Kutmah: In conversation

Justin McNulty aka Kutmah is regarded as one of the key figures in establishing the now infamous LA beat scene. His club series Sketchbook Sessions was the city’s first instrumental beats and art night, and provided the catalyst for the formation of Low End Theory – a weekly club event specialising in alternative hip hop / electronic sounds. It’s a community that has thrived since, with the likes of Flying Lotus, The Gaslamp Killer, Daedelus and Kutmah himself branching out to an audience far bigger than the crowds present at the Airliner in Lincoln Heights.

But despite his long-standing involvement in the music industry, it’s only now that Kutmah has got round to releasing his debut album. Over its 26 tracks (and 31 on vinyl), ‘TROBBB!’ jumps from glitchy, dystopian-esque beats to sun-tinted cuts with guests including the likes of Jonwayne, Gonjasufi and Jeremiah Jae. It’s a record that’s been shaped and influenced by his travels, none more so than from his current home in Berlin.

Keen to know more, we caught up with Justin to find how life has been living in the German capital, what to expect from his forthcoming London show and how Big Dada came about being the label ‘TROBBB!’ was released on.

Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions Justin – How’s it going in Berlin? Are you enjoying the lifestyle more than in London?

It’s good, I mean the whole entire time I’ve been kind of hibernating to make the album – I went through all the seasons to make the record so I missed a whole year. I’ve kind of been chilling out, I’ve not been going to many clubs so I can’t comment on ‘club life’ so much – other than playing Gretchen once in a while which is really fun, they’re one of the only places here that support the kind of music I’m playing.

But yeah it’s cool so far, there’s graffiti on everything which I love. I mean to be honest in London I was kind of a hermit also. I was really enjoying London for a while but I ended up having to move really far away with 6 dudes and it became too much, I needed to be in a place on my own and be in my own bubble, and I was able to do that in Berlin thankfully.

Let’s talk about the album. Did you approach the recording process any differently to previous projects due it being an LP?

Absolutely – I mean you can make a beat tape in a day and put it on Bandcamp, and buy some tuna and bread ha. But I wanted this record to… and I know this sounds morbid, but like if I die fuckin’ right now and someone listens to the record, is this person going to get to know me a little bit, you know get my personality, the sonics and the little bit of moodiness, space headedness, stoner beat shit, which is what I’m into you know. I didn’t want to try and emulate anything else that’s going on, I don’t even know how to emulate; I really just wanted to tell my own story.

How have your surroundings in Berlin influenced the record?

I think ‘StrangeTown’ was the first track that I actually made in Berlin. I was listening to a lot of footwork and I went and played a festival with DJ Paypal, and it was just a whole day of footwork and so I kinda came home, and like I said I don’t now how to emulate, but ‘StrangeTown’ was me listening to footwork and Suicide and making a tune in that environment – it was kind of a fluke in fact… I actually made the tune at 97 BPM, and then I got a phone call and accidentally sped the BPM up to around 300, and when I pressed play it sounded really crazy, so I just edited out some stuff and let the track ride from there.

It definitely appears your past travels have influenced the record.

It was important for me to tell my own story, that’s why some of the addresses are in the titles – one of those is the place I grew up, one of them is a place I lived in Columbia Road in London – so it’s a really personal record, it’s a Big Dada record, most Big Dada records are headphone records.

On that subject, how did Big Dada come to be releasing your first album?

Initially it started with Alex Patchwork, who used to work with Gilles Peterson at Brownswood, and I was able to do a compilation for Gilles’ Brownswood Label (“Worldwide Family Vol.2“). Alex ended up working at Ninja Tune / Big Dada and passed some of my demos / beats to Dean Bryce, one of the A&R’s there and he was like “yo lets do a 12 inch”, I thought he was joking! But we did a 12” and then he hit me up to do an album… I said yes before I even had any of the music.

Did you always want Jonwayne, Zeroh, Gonjasufi and the others featuring on the album from the start or did it happen more organically as the project evolved?

It was totally organic, I mean they’re mostly all homies from LA, I’ve known everyone for a while. The way I was working on this I’d make a batch of beats and if I could hear Zeroh working on something or if I could hear someone else on something I’d send them snippets… and four months later I might hear something back ha.

I mean everyone on the record I knew except Sach, who I’ve been a fan of since the 90’s. He’s an underground LA hip hop legend, in a group called The Nonce which of course never blew up in the UK because of the name, but their “World Ultimate” album is one of the greatest underground LA hip-hop records, the production sounds like old DJ Muggs, like that warm sound, that real shit.

Akello G Light is also someone I didn’t know personally but I knew his music from Myspace days, and randomly I thought about him while I was making the record and I hit him up and sent him some shit – he was actually the one I got all the vocals from first. I actually turned in a version of the album and the next day I came home to find 4 finished vocal tracks from Gonjasufi, Zeroh, Zackey and Ta’Raach – all in one day, so the record completely changed overnight basically.

In one of your previous interviews you described the club JuJu as the best vibe of any night you’ve been to, have you been to any nights recently that has matched this?

Ah JuJu was so good, I mean it was really special – it was just insane! I think it was around 1998/99, there was no alcohol served – I mean we all snuck in bottles of Hennessey and shit – and it could be intimidating, you walk in and there were dudes posted up on the wall looking at you like “who are you”, but the music was always amazing.

DJ Sacred, he’d get Dilla beats and press them up on acetate just to play them at this night, and all the heads would be crying at the back thinking ‘how did you get this?!’ – it was just a really special time. But to go back to the question… I have sort of had similar moments. I played in Hamburg once – I don’t remember the club, but it’s the one under the bridge, where Lord Finesse plays, and Jeru, it’s the hip-hop spot – but it was the most hip-hop shit I’ve been to outside of LA. It was almost like a hip-hop video, I was sitting in the corner, everyone was smoking weed, there was this one red light, couples were dancing, b-boys were doing their thing, it was just the real shit.

I think it can happen in Berlin too, I’ve been thinking off doing a night here, kind of based on JuJu and Sketchbook, something without alcohol… I know that sounds ridiculous, but the kind of music I want to play, it’s not always the stuff to go out and get loose to necessarily, it’s more for the head, for the soul, those emotions.

Speaking of nights, I saw you’ve just announced a UK show, what can we expect from this?

It’s going to be dope ha! I won’t know exactly what I’ll do until I start, I’ll begin with one tune and then dive in, react to the crowd and the space as much as possible. I feel like I should represent the album as much as I can, I mean, unfortunately none of the MC’s live in the UK… my next record I need to do something with UK MCs’ so I can actually get them to my show and we can have a fuckin’ party!

Kutmah’s TROBBB! is out now on Big Dada. Order it here.  

Kutmah plays Electrowerkz on November 1. More info and tickets available here

Words: Nathan Diamond

Featured Image: Maja Milich Rezoug

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