Her Drum Machines Doc Put Detroit on the Loudspeaker; His Pocket-Sized Synths Put Sound in the Palm of Your Hand

Two creators discuss what it takes to bring their creative projects to life.

A Bitty synth prototype (left), and archival footage of Derrick May and Juan Atkins of Belleville 3 (right).

Kickstarter just turned 10. This creator-to-creator conversation is part of a series that celebrates past projects and introduces a few new ones. Read more here.

Nickolas Peter Chelyapov started his career in movie advertising. He created material to promote blockbusters like Django Unchained and No Country For Old Men, and would see his work on billboards as he drove around LA. But his job also included pushing a lot of movies he felt much less passionate about. So he turned to something he really could get behind — music tech — and created Curious Sound Objects events to showcase their work. Now, with the Kickstarter launch of his pocket-sized synth, he’s becoming a creator himself.

Jennifer D. Washington, on the other hand, saw film as an impossibly far-off medium. During her difficult pregnancies, she would watch Behind the Music and marvel at the storytelling. “I was so fulfilled by that type of programming — but I never thought that I could figure out how to get involved in anything like that myself.” Then the perfect story fell in her lap, and she figured it out.

Last year Washington successfully raised more than $40,000 for God Said Give ’Em Drum Machines, a documentary about how black musicians in her hometown of Detroit set the stage — and got so little credit — for the now white-dominated multi-million dollar techno industry.

In the edited and condensed conversation below, the creators talk about what they’ve learned as they’ve pursued their projects, and what’s next.

Kickstarter: How do you each introduce yourself at dinner parties?

Jennifer D. Washington: I say that I’m producing my first feature documentary film, about the music scene and people in my hometown of Detroit. And since I wasn’t a filmmaker before, I tell them how I applied my mommy skills to this project.

Nickolas Peter Chelyapov: I tell people I started in movie advertising and then did various promotional work for startups. But if I’m feeling adventurous, I just go ahead and skip to saying that I make sound toys.

And I want to ask Jennifer about the mommy skills, because I also have a two year old and yeah it’s like…you can’t be above being covered in shit.

Washington: Having babies, being a mother, running a household, and being a wife is so much dirty work. I didn’t have anybody helping me. I didn’t have a regular nanny, babysitter, doula, or anything like that. I had to just do so much back-breaking work that, when this story fell in my lap, I saw that I could take the same tireless work ethic and energy into this project.

Where was your creative practice 10 years ago?

Washington: I had bad pregnancies, really rough. I was bed-ridden both times. All I could do was watch TV, and at the time, Behind the Music was really big on VH1. I just was in love, I loved every last one of them, I would watch them over and over. I was so fulfilled by that type of programming — but I never thought that I could figure out how to get involved in anything like that myself.

Mommy life had me ready to pull my hair out. I needed a break, needed a weekend. I went home to Detroit for my high school reunion in 2010 — I live in Los Angeles now. It was good vibes, I was seeing old people, and one of my friends said, “I have a place I wanna take you to.”

We go to East Grand Boulevard — that’s like a block away from the Motown Museum. He takes me to this nondescript building, there’s no sign out front, it looks like maybe we should have a gun to walk in this place — that’s how intimidating and scary it looked. But once I get inside, I see these glass boxes of articles and vinyl records and beat machines. A curator comes up to introduce himself and he says, “Hi, my name is DJ John Jammin Collins, I’m here to take you on a tour of the first techno museum in the world.”

I didn’t realize that my favorite songs growing up were made right in Detroit, by people who were from Detroit. They didn’t have normal vocals with traditional choruses and hooks, and the names of the artists were never really promoted on the radio. I missed the music I listened to in my childhood, but didn’t have any way of looking it up really.

These producers are now world-class DJs traveling the world: Juan Atkins, Cybotron, Model 500. Songs like “Cosmic Cars,” “Alleys of Your Mind,” “No UFOs,” and “The Future,” and many more. And these were the vinyl records in the cases.

So when I’m introduced to this museum and these artists and these people, I thought to myself, “Why is this such a secret? This is a good story!”

Chelyapov: Los Angeles is my hometown, so it’s kinda funny that Jennifer lives there now. I fell into major Hollywood advertising basically straight out of art school. At first I thought it was pretty cool, driving around Los Angeles, to see these posters and things I worked on.

But after a few years, the gloss of it wore off. I worked on a handful of solid movies, but mostly I did ads for a bunch of crappy ones. When a movie is not that great, the studios try to dress it up as a genre — like “horror” or “romcom” — so that at least people who usually go see those types of movies might want to go see this one. It’s nonsense.

I did learn that presentation matters: you have to communicate the experience before the person has that experience, and show them what it’s going to be like to see a show with just a poster. Spending time in LA taught me how to do that.

Then about 10 years ago my girlfriend — now wife — and I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, so she could go to school. There’s a bunch of little companies doing interesting things with a lot of enthusiasm there. Cambridge is nerdy. I can say it because I’m nerdy too. But I’m hanging out with people who are building synths and weird bloopedy-bloop sound things kinda between art and synthesizers. I look around at their work-bench, science-fair vibes, and I’m like, “Let’s have an art show. Let’s put everything on a pedestal, spotlight each piece, hide the electronics away a bit.”

So Curious Sound Objects started as a series of art shows for the interactive sound things that people were making. It was a labor of love — I couldn’t even imagine charging a cover or something for it. So to make it into a business, I decided I wanted to start making my own creative music hardware products.

A Bitty synth in action.

What’s a creative work that inspired you?

Chelyapov: I’m friends with and in the same building as Jeff Lieberman, who made Slow Dance. The guys who made Embr Wave, the heating and cooling wristband, are upstairs. It’s inspiring to see people finish a project, ship it, and figure out how to run a company.

