Justin ‘Kutmah’ McNulty moved from Brighton to Hollywood when he was just 12 years old. Without warning, in 2010, Kutmah was detained by federal agents, taken to New Mexico where he spent two months locked up before then being deported to the UK. As a respected DJ, producer and visual artist, the news of Kutmah’s deportation hit hard with the Los Angeles underground music and arts scene who quickly began campaigning for his freedom. The benefit show that saw performances from over 40 artists and the global support shown paid for Kutmah’s legal fees and got him the passport he required to get out of prison. On the inside, Justin spent his days endlessly drawing what would later become his own series of exhibitions entitled ‘Two Soups and A Honey Bun‘.
Now residing in London; Kutmah is still DJ’ing, producing and drawing, but he’s also running his own label [IZWID], touring with Flying Lotus, playing alongside MF Doom and running his own radio show on NTS.
We caught up with the man himself ahead of his set at StreetFest 2015 next weekend to talk life, deportation, the LA party scene and a bit about ‘That punk Steve Aoki‘.
Hi Justin, how’s it going?
I’ve actually just put all of my stuff into storage so I’m technically homeless now. The last three weeks I haven’t really been able to think about music because I’ve been trying look for a home but I haven’t managed to find anything.
That can’t be good. So what do you think your next steps are going to be?
Well the Flying Lotus tour is selling merch and I’ve made a mix CD just for the tour plus an old beat tape of mine and my friends from Hit and Run in LA made a 10 inch so I’ve got so much merch. If I sell all of that I’ll have enough to get my own spot.
How are you finding London other than the house drama?
Unfortunately, that’s all it’s consisting of at the moment. Well for the last three weeks that’s all it’s been. Looking for a spot is always on my mind but these people are really being greedy. Some of these people have really shitty spots but they’re charging 1,200 for it. I’ve been living on Columbia Road and it’s kind of a tourist spot and I don’t really like that world. Even in LA I lived in Echopark and Melrose, you know, those areas that everyone wants to be at. In London, I want to avoid all of that… I kind of want to live in Gatwick to tell you the truth. I would live down there for sure if it had all of the stuff I need.
You’ve been in London for quite a while now though haven’t you?
Yeah, it’ll be five years in July.
I’m sure you’re probably sick of talking about the whole legal side of your story but when researching Kutmah that obviously comes up a hell of a lot… but something that came out of that is your project “Two Soups And A Honeybun”. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Sure, basically… I was woken up at like 7:00 am and by the next day at 7:00 am I was in New Mexico being looked at by a doctor, about to be put into a warehouse. The next day I wake up and forget where I’m at and there’s about 50 guys, pretty much all Mexican but luckily nearly everyone was from LA so that was good because the Lakers were on TV. I was like the whitest guy there so I kind of felt that first day of school vibe of ‘I’m gonna get in a fight today’. So I went to the library and they wouldn’t give me paper so I stuck paper in my pants. There was this guy that was a really sick artist who used to draw Jesus and religious things on napkins but in a gangster tattoo kind of way. He was really sick. So I started drawing and this guy saw it and was like ‘Oh that looks dope can you draw that on my envelope to my lady?’ and immediately everyone was like ‘That looks dope can you do this?’ so I just drew on peoples envelopes for the first three or four days.
So that gained you a bit of respect?
Well yeah, it saved my ass. I thought I was gonna be sitting there and then I’d look at someone and they’d be like ‘What are you looking at?‘ and then I’ve gotta deal with that dude. So anyway, every day I just drew these sort of landscapes… I used to want to be an architect so to me they were like plan views of cities but also looked like birds. Just simple shit. I just wanted to escape, you know. I didn’t have a ruler so I had to use my prison I.D for all the straight lines. So I just filled this book… sometimes I did two a day, some I did one a day so I’d just draw and read books. My friends were sending me books on meditation and things to help your mind and they denied the books. They didn’t want anything that would allow free thinking but in the library the had The Godfather…
So books on criminal activity is allowed but meditation isn’t?
