Throughout the history of American popular music, hundreds of bands have come and gone. While a significant number of these outfits have emerged onto the scene, made quite a bit of unmistakeable noise, and stirred up legions of adoring fans, only a few have managed to avoid fading into nostalgic obscurity, remaining active, relevant, and relatable through cultural shifts, personnel changes, and the inevitable twists and turns inherent to a fickle and often inhospitable industry. Beyond the shadow of any doubt, WAR is one of those bands whose legacy stands firm on its solid foundation; forty-five years after its inception, WAR’s messages of peace and love—enveloped in sounds that pull from jazz, R&B, soul, funk, Latin, and world music—continue a narrative inaugurated at the height of the anti-Vietnam movement. The social and political urgencies of the late 60s have metamorphosed into somewhat nuanced and perhaps more complicated issues of the 21st century, yet WAR’s mission “to spread a message of brotherhood and harmony” endures. Suppose it is as the saying goes: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
On May 19, 2014, twenty years after their last studio release, WAR is set to drop their new album, EVOLUTIONARY, on Far Out Records/UMe. EVOLUTIONARY will bring new original material to fans’ ears, and also the remastered collection Greatest Hits, which debuted in 1976. The band hit the road earlier this spring, co-headlining with Cheech & Chong on select dates (at the time of this writing, WAR was in rockin’ the Byron Bay Music Festival in Australia, with multiple dates on tap through the end of the year).
For this Artist to Artist Q&A, SoulTrain.com had the extreme honor to talk to WAR singer and keyboardist, Lonnie Jordan.
SoulTrain.com: WAR has been a fixture in the music scene since the late 1960s, so no doubt you’ve experienced all the shifts and changes the industry has endured over the years—both as a band and as individuals. Tell us what this moment is like for you now, releasing a brand new album in 2014.
Lonnie Jordan: I’m the only original member [in the band now]. I am influenced by our past. Musically, we’ve never had music education, which has been a good thing for us. It keeps us grounded. Everything that’s happened has been because of the fans. Faces have changed, years have changed—we all get older, except for our music. I’ll retire from the road when I’m 94, but the fans won’t retire. It’s been the same beautiful journey from the late 60s til now. I still have the same smiling face and attitude, and throw all of that into the music. We’ve been faithful to the fans and they’ve been faithful to us, and that’s why we’re able to have a new album. We’re blessed to wake up in the morning and see another day, and to put another album out and see the old faces and new faces, and the “Google faces.”
SoulTrain.com: Throughout the years, several of WAR’s songs have been featured as samples or interpolations in various hip-hop songs. How has hip-hop helped you reach new fans?
Lonnie Jordan: A lot of the kids love hip-hop and are now getting into “school learning” and digging in deeper, learning what music was sampled. That started when Shaggy sampled our song, “Smile Happy.” Then they heard “It Wasn’t Me,” and young people were coming up to me saying, “Shaggy sampled one of your songs.” And I was like, “How did you know?” They Googled it! The new technology is great for learning, whereas back in the day when we had to pick up an encyclopedia. It’s like the new DNA. I am really impressed with the technology today. It is getting so advanced and it’s a beautiful thing if we use the technology as a “medication” musically. Music is a healing power. I am a doctor of music. I help heal people. When you smile, laugh a lot and have music as the medication, then I’m happy because people are happy. I watch the kids standing with their parents at the shows, digging us.
SoulTrain.com: Let’s go back to the beginning. Talk about how WAR came to be.
Lonnie Jordan: We had no musical training, our music came from the streets. That’s what we were putting on wax. We called our music “universal street music.” Ironic, we’re on Universal records now! The fans wrote our music—the mixed salad bowl of people, of genres. That’s why you hear reggae, jazz, Latin, classical. We take you to a place in space, to our galaxy. We give the people what they want—information. When we say the world is a ghetto, we’re just giving you information.
We didn’t really care about making hit records. We went into the studio and hit record and started playing. We had no idea if anything would come out of it. We were virgins of music back then. That’s why we’ve never won awards—people never knew how to categorize us. It was hard for the industry to select WAR to win awards because they just didn’t know how to categorize us. Now here we are, up for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!
SoulTrain.com: Lonnie, how did you become interested in music? How did you begin your life as a musician?
Lonnie Jordan: What started me was the fact of what was in my soul. Listening to Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, Earl Grant…I was listening to every kind of music in the world. Growing up in Compton, we had R&B, pop, and country and western and gospel stations, so that’s what I listened to. I listened to all of the stations. I got turned onto Jimmy Smith Patsy Cline, Rev. P.M. Chambers, Jr. I started playing in churches and took that experience and played in night clubs, then would go home and practice jazz. When the band played together, we realized we had the same talents, same experiences from the streets. We put all that together and realized we had a message to put out there to the people—stop all the crime and wars going on back then. That’s why we call ourselves WAR. We took the opposite approach and let people know through our music our model will be shooting out beautiful notes, rhythms, harmony. Our choice of weapons is instruments. We knew this before we signed a record deal.
SoulTrain.com: Tell us about the new album, EVOLUTIONARY.
Lonnie Jordan: WAR has always been about movement. That movement has always had a street attitude, an attitude, period. That’s what you’re going to get. It’s a double disc—new songs and old songs. The platinum Greatest Hits album came out in 1976 but it wasn’t available, so you’ll get that album with 13 new songs. The new songs have the same attitude, same movement. What more can we say about the world? Nothing has changed from back in the day; the world is a mess right now. We don’t have to rub it in your face and make you sad; music is medicine!
SoulTrain.com: When you turn on the radio today, how does the music resonate with you?
Lonnie Jordan: Whenever I turn on radio or TV, I spend more time switching than anything else because back in the day we didn’t have as many stations! Today, it takes a long time to keep it on one station because there are so many genres. I listen to what other people are listening to; I’ll go to restaurants or what have you and listen to what they are playing and that’s how I learn what’s out there. Or I may turn on VH1 to see what they’re playing. I’ll spot a situation at the moment and listen. Or I may turn on one of the mainstream stations to see what they’re playing. I love all the music today. It’s all entertainment, it’s all a form of art to me.
I do see WAR being on the radio today. I believe we fit the format, it’s just getting it on and getting it plugged and getting it heard. It’s all about getting the ears and the eyes, and getting butts in the seats to see you live. It’s all connected.
Join the movement! Keep up with WAR on their official website, WAR.com.
Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin’ and livin’ in Oakland, CA. Download her EP ‘Nuda Veritas’ on CDBaby and iTunes, keep up with her new music at soundcloud.com/rhonda-nicole, and follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @wildhoneyrock.