EXCLUSIVE: First Interview with LA DJ Kutmah after His Controversial Deportation
Two months ago, news broke that the popular Dublab and Low End Theory-affiliated DJ, Justin "Kutmah" McNulty had been detained by Department of Homeland Security authorities for failing to honor a voluntary deportation notice that he had signed over a decade earlier.
The arrest triggered a campaign to save the artist and musician from being forced to leave the country, a plea that ultimately fell short when he was deported to England two weeks ago, following a nearly two month detention in a processing center in New Mexico.
This is his first interview since his release.
You're staying in Manchester (UK) right now. How did you end up there?
I'm staying with friends until I figure out where I'm going to settle. Everything is up in the air and exciting and brand new and hectic.
You spent a good portion of your childhood in England. Do you have a lot of memories from that period?
I was 12 when I left and I've never been back since, so I basically have no idea about the country. Everything is backwards for me. I consider myself an American--wherever you spend your teens, that's basically where you're from.
Where in England were you from?
I was born and lived in Brighton. I can't wait to return there. It's going to be fun to retrace my childhood steps. It's been interesting thus far in Manchester. They have a delicacy here called Blood Pudding that they eat for breakfast. It's basically cooked eggs and beans and ham, with a cooked blood clot on the side. I've been staying away from that.
Have you played any shows yet?
Not yet, but I have a few coming up. There's a big Brainfeeder London show that will be my first gig in England, and I have a radio show I'm doing in a studio. I've been in the studio a lot, trying to make music and record as much as possible. It's weird going back to my machines after so much time away.
I assume you weren't able to get to your stuff before the authorities detained you?
No, I haven't been able to get it. I've basically been living off three t-shirts. It's like I'm camping.
Are you thinking about settling in London?
You hear so much about London. People say go to the East End, and then people are like 'dude, the east end is dead,' so I don't even know. I'm thinking about London, I'm thinking about Egypt. I haven't been able to travel for 22 years, so right now, I just want to travel and see the world.
Were you expecting to be detained by authorities or did it come as a total surprise?
I was shocked. I didn't have a criminal record and I acknowledge that it was irresponsible to not have the proper paperwork, but I was treated like a common criminal. They called where I was a processing center, but it was like a prison. A 24 hour lock down. I was in there with people who had been in there for 8 years, 16 years. I was a person who didn't have the right paperwork, locked up next to guys boasting about their crimes, about shooting this person or that person, and I was sitting there wondering how it all happened.
The authorities busted in at 6 a.m, right?
Yep, 6 a.m. I thought there was a flashlight or a gun banging at my window. I didn't answer because I didn't know what was going on. My roommate answered the door and I heard my name. I thought they were just going to take me downtown to speak with me, check up on my background, and I'd be fine. I'm not a threat.
I asked them if I could get my sunglasses and they started laughing at me. The authorities were like, 'you won't need that.' Then they handcuffed me, took me downtown and put me in a room with 50 guys, most of them of Latin descent and none of them were speaking English. They gave me a piece of paper saying that I was being deported for ten years. I wasn't allowed to talk to anyone. After five hours in the room, they put us all in shackles. I heard that I was going to Lancaster, then we went to Santa Ana, and then to the airport. The next thing I knew, we were in New Mexico.
And you still couldn't speak with an attorney?
I couldn't talk to anyone until I got to New Mexico. Then every two weeks they'd tell me that I was leaving, but I wouldn't leave. All I needed was a passport. But the government is funding the place and they make money on the daily, so there's no need for them to hurry. They wouldn't even look at my case. I talked to a deportation office and told him that I had 6,000 signatures in my defense. They laughed at me and said it's not a popularity contest.
Did they read you your Miranda rights?
They didn't. They just said, we have a warrant for your arrest and I went with them.
Were you freaking out or did you just accept it and go?
I was really calm. I just walked off with them figuring it wasn't going to be the last time I saw my house and my city. They picked up a few more guys in East LA and everyone seemed calm--as though they were just going to check up on my status. I didn't start freaking out until I was in a room for five hours surrounded by people and unable to understand a word of what anyone was saying.
Were you the only English speaker in County?
Yeah. In Otero, there were a few people who spoke English, but the population was mostly of Latin descent, although they were a few Somalians being detained as well.
What was the daily routine like?
There were 50 bunks and about eight tables, and two TV's. The lights would go on at 4 a.m. every day and then we'd chow. The food was terrible, I lost about 15 lbs. in there. I didn't eat anything. We'd have breakfast and then the lights would still be on, so we'd go back to sleep, watch TV for a few hours, do more bed counts.
I just drew all day. I'm going to have an art show to display all the art that I made made in there. Some guys played dominos, some read up on law books. In general, there was a lot of screaming and yelling--especially if a women came on the TV--then people would start howling at the moon. I'm a really passive person, but being in there made me want to bash people's heads in.
At noon, we'd go to lunch and then we'd go back to the same repetition. We were only allowed one hour of daylight a day. People started to look like zombies.
While this was going on inside, what was the legal situation outside?
