The story is surely the stuff of legend: an uncompromising New York model hooks up with Burroughs and Basquiat and reinvents herself as an uncompromising musician and poet. That’s the story of Boston-born Leslie Winer, heralded as the grandmother of trip hop thanks to the 1990 album ‘Witch’.
Weiner spent five years as a self-confessed junkie model, immersing herself in the edgy cross-pollinated Manhattan of the early Eighties, wherein the fashion world would mix with the arts scene at all the best openings, clubs and parties. Transferring to London, Winer wound up in a scene that was recovering from the brief explosion of punk but aggressively evolving toward artsier concerns.
‘Witch’ was recorded under the alias © in the late 1980s, being Winer’s angry response to the concept of words being ‘owned’ through copyright. Winer worked with a cast including PiL’s Jah Wobble, Adam And The Ants’ Kevin Mooney (Winer’s future husband), video director John Maybury, and Culture Club’s Helen Terry, while the album was principally produced by Winer, Mooney and Renegade Soundwave’s Karl Bonnie. ‘Witch’ surfaced as a white label on Rhythm King’s Transglobal imprint in 1990, but didn’t receive an official release until 1993.
This is an album positioned singularly at the intersection of dub, hip-hop and spoken word, with tracks loitering around that junction aimlessly, skulking darkly and kicking sounds nonchalantly against the kerb. The influence of working with Burroughs on his cut-up recordings comes through, with Winer creating loops and disconnected observations about the weather, sexual inequality, war, nudity, finance and advertising slogans.
It’s the music that really grabs you. The superb ‘Flove’ finds a hiccupping, heavily-processed voice over a classic Renegade Soundwave groove of heavy bass and floating percussion. Whether the MIA sonic genius Bonnie is on this track isn’t clear, but the style is so similar to his work with Danny Briottet and Gary Asquith that it makes his influence pretty likely. Bonnie co-wrote three of the best songs on this album, standing out as major highlights among his own criminally slight discography.
Whether Winer deserves the acclaim of being the inventor of trip hop is debatable, but ‘Witch’ remains a powerful statement, even a quarter century on. Copyright laws and a general move toward restraint means we’re unlikely to see this type of hybrid album emerge and achieve such cult status ever again.