Exactly, because that’s going to help people get better and they don’t want to do that. So I was mostly reading books about music really and that was really fun. I had an Alejandro Jodorowsky book about his time in mexico tripping on mushrooms. I can’t believe they even let that through. But yeah for three months I just read and drew and that’s where Two Soups and A Honey Bun came from.
And on the outside there was obviously this whole “Free Kutmah” thing going on…
Yeah my friend Brandy Flower in LA was like we’re gonna through a concert and everyone’s gonna play. They already had a crazy line up like Gaslamp [Killer]… Peanut Butter Wolf called and said he wanted to play, Dam-Funk said he wanted to play… it was kinda crazy you know. I was on the phone from like 10:00 am until 6:00 pm and Brandy was like ‘Who do you want to play? I was like get Jonwayne and he was like ‘Who’s Jonwayne?’ I was like trust me. My friend DJ Nobody knew him so he got him to play and then Peanut Butter Wolf saw him perform and then signed him to Stones Throw.
So how did it feel when you saw the reaction you getting deported got? Was the reaction from fans as much as it was people you knew?
I think it was mostly just people being cool like “That sucks for that guy lets help him out”. To be honest with you, I kind of ignored it for a bit because I watched one video and it was so overwhelming it was just too much. I stayed in Manchester for three months on Johnny Dub and Illum Sphere’s couch – they just let me stay there. I just smoked weed for three months and made beats and tried to get back to normal.
I read an interview you did when you’d just got to Manchester and you were saying you weren’t sure about moving to London. What changed your mind?
I just figured, why not just deal with the city? You know I grew up in LA – I was 12 I moved to Hollywood which was crazy and kind of scary. I was used to city life so I just wanted to get involved; I didn’t want to live in a small city. I didn’t want to be a wuss. Everything in my life was so extreme I thought why not just dive into the machine and deal with London. I don’t really regret it, it’s just that I’ve moved like 8 times since I’ve been here: from Shoreditch to Dalston to Shacklewell Lane with all the prostitutes and shit. I once lived above this fake rasta shop and all he sold was white bread and Lucozade so obviously that was actually a weed spot but he wouldn’t sell us any. We could smell it and hear loads of banging at five in the morning where he was obviously cutting all the weed down or whatever. I swear all of London is just shady things going down everywhere.
Do you have a favourite night spot over here?
To be honest with you, no. But that might be because I never go out unless I play or if someone from LA visits but a lot of the time I play those shows like if Ras G or Gaslamp are here, I’ll play those shows. And it’s not like it’s just that I just want to hear the music that I play because that’s what I do…
Surely you play the music you play because that’s what you like and that’s what you want to hear…
Exactly. I feel like that’s what I want to do. When I hear stuff out and I don’t really like them I will just never play that track again like ‘Oh he’s playing that I don’t wanna play that anymore’ even though I’ve been playing it for like 8 months. I get ruined a lot.
So you wouldn’t party in the venues you’re playing in necessarily?
No, well I mean I got here late so I missed the boat with Plastic People but that was one of the best venues in the world I’ve ever been to. It was unreal.
Yeah there seems to be a bit of a cull with music venues in London at the moment, they even tried to shut down Fabric and Ministry of sound at one point as I’m sure you probably know. So do you think if you’d have been here ten years ago you would have enjoyed the nightlife more?
I think so, you know. I mean like fourteen years ago I would have been going to things like Co-Op [Plastic People] ‘cause I was kind of into that broken beat stuff back in the day. But I mean I never got to see Theo Parrish in LA or if I did it would have been some scene shit so it’s kinda cool to be in another city and be like ‘Oh my God, there’s Theo Parish’ and he’s a cool dude, you know. At least things like that have come out of the deportation.
