Loop Dreams: An Interview With Kutmah

Max Bell introduces a new interview series with beatmakers from all over the world, starting with speaking to the Los Angeles beat scene veteran about the late Ras G and influential club night...
By    July 30, 2020

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Loop Dreams is a monthly producer interview series. Each month, Max Bell talks to a producer about the artists, people, equipment, and events that shape their art. These conversations aim to offer insight and inspiration, history and context, to expand and fortify the beat making community.

The Los Angeles Beat Scene has always mirrored the city. It remains geographically divided by the same miles of sun-baked asphalt and graf-blasted freeways that provide passage to studios and club nights, communal spaces for all natives and transplants who identify as members. Before Low End Theory, the scene’s internationally renowned club night, there was Sketchbook. Between 2004 and 2006 (the year LET began), Sketchbook turned a dank Hollywood bar into an institution for beat heads who would graduate to festival-stage fame by the 2010s. In the alleyway behind The Room (that dank bar), they huddled around Dibiase’s infamous boombox. Now, countless people know the names of attendees like Flying Lotus and the late Ras G, who spent those nights exchanging daps, beat CD’s, and blunts.

There would’ve been no Sketchbook if not for DJ/producer Justin “Kutmah” McNulty. He was the founder, and one of the residents of Sketchbook alongside Take (now Sweatson Klank) and Eric Coleman (the Madvillainy cover, he did that). A UK native who immigrated to Hollywood in the late ‘80s at the age of 12, Kutmah’s sets at Sketchbook—and eventually LET— put the “left” in leftfield, helped establish the sound of the beat scene. He might drop Dabrye, Dilla, and early heaters from HudMo or psych-rock and the idiosyncratic soul of Shuggie Otis. 

Sadly, Kutmah’s story is partly a tragedy. Somehow, someone somewhere forgot to file the paperwork when he emigrated from the UK. In 2010, under the Obama administration, ICE raided his home, interrogated him, and left him in a felon-filled detention center in New Mexico for two months until they shipped him to the UK. Despite being ripped away from his friends and the community he helped create just as its profile crested nationally, Kutmah has persisted. After finding some semblance of stability abroad (or back home), he released his moody, experimental debut album TROBBB! On Big Dada in 2017. Of late, Kutmah released several volumes of his Isolation Tapes series, each composed from his home in Berlin. (I’ve covered two in my column at Bandcamp: here and here.) He also still runs his record label, IZWID, and delivers mind-warping mixes on his NTS radio show

This month, on the anniversary of Ras G’s passing, Kutmah released A Tribute to Brother Ras G & The Afrikan Space Program via Dublin label All City Records. A softly thumping requiem for his departed friend, Kutmah is donating all the proceeds to G’s family. As he looked for a new apartment in the middle of a pandemic, Kutmah took several hours to discuss his influences, the early days of the beat scene, making the tribute record to cope with G’s loss, and so much more. With the prospect of returning to the U.S. now a possibility, Kutmah requested that his thoughts on his deportation and the treatment he received in New Mexico remain off the record. If enough people buy his records, maybe he can come home. Max Bell

How did your childhood in England influence you musically?

Kutmah: Mostly, it was my family. My mom liked to clean the house on Sundays, and I would just wake up to the Brothers Johnson or Barry White. He was really her guy. So the really soulful, cinematic, and funky kind of music was in the house. Then I got like a radio, and I would just fiddle around. Pop music was pretty good growing up in the ’80s, like Joe Jackson “Steppin’ Out.” That’s footwork, in my opinion. Minus the high hats, but like it’s 80 fucking BPM and it’s got that bounce to it. That’s like the first footwork tune and no one has flipped it. It blows my mind. I’m just waiting for that day.

You moved to LA when you were 12. What impact did that have on your musical tastes?

Kutmah: We moved in 1988. I was on Sunset and Bronson, between Hollywood and Sunset. Colors had just come out. The theme song was the hardest shit I ever heard in my life at that point. I saw the movie, and then I was terrified of where I’d moved to. Up to that point, everything I knew about Hollywood was Hollywood, you know what I mean? I thought I was moving to where they made Knight Rider… But I had a radio. I was still into pop music, and then one day I went to AM and then went down to the bottom and found KDAY. I think I heard Public Enemy and that just changed my whole shit. I was really into hip-hop from that moment. That was the beginning of the switch from pop music to this rebellious kind of thought. And then my first girlfriend was into Depeche Mode, The Cure, Joy Division, and all that stuff. She really put me onto all this music from the country that I just left.

