Conflict is loved by few, disliked by most, and needed at times. Musically, conflict can be defined as a fusion of genres, a cacophony of sounds, key or tempo changes, and even actual conflict in the lyrical message.
As we continue to take a look at the foundations of our modern dance floor, few groups and artists profiled have had such wonderful conflict in their music. I guess it’s only appropriate that they are known as… WAR!
Galaxy (’78; #8 Dance-Disco/#5 R&B/#39 Pop charts) – This was/is “my jam”! This was War’s real entry into disco-dance but not without its funky roots. The “Plump DJ Mix” rocks. Sampled by, among others, Mellow Man Ace on “Mentirosa.” Note: the band got called out for selling out to “disco.” Many fans wanted a “message” and not rump movin’ – many in WAR felt that way too… not me!
WAR didn’t just “start” for this group. It evolved, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by happenstance. Even as I reflect back to first hearing them, I’m conflicted. What kind of a band was WAR? Blues? Well I didn’t really love blues, respected it, yes. It was the same story for Reggae. They definitely had a Latin thread through their grooves… ok I’m warming up now. Rock was in their sound too – I could take or leave Rock bands, it’s really group dependent. I love Jazz and WAR definitely had that vibe and sound in their foundation. Soul! Oh yeah, War had SOUL! And FUNK too! But, you can imagine my conflict: WAR had sounds I connected with but also sounds to which I was lukewarm. But I loved the sum of the parts.
We need a closer look because you are probably full of conflict at this point too.
Coming “Straight Outta Compton,” or at least South Central LA, Howard Scott and Harold Brown birthed a band called The Creators in 1962. BB Dickerson, Lonnie Jordan and Charles Miller would follow on and several others would come and go as they group morphed into a new band called Nightshift in 1968. At that time they brought on a new bass player named Peter Rosen and an alumni of the great Dizzy Gillespie’s band, “Papa Dee” Allen on percussion. In a sad turn (of several that would befall them over the years), Rosen would die of an overdose not long after their inception.
The World Is A Ghetto (’72; #3 R&B/#7 Pop charts) – Real social commentary here: pollution, crime, hopelessness… all viewed through the lens of the band.
Soon after, Nightshift starting playing in a small club where Deacon Jones (an NFL Hall of Famer for the LA Rams) moonlighted as a singer. That rather conflicted football-meets-music collaboration led to a connection (through producer Jerry Goldstein) with Eric Burdon, who was the lead singer for London band The Animals. Ironically, Burdon and his band also had a fusion sound, although Rock was firmly in their underpinnings whether it was of the Psych-Rock, Folk Rock or straight-forward variety. At the same time, Eric loved R&B and infused that sound into The Animals’ music quite often. Eric also had his friend, Lee Oskar join them. This was important in that Oskar, from Denmark, was an incredible harmonica player and would add that unique sound and quality to many future hits.
While not yet independently at “war”, the band’s new moniker was in play as the first album, Eric Burdon Delcares WAR and next, The Black-Man’s Burdon [2 CD] had a couple of hits. A contractual “out” for the core members of WAR and Burdon’s self-proclaimed “exhaustion” resulted not in conflict but rather a new independence for the band, now known simply as “WAR.”
Good, Good Feelin’ (’79; #49 Dance-Disco/#12 R&B/#101 Pop charts) – While this was also “disco-ish” and an “outlier” for the group, it was none-the-less a hit in the clubs. A great vocal hook that matched it’s music guts.
Success however, did not rush to greet their eponymous first album. Remember the times: Vietnam, Watts riots, a national drug epidemic – tons of issues in our country. In describing the development of the “WAR” name another founder, Harold Scott said, “… the most unpopular phrase you could say at the time was ‘war’… (so) it drew attention to us because we were playing music and we had a war within ourselves with the music.” Sounds like WAR was conflicted too… but not for long.
It’s at this point that I believe their vision came into play. Lonnie Jordan was quoted early on as saying:
Our mission was to spread a message of brotherhood and harmony. Our instruments and voices became our weapons of choice and the songs our ammunition. We spoke out against racism, hunger, gangs, crimes and turf wars as we embraced all people with hope and the spirit of brotherhood…
Their conflict had ended in a clear purpose and a diverse international appeal followed… with hit after hit after hit! WAR’s wide-ranging meld of musical styles and genres, with pointed messages backed by uplifting grooves actually spawned more interest, broke racial divides, and created WAR fans of all ages.
Comings and goings of band members (Charles Miller was murdered during a robbery in ’80 and Papa Dee Allen sadly, but perhaps appropriately for a man whose life was imbedded in music, died on stage in ’88) continued from the 1980s to early-1990s. WAR then made what was for their core audience a conflicted shift in ’92. For a new generation that was just discovering WAR, there was absolutely no conflict however! You see WAR’s songs were being legally and illegally sampled during that period (as they continue to be to this day) so their collaboration with a cast of Hip Hop luminaries for their Rap Declares War album was both logical and met with open arms!
In perhaps a final conflict, despite 50 MILLION records, timeless classics, and familiarity across generations (films like Remember the Titans, TV shows such as ER, Bernie Mac, The Simpsons, and the theme to the George Lopez Show; and ads for Burger King, Sprint, Mitsubishi and many others) WAR has not been enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame despite nominations in 2009 and 2014. I guess it’s okay though because the continuing legions of fans continue to grow as the current band tours world wide and does up to 150 concerts a year!
Me and Baby Brother (’73; #18 R&B/#15 Pop charts) – Originally recorded live as “Baby Brother” a rework turned it into the new name and a B-boy classic was born. This song is unfortunately very topical today as is evidenced in the lyrics, “Shot my baby brother… and they called it law and order…”
Oh wait, there was a little bit of real CONFLICT – the band name is owned by the original producer, Jerry Goldstein, so the current band has taken on the rather apropos name, “Lowrider Band.” Irony can be sweet!
Music (and especially Dance Music) seems to rise in its impact as sounds become fused across genres. It intensifies when its creators risk commercial success with song lengths of ten plus minutes… but only if the music and musicians can drive (or even Low Ride) that musical bus creatively. Think about some of your best club/party experiences. They were probably diverse in every way. Thus was the case with our feature group this month. I would definitely have trouble with this suggestion without the column’s context… please get the conflict of WAR in your life!
Foundations is a monthly column by DEL, focusing on the roots of modern dance music.