Although studded with moments of hectic musical convergence, Kutmah’s The New Error is bookended by passages in which propulsion takes a back seat. On the opening track, a string motif of Middle Eastern provenance twines amid meandering piano chords as Doom articulates a dream of irony-free positivity. Yet the hiss and crackle that suffuse the proceedings keep them at a distance. And the closing mix powerfully reiterates this message as it moves through a muffled dub ambience before trailing off through a jazz-age number that sounds like it’s coming across the water from a mile away.
This isn’t the sort of DJ-ing that will get folks out on the dance floor. But the pervasive sonic fog also makes The New Error a poor candidate for headphone-listening. At the same time, there’s something about the way the heterogeneous samples resonate that makes it difficult to consign the record to the background. By leaving his source material unmoored – it’s rare that a regular beat sustains itself for very long – Kutmah crafts mixes that manage to project a lack of ease despite their peripatetic flow. As the album’s title suggests, time is out of joint. It’s in so forcefully communicating this message that The New Error distinguishes itself from the wealth of contemporary music treading similar ground.
The collage aesthetic is getting easier to implement but harder to perfect. The mere fact of assembling pieces from a variety of sources was once enough to excite interest. Because the process was so labor-intensive, from the search for content to the precise handiwork required to cut and place, audiences tended to give artists the benefit of the doubt. If the finished product managed to elicit an emotional response as well as admiration, it was deemed a success.
These days, technology has so radically reduced the amount of time necessary to collect and redeploy source material that discerning audiences hold artists to a much higher standard. Whereas form itself was once enough to carry the day, no matter how random the content, the components of collage now have to demonstrate a vision that sees beyond a playful heterogeneity. If the patchwork quilt was once an acceptable model, careful color and pattern-matching are currently de rigeur.
Extended to the realm of music, this shift has had profound consequences for the genres in which DJs hold sway. For a lucky few – Kanye West inevitably comes to mind – the demand for quality mixes leads to high-end shopping sprees in which the most apt samples are sought without much regard for cost. The rest face painful decisions about how to strike a balance between financial, legal and artistic concerns. Unless DJs are content to leave no permanent record of their time at the console, they must figure out a way to fix their approach without ending up in a fix.
That’s where Kutmah comes in. This Brighton-born child of an Egyptian mother and a Scottish father spent the better part of his life as an “illegal” in the Los Angeles area. Because his immigration status was an issue, he kept a low profile, helping to build a world-class DJ scene in Los Angeles with organizations like dublab. Instead of making a name for himself, in essence, he made a name for the places to which he devoted his time. Over the years, his commitment to the musical community there led him to accumulate a great deal of goodwill.
When American immigration officials arrested Kutmah last year and sent him to a New Mexico incarceration facility pending deportation, the depth of support for him became apparent. A petition was circulated. Benefits were held on his behalf. In short, his community did its best to reward his dedication. Predictably, none of this helped much with his legal situation. Despite the calls for leniency, he was deported to the United Kingdom. But the controversy surrounding his treatment did benefit him in other ways.
Now that he was able to inhabit a more robust public identity, he could aspire to leave a more permanent record of his achievements as a DJ. The New Error is the first of four limited-edition discs to be released this year. Together they will reveal him to be at the center of a rich web of musical connections, rather than someone working in the margins of someone else’s story. And, in part because of his well-documented legal troubles, gestures of musical solidarity have given him a lot of material to deploy without having to worry about its provenance. This first album alone features collaborations, both active and passive, with J-Dilla, Gang Starr, Flying Lotus, Andre 3000, Portishead and a host of other luminaries.
Kutmah’s struggles of the past year give his mixes a gravity that is often lacking in musical collage. His choice of material and the decisions he makes in arranging it feel like a statement, not because they tendentiously express a political or social point, but because the care he takes is so apparent. No matter how heterogeneous his sources, the end result feels cohesive. There’s a reason why the mixes on The New Error sound like transmissions from a distant planet.
It would be easy to argue that the aural figuration of detachment in Kutmah’s new work directly correlates to his own painful experience of dislocation. Indeed, there are clear advantages to hearing The New Error in this manner. Formal strategies that might seem perverse – as previously noted, the record is suited neither for the club nor the easy chair – are thereby turned into a means of communicating feelings that are hard to express directly.
But there’s also a sense in which to indulge this mode of interpretation would be to do Kutmah a disservice. For even though the traveling art show that The New Error is meant to accompany is explicitly bound up with his deportation – he is sharing the 39 pieces he created while being held in New Mexico – that doesn’t mean we have license to confine the significance of either his drawings or his music to that claustrophobic reality. Instead of trying to close off their meaning, why not do what we can to free it from constraint?
To be sure, the fragments that comprise The New Error are artfully assembled into a unified work. Yet its integrity is born of the consistency with which Kutmah evokes a feeling of absence. He makes wholes out of holes, while reminding us that they are ultimately the same thing. Listened to from start to finish, without interruption, the record is simultaneously seamless and devoid of solidity. Dislocation isn’t just a political condition, it’s the precondition for making transcendent art. And freedom is inextricably tangled up with exile.