Do you want the funk? If not, uh, I think you should leave. Because right here, right now, we’re ’bout to get down! War are a legendary group within the realms of funk and soul music, and their 1972 psychedelic soul masterpiece The World Is a Ghetto is but one piece of their 50+ years of activity – a big, important piece, mind you. It’s a testament to the long-lasting impact of their legacy, and it still holds up to this day.
War are a phenomenon we don’t hear much about. If you do hear about them, it’s usually in the contexts of their hits. “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”, “The Cisco Kid”, or the legendary “Low Rider”, the latter of which everyone and their grandmother’s dog knows and has a very strong connection to Chicano/a culture. After all, it was us that trailblazed the concept of the lowrider car which also goes hand-in-hand with Cholos/as and overall Latin gang culture, and so on. Nowadays, it’s a bit of a stereotype to see a vato draped in flannel and hitting switches in his Impala tryna pick up hynas in South Central LA, but let’s be real, the stereotype exists for a reason.
War are from Long Beach and it’s around these surrounding areas of Los Angeles that all of these cultures meshed with others. This is rooted in the origins of the band itself who were refreshingly diverse as hell. Forming in the late 1960s, right after the apex of the American civil rights movement, was a small indicator of where people and the arts could take us: together. Throughout its years, War have been stacked with Latin/Hispanic, white, and Black members, chief among them were Leroy ‘Lonnie’ Jordan (the only original member from 19-fucking-69), Lee Oskar, and Howard E. Scott who all appear on The World Is a Ghetto.
Released in 1972, War’s fifth LP came across my ears only around a decade ago. Some quick background: one of my favorite rap groups is Geto Boys and they have a song on their very, very underrated album The Resurrection called “The World Is a Ghetto”. It’s a very melodic, almost r&b-leaning deep cut that became one of my favorite rap songs of all time. One of my bouts of hyperfocusing into research led me to discover that the melodies and hook were remade and re-recorded using the War song of the same name as the basis. So I checked it and the originating album out.
Just like the Geto Boys cut, War’s original was soulfully destitute, a reflection of an ugly reality that people of color faced for generations and, with unlimited shame, still face to this day. More literally, it’s a short story told in three little verses and a permeating hook over moody soul/jazz instrumentation. The song’s hook – ‘Don’t you know that it’s true/That for me and for you/The world is a ghetto’ – is a condemnation of how the world sees people of color, and that no matter where they go in the world, they will almost certainly be met with grave indifference at least and animosity at most.
Forlorn saxophone touches in the center of this 10-minute clinic mimic the emotional wailing of someone coming to terms with their reality, barred into the inner cities and deprived of basic needs and the means to obtain them, at least legally. It’s a tale we’ve heard before, but something about War’s take on it is special, especially given its time of release and the harmonious nature of the band. Even in the end of it, wrought with adversity and seemingly no way out, happiness sprouts like the proverbial rose from concrete with the final verse:
‘There’s no need to search anywhere
Happiness is here, have your share
If you know you’re loved, be secure
Paradise is love to be sure’
And that’s just one song, y’all.
Totaling six songs, each one is genuinely its own trip with some unifying themes or at least tones. Most people should know “The Cisco Kid” for its jaunty, Latin-adjacent catchiness similar to “Low Rider”, and that’s not even where the similarities end. The track’s about a Mexican outlaw cowboy driven by righteousness called Cisco Kid and his sidekick Pancho – they even had a TV show. One of the shorter songs on The World Is a Ghetto, it’s easy to see why this is the band’s highest charting hit; it’s just a fun time filled with neat vocal melodies, diverse percussion, and a solid bassline.
“Where Was You At” carries a similar vibe – upbeat, even jovial at times, now with 100% more harmonica which is fitting because this album makes reference to traveling all over the globe, and isn’t harmonica just the most traveling-appropriate instrument? I love the group vocals on this song, the subtle piano, and the bigger drums compared to “The Cisco Kid”.
“City, Country, City” is where things start getting pretty wild. While you couldn’t easily mistake War for an avant-garde band, it’s long songs like this that really showed the sonic diversity of the septet at the time. Jazz is virtually unbound, limitless in expression, and mixing it with soul and funk lashings expands its palette even more where the ‘virtually’ I qualified this statement with earlier all but disappears. “City, Country, City” is rife with excitement, also embodying the exhilaration of being on a journey, going from city to country to city.
