[Written by Katie Thomas. Photo by Maja Rezoug]
On a Skype call to Berlin, I ask Kutmah to explain what his debut album means, on a personal level, in its simplest terms:
“It’s an anti-bullying record about this kid that ends up in a strange town.”
A mammoth 31-track effort released today via Ninja Tune’s hip-hop focused sidekick Big Dada, the long awaited debut full length from Kutmah tells a poignant autobiographical narrative inspired in part by his favourite film, 1993’s Bad Boy Bubby: “The first 45 minutes are so brutal it’s unbelievable, and then the end… It’s like a real Hollywood ending.” The instrumental beat sound for which Kutmah is renowned for championing shines in the opening tracks. The album features some of hip-hops brightest MCs (Gonjasufi, Jonwayne, Jeremiah Jae to name but a few) and spans everything from experimental noise to punk, blues and abstract rap.
As far as Kutmah is concerned, if you’re not making a club record then you may as well tell a story. The album’s title is The Revenge of Black Belly Button! or TROBBB! for short, a name that he was called at school. “I was kind of the only brown person in my school, and I got all the treatment that any fucking brown kid would get. They came up with stupid ass names.” It’s a nostalgic and personal record – two of the track names are his previous home postcodes in Brighton and London – and a triumphant middle finger to all the obstacles Kutmah has overcome to get to this point.
Cited by Flying Lotus as one of the most influential artists in the beat scene, Kutmah has been making, playing and finding innovative sounds for well over a decade. After moving from Brighton to Los Angeles when he was 12, in 2004 he founded Sketchbook Sessions, a now legendary instrumental beats night that kick-started a musical renaissance in the city. After so long championing new music and seeking out new talent, why did now feel like the right time to put out an album of his own? “I didn’t know I was ready when I agreed to do it” he explains, “I’ve been thinking about it since the first time I touched a sampler, but when Ninja Tune asked me to do an album I was like ‘what the fuck are you talking about?!’ so I moved to Berlin and hid away for a year and a half to make it.” Kutmah adds that having talented producers for friends meant he grew excited to reach a point in his own journey where he felt able to create an album, “They know how to play music and write and have the money to buy these machines. I’m just on these two machines a bit like a caveman, but I like it because within limitation comes creativity, I want people to listen to this record and understand the kind of person I am.”
TROBBB! steps away from traditional album format, instead taking inspiration from the likes of J Dilla’s seminal Donuts with short track lengths and a long track list. The majority of the tracks range from one to two minutes in length, and this is partly the influence of Kutmah’s time spent DJing in L.A., where you can’t hang about between mixes because everyone’s so high you risk losing their attention. Aside from that, he has a resolute dislike for records that sound like they were made to be a festival hit, and his album is in defiance of that “temporary bullshit” format. “Someone that listens to Drake or to the radio might hate this record” he says, “and that’s fine, I don’t want them to like it.” The album is also peppered with a few short blips and samples, which he hopes people will use to sample in their own production. He adds to the idea of TROBBB! as a sort of film score, “you know when you’re watching a film and a car pulls up or whatever? The short bits are like that, moments in my film, that’s why it says ‘Soundtrack to the Film’ on the album cover.”
It’s been widely reported that in 2010 Kutmah was deported from the United States. He spent three months in New Mexico in a detention centre before returning to the U.K. and then relocated to Berlin in 2016. Since being forced out of everything familiar to him, how has he developed creatively? In short, he’s gained sensitivity and a new perspective. “I’m not a criminal. I’d never been in a jail and here I was, in jail, listening to records like Nas’ ‘One Love’ which tells the story about writing a letter to a dude in jail. It changed me.” Whilst he was in New Mexico he had limited access to radio with an equally limited repertoire. Forced to listen to music he didn’t connect with, his appreciation for music’s physical effects heightened, “on Sundays they would play oldies, some really good soul music and flashback joints, none of this Katy Perry bullshit. I would get goosebumps. You know your body is like ‘you like this shit’ when you get goosebumps. That’s important.”
