[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
You can't sort 30 years of life in 30 seconds. But that's what confronted Kutmah on the morning of May 5, 2010. Except that he didn't know it at the time. So when he asked the immigration authorities if he could bring his sunglasses to block the sour light of 6 a.m., they snickered that he wouldn't need them where he was going. Then they ushered the artist-DJ-producer out of his idyllic L.A. life and into a grim holding facility in New Mexico.
It's been almost two years since Kutmah was deported, and those who know him sustain a quiet vigil. Born in Brighton, England, Justin McNulty came to Los Angeles when he was 12; here he attended high school and established a reputation as a vital underground artist.
Blessed with impeccable taste and the ability to mix ostensibly incompatible songs, McNulty emerged as a fearless and boundary-pushing DJ at Dublab and Low End Theory. Starting in 2004, his Sketchbook Sessions at Little Temple helped build L.A.'s celebrated beat scene. His wood sketches of nudes attracted renown. Larry David might have said his life was “pretty, pretty good.”
The albatross was a voluntary departure agreement McNulty inked in 1997, wrongly assuming marriage was imminent. Neither the 6,000 signatures the “Free Kutmah” cause accrued, nor his community value mattered to the law, so the government repatriated him to England.
But it's not where you're from, it's where your records are at. One hundred weeks later, McNulty's vinyl and heart remain in Los Angeles, though his dentist is in London.
“Nothing's been terrible. But I don't drink beer and I don't like soccer,” McNulty says the day after a root canal. “I don't feel very English.”
He's well aware that England is probably the world's best place to be trapped. But though his old digs in East London reminded him of Echo Park, it's not home. Now he's in Brixton, where he has started up a Sketchbook night and hosts a radio show on Internet station NTS.
The exodus allowed McNulty to travel for the first time in his adult life. There were shows in Egypt, Israel, Italy, Germany and London, where he's rocked alongside his peripatetic Low End Theory peers. Beyond friends and family, McNulty misses many of L.A.'s amenities: car stereos, the sense of musical community, tacos. His deportation order stands for eight more years, but McNulty can apply to return earlier, although that ordeal could take up three years — if it happens at all.
Despite the dislocation and despondency, McNulty has triumphed over a rough situation. Last month, he curated the stellar compilation Kutmah Presents Worldwide Family Vol. 2. Balancing L.A. beat barons (Flying Lotus, Samiyam, Jonwayne) with their U.K. analogues (Hudson Mohawke, Slugabed), it's the next best thing to his live sets. Even 5,000 miles away, McNulty unearths largely unknown L.A. talents like ESMK and Seven Davis Jr.
“These songs helped when I was going through a really bad place. They made time stop and helped me forget,” McNulty says. “If it wasn't for them and the support that I got from friends, I'd probably be dead.”
If anything, the ordeal has spurred an intense focus. He's finishing an official debut album with his own original production, as well as prepping art pieces for a group exhibition in London.
“Everything still feels fresh. I feel like I'm constantly trying to play catch-up. If I died today, I wouldn't feel like I'd accomplished nearly enough,” McNulty says. “I remember being a kid and wanting Adidas or Jordans. My uncle told me: 'What you need is peace of mind.' I never got what he meant until now.”