All of my previous experiences were work for hire. So seeing the pitfalls they fell into with pricing, inventory, or shipping was really helpful. Maybe this is a boring answer, but I thought it was inspiring to see some of the hard realities of running a Kickstarter.

Washington: I saw a movie called Searching for Sugar Man that came out about ten years ago. It immediately became my favorite documentary. It’s about an artist from Detroit who didn’t go very far here in America, but somehow his music made it to South Africa, and his audience has been there ever since. And I saw that and I’m like, “Wow, I’m blown away. I wanna do this.”

I thought that I could build my film kinda like this one, but with the purpose of having more impact on my city — like a calling card that could increase tourism. These musicians are interesting, and they should be household names. And the city shouldn’t just be known for Motown, cars, crime, and bankruptcy.

Jennifer, where do you hope to be 10 years from now?

Washington: When I first started this, I thought I was just making a movie about Detroit techno music. I had no idea how much impact I could have. In the process of making this film, I got an opportunity through Tribeca and Sundance to help develop a VR project called Techno City. I’m developing a curriculum to teach this stuff in schools. And I feel like with all this impact and outreach, everyone involved is helping position Detroit as a music capital, like how we see Nashville or New Orleans.

It’s not just Black history; it’s American history; it’s music history. This is like the Hidden Figures movie that showed the role Black women played in NASA and the space race. We never knew that story; that story was kept from us. The musicians I put in this movie are like the hidden figures of electronic dance music. Now it’s a phenomenon around the world and most people look at it and think it’s European music. Largely, nobody in America knows about these guys in Detroit.

The poster for Washington’s film, ‘God Said Give ’Em Drum Machines.’

Nick, where do you hope to be 10 years from now?

Chelyapov: You know I can just answer totally honestly, I want to run a company called Curious Sound Objects that makes music toys. The existing gear is expensive and really complicated. The barrier to entry is still pretty high. A fully portable, fully battery-operated, like kind of loud thing for people to make music together? That’s what makes me happy. If I were on my deathbed and that was what I could say for myself, I would be like, “yes, I’m good.”

Jennifer, you just wrapped up your project last year. What’s something that you wish you knew earlier?

Washington: Well it was 4 am and I was thinking, “What could I offer potential backers?” And I thought, maybe some of the materials that I had come across for my film, like this document I came across in Derrick May’s house, this club newsletter from the ’80s with a techno-speak dictionary. So I thought for the campaign I could make a cool PDF and give it out as incentive for $20 or something. I didn’t realize anybody had ownership over it, or that somebody was going to come back and say, “Hey you can’t print that up and give it away!” So to fulfill my obligations to my backers now I have to go through this process of working with a lawyer to get proper permissions.

Was realizing that legal issue that the scariest moment of your campaign?

Washington: No — I do have a scarier moment. A week before my campaign finished, the California wildfires started. And they were close. My neighbors started evacuating. Homes down the street were going down. But I was so tired from the campaign — it was so overwhelming. Before it came to a mandatory evacuation, my kids were like, “Hey mom, it’s smokey out here, it’s pretty scary, we see flames across the way, don’t you want to evacuate?” I wanted to take a nap.

So I went to sleep. And when I woke up the mandatory evacuation was in place. I had enough rest, I packed the kids up, and I got them to safety. I didn’t know what was going to happen with my house. I didn’t know what was going to happen with my things. But I had our LA fundraiser that night.

I had all these people coming, I had this great finishing house that was letting us use their screening room, and I had to get myself together. I felt selfish doing this fundraiser while people were losing their homes in my neighborhood, but I had an obligation. I had to stay focused.

And my house was damaged, it was minor, thank God. Luckily some neighbors with a pool stayed around and, with a hose and protective gear, they were able to save our house. But they couldn’t save my neighbor’s house, and several houses at the end of my block are now gone. That all happened during my Kickstarter campaign. And we made it.

What a ride. OK so what was the best moment of your campaign?

Washington: The interviews and write ups from all kinds of different prestigious online magazines: Spin, Billboard — people wait all their lives to get into Billboard — Pitchfork, the Guardian.

Nick, to bring it back to you, throughout your creative practice, what are some of the things that keep you going when it’s hard, or things that really make the work worth it?

Chelyapov: It’s the playing, it’s making music, particularly with friends. And the types of music we typically make is with electronic gear, kind of beat-heavy. So even a small group of people can be pretty powerful. And it’s really fun. It’s one of those things I could do until like two or three or six in the morning.

And working on a thing that could introduce somebody to that…it just doesn’t get old. I’ve been working on this thing for three years. And it’s not just me, I have friends who help me with the layout of the board and hardware.

One of the things I’ve also noticed in the creative pursuit is that there’s always a better time. It could always be more perfect. In my case, the mailing list could always be bigger. There are always rational excuses to not do something, but there are also strange turns of the universe that you can just go with. So I decided to launch.

Jennifer, what about you, was there a “strange turn of the universe” that helped you decide to launch?

Washington: We got so many rejection letters over the years from different foundations, organizations, and festivals — that’s normal for independent filmmakers. But finally Doc Society featured us in an event in Detroit last summer, and everything changed for us. It felt good to get recognized by a reputable organization, and they helped us meet other partners like Kickstarter and POV and Film Independent. And they helped us tell our project as a movie that could really help the city.

My motto has always been “accentuate the positive,” and I felt like this film could really help the city do that.

Nick, do you have a motto?

Chelyapov: You know, as I fret about putting something I’ve worked on so long into the public sphere, I’m remembering an art school teacher who used to say, “If you make something that nobody hates, nobody loves it either.”

Bitty is live on Kickstarter through June 5, 2019.