At this point, we talk about music as a healer. On his return to the U.K Kutmah listened, almost exclusively, to Eden Ahbez’s Eden’s Island. “I didn’t want my heart to race. My heart was so sensitive, it was always racing. Eden’s Island dwindled the butterflies and made me really calm. It’s a really wise record, his tone, the sounds, the space in the instrumentation, the sweetness and the innocence. In my opinion it’s one of the best records ever made.” Sun Ra’s ‘Island in the Sun’ also gets a special mention as a restorative record, most likely because of its similarities to Eden’s Island.
Kutmah also finds comfort in art, specifically drawing. When he first approached a pair of turntables in 1997, he saw it as learning a new drawing technique. For street artists, he explained, it was crucial that your work was individual and didn’t overtly take ideas from other people, “if your S looked like another S, that dude is gonna fuck you up.” I wonder if it’s this artistic attitude to individuality that makes Kutmah’s sound so distinctive. “100%, yes. I liked writing on shit, and in a way when I make music I still think I could get fucked up if I use an idea that wasn’t mine, I live within that code of only being yourself. So what if this record doesn’t reflect the current climate?”
Kutmah’s party Sketchbook combined his two great loves, drawing and music. The party was built around his disdain for people shouting at each other over the music, “I wanted non-verbal communication” he explains, “I would bring maybe 30 sketchbooks to the party and by the end of the night they’d be full, it was really awesome.” The unique concept of drawing whilst you listen to music is cathartic and reflective, a unique way to party. Is there a space in Berlin for Sketchbook to return? Definitely, Berlin is opening up to Kutmah and he’s discovering a following for the music that he and his friends play.
In comparison to the late night culture in London, he admits that he only really goes out when he’s playing a show, “I’m not saying shit about the locals but to me it seems like there’s these rich kids coming here in their new doc martens trying to fit in. But I know that the stuff I’m into has a place here, there’s a home for it in all huge cities like this.” This much was clear at Kutmah’s recent Boiler Room. In celebration of TROBBB! the show was broadcast from a multi-storey carpark in Berlin and featured a guest appearance from Gaslamp Killer. Why Gaslamp? “I wanted to have someone completely shit on me on camera” he laughs, “but honestly, he set it up, and he was kind enough to make it about me. He knows how important this album is for me.”
TROBBB! features eleven guests, most of whom Kutmah already had a relationship with back in L.A. Namely Jonwayne, Gonjasufi, Zackey Force Funk, Zeroh, Jeremiah Jae, N8NOFACE and Ta’Raach. “All the guests came from being homies with everyone. I’m not a shady motherfucker, so people fuck with me.” So the moral of the story? Be nice, and you’ll get some sweet collaborators to work with you. ‘L.A. Memories’ features Sach, formally of legendary hip-hop duo The Nonce. After Yusef Afloat (one half of the aforementioned duo) was found dead on the freeway – a tragedy for underground hip-hop – in 2000, Sach set out forge himself a solo career. Kutmah came across his material through HIT+RUN in Los Angeles and hopes, as Sach has now written to a handful of his beats, that they’ll put out more work together in the future.
Now in its sixth year, Kutmah also has an NTS show named Sketchbook. The show encapsulates the spirit of the original Los Angeles parties and highlights time and time again his remarkable ear for new music. On new artists we should keep an eye out for, the biggest shout out goes to TROBBB! guest Akello G Light aka Akello Uchenna, who features on album highlights ‘Thoughts Under The Full Moon’ and ‘Herbal Tea Sessions’. IZwid, Kutmah’s own label, has upcoming releases from DAGGER DX, Foraging and Pable Y’Gal as well as a second volume of Sounds from the Village with Al Dobson Jr. “I’ve just been through like 500 of his beats” Kutmah says on the Rhythm Section affiliate, “it’s insane how much music he has, and how much of it is so good.” Scrolling through his recently added and later taking the time to send me an extended list of recommendations, he also insists I check out Moscow’s Lapti, AIWA, Dakim, NatureboyFlako and Zeroh.
Throughout our conversation I’m drawn to Kutmah’s matter of fact perspective. He’s articulate, witty, and doesn’t take any shit. His life experience has clearly taught him not to waste energy on anything he doesn’t believe in. The Revenge of Black Belly Button! is reflective, introspective, nostalgic yet optimistic, and showcases his unique vision for experimental beats and exciting vocalists. For all those little weirdos wandering around alone, immersing themselves in new cities with their headphones on, this record is for you.