It went down exactly like Ice-T said it would: six in the morning, police at the door. But there was no escape out the window — that was where the armed agents looked first. Seven of them, with tons of guns and full raid gear — dressed for a siege in Waco, not a sunny Cinco de Mayo in Mount Washington.
“Are You Justin McNulty!” an agent barked.
“Nah,” answered Jeff Jank, McNulty's roommate and the art director at Stones Throw Records. “What's this about?”
“Deportation warrant,” they said, brandishing a signed order and entering Jank's home. Within minutes, agents from the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division had handcuffed and detained McNulty, the venerable local artist and DJ better known as Kutmah, and stuffed him into the back of a squad car headed downtown.
“I asked if I could get my sunglasses and the authorities started laughing. They were, like, 'You won't need that,' ” the 34-year-old Angeleno says. “I went calmly because I figured they would question me and let me go. I didn't start freaking out until I was in a room downtown with 50 guys, most of them of Latin descent and none of whom spoke English.”
No calls were allowed to friends or family, none to lawyers. Just shackles and sullen stares until the next day, when Kutmah was driven to an airport and flown to a federal detention center in Chaparral, New Mexico — the place where he spent the next seven weeks.
There had been no advance warning, nor any criminal infraction to alert the authorities. In fact, Kutmah hadn't so much as gotten a parking ticket in the last decade. He had a Social Security number, he paid taxes, he blended some of the filthiest blends of psych rock and beat music in town, and he painted the occasional wood burn of a naked woman. Good people.
But Kutmah lacked one thing in his favor: legal-residency status.
Born and raised in Brighton, England, and brought to Los Angeles at age 12, Kutmah had been living outside the law since 1997, when he had signed a voluntary departure agreement to leave the country within 90 days. At the time, he had been repeatedly denied a green card and figured he'd marry his girlfriend. The plan went awry when said girlfriend had an affair and became pregnant by a mutual co-worker.
“I started going crazy and subsequently got fired. Everything started going downhill,” Kutmah says. “I needed to survive. I would've left, but I couldn't afford to do anything at that point.”
Already in possession of a prodigious record collection, he began deejaying, eventually earning a reputation for his uncanny ears, some of Los Angeles' most eclectic, and for his wildly creative mixes. His Sketchbook Sessions night at Little Temple was the city's first all-beat instrumental night, and the scene's central hub prior to Low End Theory. Sketchbook also provided a venue for Kutmah to exhibit his own highly stylized sketches and wood burns.
“He was an unofficial resident at Low End Theory,” says Daddy Kev, the owner of Alpha Pup Records and one of the co-founders of the internationally recognized beat mecca. “Whenever there was a last-minute cancellation, he was the first person we called. Few people have his kind of collection or depth of knowledge. Plus, he's a great performer.”
So it was little surprise that a notable outcry rang out when news of his detention broke in Los Angeles. A “Free Kutmah” campaign erupted on Twitter, with many of the city's most prominent DJs, producers and labels vociferously pledging their support. Prominent Internet radio station Dublab devoted a day to raising funds for his defense. A pair of benefit concerts packed the Echoplex and the Verdugo Bar, with a lineup that read like a who's who of the L.A. underground: Gaslamp Killer, Dâm-Funk, Mayer Hawthorne, Daedelus — the list goes on.
The charity efforts netted nearly $10,000 — enough to take care of Kutmah's legal bills. Despite the initial optimism, hope quickly faded when a motion to reopen the case was quickly denied.
“I spoke with a deportation officer and told him that I had 6,000 signatures in my defense. They told me it wasn't a popularity contest,” Kutmah says.
“Once they refused to reopen the case, it was merely a matter of trying to procure him a passport and trying to get him out of the detainment center as quickly as possible,” Jed Leano, Kutmah's attorney, says. “We declined to appeal because he could've been locked up for years awaiting the final outcome.”
USC law professor and immigration specialist Niels Frenzen affirms the difficulty of winning an appeal after signing a voluntary departure agreement.
“Being a contributing member of the community and having its support have no legal relevance in determining whether or not someone is eligible for permanent residency,” Frenzen says. “It is possible for a senator to introduce a private bill in support of allowing someone to stay, but that's a rare occurrence and usually requires something extraordinary.”
In the meantime, Kutmah waited behind the walls, drawing constantly (“bizarre psychedelic city grids”) and reading whatever books slipped past the erratic censors. Books on meditation were deemed unsuitable, while Please Kill Me: An Uncensored History of Punk Rock was considered kosher. Conditions were akin to federal prison: one hour of daylight allowed, lights on at 4 a.m. daily, inedible penal-colony food.
“There was a lot of screaming and yelling — especially if a woman came on 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,” Kutmah says.
Finally, at the end of last month, he received his passport to return to a homeland he barely remembers. “I'll always consider L.A. my home,” Kutmah says of the city he won't be able to see for at least a decade. “Wherever you were raised as a teenager is what you'll always look back on the most fondly.”
Back in Los Angeles, his friends and peers mourn his absence, while staying sanguine about his future.
“His mixes, art and the love he's consistently displayed are always on another level. He's on a continued quest to expose the world to new music, and this certainly won't stop him,” says Stones Throw–signed funkster Dâm-Funk.
“It's very selfish to think about how much we miss him, but we really do,” says Daedelus, a close friend since Sketchbook days. “The citizenship issue required him to lay low for a long time, but he's no longer going to be our city's secret gem.”
Currently in Manchester, Kutmah remains unsure of his next move, except that it will involve music, art and a lot of international traveling — an impossibility for the previous two decades. Several DJ sets have already been booked and three art exhibits are planned to showcase the drawings he made in New Mexico.
“I feel like I'm a foreigner in my home country,” Kutmah says. “Of course, there are far worse places to be. When I was in the detainment center, I'd talk to the other inmates and they'd tell me how afraid they were to go back to Juarez, Mexico. When my house burned down two years ago, I got superdepressed and didn't want to draw anymore. Being detained and drawing every day rekindled my love for it. It made me realize how much I love music. I'm not going to flip burgers. I'm going to keep doing what I do.”
For the entire exclusive interview with DJ Kutmah for L.A. Weekly, check out our music blog West Coast Sound.