Detained local DJ/artist Kutmah faces deportation on immigration violations
Last week should have been an unimpeded celebration for the local beat scene, with the latest release from standard bearer Flying Lotus garnering raves from national and international press and further solidifying the community’s reputation as having one of the world's most innovative and genre-bending electronic music scenes.
Instead, news broke Friday that agents from the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division had detained Justin McNulty, a well-respected artist, producer and deejay, better known as Kutmah.
Widely considered one of the progenitors of the Los Angeles sound, McNulty, 34, was detained May 5 at his Los Angeles residence. After being interrogated at a downtown facility, he was transferred the following day to a federal immigration center in Chaparral, N.M., and since has been awaiting deportation to Great Britain, his country of birth.
Upon hearing the news, friends and family immediately began circulating an online petition at FreeKutmah.com, articulating the particulars of McNulty's plight and pressing for donations to help defray his legal expenses. Simultaneously, a team began working ceaselessly to enlist media and political support.
"We've been trying to get this on the radar of senators and other political figures. The clock's ticking, and we know that we don't have much very much time," said Daddy Kev, one of the founders of the Low End Theory, who described Kutmah as one of the best deejays to ever play the weekly club night. "He's a selfless person who has spent countless hours doing philanthropic activities. This isn't someone who had a choice about moving here illegally. His mother moved him here when he was 12, and he's built an entire life here."
Jed Leano, the Montrose-based immigration attorney who represents McNulty, planned to file a motion to reopen the case Tuesday morning. Until his arrest last week, McNulty had been in violation of an outstanding order of deportation dating back to 1997. Born to a Scottish father and an Egyptian mother, McNulty and his mother had been repeatedly denied for a green card and had signed an order to voluntarily leave the country 13 years ago.
While Leano declined to offer the specifics of his defense strategy, he said that deportation would not occur until authorities procured a passport for McNulty, a process that he estimated would take approximately two weeks. Authorities at the Department of Homeland Security responded to queries, but did not have enough information about the case to make a statement as of press time.
"Immigrations and customs enforcement don't have the capacity to detain all the people with outstanding orders of deportation. I know that they have yearly quotas to fill, but it remains unclear why they decided to go after [McNulty] and how they found him," Leano said. "He has no criminal record; the only thing he is guilty of is not being born in the United States."
Shortly after the arrest, Twitter and Facebook erupted with messages of support for the embattled beat maker, with everyone from Flying Lotus to BBC radio DJ Mary Anne Hobbs to Stones Throw Records turning Kutmah's plight into a cause célèbre.
"He's more than just an excellent deejay, he's one of the real visionaries of the modern beat music sound," said Daedelus, one of L.A.'s best-known and venerable beat makers. "His Sketchbook night at Little Temple became the template for Low End Theory, and he was one of the early champions of experimental sounds and techniques that are still very much in use today."
One of the few able to speak with Kutmah has been the Gaslamp Killer, nee William Bensussen, one of the resident deejays at Low End Theory.
"I spoke to him spoke to him twice today. He wants to everyone to know that he's on the up and up, but he's suffering. He's basically in jail," Bensussen said Tuesday. "He does some of the most creative mixing and best track selection of anyone anywhere, but he's virtually unknown because he's had to hide due to his [immigration status]."
Another bastion of support for McNulty has been dublab, the nonprofit Internet radio station that has emerged as a major hub for the city's avant-garde and underground music worlds. On Monday, the station devoted the entire day to a "Free Kutmah" slate, playing his mixes and bringing in Daedelus, Gaslamp Killer, Daddy Kev, among others, to spin and share stories about the heavily dublab-affiliated McNulty.
"He loves sharing music so much that he'd get into zones where he'd just make really long and inventive mega-mixes. He'd mix beat music with soulful tunes and psychedelic rock in a way that was very unique and had a mystic quality," said Mark "Frosty" McNeill, one of dublab's co-founders. "We did an Animal Collective after-party recently and he got so into it that he deejayed for six hours straight and blew all the Animal Collective guys' minds."
In recent years, McNulty had forged a lesser-known but equally notable art career apart from his deejay work. Inclined towards intricate woodburns and sketches, McNulty's work frequently appeared with the Hit + Run crew, whose live T-shirt screen-printing events have become a fixture around Los Angeles music events.
"He's a bold and unashamed artist who was one of the pioneers for what we've been trying to do," said Brandy Flower, the co-founder of Hit + Run. "When he ran the 'Sketchbook' night, he incorporated art and music together in a way that no one else had done in this city. There are probably people in this city who can draw or deejay as well as [McNulty], but there's no one that can do both like him. He'd taken a break from drawing in the last few months, but he called me last week before everything went down to tell me that he'd started drawing again. He was really excited."
-- Jeff Weiss
Photo: Justin McNulty, a.k.a. DJ Kutmah. Credit: Joseph "J-Logic" Thompson*
*UPDATE: The original version of this post improperly credited the photographer. Joseph "J-Logic" Thompson took the shot.