I could've fought my case and appealed. But that could've cost me $20,000, and two years of my life waiting for the appeals to go through.
Was it boiling hot inside or were you guys treated fairly well in that regard?
They constantly pumped the place with air conditioning, but we only had recycled water to drink and my hands kept on cracking and bleeding from the dryness of everything.
Were you allowed to read?
There was a little library that looked like a 5th grade library. My friends sent me books on meditation and art, but they were all denied for indecent subject matter. I had to pay to have the books returned out of my commissary account. Meanwhile, the library had Mario Puzo books and murder mysteries, which were probably more indecent.
What sort of things were you drawing?
I would just try to zone out and draw. I made 40 pieces in all. I'm hoping to have a show in London, one in LA, and one in Egypt. They're non-sexual. They look like geometric plans of cities as seen from an airplane. All I had to look at was my laminated ID and I only had three inch pencils to draw with.
Why do you think you were drawing those sort of things?
When I would sit in yard we were in this cage and I'd see these birds flying around. It was like being a child and wanting to fly away from there. I'd just look at the birds and the planes. I don't know exactly what they are, maybe like psychedelic totem poles. I think my drawings were the one thing that stopped me from getting beaten up in there.
When I walked in there, I stood out like a sore thumb. So when I started drawing, the dudes would talk in Spanish saying that what I was doing looked crazy. They were so used to gangsta culture and the "Laugh Now, Cry Later," style that they were like, 'nah, that dude draws cool things, he's okay.'
Were you surrounded by people being detained for criminal violations?
I was in the blue section, which was for people who weren't criminals. Above me was the orange and red sections. The red section was mostly old men, in there for crimes like molestation and murder. They were the creepiest looking people, they looked like perverted Santa Clauses with big beards. At first, I was the fresh fish and dudes were looking at me, but it sort of died down after that.
Did anyone try to fight you?
No one laid hands on me. We were all frustrated in there, freaking out and what not.
How long were you in there total?
Just shy of two months. They got me on Cinco de Mayo and I was released on June 29th. I could've been in there longer--I understand that two months isn't the longest time and that people have dealt with worse. It's just that all I did wrong was mess up my paperwork.
Why did you sign the Voluntary Deportation Agreement in 1997?
I had a girlfriend and I thought everything would work out and we'd get married. We were really in love and she ended up sleeping with this dude who we were both working with. She got pregnant and I started going crazy and subsequently got fired. Everything started going downhill and I needed to survive. I would've left but I couldn't afford to do anything at that point. I started DJ'ing on the side and that led to where I am today. Now, I'm lucky to have a career, but back then, I went underground and did the DJ thing.
I faded off the radar. It was irresponsible, but I didn't think I was a criminal. I did stuff for the community. I gave my music and my art--it wasn't like I was a bum. I figured I'd just keep my nose clean and I did. I didn't get a parking ticket in the last decade. Who else can say that in LA? I had a driver's license. A social security number. I paid my taxes.
So how did the Sketchbook nights start?
That happened in late 2004. I was sick of playing in hip-hop clubs, plus I liked drawing. I'd take my sketchbook to The Room in Hollywood and trade doodles for drinks. I figured I needed an entire night around that night.
It's widely regarding as being the genesis for Low End Theory? Is that a safe statement to make?
I'm sure Low End would've happened anyway. Daddy Kev has always been on point. He did Concrete Jungle back in the day and I'd always go to see DJ Dusk and the soundclashes, like Madlib vs. Cut Chemist.
With Sketchbook, I wanted a night dedicated to beats. Before that you had to play in hip-hop and R&B clubs and there was nothing for the futuristic beat stuff. We ended up getting 30 or 40 sketchbooks full of amazing art and of course, some really shitty stuff. I think it was a good thing for the city. You could sit there and talk, and if you didn't want to talk, you could just draw.
What's been the hardest part about this whole process?
Missing my friends and family. A lot of my friends are touring DJ's and I'll end up seeing them, but it's not the same. I'm used to the sun, I'm not used to the rain. It feels like I'm looking the wrong way on the street and I almost got hit by a car. I'm going to get it together though. I've only been here two weeks. I have to turn in some records, do some more music, do all of this paperwork. I'm going to stay on top of my paperwork.
What's next for you?
A lot of traveling. I've spent 22 years in one place and want to see the world. Right now, I'm a foreigner in my home country. I'm trying to maintain. My house burned down two years ago and I got super depressed. I didn't want to draw anymore. Being detained and drawing everyday made me realize how much I love it and that I'm good at it. I'm not going to flip burgers, I'm going to keep doing what I do.
Have you been making a lot of music?
I've been doing rough drafts, where I turn on my machine, mess around for two hours and then delete it. I've been hearing so many new sounds coming from London. The radio out here is totally different. I've been listening to Arabic AM pirate radio. All sorts of sounds. It's wonderful for a DJ.
I've been working on a few beats, I've got a podcast for Stones Throw that I'm recording today or tomorrow. I'm trying to get more DJ gigs. That's pretty much it, art, music and staying away from blood pudding.
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