What are some of the first beats or instrumental projects you heard that inspired you?

Kutmah: Psychoanalysis, the Prince Paul joint. There’s a lot of vocal samples in there and dialogue, so it’s not really instrumental. It’s the same thing as Donuts. It isn’t really instrumental because there’s mad vocals all over that thing, but it is. Fuck that. I’m going to say the instrumentals from Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst. That really changed my life. I was straight edge going to a lot of raves with my friends, and that’s where I first discovered jungle. A few DJs were doing jungle with hip-hop. I remember someone playing a jungle tune, and then they somehow snuck in “Blue Flowers.” It’s 86 BPM, so it’s like halftime of jungle, and that just fucked my whole head up. I stopped listening to rock music after that. I was really into the Pixies and Sonic Youth, and I just completely stopped listening to rock.

After that, the first tape that I ever got that really fucked my head up was DJ Babu’s Comprehension. I was living in Los Feliz. Fat Beats opened. I just got turntables, so I was buying any hip-hop 12” and really intrigued by the instrumentals. Once, there was this Filipino dude behind the counter who I’d sort of seen at parties. I was looking at the tapes, and I see a DJ Babu tape with this dark, blue artwork. I was like, “Yo, how’s this DJ Babu tape?” He’s like, “Yeah, it’s cool.” He seems kind of reluctant to even answer. So I buy the tape, and it’s dope. There’s Babu routines on one side, and the whole side two is Kan Kick instrumentals. Hearing a full instrumental side of a tape was really, really life changing. The funny thing is, a week later, I see the Filipino dude from behind the counter at a DMC battle in LA. It was Babu. I actually asked DJ Babu about his own tape. That was kind of funny. I wish they would press that tape on vinyl. I also want to mention DJ Spooky. If you don’t really know how to mix, you could play a DJ Spooky track. They usually open with this ambient bit for like three minutes. I really liked that. It had that boom that I liked in hip hop, but it was out there, more spacious and expansive. That first record, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, is still one of my favorite records. He was incorporating jungle breaks, so it was really what I was into [before I knew how to mix].

When and how did you get into DJing?

Kutmah: Before I really knew how to mix, I was finding noise records, Gamelan records, and environment records (like the ocean or the desert at night). Before I had turntables, I had a friend who had three turntables at their house. I would go to their house, press play, then play some Gamelan shit with like the Blue Velvet soundtrack and some wind sounds. I didn’t know how to mix, so I was just playing music that they really didn’t have a rhythm, until I figured it out. I was straight edge till I started DJing. Then I had a neighbor in my building that sold weed. I was trying to mix like Kraftwerk with Black Sabbath. It was so off. It just didn’t connect. Then I took some acid and everything connected, I could mix anything.

How did you develop your style as a DJ?

Kutmah: I’ve always been too old for what I was doing. Who starts DJing at 26 or something? Everyone I knew that was DJing at 12. I’ve always been a late bloomer, which is why I had to create my own identity. Because I’m in LA—we got J. Rocc and Cut Chemist. I can’t play breaks as good as Cut Chemist. Am I going to get two James Brown records and try to do what J. Rocc does? Fuck no. I had to [do my own thing]. Like, “Okay, this trip-hop record from the UK on 45 with this instrumental from this New York underground hip-hop label sound amazing together, or this house record slowed down with this 45 sped up sounds crazy together.” It’s hard to get a reputation in LA. Because I was older, I had to be interesting.

Did you develop via trial and error, or did you have a mentor(s)?

Kutmah: All trial and error. No one really showed me anything. I got my own turntables, and I figured everything out. First, I got two copies, copies of Rasco’s “The Unassisted,” and I was trying to flip doubles. I realized that it wasn’t me. Then I started figuring out how to mix. After the acid trip, I figured out how to mix like “Strawberry Fields Forever” with “Bonita Applebum,” how to mix a programmed drum beat with a live drum beat that speeds up and slows down.

What skills did you learn as a DJ that translate to producing?