A light at the end of the tunnel then…
Yeah, musically it’s been really good just because I was playing Om Unit’s music back in LA and now I get to meet the guy. I’m actually putting out a record of his. The next release on my label is old beats by Too Tall, which is Om Unit before he was Om Unit. I would never have put out this record were it not for for the deportation. I just wish that it was easier financially – London is such a hard place to be poor. I mean I didn’t have any shows for like Decemeber, January, Feburary, it was just dead… there was just nothing so I just made a beat tape in a week and just put it up and survived off that beat tape. Thank god for Bandcamp. It wasn’t some fine tuned thing it was just the music I’m into. It’s not house, it’s not techno, it’s not party music.
How have you found the reception over here to your music in comparison to LA?
Well I think people party a little harder here. The sound systems are definitely a lot better here. I mean there’s tracks from the UK that we were playing, you know Roots Manuva – Witness, stuff like that. We were playing that stuff when it came out but it didn’t really get the proper acceptance because it wasn’t played on a proper speakers – it didn’t sound right. Like a lot of this big bass stuff, especially in hip hop, some people didn’t get it because we were playing it on these crappy JBL’s… there’s no sub in the party or anything like that. I mean there’s time’s I’ve been quite scared actually, especially if the sub is on the stage it really freaks me out because it rumbles you whole body. Sometimes I like it but sometimes it freaks me out because then you really know what you’re doing to people especially when they’ve never heard the tune before there’s a confusion. Obviously If you’ve never heard it before it might sound weird to you but like I know the tunes but I’ve never felt like like I’m inside the bass like that before it’s quite weird. Nice, though.
So other than the speaker systems, what would you say the main differences are between the electronic music scene over here and in the US?
People dance here! I know I haven’t been there in five years but LA is still the hardest place I’ve ever had to DJ just because like I’m sure I could go back now and I’d get love but like you know when you read about someone that plays crazy shit, say Led Zepellin after a techno tune and sometimes I get in a good mood and I try something. Sometimes people will just stand there looking at you kinda weird but on paper they love it. After I got deported people were like ‘Oh I used to really like that guy he used to do crazy shit’ but in the moment they were just looking at you like an idiot. It’s just hard to be different out there unless you’ve already got support.
So when you started Sketchbook was that a way to try and bring something different over there, can you tell us a bit about there…
Yeah well probably since 1999, I was playing a Friday night hip hop club playing the opening set so from like 9 until 10:30 or whatever. Nothing too crazy. Later on I would try and play shit I was really excited about but I mean it’s still Friday night, people still wanna sing along to shit and weren’t really trying to be educated. I really wanted to have night where there wasn’t too much talking – I used to go to this place called The Room in Hollywood where Sketchbook was at and I used to just draw. My homegirl worked at the bar so I would swap drawings for drinks and guys would just play dancehall and then they had a tuesday night open and I just said “Let me try and just play some beats here” and it went over really well until they sold the venue. It was really like the last of the really good underground clubs in Hollywood – you can’t find anything like that anymore. Also that punk Steve Aoki is on the street on a tuesday night and he’s got his sister bringing her super model friends to the parties so everyone would go to that bullshit because they’re playing… God knows what the fuck they were even playing – it was horrible. So we were battling all of that and I mean it’s not like we were trying to be conscious or anything like we want people to party just not so pathetically like we’re gonna have a good time but we’re not gonna be idiots here.
Would you say it’s more image conscious over in LA than they are over here when it comes to partying?
Have you ever seen an LA Boiler Room? They’re the most awkward thing you’ve ever seen in your life. I think it’s just like everyone is sooo high. You know sometimes you get so stoned that you’re literally shook, like, you’re so high. There’s been times when I’ve gone out and I’ve been super high and I don’t really express myself like I’m just like hanging out in the corner listening to the music; I don’t feel like I have to make noise every 5 minutes. I mean I used to dance when I was really young and I was straight edge and I didn’t party I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I just wanted to dance.
