How Johnny Marr Was Influenced By Naughty By Nature

How Johnny Marr Was Influenced By Naughty By Nature

johnny marr
Johnny Marr at Brixton Academy, London, 2014. Photo by Jim Dyson/Redferns via Getty Images.

Johnny Marr, an icon of UK rock, is best known as the guitarist of The Smiths, which he formed with the almighty Morrissey. Even now, 35 years on from The Smiths’ 1984 debut album, the influence of Johnny Marr’s guitar playing is difficult to exaggerate. Marr’s melancholy power riffs coupled with Morrissey's complex, literate lyrics made for the perfect balance of ’60s rock and post-punk that defined the UK's indie sound for most of the '80s.

The Smiths released four albums in as many years, but the British band’s legend has lived on decades past its five-year run (1982 to 1987). Since leaving the band, as well as carving out a notable solo career, Marr has worked with everyone from the Pretenders to Modest Mouse, Talking Heads and Beck. 

Perhaps the key to his prolific creative output, believe it or not, lies in the influence of hip hop outfit, Naughty By Nature, who’s rumination of health and fitness put the Manchurian musician on a long-term path to wellness! 

“It was actually about getting stronger,” said Marr, when he spoke to HipHopDX. “In the ’90s, Matt Johnson [of The The] and myself were making a video in New York and we were in some pretty gnarly parts of town during the song. A couple of Naughty By Nature crew were with us to take care of us. I really liked the late ’80s, early ’90s Hip Hop scene, you know, where there was 3rd Bass, basically East Coast and West Coast.

“And I thought it had been genuinely psychedelic in the way that really good late ’60s jazz was. But the limitations of the technology … in other words, before samplers were able to change key and time … meant that the music was genuinely progressive by accident. And 3rd Bass and you know, there were so many great, great acts around that time.”

Marr continued by explaining that he spent his downtime on the shoot watching a program called Yo! MTV Raps and recalled seeing some of Naughty By Nature’s videos.

“I spent a lot of watching MTV and I found the best stuff around at that time,” he said to HipHopDX. “I was interested in asking a couple of the guys from Naughty By Nature, ‘How come in a lot of your videos and interviews, you guys are always working out all the time?’ Coming from British indie rock, I’m nothing if not curious [laughs]. I wanted to learn and they sat me down and went into this really good explanation.

“It was about this whole philosophy around young black men needing to be strong and as together as you could possibly be and educating yourself because today, particularly the government, was flooding the projects with crack, and the last thing you need is to be the effect of that. You need to be on top of your game. That philosophy sounded so empowering to me and positive. It just made me want to make myself as strong as I could. I also quite liked that it was the opposite of the cliché of indie rock musician.”

"Chain Remains" Naughty By Nature

Inspired by Naughty By Nature's philosophy of finding strength through health, Marr took up running, quit drinking and smoking and started hitting the gym. Now, at 55 years old, it’s not uncommon for him to run several kilometres before a show, take a quick shower, then jump on stage and perform for another few hours. 

“When you’re younger, you’re given this message that being obsessive is really bad for you,” he says. “And understandably, if you’re obsessive about the wrong things or things that are unhealthy then sure, it’s bad for you. But when you get a little older, being obsessive can be pretty useful.

“So by nature, I was sort of a Manchurian rock guitar player who wants to stay up late watching YouTube videos and then getting up at noon and fucking around. But, because I know myself pretty well and I wanted to break out of that usual rock same cycle, I used my obsessive nature in a way that was kind of good for me.”

The Smiths' immeasurable contributions to modern rock remain a subject of awe, with some of the most memorable riffs of the decade played by Johnny Marr. Remember the songs that defined an era with the This Is The Smiths playlist on Spotify:

Listen to all " target="_blank">The Smiths Essentials on Apple Music:

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