Kutmah: I think timing. When I make beats, I don’t think about crowds. When I’m DJing, I have to read the crowd. It’s more of a dance oriented situation. And only freestyle dancers will get my beats or dance to it. But if you are trying to make beats or tracks for dance floors, being a DJ will help with timing. There’s little little tricks of taking the bass out, how you introduce a track, and how to exit. I think most of my favorite producers are actually DJs, like Premier and Pete Rock. J. Rocc is a phenomenal producer. He doesn’t get the credit because he’s such a fucking good DJ. I think it’s pretty important, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

How old were you when you made your first beat? What did it sound like? What did you use to make it? Did you play it for anyone?

Kutmah: Eric Coleman and I have a friend named Paris Potter. He was a DJ who was doing these instrumental beat tapes. I used to go to his crib, and Coleman would come over too. He had some drum machine—fuck man, I’m going blank now. He showed me how to sample. I was really into the wrong speed thing because when I first got a turntable I didn’t have an amplifier. If you put a needle to a turntable, you can still hear the snare, you hear the tempo. When I was planning my sets, I had to do it at like three in the morning when there weren’t cars outside. And I would just listen to the tempo. So when I went to go play the records, sometimes these records were supposed to be on 45, but I didn’t know that because I couldn’t hear. So I was accumulating a lot of records that sounded good at the wrong speed. I also thought about making beats as a DJ mix. If you have a really minimal beat and your next track has a lot of percussion, if you know how to mix well, that’s gonna sound fire. I was really into finding open parts of records and drum breaks and layering them like a DJ mix. I didn’t really think of it that way, but that’s basically what I was doing.

Are there any beat making lessons or guiding principles you learned/developed that you wish you knew early?

Kutmah: One thing I really wish I knew was really focusing on the bassline. Anyone can take a piano sample and add a drum beat. That’s fucking a no brainer, but the thing that makes it interesting is the swing of the hi-hat and where you lay that bassline. I think that’s what’s missing a lot of time.

Did you gravitate toward any machine(s) or DAW?

Kutmah: My first machine was the SP-202. I only made like 20 beats on that. I might’ve recorded two. [Now I] use my MPC and my 303, which are my two favorite machines. I usually just run everything to the 303 and then sequence on the MPC 1000. Recently, I’ve been using the Pioneer TORAIZ, which is quite fun. But I haven’t mastered it. I’m only using like, probably 3% of its potential but it seems like a really cool machine. 16 levels, pitch, time stretch, and it has a built in Dave Smith Prophet filter. So that’s why I’ve been just filtering the shit out of everything. I’m triggering everything live, or I’m just figuring it out and then playing it live into GarageBand. So using GarageBand ’09. I just got Ableton. I’m gonna catch up with you fuckers one day. (laughs) GarageBand is simple. I know how to use it. It does what it needs to do.

You worked several day jobs when you were in LA. What advice do you have for DJs/producers who have to get day jobs to support their art?

Kutmah: Drink a lot of coffee. Sometimes, after working and dealing with people’s bullshit, you don’t even want to make a beat. [For a time], I was in charge of the denim section at Wasteland, and I would go to thrift shops, find denim, sell it to my shop for 100 bucks, get 30, and then go straight to Aron’s Record to buy whatever I could find for 30 bucks. Luckily, I was close to what I was into, so I’d go home to do a mix with whatever new 12” I got. I never had any visions of grandeur. I knew I wasn’t going to get rich off this. Luckily, right now, with Bandcamp, I’m able to survive off of my beats. I don’t know what the next couple of months are going to be like. But if you’re making a beat and you’re imaging a crowd full of people cheering, you’re probably doing it for the wrong reason. Stop thinking about fame and all that and just make a bunch of shit. Then, hopefully, one day you’ll be able to quit your job. I’m actually looking for a job right now, if you know anyone who’s hiring.

When I say ’Sketchbook,’ what’s the first image you see?