Do you think you’d ever try and start something like sketchbook over here, do you think that would be possible?
No I mean I would like to but I hate dealing with guestlist. It’s the most annoying thing to deal with. If it was sponsored and free and I didn’t have to deal with guestlist then yes, without a doubt. We had a long bar at sketchbook and I would bring out old books of mine and record sleeves and people would draw over the top and you could see by the end of the night people wouldn’t be having conversations they’d just be drawing. There’s non verbal communication and especially for a DJ it’s great that you can’t hear people talking over the music. I don’t want people to be silent when I’m playing but in a small intimate venue it would be nice if you couldn’t hear people like ‘Oh my god thats sooo funny’.
There’s a huge street art scene in London so it seems like it would be the perfect place for something like that.
Yeah absolutely, there’s a lot of live graffiti at StreetFest as well isn’t there?
Yeah loads! Will you be tempted to get involved with that side of it as well?
I’ve done live painting and because I draw so small and detailed it just doesn’t work by the time someone’s covered a whole wall, I’ve covered like a one inch space. I can’t do quick large pieces like that. I’d need an overhead projector to outline it and then do freehand but I won’t embarrass myself like that. I’ll tag my name all over stuff though.
Just sticking to music then. Are you looking forward to it?
I am, I’m pretty nervous about it. I’m pretty nervous about everything at the moment but that’s just because of the way things are right now. I think that helps with the music though like if everything was calm and I had a load of money in the bank it would just feel weird – half the music I play seems pretty frustrated. Not angry but like I like to have a bit of soul and a bit of tension.
What kind of set can we expect then?
I don’t know. I never plan them. I find out what I’m going to do 5 minutes before. I mean I could put together a set and then I could get to the venue and realise it’s not that vibe or more importantly I could be like oh I don’t really feel like this right now. I’m on serato so I have about 4000 tunes sort of in order so I can bounce around… I always wing it. Some people hate it, some people think it’s cool. I also never want to give anyone the chance to say ‘oh he’s playing tired ass stuff’. I’m constantly digging around.
Have you been producing anything of your own at the moment?
Yeah, it’s hard though because I’m so limited. I’m not a musician, I don’t have a crazy studio I just have a sampler and a computer which obviously is enough these days… you can make an album on your phone. The Steve Spacek album was all done on an iPad. I’ve just produced something for Seven Davis Jr. So I’m getting there with the production but, and this is the same for my label, we’re never gonna release something that’s big at the moment… we’re either doing something early or it’s never. I think if everyone’s happy then something’s wrong.
How’s everything going with the label?
Yeah good. The last thing we put out was Al Dobson and I just compiled a twenty track double vinyl complisation. A lot of it’s like 10 years old. The Seven Davis Jr track’s from 1999 – it’s a soul tune – it’s unbelievable. There’s some other beats on there; Dark House Family is on there, there’s a Flying Lotus tune from 2009 – everything is exclusive. Dorian Concept has a tune; Mo Kolours, Jeen Bassa. Then we’re gonna do a Too Tall beat tape record of unreleased from 2005-2008 when he was making more hip hop style big beats – but there’s a lot of new age samples in there, really melodic. It’s moody, I think the beat heads will be happy.
So where are you off to next?
Tomorrow I’m going to Eindhoven (24th) and then every day I’m with Lotus so it’s Brussels Glasgow, Ireland, Amsterdam and then we play London with MF Doom, which is going to be insane. It’s funny because he has the same situation as me… I was living at the Stones Throw house in LA and he was recording there so he was staying at the house too and we were both in Brighton and he also got deported – he can’t go back to America either. If I could be his DJ that would be awesome.
Kutmah will be playing at StreetFest 3 May, you can grab yourself tickets here.
Head here to tune into his radio show ‘Sketchbook‘ on Wednesday’s 7PM-8PM.
Words and interview by Maya Radcliffe (@mayarrad)