The organ and keyboards are the standouts here to me, but the harmonica is the undisputed star and foundation of the track, taking the place of a vocalist with its melodies along with the sax when they trade off parts. It’s also got a profoundly Southwestern feel to it, and not even because of the minute Latin influence. It’s progressive and a touch psychedelic, but still very much retains its jazzy soul.
“Four Cornered Room” along with “The World Is a Ghetto” carried the emotional weight of the album. It’s a much slower number compared to the album’s A side with more melancholic vocal melodies and less dependence on driving percussion. The trippiness however gets knocked up a notch with more effects on the singing, which is already markedly more passionate with higher ranges. It’s a song about understanding and empathy, approaching situations and people with open minds, and being heard to an extent. It has some of my favorite lyrics on the whole album:
‘As we sit here in my four cornered room
I can feel all y’all’s deepest emotions
I know I can’t talk right
But I’m feeling something in the depths of my soul’
“Beetles In The Bog” is the album closer, a song with some spirituality to it. The group vocals are robust, the bassline feels very warm and familiar, and it’s another good time where all instruments are hitting at a great rate like on side A. I love the sax harmonizing with the vocals and the end is a nice send-off for the album as it fades out with the instrumentation going strong.
As stated before, every song is pretty different and strong in its own way. It’s 44 minutes of touching, soulful music that stands high among other popular takes on the sound, but it was quite hard to come across people doing it like War were at the time. Generally, it was either soul, or jazz, or Latin – rarely together, and rarely so cohesive as The World Is a Ghetto pulled off. I’m far from an expert on this particular sound, but what it achieved, coupled with its repurposing in rap music which the band was all for (which was itself a rarity), makes this album one of the best out there that I’ve heard.
I think it’s way important to keep the tenets of War at heart. Though their name implies aggression, they could not have been in a more pleasant, amiable place when it came to artistic expression. Even when they showed a more somber side to their reality, it was based in just that: reality; and always based in empathy. The cover art shows the bustle of urban life captured with the wholesomeness of cartoony, lighthearted allure, like a Peanuts comic, which is indicative of the album’s mission. This is music born of a real city strife stemmed from classism and racism, yes, but also of community and hope, of giving and a common goal of not just survival, but finding and achieving some semblance of happiness and purpose. To be loved. Those are all things we need to keep more on the forefront of our minds now as we try to desperately claw our way to a better future. I’m just glad seven dudes from Long Beach had the forethought and wherewithal to provide a lasting soundtrack for it.
War defined so much with their music in America. “Lowrider” has permeated in so many ways, and has been adopted by so many cultures here, that it literally rivals the national anthem. “Why Can’t We Be Friends” is also big, usually relegating its time in 70s flicks, and wedding party mainstays. Everyone knows who this band is, but only a few understand how much bigger their influence was. Either by being there, or studying it, like us EIN music nerds do, and if one does, then there’s almost without a question in which album is their greatest? The answer will and always has been The World is a Ghetto.
Starting anything out with a track like “Cisco Kid” is a fucking statement. All throughout the American music lexicon, nothing quite hits like funk. No one can deny it stateside. It’s a universal feeling that just kind of resonates with us, and we all generally accept. That track, the “Cisco Kid” is a track that fulfills that entirely. The laidback weeded-out tempo struts like there ain’t shit going on on Sunday, and just absolutely simmers with a sensual red hot intensity. It’s all sex and drugs under disco ball lights that captures the general atmosphere of the 70s sleaze, and beautifies it into primetime.
The eponymous “The World is a Ghetto” is a progressive r&b epic that reflects the working class and oppressive struggles that permeate and persist even today, especially today. The weary sadness the melody carries with somber revelation into the chorus just gives so many particularly beautiful moments. The saxophone solo dripping with dragged out notes that snake around, taking the long road to explore the sonic soundscape the backing band clears way for is delicate, yet heavy. It’s a track that uses every second like it’s its last and just cohesively goes for it as hard as they can to amazing results.
“Beetle In The Bog” congregational sway, and chant flows so nicely sewing 70s psychedelia into the smooth improvisational transition of r&b doo-wop into more James Brown territory. It all flows like night wind, and guarantees nods or gyration from almost any who hear it (fuck the ones who don’t).
With just six tracks, this album utilizes its sonic space sufficiently. The motion never stops from the second it starts. Like a storm rolling through, sometimes things slow down, but never for too long, and everything just stays in perpetual motion until the end. It’s endearingly intoxicating, and definitively important. War created a masterpiece with only 44 minutes that stretched its influence so incredibly far, and we’re all the more better for it.