Kutmah: That alleyway in Hollywood behind The Room. For years, Hollywood was under construction. It was dead because of all the construction, but when Sketchbook started Hollywood was opening up. The Room was like the last club that wasn’t doing bottle service and that bullshit. The Room was grimy. Having the night there meant a lot. Before I was DJing there, my homegirl would just hook me up with shots of Hennessy. I was drawing on napkins at the bar, and that’s how Sketchbook started because I would go hang out at The Room. Then I was like, “I want to do a night like this.” To answer your question, I think about that dirty alleyway in Hollywood with Dibiase’s boombox, Ras G, Sacred, and all the heads. We didn’t know we were doing anything. I didn’t know I was doing the first beat night in the city. I got offered to do a night, and I was like, “Fuck it.” I got Coleman. Take was down. Sketchbook was innocent. It was really pure. I didn’t set out to do a beat version of The Good Life, but, now that I think about it, that’s kind of what that was. From the videos I’ve seen of The Good Life, where people just rapped outside… Same thing. Dibiase and his boombox outside. All the heads outside smoking blunts. I’m really proud of having been part of that time.

In your mind, how did Sketchbook shape the beat scene?

Kutmah: This was before MySpace. It was a kind of nice joining of a lot of these people who knew each other from other places. [Ras] G already knew Georgia Anne Muldrow. Dibiase already knew Dakim. It was like a lounge, almost. There were barely people inside listening to me DJ. This was before Serato, so every record I’m playing is old to us, because it’s already on vinyl. All the exciting shit was waiting for the end of the night. Everyone would have their beat CD’s for Dibiase’s boombox. And so I accumulated [CD’s from people like Lotus and Dibiase]. My personal collection was out of control because I was going home with like 10 beat CD’s every Tuesday. When the house I was living in back in 2006 burned down, I was forced to get Serato. So I got Serato, and I went through easily over 50 or 60 beats CDs. I was one of the few people in the world having any of these beats, so that really changed my whole style as a DJ. With beat CD’s you might have one minute 20 seconds before the next track. You got to rush. It changed my mixing technique. It was important for me. I don’t know what it did to shape beat culture. I just know me having beat CD’s and putting all those tracks together definitely inspired someone who heard it on Dublab or wherever, because I was playing on Dublab a lot back then.

You played a lot of the early years of Low End. What do you remember about those nights?

Kutmah: The first two years, Low End was growing. I was playing really often for like five people. We were playing psych records and breaks. It was pretty awesome at the beginning, and then it got a little too crazy. Any simple beat with an 808 was getting by… No bullshit, I was the first to play HudMo at Low End. I got the tape, Hudson’s Heeters, from [DJ] Sacred. To this day, I think that’s his best work. That dude nailed it. It was so surprising at that time. It was post-Dilla. This dude was really freaking samples. That shit was bugged out. So I got a CD, burned two copies, went to Low End and played it on the outside system. Seeing people’s reaction was pretty fucking crazy.

Sketchbook was the first beat night in LA. Obviously there was JuJu, where Sacred and Al Jackson would play instrumentals, but Sketchbook was solely instrumental. Low End came out two or three years later. When the club started getting popular and I was playing, I had a little bit of jealousy. I was in a situation where I couldn’t leave the country. Working with Dublab, I got offered a tour of Japan. I got offered to go on tour in Europe. I couldn’t do it… So I started getting kind of bummed and maybe drinking too much at Low End. I was getting jealous of my friends, instead of being happy for my friends. I could see my position getting pushed back.

But there were so many amazing nights at Low End. I remember seeing Lorn play. I think that was the first time I heard Lorn. He was playing like 95 BPM stuff. His first release was on Brainfeeder. They were really dark and sinister kind of sci-fi type beats. I liked what he was doing. At the end of his set, he played this track called “Tomorrow.” It’s dark and moody, like evil beat music. I always gravitated towards sinister sounds that weren’t corny. [When he played], it was a packed Low End. I was in a sweet spot and my body was vibrating. I haven’t had that type of thing happen in a really long time. Anyway, that was a real nice moment. Shout out to Lorn.

When listening to your album, TROBBB!, it’s clear that you have a real affinity for dub-reggae. What are some of your favorite records in that genre? What have you learned from them?

