. Rap is now the top dog, the stamp of “cool” that rock acts turn to for charting material. Rock is still an endless well of auditory and visual inspiration. The two have historically helped one another sell, but above all, they’ve exposed each other’s demographics to new sounds and birthed some of the freshest material made the last several decades.

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