Kutmah: Do you know that label Blood and Fire? It was a reissue label from the UK. They had this dub compilation, and it was the most insane shit I ever heard. I can’t remember the name of the comp but King Tubby was one there. Glen Brown was on there. I don’t know dub as much as I know beats, but these records really affected me, especially in terms of production. The way the bass is so fucking prominent, the way the drums are EQed, and how psychedelic things get. Sometimes, there are mistakes. It was the rawest shit I’ve ever heard. I really liked the slow, sludgy shit more than the steppers stuff with more movement. That’s what was so nice about living in South London—walking to Brixton and just hearing dub coming out of people’s houses, and you smell weed on the street. That’s the England that I love. Artists? Obviously Scientist, King Tubby, and Glen Brown. Mad Professor and Lee “Scratch” Perry, of course.

When/why did you decide to make the Isolation Tapes series? How have you managed to stay so productive right now?

Kutmah: Because the last 10 years have not been easy on me, I’ve kind of been ready for this. I don’t know if people are feeling bad for me, but it seems like I’ve sold more in the last three months than I’ve ever sold. I think people like the honesty. I’m so forcefully un-trendy. If something’s happening, I’m not going to be like, “Oh, that’s what people are doing now.” I’m not going to do that—ever. So I think the honesty in the music is what may be people are gravitating towards. After G passed, I stopped doubting myself. I was like, “I don’t give a fuck anymore.  I want to be like my friend. I want to be free.” When G does his simple shit, it’s a Raw Fruit. When he does out there shit, that’s his album stuff. I was like, “Not every beat has to be fucking super crazy fire. It can be just a fucking drum beat drum loop and a eerie fucking backwards violin and a bassline. I was terrified of going outside for a moment because I am already a germaphobe. So I just made shitloads of fucking beats. I was just like making beats during the day mostly. If I make beats at night, they’re usually quite sparse and mellow. But if I just woke up and drank coffee, I want to hear fucking drum break and I want to hear a big fat fucking 808. I think that’s why there’s a lot more brightness to some of the beats on the tapes.

Where were you when you heard the news of Ras G’s passing?

Kutmah: I was at home, and I went on Twitter. Immediately, I just started calling some of the homies. The beautiful thing about it is I spoke to some people that I hadn’t spoken to in like four or five years. People were calling me telling me they loved me. G was really the glue bringing us all together. I spoke to Ron from Poo-Bah for like four hours. I spoke to Samiyam. We were just telling G stories. No one has anything bad to say about this man, who was simply a lovely human being. I never heard this guy talk shit about anybody. I’ve heard him call shit wack, but I liked that honesty. I always sent G beats, but he never really responded. I knew he liked what I did, but nothing really hit him. When he passed, his brother told me that he was on G’s computer and he had shitloads of my beats. I was like, “He kept them!” If I don’t like beats, I delete them. So it was nice to know that G kept my music.

How have you coped with his passing over the last year? Was making the tribute record one way of doing that?

Kutmah: If I were in LA, it would be different. I would just turn on my sampler, and I just felt his presence. I don’t know how else to say it. He was there with me. I could hear him say, “Yuup.” Everyone who knows G knows exactly the way he says, “Yup.”

Once, [G and I] had a session where we played in this old cathedral. When he was playing, bits of the roof were falling down and people were running out. The bass was out of control. Afterwards, we were like in my hotel, and I was playing him some like minimal wave sample shit that I was doing. We were just playing each other beats and laughing. We know we’re doing something ridiculous sometimes, and it’s funny. I know a lot of people don’t really hear that, but he got it. He understood me.

When I was making these beats, I was still having these sorts of conversations and memories were coming through. For the first couple, I was balling my fucking eyes out. The first beat I made was completely leaning to the left. I didn’t realize my settings were weird when I was sampling, so everything was leaning to the left. I wasn’t paying attention. So the first couple of beats I made in with him in mind, I didn’t put on the tape. Then I just started making more. I was getting really happy. I felt like I was really talking to him. If the “Ohhh Rasss!” doesn’t fit—that’s also the voice I know. If I hit the “Ohhh Rasss!” it felt right, then I’m doing it right.

The thing for me that made me feel good about it is that I gave the demos to Ron at Poo-Bah. He was playing in the store, then Samiyam and Jonwayne went into the store. He said both of them were like, “What are you playing right now?” If Samiyam and Jonwayne ask what you’re playing without a screwface of disgust, that’s a good sign. I didn’t get the bass right. I’m definitely short on the thump. J. Rocc nailed it with his tribute on Hit + Run. But I think I nailed the atmosphere and overall feel.

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